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Stealing a leaf from New Labour's morality handbook

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First there was the Dangerous Pictures Act, and then there was the Dangerous Cartoons Law. Now, courtesy of the Conservative Party, we could be in for new laws on "Dangerous Writings".

If you thought Tories were not quite so censorious as New Labour, then this is a salutary reminder that they can be every bit as righteously prudish as anything the Left can offer.

The Coroners’ and Justice Bill – which includes provisions to make it illegal to possess indecent cartoon images of children – is currently going through its Committee stage in the House of Lords. On Friday, Conservative peer Baroness O'Cathain, put down an amendment to this Bill which, if passed, would make it illegal to possess extreme pornographic literature. That means not pictures or cartoons, but words on a page.

The wording of the amendment is ripped off from the wording of last year’s law on extreme pornographic depictions, and suffers accordingly. Like that law, it would make it a criminal offence to possess writings which portray life-threatening acts, acts likely to result in serious injury to anus, breasts or genitals, sexual interference with a human corpse or sex with an animal (dead or alive!).

Like that Act, this amendment would only apply if the writing was deemed to be pornographic – so any number of slasher novels would remain OK, whilst similar writings with sexual overtones could instantly condemn their possessor to a criminal record.

However, it is in its attempt to carry over concepts such as "realistic" that the amendment shows its weakness: a test for "realism" may make sense in a cinematic concept, but it almost certainly does not in a literary context.

It seems likely that this carbon copy amendment is a knee-jerk response to the outcome of the "Girls (Scream) Aloud" trial, which ended as soon as it began when the prosecution agreed they had no evidence to submit last Monday.

Whilst this amendment has little chance of progressing through parliament, it does reflect what El Reg warned about when that case ended: that given the difficulty of finding a jury who would agree with the government view of what was obscene, legislation in which the legality of material is determined by a tick-box approach becomes far more attractive.

One serious issue with this law, as with the law on extreme porn, is that unlike the Obscene Publications Act, it allows no exemptions for artistic merit or political intent.

On the other hand, the introduction of a test for "realism" might be its undoing. In the story to have been tried last week, the victims are described as becoming progressively more sexually aroused as they are mutilated. It is possible that a jury might not consider such a portrayal to be realistic.

Clair Lewis, National Convenor of the Consenting Adult Action Network said: "This illustrates precisely what we warned about at the time: that the government’s initial legislation was just their opening bid. It's hardly surprising, if one follows the Government’s logic, that this progression, from picture to cartoon to words, would follow.

"It is yet another instance of attempting to blame crimes on the materials people view, instead of abusers being forced to take responsibility for their illegal actions.

"The fact that it is a Conservative who is introducing this amendment only underlines that it is not possible to trust either of the main parties when it comes to freedom of expression and censorship. Like New Labour, the Tory Party has a very narrow-minded attitude when it comes to sex, and like New Labour, the Tory Party seems to believe it is justified for the state to intervene in the sex lives of consenting adults."

We have contacted the Conservative Party for comment, but to date we have received no response. Baroness O'Cathain is widely regarded as being socially conservative, so it might be that her views on this matter do not reflect the mainstream party. ®

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