What This Landmark Obscenity Trial Says About British Attitudes To Pornography And The Law

Despite Michael Peacock’s acquittal the guidelines covering obscene publications remain unchanged.

Two years ago today Michael Peacock held up the “fist of victory” after being cleared of distributing obscene material at Southwark crown court.

Jim Waterson

Peacock, then a 53-year-old male escort, had been charged under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act of selling hardcore pornographic DVDs that were likely to “deprave and corrupt” the viewer by depicting acts such as anal fisting and urination.

Until then, most people charged under the legislation pleaded guilty on the basis that they expected that a jury would find against them but – unusually – Peacock decided to fight his case.

As a result, following an eighteen month police investigation, a jury sat through hours of footage from films such as Dirty Bastard, Freaks 2 & 3 and Fist Pack 6: Can Openers. After two hours of deliberation they unanimously decided that the films were not likely to corrupt viewers and Peacock, who operates under the professional name of “Sleazy Michael”, was acquitted.

At the time it was suggested that the case could herald the reform of obscenity prosecution guidelines, with critics of the law suggesting a ban on distributing footage of legal acts between consenting adults was out of step with an age where all manner of pornography was freely available on the internet from abroad.

And in a further legal precedent, it was the first major trial to be tweeted by journalists within the room, permanently changing the way that the British legal system is reported in the media.

Two years on, BuzzFeed contacted the main players to discuss whether anything actually changed as a result of the case.

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1. The defendant.

Michael Peacock / Facebook

Michael Peacock left court proclaiming that he didn’t “want to see this stuff in WH Smiths” and said that “when people contacted me they made it very clear what they were interested in.”

“Now I’m going back to what I love: being an award-winning escort,” he added at the time.

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Two years on, he despairs at the time and resources spent on his case.

The whole process took over two years and was quite stressful, it affected my health and gave me a heart condition. I started to have problems with my breathing within weeks of me being arrested.

I think I was an easy target for the team because they used to - unbeknown to me - target Craigslist, which is where they found the original listing. Most of the adult DVDs on there they can’t trace but I had a large advert offering the largest collection in the UK and my home address.

I’m sure they must have gone “here we are lads, got a good one here”.

One of the things that the arresting officer - who I have a lot of respect for - said is, “look mate, this isn’t serious. our bread and butter are paedos and people being trafficked for sex”. What surprised them is that I pleaded not guilty. My legal team said that if I had the balls to do it then we had a good case.

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2. The defence lawyer.

Myles Jackman, a specialist in obscenity and extreme pornography cases, worked for Peacock during the trial. At the time he said the verdict has “reduced the impact of the voyeur state intruding into bedrooms of its citizens”.

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Jackman now believes that the case highlighted substantial changes in how the British public perceive pornography.

It was the most important obscenity case of this century, without a doubt. Very few people contest Obscene Publications Act cases but Michael had the courage to fight it.

Juries are much more liberal than they’re given credit for in obscenity cases: we’ve had the internet with pornography democratically available to all for nearly 15 years. And it would seem that the average citizen is happy with the thought that – as long as what is presented is consensual adult activity – they don’t have a problem with it.

[The prosecution] began to lose conviction once they realised how charismatic Michael was - he wasn’t the traditional Soho sex shop vendor. He only sold to people who came to the flat and watched the material with him. And he wouldn’t sell anything that depicted activities he hadn’t tried himself.

All the activities were legal to perform - such as fisting and water sports - but had previously been considered activities illegal to watch or distribute. It’s a weird legal quirk that you can do it, but you can’t depict it.

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But he fears British society is actually becoming more censorious:

It hasn’t set a precedent because it’s a crown court jury decision and it doesn’t have a binding effect. If he had lost and appealed, we might have had a decision from the court of appeal or supreme court and had some sense about the legal implications. But because we won so easily it has no effect in terms in precedent.

The obscene publications guidelines have not been updated at all. It seems that we’re in a regressive climate - there was later a case that extends the extreme publications act to private one-to-one fantasy text chat. So an email about fisting could get you sent to prison for pressing send.

It’s another nail in the coffin for the Obscene Publications Act but it goes to show how important and urgent it is that we review the act and how we prosecute consensual sexual offences – thanks to the internet people can access similar material via a Dutch or German website. And at the same time that David Cameron is trying to introduce a pornography filter.

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3. The journalist.

Nichi Hogdson was one of the journalists who live tweeted the trial, using the hashtag #obscenitytrial, taking advantage of new reporting guidelines set out just weeks before.

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She believes that the verdict indicated a change in attitudes among the public.

This was the trial where the jury came through as logical, sensible and unprejudiced. In the past, trials involving the prosecution of either gay BDSM acts or ‘obscene’ material depicting them frequently ended in a guilty verdict – that’s because even when gay sex was legal, we still had a history of institutionalised homophobia, and a sense that sex and porn featuring men only was somehow ‘nastier’ than that between men and women.

In this case, the jury were not blindsided by this argument, nor the hours of extreme gay porn they had to sit through. Instead, they did understand that if they had not been ‘depraved’ by what they had watched, then certainly a punter who’d bought clearly labelled DVDs featuring the material couldn’t have been either.

The police officers who brought the prosecution even confessed to me that they thought the trial was a waste of their time. “We have so much child abuse imagery to deal with, it makes no sense to us that we are having to bother over something relating to consenting adults.”

Unfortunately, the CPS has not written obscenity out of law. Instead, obscenity has been absorbed by the legislation around ‘extreme pornography’, trials for which are on the increase. But I suspect we won’t see another obscenity trial like this one again. And that really is progress in terms of tolerant sexual morals.

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4. The state prosecutors.

The Crown Prosecution Service is responsible for deciding whether to bring criminal cases to court. Its decision to prosecute was attacked following Peacock’s acquittal but there has been no change to relevant prosecuting guidelines during the intervening two years.

At the time the prosecution summed up its case in court by insisting that the material could corrupt people: “People don’t just wake up one day and decide to embark on anal fisting. It’s the sort of thing you work up to.”

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They stand by their decision to prosecute Peacock.

Each case is considered by the CPS on its own facts and merits, not broad similarities, and any charging decisions will be made in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors and our published guidance for prosecutors on obscene publications.

Michael Peacock was charged with publishing obscene articles for gain, as we were satisfied that there was sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction and that it was in the public interest to prosecute. The prosecution was not only about the content of the material, but the way in which it was being distributed to others, without checks being made as to the age or identity of recipients.

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5. The legal commentator.

Joe Dunckley / Creative Commons / Flickr / Via Flickr: steinsky

David Allen Green has built a media career and helped give prominence to the tweets during the trial on the #obscenitytrial hashtag. He now blogs at the Financial Times.

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Green says the use of Twitter during the trial helped open up the UK legal system.

The obscenity trial was significant on two levels.

It was the first criminal trial to be comprehensively live-tweeted, allowing thousands of people to follow what was happening in the court room as it happened. This was a boon for the public understanding of how the legal system actually works.

It was also a case where transparency showed what was a horrible misuse of law: it became quickly apparent that this was a prosecution which should never have been brought. It was no surprise that the jury swiftly returned a not guilty verdict. From any sensible perspective, for Michael Peacock to be prosecuted was more “obscene” than the content of any DVD he possessed.

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But, ultimately, Michael Peacock still despairs that people can be prosecuted for selling videos of legal acts filmed by consenting adults.

Michael Peacock / Facebook
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Because I won my case you should be able to buy this stuff over the counter. Their argument was that I was “depraving and corrupting” these people – how can I when they were watching it with me on a 46” plasma TV? I found a gap in the market and let customers watch segments before buying.

My legal team wanted to have a judicial review but various complications got in the way. I’m disappointed that [the guidelines haven’t been redrawn] but hopefully they won’t waste their time pursuing similar cases.

One line of questioning [in court] was why I didn’t sell some things. It’s because I wouldn’t sell anything that I wouldn’t feel comfortable of doing myself with my clients. One of the [DVDs] was about staged abduction and rapes - but I do that with clients, who pay for it.

They had this undercover policeman that came twice. And the second time they got me because he asked for hardcore stuff for his mate and I didn’t challenge him on how old his mate was. The stuff he wanted for his mate, no one under the age of consent would be into these things, people only get into it as they get older.

My legal team were fantastic and got the material back. The police came back with two unmarked cars and brought it all back. The funny thing is, I had one of my regular clients over at the time and three minutes before they arrived I had my hand in a client’s arse.

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Jim Waterson is the UK deputy editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London. Waterson focuses on politics.
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