A personal memoir of falling foul of Manchester’s over-zealous Obscene Publications Squad – and fighting back.
On March 3rd 1998 at 7.30 in the morning, I was awoken by an insistent and continual knocking at my front door. Figuring it to be a somewhat over-enthusiastic postman, I finally stumbled out of bed and opened the door to find three serious-looking men standing there. Now, call me paranoid or call me fatalistic, but I just knew that this was bad news. The leader of the three introduced them as members of Manchester Police’s Obscene Publications Unit and informed me that they had a search warrant and that I was suspected of possessing obscene material for gain. And that, my friend, was the point when the roof fell in on my life for the next six months and beyond.
But the story actually begins a couple of months earlier, when I received a phone call from someone who said he’d been told that I had porn videos for sale. This seemed rather suspicious to me. Not only did I not sell films, but the name he’d given me as a mutual contact meant nothing to me. I told him I didn’t sell anything, but he was insistent, asking if I knew where he could get any. Here’s where I made my mistake. The whole thing felt like a set-up, but I remembered the tales of police officers having to make test purchases in order to be sure that the law was being broken before raiding porn dealers, I thought that I was safe unless I actually supplied something – which clearly wasn’t going to happen. So I decided to string the mysterious caller along, thinking that I could perhaps expose the sting and write a witty article about it. A few phone conversations followed, in which I made vague promises and cancelled planned meetings. I continually expected my new contact to get bored with all this stringing along and give up. Unfortunately, instead of realising that they were simply being joshed with, the police ran out of patience, figured they had enough evidence based on our conversations, and raided anyway.
I should also explain, for the benefit of younger readers, just what the situation regarding porn was in the UK at the time. Despite the fact that the police could not get a jury conviction for the sale of ‘vanilla’ porn anymore, they could – and did – still seize and destroy videos and magazines with the approval of local magistrates and everyone still believed that porn was legally forbidden, even though the Obscene Publications Act has never referred to specific acts or images. By 1998, the dam was beginning to burst – the BBFC had begun its experiment with allowing some scenes of hardcore sex – brief shots, no close-ups, no cum shots – to appear in R18 films a year earlier, though the outraged Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw had brought that to a temporary halt. His moral indignation actually helped fast-forward the collapse of the old order and the legal battles brought by distributors over the next couple of years essentially legalised porn. But in 1998, the old order was still trying to hold back the evil tide as if nothing had changed.
So, back to the story. Bleary-eyed and – let’s be honest here – scared shitless, I had to stand and watch as the three officers took my home apart for a few hours. It was gut-wrenching to see some twelve years worth of videotapes being taken away, probably forever. Tapes that could never be replaced, some featuring incredibly rare British movies that were unlikely to ever be re-released. Tapes that I needed for my work – at that time, I was close to completing Babylon Blue, my history of adult film for Creation Books, and just about to start work on a book about Michael Ninn for Salvation (a project that sadly fizzled out before it really got off the ground, in no small part due to the distractions of this raid).
But it wasn’t just the tapes. They removed my computer, three video recorders (including an old Betamax machine that wasn’t even plugged in), several copies of my short-lived magazine Sexadelic and lots of paperwork. If this hasn’t happened to you, it’s hard to explain what the experience feels like… but imagine being burgled, having the burglars wake you up to watch, and constantly tell you that there’s worse to come – that’s about as close as I can get.
Another aside. While Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad had been notoriously corrupt during the 1970s, taking bribes and running what amounted to a protection racket, things were rather different in Manchester. Under the fiefdom of ‘God’s Cop’ James Anderton – a religious zealot who ran the city as though he owned it – there was a concerted effort to wipe out porn – which, in his eyes, was everything from Penthouse to Page 3 of The Sun, both of which were targeted for seizure from newsagents at one point. Such was his zeal that Manchester was the only place outside London to have a dedicated Obscenity Squad, staffed by officers who were hand-picked for sharing Anderton’s loathing of sexual freedom (as well as subversive thinking, homosexuality, Communism and anything else that offended his fundamentalist beliefs). By the time I was raided, Anderton had ‘retired’ – not, it might be said, of his own volition – but the system he set up and the officers that he indoctrinated were still there and still carrying out God’s work. This raid came not too many years after the infamous Lord Horror trial that saw literary works banned and the author imprisoned – something that would’ve been pretty much unthinkable outside Manchester at that point. Indeed, copies of my own magazine Divinity had been scooped up in raids and I’d long assumed that if this day ever came, it would be over what I was publishing.
Three hours after the knock at the door, I was left alone. The officer in charge had decided not to arrest me at that point; there was simply too much stuff for them to examine first. Instead, they would check the material, and have me go into the police station in Manchester two weeks later, where I would be formally arrested and interviewed.
At this point, everything probably seemed fairly run-of-the-mill as far as they were concerned. They doubtless thought that I would follow the usual pattern of behaviour: keep my head down, try to get off lightly, avoid publicity, and hire a local solicitor who had no special knowledge of the obscenity laws. That’s what most people do. But most people are terrified of their neighbours, their friends, and their family finding out. Me, I didn’t give a fuck who knew what I was into. Let’s face it, my name was already out there for the world to see – I’d never used pseudonyms for any of my writing. So I took a different approach.
One of the first people I called was David McGillivray, an old friend who also happens to be something of an expert in censorship and sex. Reprobate readers will be familiar with his articles for us, on the site and in print. David soon called me back to say that Duncan Campbell, the crime correspondent of The Guardian, was interested in talking to me. The next day, I told my story to Campbell, and the following Monday saw a half-page report in the newspaper. The effect of this was immediate and startling. I spent most of the day answering calls from local papers, TV production companies and even Canadian Public Radio – this would eventually lead to a brief moment in the sun as a talking head on TV shows like Sex and Shopping – in a strange way, the raid proved to be a great (if temporary) career booster for me. Everyone seemed fairly shocked that a bona fide film researcher and writer could be turned over. All this had happened shortly after the University of Birmingham had been raided and faced with possible prosecution over a Robert Mapplethorpe book in their library, and many people drew parallels of a moralising state overreaching. At this point, I had no idea why I’d been originally targeted by the police and the idea of a moral backlash by the Powers That Be against people ‘promoting’ sexual freedom seemed all too plausible. The timing was, in that sense, fortunate – a few years earlier or a few years later and the press might have been in one of their regular moral panics and been less sympathetic.
At the end of that week, I had to report to the police. By this time, I’d secured the help of a heavyweight London barrister, who travelled up to Manchester to sit in on the interview. This, and the press coverage, had clearly rattled the police, who now found themselves dealing with a somewhat messier case than they’d probably expected. Rather than a local solicitor who didn’t know anything about obscenity law, they found themselves dealing with a barrister whose reputation they were clearly familiar with and you could tell that they were unnerved. They’d also found no evidence to prove that I’d ever sold a tape to anyone. The interview lasted around fifteen minutes, during which I answered ‘no comment’ to virtually every question – even those asking if the quotes attributed to me in The Guardian were accurate or not. One of the many dubious changes to British law over the years has been the removal of your right to silence, and the police will make it clear that they will use your refusal to answer questions against you if things go to court – but my Brief was adamant – say nothing. No matter how innocent you are, they’ll twist your answers, trip you up and tie you in knots until you’ve admitted anything they want you to, whether you’ve done it or not. Unsatisfactory interview over, I was then bailed until July.
Life over the next few months was surreal, to say the least. I had to try and carry on with my life but was constantly aware of the threat hanging over me. Sometimes, I would lie in bed at night, my head buzzing with various best and worst-case scenarios. Although my computer and a couple of hundred tapes had been returned to me a month or so after the raid, I still had no VCR and another couple of hundred films were still missing. Things were made worse when I found out that two more people I knew – one in Leeds, another in a small Scottish village – had been raided and arrested as a result of material found at my house.
The bail date was extended into early August, and for a time it looked as though the whole case would be dropped. Eventually though, I had to report back for a second interview. A week earlier, there had been a second, longer, angrier Guardian piece, by Tom Dewe Mathews, author of the acclaimed book on the BBFC, Censored. By this time, the police had accepted that I wasn’t a porn dealer; however, they weren’t quite through with me. If there is one constant with the police, it is their refusal to admit that they are wrong. More to the point, they were rather stung by the criticism aimed at them over the ongoing case – this was clearly not what they had been expecting and they were determined to get me on something – anything. On this occasion, I was re-arrested for “conspiracy to produce obscene material for gain” – the same accusation levelled at the man from Leeds, who’d been interviewed directly before me as a co-conspirator. The evidence for this was a home movie of a couple having sex which they thought (but were not entirely sure) that I had filmed; a mock-up demo video sleeve found on my computer; and letters to Mr Leeds in which we casually discussed the idea of shooting porn. Even though these letters referred clearly to making movies that would either conform to BBFC regulations or be for overseas distribution only. Obscene material is, I was told, obscene material, no matter where you plan to release it. This would prove to be a questionable belief on their part, if for no other reason than it is very hard to prove that something that only exists in someone’s head is actually obscene or not.
The interview followed the previous pattern and I was bailed yet again, this time until September 2nd when it would be “decision time”. The police and Crown Prosecution Service can only keep people under arrest without charge for six months. But the decision came before then. One week before in fact, at which point I received a call telling me that the CPS had finally decided that there was “no case to answer”. Take note of that – no half-assed “lack of evidence, we know you did it but just can’t prove it” but “NO CASE TO ANSWER”. It turns out that while it was considered illegal to shoot porn in the UK even for export, this ‘law’ has never been tried out in front of a jury, and the CPS weren’t about to put it to the test – especially over material that didn’t even exist. The man in Leeds was also exonerated.
And so, after six months, the rest of my stuff was returned. The police seemed relieved that the case was over – the publicity had been a major irritation for them, and something that they clearly hadn’t been prepared for. It seems that someone – and if you’re out there, thank you so much! – had even complained to the Home Office about what was happening to me, and had enough clout to make home office officials then contact the Manchester police to demand to know just what the hell was going on. Well, as the officer in charge told me while delivering my tapes back – and at least they did that rather than expecting me to collect them from the station – they were just doing their job. I just wish that their job had something to do with the real threats to the people of Manchester, like spiralling violence and the gang wars that were blighting the city at the time. As for the initial complaint – well, it turns out that one of my ghastly, mean-spirited, shit-stirring neighbours had complained about me. Nice. I never knew which one – probably for the best, because I’m really not sure what I would’ve done. As it was, I moved away – out of the Manchester area – within six months.
Before I moved though, I had another visit from the police – this time in uniform, to inform me that I’d been called as a witness against my Scottish correspondent. Despite having just 25 tapes and one video recorder, he’d been charged with selling porn – a victim of living in a much smaller community, I fear. I had to travel up to Jedburgh, a place so small that there is only one coach in and out each day, which meant that I had to stay over for two nights – the hotel and coach travel paid for by the Scottish Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, which really wasn’t money well spent as it turned out. The case against the defendant was not exactly watertight – it was based entirely around a note slipped in with a letter that he’d sent me (and which I hadn’t even seen – it was still in the envelope with his return address when I was raided, hence him being investigated). Given that my appearance as a witness was specifically to identify this note, that was rather unfortunate, as I could quite truthfully deny having any knowledge of it. But I didn’t even get that far. Despite having had months in which to put together their case, it turned out that the COPFS had managed to charge him with committing a crime between two specific dates – but the envelope bore a different date, outside those of the charge. Therefore, the only evidence against him was inadmissible. And so I spent most of my time in the courthouse sitting in a side room while legal arguments took place before being cheerfully dismissed with an “it’s all over, you can go now” from a clerk. My entire testimony consisted of me confirming my name. I ran into the defendant on the street afterwards – small town, remember – and we went to the pub to commiserate/celebrate. I figured I owed him a pint or two.
As it turned out, my case was one of the last gasps of the obscenity era, at least as it existed back then. While outrageous, reprehensible and moralising obscenity cases would continue well into the 2010s, there would never again be major raids, arrests or prosecutions over consensual, non-kinky adult sex imagery in the way that happened prior to 1998. By 2000, hardcore porn was legal to buy in the UK – a day many of us never thought that we’d live to see – and the Obscene Publications Act was quickly being made redundant by more specific laws like the disgraceful ‘extreme porn’ legislation. I’d like to think that my case helped a little to bring an end to the fatwa against vanilla porn, though I was neither the catalyst nor the prime mover. It all feels like ancient history now, something seemingly unthinkable today. But we should never become complacent – there are those who fervently want to return us to the pre-2000s era and they are growing in strength and number. If we are not careful, this could all happen again.
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