Tough new rules aimed at banning so-called extreme pornography have been branded as “Orwellian” by Backlash – an umbrella group of civil liberties and human rights organisations.
The new amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill came about as a result of a long-standing campaign by Liz Longhurst, the mother of Brighton school teacher Jane who was murdered by Graham Coutts in April 2003 in Pulborough, West Sussex.
Musician Coutts, sentenced to life in 2004, and expected to serve 26 years, was obsessed with strangulation – and, it came out in evidence, was a regular user of violent necrophilia and strangulation internet porn sites. Jane Longhurst had been strangled with a pair of tights; her body kept in storage and remained undiscovered for weeks.
In defence of the legislation – that received Royal Ascent on May 8th – Justice Minister Lord Hunt Lord said: “The problem that we’ve got is that the current obscene publications act doesn’t really impact on this really extreme pornographic material because the vast majority of it originates abroad and there is very little we can do, so the key thing this does is make possession an offence”.
But Backlash’s Deborah Hyde said, “We already have the tightest regulation of any Western country on pornography…but now they can come into your home whenever they like and they can cast doubt about your character amongst your community and with your employers and we have no rights to recourse.”
One of the more controversial aspects of this legislation is the difficulty that comes in defining the boundaries of extremity with regard to pornographic images. Last week’s amendment attempts to delineate these boundaries by means of a ‘test’.
The criteria however are still the object of some debate due to the fact it will rely in its final analysis on the subjective ‘opinion’ of police.
The justice minister explained the criteria for assessing ‘extreme porn’. “First of all the material has to be pornographic, then it has to contain an extreme image which portrays an act that threatens a persons life or an act that results in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals, an act which involves sexual interference with a human corpse and a person performing an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal. It also has to meet the test of being grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of obscene character.”
These criteria are intended to single out a particular kind of pornography. Judging something as ‘disgusting’ or of ‘obscene character’ would not normally be regarded as a test that is sufficiently precise or specific. It resembles a more general or ‘blanket’ definition that could be applied to a very wide variety of pornographic images.
But Hyde questions the motivation behind the amendment. “It becomes clear then that this is not actually about sex or what drives people to violence, this isn’t people being tough on crime or tough on the causes of crime, this is to give the police more power.”
There have been other concerns from many libertarian groups about possible infringement of the European Commission on Human Rights, in particular article ten of the ECHR that states, “everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”.
Hyde contends the amendment does contravene articles within the ECHR directive pointing out Backlash sought legal counsel from Rapinder Singh QC who says the new rules contravene the European Convention on Human Rights. She also cites the Joint Committee on Human Rights for being “very, very critical” of the measure. “There have been many lawyers Baroness Kennedy among them pointing out that this is bad law.”
By contrast Lord Hunt who has been at the forefront of this legislation said: “I had to sign a declaration when we introduced the Bill in the House of Lords in January that it is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, obviously that means our lawyers have to look at legislation very carefully before we introduce it and the very strong advice I’ve had is that it is entirely compatible with the ECHR so I don’t think there is a problem there.”
He added there was “no intention for restriction on political or personal expression or public interest matters or artistic expression”.
However the likelihood that people will be affected to some degree by this law is the key issue. It is a concern that consensual sexual freedom, in whatever form it takes will be negatively influenced by this legislation.
More specifically, the ownership of images portraying extreme sexual acts in any context will become a criminal offence.