Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/01/26/extreme_rude/

Deviants, perverts, 'weirdos' - who's going down?

Opposition rises to extreme porn law

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Law, 26th January 2009 13:34 GMT

Comment The die is cast. From today, it is illegal to possess "extreme porn" - though exactly what that means, despite two years of debate, is still unclear.

Depending on who you believe, this will criminalise 2m individuals or a mere handful. The Register guide to surviving this law can be found here.

Meanwhile, what has become of the principal players in this drama?

On Sunday, around 100 demonstrators braved the cold and damp to attend a last-minute demo, organised by CAAN and supported by Backlash and Spanner. Peter Tatchell was out, as were fashion photographer Ben Westwood and Mr Leather UK, Paul Stag.

peter tatchell at caan demo at parliament

Peter Tatchell and friends and Big Ben: pic copyright John Ozimek

CAAN’s porn collection, with which they have been teasing police and authorities in advance of the law, has now passed into exile in Scotland, where no such law is yet in place. If the Scots pass their own version, no doubt it will be travelling even further afield.

The Ministry of Justice has done itself few favours.

From day one, they have spouted the Ministerial line that this legislation merely tidies up gaps in the Obscene Publications Act (OPA). This law, they claim, "closes a loophole" - in much the same way that life imprisonment for owning a gun would close a loophole in the law on murder. For 150 years, the UK has had laws governing the publication of obscene material and has managed to get along fine without a "possession" offence.

The MoJ have repeatedly claimed that no image that is legal under the OPA would be caught by the extreme porn law. No responsible lawyer would ever give such misleading advice and, when pressed by El Reg, a spokeswoman drew our attention to the small print: ultimately, only the courts can say what the law means.

Despite this, confusion still reigns. In the last fortnight, the MoJ has sent out diametrically opposed letters to concerned individuals. The first states that "ultimately a decision in any particular case would be a matter for the courts". The second, from Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Maria Eagle MP, repeats that the new law applies only to a "limited category of extreme pornographic material, which it would already be illegal to publish or distribute under the Obscene Publications Act".

The irony is that the MoJ may have shot itself in the foot. Criminal lawyers suggest that this public spin may provide individuals with mitigation, if not an outright defence: the possibility of a Government Minister being dragged into court to explain their advice is not entirely far-fetched.

Parliament emerges with little credit. Three cheers for the Lords who, gallantly led by Baroness Miller, put the government case under the spotlight and almost certainly won the debate hands down – although in the end, it was the abstention of Tory Lords that guaranteed the law’s passage.

This beats the record of the Commons, where public opposition fell almost single-handedly to Labour MP Harry Cohen.

No credit whatsoever to Martin Salter MP, who still makes public hay out of the issue while adamantly refusing to engage with critics of his more outlandish claims. He states as fact that this law will help abolish the trade in "snuff" – despite a general consensus that this is mere urban myth. He has twice failed to respond to our questions on his views, and on Sunday, according to CAAN, he turned down the opportunity of a head-to-head debate on Five Live.

In the Reading Post last week, he argued that any campaign was now "too late", before going on to describe those who enjoyed the material in question as "weird" and advising them to quit the internet.

Still, no good deed goes unpunished, and Mr Salter may yet face public challenge over his part in passing this law, as senior members of CAAN hinted at the possibility of running an "anyone but Salter" candidate at the next General Election.

There is continued sympathy for Liz Longhurst, who was a prime mover in campaigning for this law after her daughter was murdered by Graham Coutts: in part, it is alleged, because "the porn made him do it". However, the sense that her grief has been co-opted to a wider political cause was reinforced by her admission, also in the Reading Post last week, that she had never visited the sort of sites now criminalised.

cann demonstrater

The government is targeting guys like this: pic copyright John Ozimek

But how much difference will it make? A statement from ACPO on Friday suggested that they would investigate material as they came across it – but they would not be actively looking for it.

Despite assurances that it would have its guidance up on its website before this law went live, as of today, the Crown Prosecution Service has still not done so.

Even less welcome for a government determined to clamp down on "weirdos" was the palpable sense, on Sunday, of a new movement being born. Two years ago, when the extreme porn law was first mooted, the BDSM community ran round like the proverbial headless chicken; it had no organised voice, almost no one prepared to speak on its behalf.

That was not the case yesterday, as lawyers, politicians and academics met to discuss the way ahead. Legal challenges in court, helplines, direct action - if they are to be believed, then there are choppy waters ahead for this legislation. ®