Tag Archives: witch-hunt

Witch-hunts & Pogroms

Witch-hunts and pogroms are not confined to medieval times but occur with monotonous regularity today. The form of the witch-hunt is similar with a number of clear elements. I will compare two local contemporary witch-hunts the attacks against Bill Henson and the claims of ritual satanic abuse (mostly from the 1990s). 

One organization, Bravehearts, will appear in both witch-hunts.

At the start of the witch-hunt the agitators, who are devout Christians, repeat an old slanderous and salacious story in a current context. There is popular enthusiasm for the story due to long-term and short-term economic and political pressures. The story is then repeated and amplified by the media and politicians.

The story of ritual satanic abuse has a long history dating back to the blood libel of medieval tradition, the new twist was using ‘repressed memories’. Sensational media stories from the USA were copied and repackaged for an Australian audience. Senator Bill Heffernan, better known for his unfounded attacks against High Court Judge Justice Kirby, and New South Wales MP Franca Arena repeated these stories and drew more media attention. The ritual satanic abuse hysteria has been likened to witch hysteria by Edward Ogden in his thesis for Advanced Studies in Criminology “Satanic Cults: Ritual Crime Allegations and the False Memory Syndrome’ (University of Melbourne, 1993).

The story of an artist having sexual relations with their models is also a very old story. Sensationalised stories about artists and underage nude models have previously appeared in the USA with attacks on photographers Jock Sturges, amongst others. And so the attack on Bill Henson followed a model copied from US media and Christian organizations.

The Australian organization Bravehearts has been involved in both Bill Henson controversy and allegations of ritual satanic abuse. Bravehearts don’t have a reputation for dishonesty, but they should have as their members have consistently tried to fuel witch-hunts. In 2005 the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) sued Dr Michaelson, who runs Bravehearts Victoria, for claiming that it conducts ritual satanic abuse. The terms of settlement from the Victorian Civil And Administrative Tribunal state that: “Dr Michaelson has not produced any proof that OTO members are or have been involved in such practices.”

The subjects of allegations are generally successful, upper middle class men. These men appear to be ordinary respectable members of society. But, it is alleged; behind closed doors they abuse children. It is further alleged that these men are protected in by a vast evil conspiracy (Satanists or the arts elite) further enhancing their power. Targeting upper-middle class men who have some power, or at least success, in society is evidence that the intention of the allegation is a grab for power.

Other examples of subjects of such allegations drearily come to mind: Jews in Nazi Germany or Tsarist Odessa; communists in the Cold War, and the unsubstantiated allegations of sodomy against Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, although in this case the accusers are devout Moslems whom I’m sure have a similar morality to their Christian brothers and sisters.

Encouraged by politicians and the media police, mob or military violence is taken against the subjects of allegations. Subsequent investigation finds no physical evidence to support any of the allegations. However by then irreparable damage may have already been done.

What is frightening is that very little is learnt in the aftermath of these witch-hunts. The same people, especially the politicians, who expressed enthusiasm for taking action against Bill Henson would have, in other times, expressed enthusiasm for witch-hunts and pogroms. Their irrational beliefs make them a stupid and brutal force that can easily be manipulated.


Richard Guilliatt, Talk of the Devil, Repressed Memory & the Ritual Abuse Witch-Hunt (Melbourne, 1996)


The Henson Witch-Hunt

On 22 May of 2008 columnist Miranda Devine of The Sydney Morning Herald started the witch-hunt. NSW police joined in closing Bill Henson’s exhibition in Sydney and threatening to lay charges.

The Bill Henson story was picked up by Associated Press and reprinted in newspapers around the world. What politicians thought would have local breakfast television appeal makes Australia look internationally like a nation of philistines. Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Arts and former Midnight Oil front-man, ducked the issue and has kept largely out of sight since.

Censorship of the arts in Australia became a hot issue again, and to the frustration of the politicians, the issue would not go away. It continued with the cover of Art Monthly featuring a photo of Olympia Nelson taken by her mother. The controversy was raised in every gallery director’s opening speech at an exhibition of nudes; especially Gordon Morrison, the Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, introducing his exhibition “The Naked and the Nude”.

Many artists have commented on this controversy over the year. Mary Newsome referred to both the censorship of Fogelberg and Henson in her postcard installation at Mailbox 141. In Hosier Lane, a paste-up of a fat ugly naked man by Camel bares the slogan “No Rudd Gonna Censor Me!”

The lack of a clear outcome in this controversy has meant that artists working with nudes now fear censorship and demonising. The increased sensitivity to nudes in the community lead to more censorship issues; for example, in South Australia at the Tea Tree Gully’s annual art exhibition in August two nudes were banned.

There has also been an increase in search terms like: “pedophile melbourne art”. The popularist polemics of state and federal politicians have convinced some people that art, like the Catholic Church, is simply a cover for pedophiles. In October the next round of the witch-hunt started with a non-controversy: Bill Henson visited a Melbourne primary school. The Victorian government reprimanded the school principal, before finding any breach of protocols, presuming wrong doing and slandering Henson by in the process. I have called this witch-hunt as it is an intensive systematic campaign directed against Bill Henson and those who support him. The reason for the witch-hunt now is simply to vindicate the politician’s views by any means.

The last word on this subject should go to Olympia Nelson: “I’m really, really offended by what Kevin Rudd said about this picture. That was really, really rude. For him to be talking about my picture, the picture with me in it, it doesn’t feel very good.” Kevin Rudd is yet to apologize to Olympia Nelson.

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