The Coroners and Justice Bill went through its second reading at the start of this week. If you read blogs, you will probably have heard about the clauses hidden away at the end of it which threaten to effectively neutralise the Data Protection Act. If you read my first edition of the Carnival on Modern Liberty you will have read my comment about it also giving the government the power to hold inquests in secret.
But that isn’t all. Justice outline their concerns about this Bill as follows (emphasis mine):
– the provisions for secret inquests;
– the restriction of public comment by inquest jurors and coroners on matters of legitimate public concern;
– the holding of inquests without juries in relation to some deaths involving public authorities;
– the implementation of new partial defences to murder in the absence of wholesale reform of the law of homicide;
– overbroad criteria for the use of anonymous witnesses in criminal trials;
– amendments to bail legislation in murder cases which are on their face incompatible with Article 5 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR);
– the near-total undermining of the Data Protection Act 1998 through allowing ministers to authorise disclosure and use of data to serve policy objectives.
But even that isn’t all. Not content with the prohibition of “extreme pornography” (which also came in this week), the Coroners and Justice Bill will also “ban the possession of any image involving sexual activity and children. For the purpose of the law, an image is said to contain a child if ‘the impression conveyed … is that the person shown is a child’.” I blogged about this proposal last year but didn’t realise it had made it into an actual bill.
Now this is a minefield of an issue to blog about because of its emotive nature. I realise that even by raising the subject I’m leaving myself open to attack. Pornographic images of actual children (as opposed to images of actual children that individuals may happen to find erotic) is obviously wrong as they involve children beneath the age of consent. But what if the image is a cartoon? And what if that cartoon is of an adult character who happens to look young? Fundamentally, if no actual harm is being caused, what is the offence? The mind is repelled by the idea of child pornography, but if we look at it clearly for a second, aren’t we talking here about thoughtcrime?
This isn’t just an issue for “lolicon.” Probably the most significant example of a work which appears to fall foul of this prospective new law is Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, an erotic work about the sex lives of Alice (in Wonderland), Dorothy (Wizard of Oz) and Wendy (Peter Pan). But there are numerous other examples of comics, manga in particular, which feature childlike characters in erotic situations. And how will this law apply to Delirium, from the Sandman series – a character frequently portrayed as childlike in appearance, despite wearing immodest clothing. How will the censors react to this line (illustrated in the book Brief Lives)?
â€œTouched by her fingers, the two surviving chocolate people copulate desperately, losing themselves in a melting frenzy of lust, spending the last of their brief borrowed lives in a spasm of raspberry cream and fear.â€
We seem to have lost this anxiety about prose over forty years ago; so how are images so fundamentally different?
Interestingly, it looks as if these concerns are starting to surface in the comics industry itself, with the Telegraph reporting the website Comic Shop Voice expressing concerns about this new law, along with the broad definition of extreme pornography found in the Criminal Justice Act 2008. To what extent Comic Shop Voice are representative of the industry remains to be seen (I am investigating), but I would suggest that a wakeup call is needed.
This might sound paranoid, but I invite you to consider the following: firstly, the examples of the police using their powers come up with new and ever more authoritarian ways are legion. How many times have we seen photographers and protestors being arrested under terrorism laws for example? The fact that War on Terror boardgame can be confiscated on the grounds that the enclosed balaclava could be used for criminal activities tells me all I need to know. Secondly, there is the Lord Horror case. I seem to recall there being a number of other police raids on comic shops during the 1990s but since they were before the mass expansion of the internet I’m struggling to find confirmation of this.
We may not be living in a police state, but paranoid, authoritarian policing is certainly on the rise (cf. Form 696; Section 27 orders on football supporters). Paul Stephenson’s appointment as head of the Met does not exactly fill me with confidence. I’m pleased that the Lib Dems voted against the Coroners and Justice Bill at second reading (it is notable – and lamentable – that the Tories decided to abstain). What will emerge from the Committee Stage and the Lords remains to be seen.