Tag Archives: pornography

Coroners and Justice Bill: the most toxic law ever?

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)?

“Touched 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.”

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.

Child porn, cartoons and unintended consequences

Everyone hates child porn, right? So, superficially, who could possibly object to government proposals to “help close a loophole that we believe paedophiles are using”?

The problem is twofold however. Firstly, what the government is planning to do is “create a new offence for the possession of non-photographic visual depictions of child sexual abuse.” From reading the consultation paper, this would appear to exclude the written word and apparently this will exclude any “items of genuine historical interest” – so that’s Romeo and Juliet and the Gospels saved then. But everything else is for the pot. Last time I looked that would include a lot of anime and manga.

Secondly, the Ministry of Justice’s “justification” for this is as follows:

We are unaware of any specific research into whether there is a link between accessing these fantasy images of child sexual abuse and the commission of offences against children, but it is felt by police and children’s welfare organisations that the possession and circulation of these images serves to legitimize and reinforce highly inappropriate views about children.

In other words, they have no grounds for doing this whatsoever and don’t even know whether it would be counter-productive (i.e. are paedophiles using visual representation of child abuse as a substitute for the real thing), but they are going to do it anyway.

This has bad law written all over it. This is an explicit attempt to legislate against thoughtcrime and “yuk”.

I mentioned manga above. Comics have regularly fallen foul existing obscene publications legislation and while such attempts often fail if contested the lack of money sloshing about in the industry (as opposed to, say, cinema) means that there is a tendency to play safe. All it would take is an over-zealous police chief to launch a couple of dawn raids on his local Borders with the active support of the Daily Mail and the whole industry would go into a tailspin. We’ve been here before.

The consultation paper also includes this section which, again superficially, sounds quite scary:

Technological advances mean that current software can allow a user to photograph an image (or download one onto a computer) and manipulate it to look like a drawing, a tracing, a painting or cartoon. It is possible to manipulate a real photograph (or video recording) of real child abuse into a cartoon or drawing format, be it still or animated. In that scenario the image/s would appear to be merely a fantasy cartoon or drawing, etc, but would in fact be a distinct record of an actual abusive and illegal act. Yet under current legislation, while possession of the original images of child sexual abuse would be illegal, it would not be illegal to make and possess these cartoon or “fantasy style” images, and they would not be subject to forfeiture by the police.

It may, in some circumstances, be possible for the police to re-engineer the resultant “fantasy style” image to discover the original indecent photograph. In this case a prosecution under POCA 1978 could follow. However, if the process was unavailable and the original indecent
photograph, or convertible data, remained undiscovered, i.e. if the “fantasy style” image had been forwarded on or simply printed as a hard copy, then it would not be possible to prosecute. In addition, the images would not be subject to forfeiture and would remain in circulation.

Note that this is carefully worded to NOT suggest that this has ever actually been done or even that police have come across material where this may have been done. And why would anyone do it? The purpose of filming pornographic images is to give the viewer a sense of reality. Making it look unreal to such an extent that it would be literally impossible to tell if it was real or a drawing would defeat the whole point of the enterprise. And if technology really did advance to such a stage (we’re talking about ever paedo having the skill and resources of Industrial Light and Magic at the click of a mouse key), why would anyone go to the risk of filming an actual act of child abuse when they could simply replicate it artificially.

The bottom line is we can’t legislate for every single hypothetical science fiction scenario. On the other hand, if we do legislate, we should perhaps consider what is going on, right now. Yet I can’t find anywhere in this consultation paper any reference to “second life”, “avatar”, “role play”, “virtual reality” or “MMORPG” despite the fairly obvious implications. Is every avatar in a school uniform going to be banned?

I want to hear a compelling argument backed by strong evidence, not rumour and speculation, before I will consider a law to be necessary. In lieu of I hope the Lib Dems in Parliament will give these proposals short shrift.