An "extreme" prosecution?

The offence in the infamous “Tiger porn” case is being used again

A man is currently being prosecuted at Kingston Crown Court for possessing images of consensual adult sexual acts. The case has been brought by the Crown Prosecution Service under the notorious section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 which prohibits “extreme pornography”. Myles Jackman, the defence solicitor, has blogged about the case and is also tweeting from Court.

As this is a live trial before a jury there are limits to what can be published about the prosecution and, quite rightly, it is for the jury to determine guilt or innocence on the basis of the evidence and submissions put before them. 

However, it is in the public interest to consider the merits of the law itself, whatever is decided in this particular case.  The “extreme pornography” offence is perhaps the most illiberal piece of legislation ever enacted by Parliament.  It was promoted by a Labour government with the support of the then Conservative opposition. 

Under the “extreme pornography” offence it is a crime to possess an image which is both “pornographic” (defined as of being of “a nature that it must reasonably be assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal”) and “extreme”. 

To be an "extreme" pornographic image the material has to be “grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character” (though it is not clear what “grossly offensive” and “disgusting” add to the requirement of “obscene character”) and also depict an act which falls into one of four categories:

(a) an act which threatens a person's life,

(b) an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals,

(c) an act which involves sexual interference with a human corpse, or

(d) a person performing an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal (whether dead or alive).

The Act also provides that a reasonable person looking at the image would need to think that any such person or animal was real.

But people’s preferences are varied, and there are a number of sexual practices – perfectly legal in themselves – which can fall into these categories.  In particular, acts which result, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals can apply to many forms of BDSM as well as fisting.

The Act provides only limited defences, all of which are for the defendant to prove.  It is a defence for the image to be from a classified film (a defence which implicitly acknowledges that the portrayal of such actions can be on general release).  It also a defence in general terms if the images are held for innocent reasons, as long as they are possessed no longer than necessary.  And it is also a defence to have been a consenting participant in the image (unless an animal was seemingly involved).  However, the photographer or other image-maker themselves have no defence, nor does any non-participant possessing an image for private enjoyment.

The offence has not had a happy history.  In 2009, the CPS brought the daft “Tiger porn” prosecution in respect of a video of what appeared to them to be a man having sex with a tiger.  In that case the CPS had not listened to video’s soundtrack before putting a man on trial and thereby at risk of imprisonment and being placed on the sexual offenders register.  When the defence pointed out that at the end of the video, the CGI-generated tiger turns to the camera and says “That beats the Frosties advert!” even the CPS had to accept someone watching it would not think the tiger was real. 

The campaign group Backlash has now intervened in a number of other misconveived and illiberal prosecutions, and Myles Jackman has managed to prevent a number of miscarriages of justice.  Myles continues to be a credit to the legal profession for his work in this area.  But it should not come down to a pressure group and a fine lawyer to stop the bad application of a bad law.

Whatever the result at Kingston Crown Court, there remains on the statute book a dreadful piece of legislation and a CPS very ready to exercise its discretion to prosecute even when the images are of adult consensual sexual activity.  There is something both farcical and worrying in the way the state wishes to regulate mere possession of pornography in these circumstances. 

If you do not want images of lawful but “extreme” adult consensual sexual acts, then the solution is not to possess them.  

Simple really.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

A safe-for-work picture of a tiger. Photo: Getty

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.