It’s nice to be on the same wavelength as the most courageous DPP in the country, New South Wales’ Nick Cowdery, a man who for many years has spoken out against political interference in the justice process. On May 26 in Crikey, I argued that on my reading of the law, Bill Henson “can rest easy … he should not be charged with any criminal offence”.
Mr Cowdrey agrees. NSW Police will announce today that Henson will not be charged with child p-rn offences and yesterday the AFP decided that none of the 79 Henson images they seized from the National Gallery in Canberra gave rise to any such charges.
But let’s not gloat because the Henson matter has revealed, as has the conduct of senior AFP officers in this week’s national child p-rn investigation, that our police forces are becoming highly political animals. The police have become too conscious of the media, the political climate, and the pestering of lobby groups.
Bill Henson’s photography has been doing the rounds of art galleries, private collections, the internet and other fora for years now without a hint of police involvement. Then along comes a well organised lobbyist in the form of Hetty Johnston and her child abuse campaigners and what do the NSW Police do? They jump to attention, waste taxpayers’ money – the total cost of the various raids around Australia by police over the past fortnight seizing Henson images would run into the millions of dollars — and make fools of themselves by removing Henson pictures from a Sydney gallery.
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No doubt one of the motivating factors behind the decision of the NSW Police to go after Henson and the Ros Oxley Gallery was the fear that if they did not, the media savvy Johnston and her sympathisers among radio shock jocks, trashy TV current affairs shows and the tabloids would accuse the coppers of being soft on child abuse.
The other side of the coin here is the way in which the police today misuse the media to trumpet their achievements. Ironically, this issue has manifested itself in the context again of child p-rn over the past 48 hours. Yesterday, the AFP top brass, including Commissioner Mick Keelty, spent the day telling us all what a great job the AFP was doing in arresting and investigating hundreds of individuals allegedly linked to a child p-rn website – it was undoubtedly the news story of the day.
But why was the AFP talking publicly at all when the investigation is ongoing? A point made by Queensland Police officers in this morning’s Courier-Mail. The state police fear that the AFP’s media blitz has jeopardised the investigation because individuals targeted can now destroy evidence. And there is also the issue of the rights of the accused. The AFP’s naming of the individuals charged has led to one suicide and is undermining the right to a fair trial untainted by prejudicial publicity.
The AFP’s conduct yesterday smacked of political posturing and placing the desire for spin and publicity in front of the right to a fair trail and to ensuring a proper investigation.
Our police forces need to stand above the political fray if we are to have confidence that they will enforce the law without fear or favour. Unfortunately, that message isn’t being heeded by some of the most senior police officers in the nation.
Greg Barns is a criminal lawyer and commentator.