Do you know how much of your porn is extreme?
If you've got the time, ask a policeman
Updated It seems likely that the government thought that passing a new law on extreme porn would be the last word on the matter. Recent events in Birmingham suggest that this may not quite be the case.
Restrictions on the possession of material deemed to be “extreme” and “pornographic” were introduced in the Criminal Justice Bill in May. A letter from the Ministry of Justice to Backlash, the umbrella group uniting opposition to these measures, suggests that the current plan is for these measures to have their “commencement date” in January 2009.
According to Stephen Ruddell of the Criminal Law Policy Unit, “the time before implementation will give people an opportunity to consider what images they possess. Similar circumstances arose when the age of the child – in respect of possession of indecent photographs of children – was raised from under 16 to under 18 in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This change in the law meant that people had to consider and, if necessary, delete or destroy material which until then had been legal to possess.”
In other words: get it wrong, and face the possibility of jail and a criminal record.
On Sunday 14 June a delegation of people from the Consenting Adult Action Network (C.A.A.N.) went to West Midlands police headquarters in Birmingham to seek advice about just what material might be covered.
A spokesperson for this group explained that they took with them a range of works, representing both fantasy and real acts of harm or danger by various photographers, both professional and amateur. Their portfolio included work by noted erotic artists China Hamilton and Bob Flanagan.
After an initial mix-up with staff at the front desk – who understood the group to be complaining about pornography, rather than seeking advice – officers presented the material to the CID.
Despite praising CAAN for its “mature and adult approach” to seeking advice on this matter, the police were unable to provide much help. They were unaware of imminent changes to the law in this area – despite the fact that West Midlands Police had contributed to the government consultation on this issue, and argued strongly for even tougher sentences than have been passed into law.
They believed that the images did not contravene the Obscene Publications Act. Therefore, if government assurances that the new law criminalised nothing that was not already illegal to publish, those attending the demonstration should be safe.
However, they further pointed out that when it came to interpreting the law, Ministerial statements were largely worthless. The courts would look at what was written into statute: not what was handed out in the press releases.
They also added that it was not uncommon for the Police to receive as little as two weeks warning of imminent changes to the Law. Therefore no real advice could be provided until they had received official guidance from either the Crown Prosecution Service or government.
According to CAAN: “West Midlands CID were polite, helpful and as supportive as they could be under the circumstances. They treated us with respect and believed our questions to be valid and worthy of consideration.
“However, two weeks is not enough time to allow everyone who would need advice to visit police stations for advice and properly dispose of images which would be an offense to own.”
During debate on this law in parliament, Harry Cohen, MP, was very concerned to ensure that it used clear definitions, to ensure the public would know when they were breaking it. He is therefore unimpressed by the possibility that the timetable for information could be so tight.
Speaking exclusively to The Register, he commented: "this reasonable request for police advice met with an incredulous, unaware and uninformed response. This is not satisfactory and in my opinion both the Home Office and the police should get together well before the law comes into force in order to give proper advice when specifically asked by those trying not to be the wrong side of the new law." ®
In a statement to the Register, the Ministry of Justice said that it is “currently in discussions with the Police about the necessary preparation for implementation of this legislation.”
It added: “We will provide further information about the offence for members of the public closer to the date of implementation, which is currently planned for January 2009. We will seek to give a significantly longer period of notice than two weeks.”
It remains to be seen whether sufficient information will be available more than two weeks before the Act commences.