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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.