Earlier 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
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.