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'Extreme porn' definition dithering drags on

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Those pesky critters from CAAN (Campaigning Adult Action Network) are at it again, cheekily asking the government what the extreme porn law actually means for Joe Public.

This week they are joined in their efforts by Ben Westwood, son of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, whose outrage at the coming law leads him to suggest that "Jack Straw and the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith need to be bound up together and gagged".

First, CAAN. On Friday, it was the turn of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to come under the spotlight, as it is they who will eventually draw up guidelines in respect of whether you will be arrested.

Back in May of this year, the government passed new legislation making it an offence to possess material that was "pornographic", depicted "explicit realistic extreme acts" as well as being "grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character". However, these clauses have not yet been “commenced”, meaning that we all have about another four months to give our dirty books collection the once-over before we metamorphose, on the stroke of some as yet unspecified midnight, into filthy degenerate criminals.

The ambiguities inherent in the Act were highlighted when pictures from Madonna’s once controversial Sex book were laid before five lawyers, and two declared them potentially illegal. If professional legal advice gives you no better than a 60/40 chance of getting the law right, what chance has the ordinary punter, poring carefully over their collection of “artistic” pics in an attempt to discern illegality?

This is essentially the question CAAN is putting before our lawmakers and enforcers. Last month they descended on West Midlands Police, who were unable to provide clear answers.

Apart from presenting a selection of piccies for the delectation of those visited, CAAN are asking some pointed questions: when the guidelines will be ready and who will create them; whether the public can see them when they're ready; and who is going to advise us.

Fair questions, you might think, for anyone not wishing to fall foul of the law next January. However, ACPO were less than helpful, saying that there was no one able to answer any of CAAN’s questions – and asking them to leave the building forthwith.

Actually, for those smelling a conspiratorial rat, there probably isn’t one. CAAN turned up with little notice, and it was the Friday before Bank Holiday weekend. So they will be back – next time, by prior appointment and with a folder full of pictures.

For the time being, CAAN have decided to let the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) off the hook. A spokesperson for CAAN explained: “The CPS get involved in the decision to prosecute – and undoubtedly they will have their own guidelines.

“However, it is our experience that individuals can have their lives wrecked by the publicity that follows on being 'outed' to the public, no matter how innocent they subsequently turn out to be.

“For now, our focus is on the arrest process – and who is likely to be arrested. To be honest, we are shocked that nearly four months after the passage of this new law, the Police are still claiming to have no view on what will get you arrested.”

ACPO responded by pointing out that they work closely with relevant government departments on any new legislation that impacts on the police service nationally. We can assume that guidelines will be produced in due course – though precisely when that will be and whether it will prove satisfactory to all concerned only time will tell.

Back to Ben Westwood. He has put together a book titled Fuck Fashion. He believes that this is going to fall foul of the oncoming law on extreme porn - and he is livid. Of Jack Straw and "Wacky" Jacqui Smith, he adds: "They are trying to dismantle our basic human rights. We cannot just sit here and take this. We cannot just lie back and watch this ludicrous Act slip in the back door."

He is not alone in thinking this. According to his agent, Lois Hillgrove, he has so far enlisted the support of celebrity chums including the singer Gwen Stefani and the burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese.

Yet more resistance appears to be breaking out amongst the ranks of the magazine Bizarre, which is planning to campaign against this law with a series of events between now and January.

Is all this true? Will the new Law stop books like this being published? Well, as CAAN point out, we just won't know whether any given book is or is not illegal until we have had it tested in a court of law.

However, if writers and artists believe their works may be illegal, they will tread more carefully, erring on the side of caution.

If publishers are fearful of future prosecution, more edgy works simply will not be published. This, as much as anything, is the danger inherent in this new law. ®

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