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Friday, October 03, 2008 

Censorship, obscenity and Girls Aloud.

(This post links to offensive material which may well be illegal.)

Since the days of Lady Chatterley's Lover, censorship in this country has become something less of a cause célèbre. This is down in part to changing mores, but also down to the changing of the virulence of the material which some seek to censor. The last real outcry against censorship was during the 1980s video nasties debacle, when films which today look for the most part tame were banned after campaigns led by the ever loathsome tabloid press and Mary Whitehouse, resulting in the Video Recordings Act, and nigh on 16 years of films which upset the sensibilities of the British Board of Film Classification's director James Ferman either being banned or cut to ribbons. Hardcore pornography was only legalised in 2000, long after it had appeared, readily available on the internet. Even today pornography where consenting actors take part in "rough" sex is routinely cut from the DVDs submitted to the BBFC. "Violent" or "extreme" pornography has recently been directly criminalised, mainly as a result of a crusade by the mother of Jane Longhurst, murdered by Graham Coutts, a man allegedly "obsessed" with such pornography. Plans to make illegal drawings of naked children as said to be in the works. Few outside of those who enjoy such material bothered to raise their voices at this latest knee-jerk reaction to a terrible but isolated event.

The written word, as opposed to the moving image, has mostly fallen out of favour as a medium to censor. The biggest threat to it now is not the law, but rather the groups likely to be offended themselves, such as in the case of Random House refusing to publish The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones, a novel involving Muhammad's relationship with his youngest wife Aisha, with the publishers who picked up the slack having their offices fire-bombed by three men who have since been charged with plotting to endanger life and damage property. The last notable novel to be banned was Lord Horror by David Britton, a fantastical tale which imagined a post-war Britain in which the Nazis had won. Quite clearly a work which celebrated freedom of thought, and as fiercely anti-fascist as anything ever written by the current jokers who worry themselves silly about Islamic fascism, its ban was thankfully overturned on appeal.

It now seems however that we have an incredibly unlikely similar martyr waiting in the wings. According to reports a 35-year-old civil servant, Darryn Walker, has been charged with publishing an obscene article. His crime is to have imagined the five members of Girls Aloud being kidnapped, raped and murdered. Writing under the pseudonym Blake Sinclair, he submitted a number of stories to Kristen's Collection, an archive of erotic fiction posted on the internet, some of which are still available, including his piece entitled "Girls (Scream) Aloud". In it, in largely tedious, turgid prose, he describes the 5 women being hung on meat-hooks, performing forced fellatio on their kidnapper, and in turn having their legs and breasts sawn off, at times perversely enjoying their torture. Interesting perhaps is that there is another, almost identical story available entitled Pieces of Candy, which imagines a fictitious girl group going through the same degradation. Whether Walker adapted the original after requests or at his own endeavour turned it into describing the real group being killed might be something the court ought to know. Another story by Walker, titled Laura's Execution, involves a teenager being sentenced to death for "pre-emptively resisting rape", with her legs being sawn off the method of execution.

These stories are, to state the obvious, extremely unpleasant. They are however far from unique online. Indeed, the directory in which they are held on Kristen's Archive is entitled "putrid", and there is a warning and additional link to click before they can be accessed. Also contained in the directory are stories, perhaps typically, involving the Nazi concentration camps, one describing the mutilation of Britney Spears, castration, necrophilia, a killer who "grills" his victims while he has sex with them, and the raping and pillaging of a convent by knights, to summarise just a few. The ones by Sinclar, or rather by Walker, are pretty average fair: not horrendously badly written, but disjointed, repetitive, and not really very interesting. Doubtless, it appears, he has something of a leg fetish, but if these are the work of a supposed dangerous mind, it's one that is hopelessly banal. The definition by which the Obscene Publications Act convicts is if the work in question would "tend to deprave and corrupt". His stories are undoubtedly depraved, but are they likely to deprave anyone else, let alone corrupt? I find that incredibly difficult to believe. Offend certainly, with enough content to make someone worry about the writer's state of mind, but not deprave or corrupt.

Mark Stephens claims in the Mail's article that "'I think it is certainly the first fantasy case because nobody has been able to come up with a fantasy so bad before." This is abject nonsense, especially coming from someone supposedly a media lawyer. Far more famous, certainly far better written as well as imaginative is a story which has been floating around since the mid-90s, describing the slow and appalling torture of of all characters, the Pink Power ranger. Described in minute detail, it is far more effective than Walker's efforts, and despite its childish targets, fluently documents very real torture techniques. It too though is hardly likely to deprave or corrupt. This is without even beginning to consider the works of say, the Marquis de Sade, or any erotic fiction which strays from the pleasure principle into physical pain, subjugation, rape and murder.

One instead has to wonder whether this prosecution has been brought purely because of whom it describes being murdered. None of Walker's other works are apparently being thought likely to deprave and/or corrupt, including, it would seem, his story of a fictitious girl group going under the exact same treatment. Is it because he has described a very real band being killed that his work is considered potentially dangerous, or is it that he himself is considered potentially dangerous because of what he has written about the group? It doesn't seem he has attempted to actually contact them, or that he poses any genuine threat to them at all, or such information would likely have been additionally made available. Also of note is that the story was apparently either reported to or found by the Internet Watch Foundation, the body set-up primarily to block access to child pornography, although also within its remit is the blocking of "obscene" material, as well as that thought to be likely to incite racial hatred. It has long been feared that the IWF could potentially move from just removing child pornography to censoring other, far less instantly objectionable content, such as terrorist propaganda, as was seemingly proposed at the beginning of this year. That the body seems to be completely unaccountable is another legitimate cause for concern.

It has to be hoped that Walker will be acquitted of the charges against him. The Obscene Publications Act has long been far too vague a piece of legislation, although the alternatives, such as the Miller test in the United States, are also far from perfect. Fundamentally though, words themselves should almost never be censored; it is not the words that are dangerous, but the potential actions that come from. However warped Walker's fantasies are, they should not be acted upon unless he is likely to act upon them. As there has been no evidence presented, or likely to be presented to suggest this, he is until proven otherwise only the latest person to be victimised for what others decide is beyond the pale. His own words at the beginning of his pieces deserve quoting:

The following is a work of erotic/sadistic fantasy set in a world in which women are disposable sex objects that exist solely for the pleasure of men. It contains themes of extreme sexism, misogyny, torture, rape, mutilation, dismemberment, murder, execution and male supremacy over women. I cannot stress enough that this is STRICTLY FICTITIOUS and in no way reflects my own views or opinions towards women.

Under no circumstances should the violent situations of this story be re-enacted in any way. ALWAYS practice safe sex with consenting partners of a legal age.

The characters in this story are fictitious and any similarities between any persons living or dead are purely coincidental.

If you are easily offended by the themes I have described above then please read no further. If you are unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality and your actions are in any way likely to be influenced by these fictional events then you are not the sort of person that I want reading my work and you should commit suicide before an innocent person gets hurt because of your sick and perverted persuasions.

Hard to disagree with.

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Excellent post, and fully agreed.

What always strikes me is that in our culture, fictional depictions of violence towards adults are widely acceptable, but as soon as sex is thrown in or children are involved it becomes extremely unacceptable. In Japan on the other hand, fantasy depictions of rape are seen much the same way as we see GTA IV.

Much as my instinct is to agree with the distinction, I cannot logically justify it, and nor can anyone else I have asked. It's not as though the murdered adults in GTA IV are somehow able to give their consent.

I've never been one to justify censorship, I think it is a very slippery slope to go down. In this case however I think there is a case to answer, although for different reasons.

Certainly I agree that the story, however bad it is, is unlikely to corrupt. Anyone willing to act it out must all ready be messed up enough and I don't believe any words would provoke them into carrying it out.

However I think it is important to look at how offensive it is in terms of the individuals featured. Where the chacaters named are fictional or consent to their use that's fine. Ask yourself though if you would want to be featured in a published story such as this? Then I think it becomes a different issue.

I don't like censorship and I fully support freedom of speech, however with freedom of speech comes responsibility for what comes out of your gob or what goes onto the page. And if you don't take that responibility then in extreme circumstances censorship may be justified.

"I think it is important to look at how offensive it is in terms of the individuals featured"

...which has absolutely nothing to do with the letter or the spirit of the OPA.

Yes, it's almost certainly the reason the prosecution is being brought, but it shouldn't be.

If you're desperate for an anti-"writing fiction involving real people having horrible things done to them" act then you should campaign for one...

Akela: but it hasn't, in any real sense, been actually published. As you say this is a slippery slope to go down, because if we start making allowances for such material, where does it end? Do we also consider those stories where the likes of Girls Aloud are just viewed as sex objects to be beyond the pale because they feature real individuals? Doubtless if someone deigned that I was worthy to play a role in a similar piece of fiction I might be concerned, but I doubt I would be too worried unless said individual was going beyond such fantasies and was instead attempting to contact me, and there is nothing to suggest that Walker did.

I missed this example last night, but the work of Peter Sotos, freely available in this country, takes a somewhat similarly aggressive and deeply troubling tone, and his Pure fanzine especially celebrated child killers. Disturbing as his works are, he's also long shown up the hypocrisy of so much of the news coverage of such murders: his sensationalism is far more honest than theirs is, yet theirs is publicly acceptable whilst his is not.

Words are just words; it is actions which we have to be concerned about.

I'd be interested to hear more detail about what happened in the Walker case. Such as, how did his "story" come to the attention of the police in the first place? Did someone run across his story and complain? And how exactly was he "identified as a UK citizen"?

And shame on The Independent for calling it a blog; it's a sad state of affairs when you're less accurate than the Daily Mail...

Slight self-interest here, since I have also been recently writing on the topic:


As far as I am aware - and this comes from talking to the IWF, the Home Secretary's kite-flying about getting into bed with the IWF (now there's an obscene image!) was just that: kite-flying.

So in that respect, the IWF are clean. However, what is actually of far more concern is the way in which the Home Secretary has developed her interest in terror material. Something else I have investigated and taken up with the Home Office.

In essence, she (and the HO) are actively seeking to have taken down what they refer to as "terror material". Except there is no such thing in law. There is material that an individual may collect with the intent of supporting terror - and there is material that may be useful to terrorists (plane timetables spring to mind).

But there ain't no such thing as terror material. The grounds, therefore, on which the HO plans to police and possibly block legal material therefore elude me.

Obviously in the very near future all Girls Aloud will be known for is the short violent story Girls (Scream) Aloud. They ought to pay the guy royalties for giving them an infamy they hardly deserve. Girls Aloud will vanish while Girls (Scream) Aloud will go down in history.

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