The past week’s attack on photographer Bill Henson has featured a cynical alliance of three potent forces: politicians (notably Labor), the mass media and the police.

It is a campaign that thus far has seen the closure of Henson’s photographic exhibition in Sydney, the seizure of his works by police at the National Gallery in Canberra and regional galleries in Newcastle and Albury, visits by police to both the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of NSW, interrogations of former models and their families and the lingering possibility of obscenity prosecutions.

The country is divided: on one side, those who see cherished artistic freedoms at risk, on the other, vociferous supporters of what they see as “the rights of the child”. It’s nothing if not a flammable mix. This is how it all came together.

On 22 May, columnist and ongoing Howard propagandist Miranda Devine triggered the witchhunt in The Sydney Morning Herald :

Opening tonight at the elegant Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in the heart of Paddington is an exhibition of photographs by Bill Henson, featuring
n-ked 12 and 13 year-olds. The invitation to the exhibition features a large photo of a girl, the light shining on her hair, eyes downcast, dark shadows on her sombre, beautiful face, and the budding breasts of puberty on full display, her hand casually covering her crotch.

Her article and the ensuing shock-jock outrage on Sydney commercial radio caught the attention of the media spivs in the Iemma Government. For them, the Henson furore was a godsend.

Just 24 hours earlier, former Cabinet minister Milton Orkopoulos had been sentenced to 13 years’ jail for depraved s-x and drug offences involving minors. There were mounting questions about a political cover-up and the savage treatment of the whistleblower Gillian Sneddon.

Iemma, traveling in China, was informed of the Henson “angle”. Staff asked the premier to sign off on a Sydney-prepared rapid response note (RRN) describing the photographs as “offensive and disgusting”. Iemma authorised its immediate release.

Meanwhile, in the Brisbane headquarters of Bravehearts, the child assault action group, an email arrived at 12.46pm from “a member of the public” calling for action over the Henson exhibition.

Bravehearts founder and executive director Hetty Johnston told Crikey that the email and “a couple more concerned phone calls” prompted her to co-write and co-sign a letter to NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scippione and Arts Minister Frank Sartor and fax them off. (Yes, she had their numbers).

Her faxes had a galvanising impact on the police and the Iemma Government which, incidentally, partially funds Bravehearts in NSW.

Rose Bay police commander Allan Siccard said that at 3.30pm the station received a report “from a concerned member of the public” about the Henson exhibition. The cops arrived just over an hour later, threatened the gallery owners and the opening was postponed.

(How different was the treatment given to Gillian Sneddon, Orkopoulos’s electorate secretary who phoned parliament in 2006 to tell them the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs was under police investigation for pedophilia. Their response was to sack her!)

Next morning, 23 May, Johnston appeared on Channel Nine’s Today show to give an early morning start to her campaign against Henson and the gallery owners. Her views were already sensationalising the morning media:

It’s child exploitation, it’s criminal activity and it should be prosecuted, both the photographer Bill Henson … but also the gallery because these are clearly images that are s-xually exploiting young children.

They are clearly illegal child p-rnography images, it’s not about art at all, it’s a crime and I hope they are prosecuted.

And for good measure, she later added: “I asked them (the police) to prosecute, both the gallery and the photographer, but I’d like to see the parents as well looked in to.”

By happenstance, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was also at Nine’s Brisbane studios and she showed him emails of Henson’s work. When he appeared in front of the cameras to talk about petrol and other matters, he was also asked about the photographs.

Adopting the tone of Iemma, Rudd said they were “absolutely revolting”. The Australian Federal Police opened a nationwide inquiry and the sleepy hollow known as the Australian Communications and Media Authority declared that it was holding an investigation “following a formal complaint”.

Predictably, federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett and the NSW Arts Minister Frank Sartor, Labor politicians supposedly chosen to support, defend and enhance artistic communities and cultural values, fell into line.

This week Rudd and Iemma were both given the opportunity to reflect on their knee-jerk responses. “I stand by that reaction and I don’t apologise for it,” said Rudd while Iemma said: “Yes I do (stand by my original statement). It’s offensive and disgusting.” Both resolutely staying on message. The minders win.

Johnston has clamped onto the Henson affair like a limpet mine. She won’t let go. Avid fans of SMH writer Alan Ramsey will recall his coverage of the downfall of the former Governor-General Peter Hollingworth and the terrier-like role played by Johnston as she played the media like an accomplished conductor.

Her national management committee includes Queensland ALP general secretary Milton Dick; her NSW management committee includes Labor MP Virginia Judge, Liberal MP Anthony Roberts, recently promoted to shadow juvenile justice minister, and federal MP Bronwyn Bishop; and one of her ambassadors-at-large is broadcaster Ray Hadley who has been a pack leader in witch-hunting Henson on 2GB, part-owned by Alan Jones.

The episode is a demonstration of the networking of media reactionaries like Devine, Hadley, Piers Akerman et al, the fear they strike into the hearts of Rudd, Iemma, arts ministers and supine attorneys-general who are in office but don’t have a clue about how to govern or lead, and the authoritarian law enforcement agencies which, as always and ever, will seize the opportunity to smash down doors and push back the boundaries of high culture which they instinctively regard as subversive and dangerous.

Distinguished art critic John McDonald told Radio National this morning the affair made Australia look like “a nation of clowns”. If only it was that funny.