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Busted! by David Flint

First published in Teaser magazine

 

Babylon Blue Illustrated History CreationWhat's your worst nightmare? The one experience of your life that changed everything? Mine came on March 3rd 1998 at 7.30 in the morning, when I was awoken by an insistent knocking. Figuring it to be a somewhat over-enthusiastic postman, I stumbled out of bed and opened the door to find three men stood 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 Polices 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, is when the roof fell in on my life.

But the story actually begins a couple of months later, when I received a 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 as a 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. Remembering tales of police officers making test purchases before raiding porn dealers, I thought that I was safe unless I actually supplied something - which obviously 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. Unfortunately, instead of realising that they were simply being joshed with, the police ran out of patience, figured they had enough evidence, and raided anyway.

So, back to the story. Bleary eyed and - lets be honest here - scared shitless, I had to stand and watch as the three officers took my home apart. It was gut-wrenching to see some twelve years worth of tapes being taken away, probably forever. Tapes that could never be replaced, some featuring incredibly rare movies that I didn't know of anyone else owning. Tapes which 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.

But it wasn't just the tapes. They removed my computer, three video recorders (including an old betamax machine which wasn't even plugged in), several copies of my short lived magazine SEXADELIC and lots of paperwork. If this hasn't happened to you, its 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. Three hours later, I was left alone. The officer in charge had decided not to arrest me at that point; instead, they would examine 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 don't give a fuck who knows what I'm into. Lets face it, my name was already out there for the world to see. I took a different approach.

One of the first people I called was David McGillivray, and old friend who also happens to be something of an expert in censorship and sex. 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. I spent most of the day answering calls from local papers, TV production companies and even Canadian Public Radio! All 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 possible prosecution over a Robert Mapplethorpe book in their library, and many people drew parallels. At this point, I had no idea why Id 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.

At the end of that week, I had to report to the police. By this time, Id 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. They'd also found no evidence to prove that Id 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. 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 missing. Things were made worse when I found out that two more people - 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 Matthews. But by this time, the police had accepted that I wasn't a porn dealer; however, they weren't quite through with me. 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. The evidence for this was a home movie of a couple having sex which they THOUGHT showed me filming; a mock-up video sleeve found on my computer, and letters to Mr Leeds in which I 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.

The interview followed the previous pattern, and I was bailed again, this time until September 2nd, when it would be decision time. But the decision came before then. One week before in fact, when I received a call telling me that the Crown Prosecution Service had 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 cant prove it but NO CASE TO ANSWER. It turns out that while its considered illegal to shoot porn in the UK, even for export, this law has never been tested in front of a jury, and the CPS weren't about to put it to the test.

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. To be fair to the police though, they were as honest as they could be with me. Never once did they try threatening behaviour, or lie to me. They were, in the end, 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 on the city streets every weekend. As for the initial complaint - well, it turns out that one of my ghastly, mean-spirited, shit-stirring neighbours had complained about me. Nice.

For me, its all over, though life will never be the same. I wonder about who's listening in on my conversations, who's twisting my words to fit their own bigoted ideas. I fear that knock on the door in the morning. But for some, like the poor guy in Scotland who was raided because of a letter he sent me, things are far worse. Despite having just 25 tapes and one video recorder, he's been charged and, to rub salt into the wound, I've been called as a prosecution witness against him. Makes you glad to be British, doesn't it?

(The case in Scotland finally collapsed spectacularly, with the only evidence ruled inadmissible. All tapes were returned and the defendant walked free. Over £150 was spent just to have me appear as a witness - and do little more than confirm my name and address. God knows how much the whole six+ month farce cost.)

 

The Great British Sex Scandal

From the Guardian, July 10th 1998 by Tom Dewe Mathews


Babylon Blue Illustrated History CreationEarlier this year, the sex film archivist and historian David Flint began to receive strange telephone calls. Did he have any hardcore tapes to sell? No. He didn't. Flint quickly forgot about the call. He was used to fobbing off readers of his movie magazine Sexadelic who asked him for tapes. A few days later, though, the same caller insisted that Flint must know somebody, someone who was willing to sell hardcore. He had £200 to spend. No, make that £500. Now Flint was suspicious. The caller had mentioned a supposed mutual friend, of whom he had never heard. Also, when Flint dialled 1471 to find out who was calling him, no number came back. But surely he was in the clear: he didn't collect or write about child porn or so-called snuff movies and, even if somebody was trying to set him up, he hadn't sold or even given tapes to anybody. He couldn't be arrested for writing about porn, could he?

The answer came two weeks later at 7.30am when PC Hutten of Greater Manchester's Obscene Publications Squad knocked on Flint's door and presented a search warrant. Three hours later, after 535 tapes, three video recorders, his computer data and bank documents had been seized, Flint was told to report to the Manchester police the following week. But once there, the police conceded that Flint hadn't sold on any of his tapes. What's more, PC Hutten revealed that he and the mysterious phone-caller were one and the same person. Even so, Flint was told that he was likely to be arrested for "possession with intent to gain" under Section II of the Obscene Publications Act - which carries a penalty of up to three years' imprisonment.

Flint has become the latest casualty in Britain's ongoing porn war at a time when, according to the British Broadcasting Standards Council and the British Board Of Film Classification, the British are becoming more relaxed about consensual sex on screen. This equanimity, however, does not appear to have percolated through to the Government.

In January, Education Secretary David Blunkett attacked the British Council for its overseas sponsorship of Mark Ravenhill's Shopping And Fucking - without even having seen the play himself. In March, a dinner planned for the wives of the G8 summit leaders at the refurbished Ikon Gallery, in Birmingham, was suddenly cancelled because the building was displaying the paintings of the American feminist artist Nancy Spero, whose work has been criticised for its explicit content. Most recently, the University of Central England's library was raided by the West Midland Obscene Publications squad for holding a seven-year-old book by American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

For Flint, however, the surest sign of the sexual climate can be seen in the Government's reaction to recent changes by the the BBFC to the classification of sex films. Last November, Home Secretary Jack Straw publicly attacked the BBFC director James Ferman for passing two American hardcore videos, Batbabe and Ladies Behaving Badly, with Restricted 18 certificates. It was perhaps no coincidence that the long-serving director resigned soon after.

In order to realise the impact of Straw's attack, however, we have to turn back to 1979 and the birth of the R-18 classification.

Then, as now, the crucial issue underpinning sexual regulation in this country was the conflict between the authorities and the black market. Yet, contrary to appearances, this supposedly adversarial relationship has always been mutually dependent. The reliance of the black market on a strict film censor to provide it with a frustrated audience is best summed up by the reception given to the head censor, John Trevelyan, in the seventies. According to George Melly, the then film critic of The Observer, as Trevelyan travelled home in a cab from his office in Soho Square every day, sex entrepreneurs would come out on to the pavement and doff their pork pie hats in gratitude. It was as a result of this unholy alliance that Jim Callaghan's Labour government in 1979 created a consensual sex category, the R-18, as a way of siphoning off the burgeoning audience from illegal sex clubs.

Straw's nineties authoritarianism has once again fuelled the black market in consensual porn. It has also created a public protection racket that has jeopardised his government's battle against violent pornography.

Consensual porn tends to fall under Section III of the Obscene Publications Act, which is basically a destruction order. Violent porn usually comes under the more serious Section II, with its threat of imprisonment. The police have noticed a disturbing, divergent trend developing between the way the two types of pornography are now sold.

"In Soho, the majority of our work deals with Section III material," says Superintendant Jauch of the Met's Clubs and Vice Unit. "It's becoming more and more difficult to find the more violent Section II material because when dealers are arrested, they find out there's a chance of going to prison if they're convicted. So if you want Section II stuff, the way to get it is by mail order, or by ordering it over the Internet." What's especially worrying for the Vice and OPA squads is the ease with which this "stuff" can be obtained. A Dutch hardcore film distributor, for instance, only has to get one master-video copy of a film through customs (which is then duplicated and sold on through mail subscription in sex magazines) to snare a massive profit without any threat of prosecution.

This supra-national trade seems to pose an insoluble problem for the authorities. Nonetheless, as the nineties progressed, Ferman realised that there was a solution. Based on the top floor of a building in Soho Square, Ferman's office literally overlooked the biggest porn business in Britain. Living with the ridiculous anomaly of an alternate film distribution network, which thrived just under his nose while being totally outside his control, he oversaw the creation of the R-18 classification. But, as he states in the last BBFC annual report, Soho's black market is "booming". Also, his sieve-like censorship system has had gaping holes torn in it by foreign-based satellite sex companies such as FilmNet, TV 1000 and Eurotica - from which films can be taped and easily duplicated. To put a stop to what must be one of the easiest ways of making money, it seemed to Ferman that the regulators had to go back to the source, across the Channel, from where the material was emanating.

Ferman knew, though, that to reach a Europe-wide agreement over violent pornography there had to be a quid pro quo. With the exception of Ireland, every European country now sells consensual pornography - either, like Germany, in specially licensed video shops or, like France, on the supermarket shelf. In exchange for Continental Europe clamping down on the distribution to Britain of violent porn films, said Ferman, Britain would loosen the restrictions on consensual sex films. This is the prospective agreement that has been effectively scuppered by Straw's recent actions.

It is into this cat's-cradle of political mismanagement that David Flint has fallen. He believes he is being targeted because his work reflects the fact that, despite Straw's protestations and police prosecutions, consensual porn is being increasingly accepted by mainstream Britain. His magazine and collation of 15,000 sex films for the Web is part of this reality. "The fact that I'm treating this subject seriously, and doing it openly in their backyard, must have infuriated the police," he says.

It is public knowledge that Flint has the most comprehensive databank in the world on the history of sex films - from American "stag" movies of the forties, to British "nudie"' of the sixties and nineties "couples" movies made by American feminists. He is also used as a source by the British and American Film Institutes. But as Flint himself points out: "That doesn't matter to the police, because they don't consider them to be legitimate films. I couldn't say to them, 'Some of those tapes you've seized are irreplaceable because I don't know anybody else in the world who has copies of those films.' As far as they're concerned, they're not real films, they're just criminal acts."

Flint himself is wary of talking about the obscenity laws because it might affect his case, but Section II of the OPA is, as the police themselves admit, a very flexible weapon. "The simple possession of adult pornography," Superintendant Jauch admits, "is not an offence." But then, with a wry laugh, he adds: "Almost everything else to do with adult pornography is." Jauch reveals that the word "possession" - in Section II's possession for gain - can mean almost anything. "For you to possess an obscene article, for instance, is not an offence," he says. "For you to show it to the next person, however, is."

Next Tuesday morning, Flint will arrive at Manchester's Bootle Street police station to find out if he is going to be charged by PC Hutten and his OPA squad. If he is - which is likely - he will, at the very least, lose a lot of his films to the incinerator under a destruction order. If he's acquitted, he could be charged again because, unlike any other law, the OPA allows the police to have as many bites at the cherry as they need in order to win a conviction.

Flint, however, won't concede the moral high ground: "I've always found people aren't very bothered by my work. Nobody has reacted in a menacing way. By and large, they'll either be very curious or they'll show no interest at all. Nobody's shocked, nobody's appalled. Nobody's said, 'I can't associate with you because of what you do'." But this counts for nothing in the current moral climate. Because right now it seems the sensibilities of the Middle England voter demand that Jack Straw takes a liberty - David Flint's liberty.

Tom Dewe Mathews's Censored: The Story Of Film Censorship In Britain is published by Chatto and Windus, price £14.99.

Update

In August 1998, the police decided not to press charges and have promised to return all the videos that were taken. It is indeed good news that the police should finally see sense. In fact I have heard that the police received an official complaint from a member of the public and that the case made waves at the Home Office who asked to speak with the police force concerned.

 

UK Censorship
Archive
 UK Censorship News Archive: 1998 1999
 UK Parliament Watch Archive: 1996 1997 1998 1999
 Opinion: 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
 Legal Debate Mail order R18s, satellite proscription etc
 Proscription of Adult Satellite Channels Department for Culture, Media, Sport & Proscription
 Human Rights Abuse - Where Do You Draw The Line? by IanG
 Films On TV Red Triangle films on Channel 4 and the cutting of Thelma and Louise on the BBC
 BSC Guidelines Worthless guidelines on taste and decency from the defunct Broadcasting Standards Commission
 Obscene Interpretation of the Law A police raid on porn historian David Flint
 Obscenity Trials The only obscenity is British Justice
 The Black Market for Sex Videos The Pornographer's Best Friend
 Customs Guidelines & Seizures Up until 2000
 The People vs HM Customs Heroic battles against HM Customs
 Escalating Costs HMRC uses as much money as it takes to ensure decisions cannot be challenged in court (Oct 2000)
 Customs Poking Around in your Lap-top