Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Nation of Obscene Publishers

Not like me to be writing in defence of a police officer, admittedly, but it's justice I'm interested in, not bigotry.

PC James Addison from the Diplomatic Protection Group shared 'extreme porn' with colleagues via Whatsapp on his phone, and last month he was convicted under the Obscene Publications Act and fined £6,000. He's also bound to lose his job.

The images

included bizarre sex acts and scenes showing defecation

Thing is, it appears to be another case of using this law to prosecute people for sharing pictures and footage of acts that are not in themselves illegal. District Judge Howard Riddle told Addison

The situation would be very different indeed if this involved children and similarly if there had been involvement of animals. I sentence you on the basis that there were no obviously unwilling participants in the films.

The images may not be to your taste. You may find them objectionable, you might even think they're morally questionable. But to treat them as illegal is another matter. If an image is of something foul but legal, it is nonsense to make it illegal - surely any judgement is about what's going on. We should be judging the picture rather than blaming the person who makes a frame for it.


The very concept of obscenity in the 1959 Act is anachronistic. It defines its target as material whose effect

if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.

The internet has familiarised us all with unusual sexual practices. Many of us have found new things we really like to see and do. Most of us have discovered that, after a flicker of novelty evaporates, we find the majority of niche sexuality pretty boring. Whichever way we jump, if knowledge of this stuff was going to deprave and corrupt us, it would have done so by now.

Additionally, in 1959 'publication' meant something rather different to sharing something with someone individually via phone. In 1950s terms, what Addison did is more akin to showing you a picture in a magazine than publishing and selling it. But the Act allows for a single instance of sending an item to one person to count, without any commercial element. A solitary text could get you up to five years in prison and a spell on the Sex Offenders Register.

We've run into this technological rejigging of definitions on social media time and again. If it's said on Twitter, it's no different to shouting it in the street. As such, it's right that racist tweeters get bollocked. But Addison's sending things to a few friends, all of whom had given him their phone number and none of whom appear to have complained, is not the same thing.

Also, verbal or printed racist abuse is a crime so it follows that it is still a crime sent by text or tweet. Whereas consensual sex acts between adults, even if unusual, are not a crime so it is bizarre to make depiction and knowledge of them illegal. If you went through everyone's phone and computer, a significant proportion of people would be ripe for similar charges. So why pick on James Addison?


The images were found on his phone during the investigation into the Plebgate affair involving former government chief whip Andrew Mitchell and DPG officers at the gates of Downing Street, the court heard.

Aha. The government have been happy to blithely bat away outcries over a slew of indefensible police actions in recent years, as long as the victim is a Brazilian immigrant or a Millwall-supporting newspaper vendor. But at Plebgate they got a personal taste of what police do to people they don't like, and the government came out fighting.

A week after Addison was convicted, the Home Secretary stunned the Police Federation conference saying that if they didn't accept a list of dozens of reforms that cut back the body's power, then it would be forced on them by Parliament.

Could this same intense desire to take down the police around Plebgate be behind the decision to charge Addison?


The Obscene Publications Act should have keeled over and died in 1960 after Penguin Books were acquitted in the Lady Chatterley trial. It certainly should've been binned off two years ago when Michael Peacock walked free from court.

Peacock made made DVDs of legal, consensual sex and sold them. Personally, I don't want to see someone having their inflated scrotum pummelled, but if you do then as long as the pummellee is a willing participant, go right ahead.

As Johnnie Marbles said at the time,

Michael Peacock has been severely punished for not committing a crime. The vagaries of the process itself – the soul-churning moment of arrest, the months of worry that followed, the endless meetings with lawyers... These are standard ways the process punishes people, but in Peacock’s case they were coupled with revelations about his private life which must have been excruciating. Even the most vanilla of you probably wouldn’t want your mum hearing every detail of what you do in bed, particularly not if you were telling her from the dock. 

But Peacock made a stand. He was the first person charged for this sort of material to plead not guilty. He argued that his DVDs were sought out by adults wanting exactly that material. The jury agreed and acquitted him. That really should've been the end of a law whose purpose isn't to deal with any damage caused, merely to pass moral judgement.

The legislation that made homosexuality illegal prior to 1967, and kept it decriminalised but not fully legal until 2003, was nicknamed 'the blackmailers charter'. It took otherwise law-abiding citizens and criminalised them for something that did no harm to others but would nonetheless ruin the lives of all concerned if made public. It not only led to blackmail but also to police making 'soft arrests'; raiding a gay venue and nicking punters knowing that they'll all plead guilty to avoid the publicity of a trial.

By the same token, the Obscene Publications Act threatens us with unwanted exposure. In an age where we all count as publishers, the Obscene Publications Act is a vengeant dirty tricksters' charter.

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