Felix Dennis, Jim Anderson and Louise Ferrier on their way to the OZ trial in 1970. Photograph: Getty Images.
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“Is there anything you consider indecent”? Felix Dennis at the OZ trial from the NS archive

Jonathan Dimbleby reports from the OZ trial, where the late Felix Dennis (1947-2014) and his co-editors Richard Neville and Jim Anderson stood trial for "conspiracy to corrupt public morals".

"It is some time," intoned His Honour Judge Argylle as the OZ trial entered its fourth week, "since I have had to remind people that this is not a theatre but a court of law." The reminder was timely if vain. A few days later one of the hundreds of American tourists who had tramped noisily in and out of the proceedings was overheard to ask: "Are they running this thing right through the tourist season?"

At that level it was great entertainment. In the dock stood the prisoners: Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis, hair close around their shoulders, dressed in long flowing robes or dungarees and brightly coloured teeshirts with the words "University of Wishful Thinking" emblazoned across the front. Facing them from on high, the Judge, equally bizarre in his black robes and tight white wig. We watch him closely — a soft pale pink face, pince-nez covering rarely blinking eyes, an occasional neat smile, a dry distant voice; middle-aged. On his right, down in the well of the court sits Detective-Inspector Luff whose zeal has enabled this event to take place. For nearly three years he has tirelessly pursued the accused: advising, admonishing, raiding and seizing. Now, his duty performed, he relaxes amid piles of the offending OZ, turning occasionally behind him with some whispered information for the prosecution counsel Mr Brian Leary. In this airless ritualistic atmosphere Luff is unmistakably an outsider: dark-suited, club-tied, well-slicked black hair, suede shoes, a face roughened by the outside back-street world of the Vice Squad.

Mr Leary for the Crown is slim, dapper, sharp-featured, his voice well trained in the arts of moral outrage and silky sarcasm. At his side defending: John Mortimer QC, playwright. A shaggy yellowing wig fails to hide shaggier hair; his waistcoat is ill-fitting. A man of sharp wit, he has an air of world-weary tolerance.

As the court processed through its days of debate it was easy to forget what everyone in the courtroom knew: that the three OZ editors were liable to be sent to prison for publishing what was eventually found to be an obscene magazine.

By the end the jury had spent some five weeks hearing an assorted collection of sociologists, psychologists, writers and teachers inform them that this School Kids issue of OZ could not possibly have any harmful effect on young people. These "persons with progressive opinions" as Mr Leary disapprovingly described them, parade an impressive if repetitive wealth of experience. John Mortimer gently extracts their knowledge. Richard Neville, conducting his own defence with daily increasing expertise, playing the game the law's way, seeks deeper moral support. "Is it true that the authorities are likely to be out of touch with what young people think?" "Is open discussion healthy?" "Why don't university authorities 'moralise' about drugs and promiscuity?" The answer comes exquisitely: "It would be a completely mindless thing to do."

The prosecution has a hard time of it. One detects, though, a pattern. First the witness's social (and thereby moral?) standing.

Mr Leary: "Dr Klein, we know you are a doctor; what we don't know is whether you're Miss or Mrs?"

Dr Klein: "Miss."

Mr Leary : "So you have no children?"

Dr Klein: "No."

Mr Leary (slowly): "I see."

He rubs his hands, pauses and glances significantly at his jury sitting opposite.

Then comes the cross-examination proper. The prosecution is nothing if not thorough. Each witness is taken slowly through the magazine stopping at length to examine some dozen drawings and strip cartoons, a paragraph here and there, and the small ads. The cartoons vary. Some are crude, some silly, some funny; often sexually explicit, usually fantastic. The magazine had been compiled by around 20 teenagers at the invitation of the three defendants. The prosecution allows no detail to escape. Where is that hand? At what? That cane — what is it doing? What does this word signify? That smile? That gesture? The witnesses pore hopelessly over the pages, desperately trying to recall their first-year undergraduate skills at textual analysis; the concentrated stares of the jury diffuse into blankness; a policeman resumes his reading of Reveille; an exasperated witness bursts out: "But to go through it inch by inch, line by line is judging it at an absurd level."

Rupert Bear rubs the point home. In OZ 28 the little bear is provided with a massive phallus and a girl friend, the virgin Gypsy Granny. They have intercourse. The cartoon is absurd by itself; it did not need the memorable exchange between the prosecution and the psychologist Michael Scofield.

Mr Leary: "What sort of age is Rupert Bear to your mind?" Mr Scofield intimates that his mind had never considered the question before. Mr Leary offers assistance: "He's a young bear isn't he, he goes to school..." and then with sudden vehemence: "children that can identify with the young bear, isn’t that the truth?" Utterly incredulous Scofield expostulates: "What, children identify with a bear?" The public gallery, watching from above, explodes with mirth and two friends of OZ are escorted away.

The inch by inch analysis completed; the witnesses almost to a man unyielding; the prosecution shifted its ground, fortifying itself behind some general unstated but only too visible moral principles from which it advanced armed with the General Question - so simple, so lethal: is it a good thing that children discuss drugs, take part in group sex ... is it a good thing? Or, similarly: "Have you ever come across pornography?" It depends, as the witness points out, what you mean by pornography. The question, the Crown retorts, is really very simple. He sighs and the Judge steps in: The answer is either "Yes", or "No" or "I don't know". The statement has depressingly ruthless overtones. Do we really seek the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth by these means?

Witness: "I don't know because I don’t know what the Court means by pornography."

Judge: "I am recording that answer as: 'I don't know because I don't understand the question'." (Later Mr Leary offers us a definition: something is pornographic "...if it is there to present sensuality in an attractive light".)

Sometimes the Judge partakes of the general question, too: "Do you think prostitution is a good thing or a bad thing?" "It depends..." His Honour puts down his pen with a flourish of irritation. Why won't they answer simple questions? Have they no morality? Judge Argylle's skill with the pen is soon renowned. To note or not to note - his choice is made decisively; no one (least of all the jury) can fail to detect what in his view is significant, and more important, insignificant.

In his closing address to the jury Mr Leary expressed the hope that they had found the trial interesting, informative, and intelligent. It was certainly revealing; not least for the fact that the prosecution conspicuously ignored the bulk of the magazine – some 21 pages of the youthful anti-authoritarian political writing. According to the Crown, neither "politics", nor what the kids thought of "the pigs" were relevant in what was merely a criminal trial. Quite so. But as the trial wore on despite repeated protestations of this kind, it emerged that like politics and sport, quite plainly politics and morals do mix, indeed are inextricably entangled.

When Felix Dennis gave evidence, pale-faced, leaning heavily on the witness box, few could have missed the antagonism concentrated in the few feet separating him from Mr Leary. He was taken through the production history of OZ.

Mr Leary: "How did the sex get in?"

Dennis: "I’m not sure what you mean."

Judge (sighing): "Take as long as you like. The question has five simple single-syllable words."

And then onto the small ads. One advertises an "exclusive private male 'Gaye' guesthouse". Does it not, Mr Leary wonders: "pander to the lusts of homosexuals".

Dennis: "I find that question repulsive. Would you re-phrase it?"

Judge (with irritation): "No. Answer it."

Mr Leary seemed to have doubts about Felix Dennis’s integrity. Surely the witness knew, if he were to be honest with himself, that OZ 28 was both indecent and obscene before it came out? Dennis made it clear he knew nothing of the sort.

Mr Leary (heavily sarcastic): "Is there anything you consider indecent?" Suddenly the court-room tensed. Felix Dennis looks down as if he will lose control, but sits down heavily, and pausing between each word, quietly and with contempt says: "There are a great many things I find indecent, Mr Leary." Moments like that were rare. Suddenly the tiresome details of OZ 28, the pictures, the drawings, the swear words, the slang, the small-ads, even the children, fade from thought. Here is the confrontation that matters: one morality set resolutely against another: an "alternative" challenging to the Establishment. And in case any of us should have been in doubt about this, Mr Leary made it quite clear in his closing address. The alternative society, represented by the defendants consisted of those "...drop-outs who expect the state to provide for them – and by the state I mean nothing more than you and me – those of us who are fools enough to work."

"Remember," learned counsel continued, "morality is essential to the well-being of a community like ours. It is up to you members of the jury to set the standard."

There was perhaps little else for them to do. After five weeks they had heard one policeman (Luff) and one hostile teenager (Vivian Berger who was originally indicted as a co-producer of OZ 28) called on behalf of the prosecution, and more than a dozen defence "experts" all of whom had testified at great length that OZ could do no harm. Perhaps fundamental questions like: "What is corruption? and depravity? and indecency? and how are people corrupted? and by what?" are not susceptible to an easy "yes, no, or I don’t know" formula, so favoured by the criminal law. As a result, the witnesses were all but ignored.

The judge’s summing-up was stunning. Suddenly the defence witnesses became "so-called defence experts", some of whom, members of the jury: "you may think you reached the position... where they either had to admit they were wrong or tell a lie." If OZ was a window on the hippy world – "well, windows sometimes need cleaning, don’t they?" As he finished with a witness, he would toss his copy of OZ disdainfully down onto the table, and with it, one felt, the case for the defence. It was a distressing and perhaps crucial exercise. For after constant "exposure to" (a favourite expression of Mr Leary’s) "fucking in the streets", "masturbation", "deviation", "lesbianism", "corruption", and "cannabis", this middle-aged group of British householders – the jury – was asked quite simply "to set the standard". What an invitation.

First published in the New Statesman 30 July 1971

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage