Journalist, academic, lawyerDuring the late 1960s, while a student at the University of NSW, Melbourne-born Wendy Bacon became involved with the Kensington Libertarians, and with members of the famous Sydney libertarian group called The Push. She gained considerable prominence through her fearless challenges to the archaic censorship laws then in force in NSW, beginning with her stint as an editor of the UNSW student newspaper, Tharunka and through her articles for other student papers such as Monash University's Lot's Wife. This led to her publishing the underground papers Thorunka and Thor and a tabloid-style selection of extracts of the banned publication The Little Red School Book, which was handed out free to students outside NSW schools, a move designed to circumvent a ban on the book's distribution to schools by the then federal education minister, Malcolm Fraser.
George Molnar (not the cartoonist of the same name) and a number of other older Libertarians helped with the production of the 1970 issues of Tharunka, which were edited by Bacon and two others. Its best-known issue printed the lyrics of the old sex fantasy ballad, ‘Eskimo Nell’, along with a piece by Molnar on ‘Drugs and freedom’, and a reprint of philosopher John Anderson’s 1943 address on ‘Religion and Education’.
As a result of the articles the editors were summonsed to appear before a magistrate on charges of obscenity. A large demonstration was staged outside the court, featuring women in nun’s habits distributing copies of the offending material, and a gorilla with trainer. Wendy Bacon displayed on her habit the provocative slogan "I have been fucked by God’s steel prick." Bacon was arrested and charged with exhibiting an obscene publication, i.e. the slogan.
Representing herself, she based her defence on the contention that obscenity is not a real quality in a text, but exists only in the eye of the beholder. In court she bravely attempted to argue the point with reference to Socrates’ dialogue Euthyphro (which poses the problem: "Do the Gods love what is pious because it is pious, or does something become pious when the Gods love it?") and then proceeded to elaborate on the parallel between piety and obscenity -- does the average man object to a publication because it is obscene, or does it become obscene because the average man objects to it? The judge, Aaron Levine (who had heard the Oz appeal in 1965), ruled that philosophy had no place in the trial, declaring: "The comments of Socrates are not relevant to New South Wales law." The jury returned a verdict of guilty and Bacon spent a week in prison on remand.
After relinquishing the editorship of Tharunka, Bacon was involved in the production of the stylistically similar but independently published Thorunka; it contained "even more 'rude' pictures", which led to further charges of obscenity. Bacon again conducted her own defence at the ensuing trial, to make it a 'confrontation' free of legal niceties. George Molnar testified on her behalf, as did Germaine Greer, who testified to Thorunka’s literary merits, but she was admonished by the judge, who told her: "You are not on a platform now". Bacon was again found guilty, sentenced to pay a fine and placed on a good-behaviour bond.
On appeal to the Supreme Court of New South Wales, presided over by then Chief Justice (and future Governor-General) John Kerr, the convictions were overturned. The Court had to consider a number of conceptual issues. Counsel for Bacon argued that Thorunka was neither a book, a magazine nor a periodical, as it was a newspaper-like entity with only a single issue but the Court dismissed this by concluding that an item need not possess quite all of the features of a definition to be in the relevant class, ruling that:
"A publication which has all the other features of a magazine will be called a magazine in New South Wales despite the fact that it has, and is intended to have, only one single issue."
However, the Court did agree that the trial judge had seriously misdirected the jury in telling them that a publication obscene in a part was obscene as a whole. A new trial was ordered, but the authorities eventually decided not to proceed.
In her subsequent career as an investigative journalist, Bacon has worked for the The National Times, the Sun-Herald, Channel Nine’s Sunday program and Sixty Minutes, and the SBS program Dateline. She won a Walkley Award for her reporting on official corruption in NSW. She is now Associate Professor in charge of the Department of Social Communication & Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney.
REFERENCES / LINKSRadical Tradition
Sydney Libertarians and Anarchism Index
"The Push and Critical Drinkers",
from Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia
(Macleay Press, ISBN 1876492082)
"Sex And Censorship"
originally published in Lot's Wife, 18 March 1971