Cartoon smut law to make life sucky for Olympic organisers
Internet + iffy logo = Ha ha!
Government zeal in pursuing anyone suspected of harbouring paedophilic tendencies may shortly rebound – with unintended consequences for the 2012 Olympic logo.
Earlier this month, the Coroners & Justice Bill 2009 received the Royal Assent. This Act was another of those portmanteau pieces of legislation for which the current government is famous, mixing up new regulations on the holding of inquests, driving offences, provocation in murder cases and, crucially, a new law making it a criminal offence to be found in possession of an indecent cartoon image of a child.
The horror facing the unpopular Olympics logo is that this is a strict liability offence. If an image is indecent, or held to be so by a jury, it is no good the Olympic Committee claiming that it was not intended as such.
Regular readers will be aware of the controversy that surrounded the current logo since the day it was launched. Critics were not impressed by the £400,000 that had allegedly been shelled out to creative consultancy Wolff Olins to come up with the design. However, it was the logo’s perceived suggestiveness - with many sniggering that it appeared to show Lisa Simpson performing an act of fellatio - that excited internet controversy.
The Guardian reported this as common knowledge: even Wikipedia notes this as one criticism levelled against the logo.
A Facebook group asserting this similarity currently has almost 200,000 fans: Google variants on "Olympic logo" plus "Lisa Simpson", "fellatio", "blow job", etc and you will quickly turn up several thousand sites and articles which link those topics.
Is this going to cause problems?
The offence is modelled very closely on the law as passed against extreme porn last year, and prohibits the possession of any images that are pornographic, "grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character" and which either focus "solely or principally on a child’s genitals or anal region", or portray a number of sexual acts, including intercourse, oral sex and masturbation which involve a child either directly or as by-stander.
For the purposes of this Act, an image is exactly that: an image. There are few defences to such a charge, although an individual may argue that they did not knowingly obtain the image, or that they did so for purposes of law enforcement.
Although this law is modelled closely on other laws, it is a radical extension of the principles that underpin them. Both the Protection of Children Act 1978 (pdf) and the Criminal Justice Act 2008 – which is where the extreme porn law is located – are based on the idea that real harm may be being done to those depicted.
In the first instance, any image claiming to be "child porn" is evidence of child abuse, and those possessing such images are considered to be fuelling the trade for such material by creating an economic demand for it. In the second instance, one of the justifications for the new law was the harm being done to participants in extreme pornographic images, or the presumed harm that might result from copycatting.
In this case, the view was expressed that copycatting might be an issue. However, both in the committee stage of this legislation and in the consultation paper (pdf) advocating it, there was also a strong inclination toward punishing individuals on the basis of their proclivities, irrespective of harm done, or even potential for copycatting.
The law will apply where "the impression conveyed by the image is that the person shown is a child". In debate in committee, those arguing for the law were clear that they hoped it would apply even to a few lines scrawled by an individual on a piece of paper for their own enjoyment: and Government Minister Maria Eagle wanted the widest possible interpretation of the law to prevent individuals adding alien characteristics to images, and claiming they were not human.
Given how widespread is the belief in the indecent nature of the Olympic logo, some degree of public embarrassment seems inevitable. First, because the internet is home to what can best be described as an "awkward squad" tendency which does not much like increased regulation of what can be seen and downloaded from the web, this issue is a gift: an opportunity to stick two fingers up at what is seen by many as a legislative step too far.
Second, given the number of individuals who subscribe to groups on this subject, the likelihood that someone will formally complain to the police cannot be ruled out - and there could well be a case to answer. The "strict liability" nature of the law coupled with widespread publicity over this image means that there may be no room for the ignorance defence.
El Reg asked various government bodies for a comment. The Ministry of Justice said it could not help: it was responsible for policy, but how a law would be used in future was a matter for police and Crown Prosecution Service.
The latter was equally unable to help, as although the law has received Royal Assent, it has not yet been "commenced" - that is, it still requires a Minister of State to sign it into active status - and therefore no guidelines have yet been issued. However, it is expected that that will happen in the next few months.
We approached the Olympic Organising Committee for comment. A London 2012 spokesperson said: “The London 2012 logo depicts the figure 2012 and nothing else.” ®