Who'd a thought it, a few days away from computer access and they choose to
announce the results of the judicial review. A tad worrying that there is a sexual
offences bill coming up very soon now and now doubt a few prohibitions can be tagged to
the end. Jackboots Straw hardly seems the sort to bother with demorcacy or consultations
etc, he is on a 'mission from God'.
From the Guardian
Jack Straw, the home secretary, threatened a shake-up of Britain's obscenity laws after
a landmark high court ruling yesterday that the film censors were wrong to ban the sale of
double X explicit hardcore porn videos in licensed adult sex shops in Britain. Mr Justice
Hooper dismissed the test case brought by Andreas Whittam Smith's BBFC, saying that the
risk of the seven videos involved being seen by and causing harm to children was, on the
present evidence, insignificant.
The BBFC last night refused to comment in detail on its defeat but when it started the
case last September, Mr Whittam Smith said that failure would have `fundamental
implications' for all its decisions on classifying videos and films, including those
involving unacceptable levels of violence.
The judgment reinforces the legal view that adults should not be prevented from access
to explicit material just because it might be harmful to children if it fell into their
hands. As TV `decency' campaigners claimed that the decision would open the floodgates
to hardcore pornography, Mr Straw said he would, if necessary, bring in new
legislation to sort out the current `shambles' of the obscenity laws.
The home secretary believes that the situation is unsatisfactory and it will be
considered carefully whether additional steps can be taken to protect children from
exposure to this sexually explicit material. Any such changes may require legislation,
a Home Office statement said. Mr Straw made clear his anger at the decision and said that
he had personally intervened to replace the BBFC acting president, Lord Birkett, with Mr
Whittam Smith to stop the licensing of such `stronger' videos to be sold in adult sex
The target of his anger is the 1984 Video Recordings Act, introduced as a private
member's bill to curb the alleged excesses of `video nasties'. The case centres on a
decision by the independent Video Appeals Committee to overturn the BBFC's refusal to give
a special R18 certificate to seven `hardcore' videos produced by Sheptonhurst Ltd and
Prime Time (Shifnal) for restricted sale in Britain's 80 licensed sex shops.
The committee, which is chaired by John Wood, a former deputy director of public
prosecutions, includes the novelist Fay Weldon. The film censors said the seven videos -
called Horny Catbabe, Nympho Nurse Nancy, TV Sex, Office Tart, Carnival
International Version (trailer), Wet Nurses 2 Continental Version and
Miss Nude International Continental Version - should not be licensed unless all
shots of penetration by penis, hand or dildo as well as shots of a penis being masturbated
or taken into a woman's mouth were removed.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for the BBFC, told the high court that if the videos were
allowed to be sold all hardcore material would have to be licensed unless it was
criminally obscene or could be shown to cause devastating harm to more than a minority
of children and young people. But Mr Justice Hooper said the assessment by the Video
Appeals Committee that the risk to children was insignificant was a reasonable conclusion.
Greg Hurlstone, a director of Prime Time, said he was delighted but insisted his
US-made videos were double X rather than triple X productions, as they featured consensual
penetrative sex without close-ups and no ejaculation or illegal practices. Last night
Clive Sullivan, a consultant to Sheptonhurst, insisted that the decision would not unleash
a flood of European triple X hardcore films: There are still limits which will be
applied, he said. But John Beyer of the National Viewers and Listeners'
Association called for new legislation to clamp down on porn. This will open the
floodgates to hardcore pornography, he said.
Pertinent Comment from Polly Toynbee in the Guardian
William Hague is right. There is a liberal consensus: it is a consensus among New
Labour and Tories alike to demonise liberals. These days if you bleat sheepishly at senior
ministers that the liberal agenda has become the sacrificial lamb in the New Labour
project, they grin and lick their lips wolfishly. They take it as a compliment. Labour
likes to balance its progressive social policies with toughness on liberal causes. If
liberals aren't hurting, then the third way isn't working. And so this week we had the
repellent spectacle of Hague and Straw outbidding one another in punitive anti-liberal
rhetoric on law and order to the Police Federation.
Jack Straw vented his fury on liberals again this week after the failure of the courts
to overrule the video appeals committee, who gave a handful of hardcore porn videos R18
licences for sale in adult sex shops. The obscenity law is a `shambles' Straw decreed,
promising to reform the whole thing. Good luck to him. I sat on the Williams committee on
obscenity and film censorship, appointed in the dying days of the last Labour government.
It was we who recommended the concept of the R18 licence, a decent compromise between
letting adults do as they wish (within the law), yet protecting children and anyone else
who doesn't want to see the stuff. We reckoned any portrayal of non-violent sex between
consenting adults should be available to adults who liked that sort of thing. Children
would be protected by only selling hardcore in windowless sex shops barred to under-18s.
These sleazy joints have not exactly over-run the nation: there are only 80 of them
Nympho Nurse Nancy and Office Tarts - the titles of
these disputed videos brought it all back, those strange and embarrassing afternoon
viewings in a special cinema, followed by finely balanced legal and academic discussion.
Our report decided that causing `significant harm' should be the only reason to ban
anything. The seven videos in court this week are precisely what we had in mind for an R18
rating: consensual non-violent sex, explicit but harmless. However the BBFC refused a
licence unless the film-maker removed `all shots of penetration by penis, a penis being
masturbated or taken into a woman's mouth'. I imagine that would leave most of the film on
the cutting room floor. Some of the horrors we saw stay with me - Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS
was just one of many indescribably vile films that failed the `significant harm' test, but
why should adults in private be denied the right to watch non-violent sex? If the
government really wanted to change the current sleazy, over-sexualised cultural climate,
they should have eschewed the company of Rupert Murdoch, the pornographer who first broke
all public decency barriers in his `family' Sun.
Here I declare an interest. In 1998 a firm of head hunters wanted to put my name
forward for the post of vice-president of the BBFC, one of two deputies to Andreas
Whittam-Smith. I laughed a good deal as I knew this would get nowhere, since despite
apparent independence of government, the home secretary vets the top BBFC appointments. I
told the interviewing board that they were wasting their time but they still sent my name
to the home secretary. Of course Straw struck my name out. Why should he appoint a
self-confessed liberal? I'd have done the same. What is the point of giving the moral
right gratuitous targets? So it is not personal. But I do object to Jack Straw's
persistent and deliberate war on every liberal front he can find, stamping Labour with his
macho Mail-friendly imprint. Yesterday William Hague laid into the `liberal establishment'
with relish, lambasting `liberal thinking' on crime. What is he talking about? Prison
numbers have risen steadily under Labour - 66,000 now, the highest in history, another
20,000 being planned for. Britain has the highest proportion of people in prison in
Europe, and proportionately more than those well known liberal regimes, Turkey, Saudi
Arabia and China. We have more life prisoners than all the rest of Europe put together.
But still that's not enough for Hague or Straw, each now competing to send yet more
So how is the country to know where we stand on law and order? Who would guess from our
political leaders that we are already the toughest? Prison works so badly for the young
that 90% of the under 18s we lock up reoffend. You don't hear Jack Straw salute the Nacro
scheme where only 20% of young criminals reoffend, if given housing, training and support.
Alas, the tougher a home secretary talks, the more the courts respond by giving harsher
sentences. The Hague/Straw caricature of the liberal is someone soft on crime, indifferent
to victims, living in a Hampstead Elysium where crime never affects their lives. But
reformers are just as tough on crime, in some ways tougher, more eager to stop it with
proven remedies. Liberals know its the poor who are mainly the victims of crime, and they
despise those who use punitive rhetoric for political gain, fraudulently deceiving the
public about what really works.
Take all the issues that still require informed public debate. Why is Labour so
cowardly about persuading people by reasoned argument? The government behaves as if public
opinion were some immutable natural force like the weather. Where is the leadership on
difficult things? Joining the euro hangs there in limbo, Peter Mandelson stamped on for
bravely speaking some truth. Where is the leadership on proportional representation? Why
run from any debate on cannabis? Above all, consider the question of asylum seekers. No
one is advocating an open door policy: Europe has to have immigration controls. The
objection to Labour's approach is its language and attitude towards these very poor people
- the ones with most get-up-and-go and intitiative - desperately trying to better
themselves and their children. That's not a crime. Most of the cabinet would try it too if
they were poverty stricken foreigners. These are not `bogus' people, they are poor. They
are non-qualifiers, not villains. By its harsh treatment (and disgracefully incompetent
administration), by its brutalising attitude, Labour has helped stoke up the public hatred
that they now fear so much in all their private polls.
Under a barrage from the rightwing press Labour cowers and placates on all these tough
subjects. Most of you, gentle Guardian readers, don't see the daily bombardment of
rightwing hate. But how will the country ever become better informed, nicer, less bigoted,
unless a strong Labour government goes out to change hearts and minds? Liberal bravery
would gain them friends, cowardice invites contempt even from the enemy.