Wendy Bacon: 'a more repressive mood'

Issue 

By Tracy Sorensen

SYDNEY — A more repressive mood, encouraged by sections of the media seeking to promote a moral backlash, is developing in Australia today, journalist and communications lecturer Wendy Bacon told a public meeting here on March 28.

"I wouldn't like to exaggerate, but it is interesting that a few incidents have all happened at once", she said. The fact that "something different" was happening was suggested by a series of events:

  • The University of Technology, Sydney, Students Association handbook was banned for allegedly promoting the use of hard drugs.

  • The federal censor's office refused to classify a book about euthanasia called Final Exit.

  • The federal government withdrew funding from the 17-year-old Student Initiatives in Community Health.

  • Goaded by Sydney's Sunday Telegraph, a long-running furore broke out around the NSW Family Planning Association's Making Sense of Sex project, with its peer-counselling phone hotline and school diary, which ended in the withdrawal of Department of Health funding.

As editor of the University of NSW student newspaper Tharunka in 1970, Wendy Bacon was charged with publishing obscene publications and briefly jailed. She noted that no student publication had been banned in NSW since 1972.

Were publishers and student and community groups becoming more daring recently? Bacon and others present at the meeting pointed out that equally "shocking" material had been published in various ways over the past 20 years.

A former contributor to Streetwize comics said that the federal government had funded the dissemination of information similar to that found in the Making Sense of Sex project all through the '80s. It was therefore clear that there was a backlash against existing rights and practices.

On the other hand, said Bacon, there was "another way of looking at it, that young people in particular are getting angrier, they are beginning to say things in a much more forthright way, and they are using humour".

She said the "very casual, very laid back" way in which she saw

high school aged young women from the FPA project speak about sex at a public meeting would have unnerved those with traditional ideas about appropriate attitudes for young people. The backlash was playing on this nervousness.

This nervousness might also have been heightened, said Bacon, by AIDS education campaigns which focused on grassroots activity and self-help strategies.

While newspapers like the Sunday Telegraph encouraged the panic, Prime Minister Paul Keating was playing up to it in an opportunist effort to shore up votes.

Bacon said UTS students were concerned that current debates over sex and drugs were being used to divert attention from other issues. Just as the UTS Students Association was going into a campaign about Austudy, for example, it found itself having to do battle on another, completely unexpected, front.

"It's quite interesting that the common link in all these cases is health and things to do with the body and self-regulation of the body. There's a whole lot of explosive issues surrounding life and death and medical practice", said Bacon.

Bacon explained that censorship laws had changed significantly since the early '70s, from a basic framework which outlawed information which offended "community standards" to a "classification model", where information in literature, films and video was available, but in restricted form, depending on the type of depictions of sex, drugs, horror, crime, cruelty or violence.

While the public perception was that the law was more liberal now than it had been in the 1960s, it was actually harder to legally defend certain types of material than it had been then, said Bacon.

The banning of the UTS handbook was a case in point. Under the old laws, civil libertarian lawyers would have taken on the "community standard" notion on two tacks: first, that in the context of the particular community, in this case a university, the information was not offensive. The other tack was to argue from the standpoint of "a strong critique of notions of 'right thinking people' and 'reasonable men'".

"We would have mounted an argument that there was no such thing as a community standard, that the very fact that there was a charge and that there was conflict over it was itself an indication that there were competing views on this, and that 'community standards' was just another notion being used by the state to enforce certain views."

The strategy met with a fair rate of success. Obscenity trials began to clog up the courts, and the state eventually began the process of amending the law.

In 1984 a series of amendments to NSW law basically handed the power of censorship over to the Commonwealth, leaving a NSW board of review to hear appeals. Under the new laws, notions of community standards where dropped, and censorship cases were no longer heard in open trials. Instead, public servants began to classify material according to clearly set out criteria.

Under this system, information can be refused classification altogether, which is what has happened with Final Exit and the UTS handbook. (American Psycho was restricted to readers over the age of 18.)

The UTS students' publication was "done" under a section which prohibits any publication that "promotes, incites or encourages" the use of hard drugs.

"Now, there is no defence to this. They've wiped out the community standards test ... it's simply a matter of fact. Certain things are hard drugs by definition." Bacon was told by the public servant administering the law that it was "an open and shut case" and that the UTS students "could come and appeal if they like".

But appeals in these cases do not go to the courts; they involve going back to see the relevant public servants to "work something out". In this case, the UTS students agreed to stamp a disclaimer on the handbook, telling readers that the Students Association did not advocate the use of hard drugs.

"So what they were saying [at the time the laws changed, in 1984] was that by allowing all these schemes of classification, everything would be liberalised and people would be able to read or see anything they wanted.

"The counterargument at the time was that the classification model put a lot of power in the hands of public servants; it could lead to outright prohibitions that couldn't be challenged; and it would take away the power of open jury trials. I think all these were reasonable arguments."

Meanwhile, the feminist critique of violent pornography (which, incidentally, is refused classification under current censorship criteria) now underpins debates around censorship, said Bacon.

She said it would be useful if "separate things could be kept separate" — attacks on the free expression of students and community groups on the one hand, and debates about representations degrading to women on the other.

"But the two debates keep coming together ... I feel it's much more complex now. We just took the simple anti-censorship attitude and just went for it, and I think we were very successful at breaking down the laws at the time."

With hindsight, however, "Some of the stuff we published then I probably wouldn't publish now, more for the reason it was just straight-out sexist ... but I still feel very uneasy with the notion of state censorship.

"Even if you can see absolutely nothing of merit, even if it's only desensitising, appalling stuff, it seems that censorship laws are always applied against other things. [Violent porn] will still be commercialised, while other people will be censored, and it will be used against things which are more threatening in other sorts of ways.

"But I certainly think it's important to come out with some very strong social action, not to go and rip [videos and magazines] out of shops or anything like that, but just some social criticism about that sort of pornography."