Oz goes to trial

The offices of Oz were raided by the police in June 1970, a few weeks after the schoolkids issue was published – although this was by no means for the first time. As they removed files, artwork and papers, along with the last remaining copies of issue 28, the officer in charge announced to the editors ‘my mission is to put you out of business’. According to Neville’s autobiography, Dennis was convinced that they would ‘get away with it’, but Neville was not so sure. In the event, it was a full year before the case arrived at the Central Criminal Court.

Even though he had played very little part in the production of Schoolkids Oz, the trial represented a golden opportunity for Neville to strut his stuff on the national media stage. Unlike the other defendants, he chose to defend himself, thereby enjoying maximum time to make his case – and maximum publicity. In line with the tactics adopted by the ‘yippies’ in the United States, most notably at the trial of the Chicago 7 earlier that year, the proceedings were turned into a kind of carnival. ‘Friends of Oz’ were invited to join a high-profile public campaign, which included daily demonstrations outside the High Court. The editors had prepared an extensive press kit; special T-shirts in five different designs were sold, and stickers (including some featuring the priapic Rupert) were plastered over the London tubes; there were numerous benefit concerts, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono released a single to raise support. Neville and his fellow editors frequently turned up for proceedings in fancy dress – wearing schoolgirl uniforms, or in drag – to pose for press photographers; while Neville had his portrait painted by the artist David Hockney. Their expert witnesses included some well-known celebrities, including the comedian Marty Feldman and the disc jockey John Peel. The trial was a media circus, in which Neville was without doubt the star performer.

While some of the content of the magazine was intended to provoke and outrage polite society, and while some of it might be accused of being exploitative, Schoolkids Oz is not ‘pornography’ – if that implies an intention to sexually arouse the reader (although the cover might be somewhat of an exception here). Much of the sexually explicit content is presented in a parodic, humorous way, and some of it seems intended to produce disgust rather than arousal. Legally, the charge of obscenity required any given publication to be assessed ‘as a whole’; but this was very far from what took place in the case of Schoolkids Oz.

The reasons for the prosecution may well have been primarily political, as Neville and others alleged – and as such, it might have seemed easier for the police to secure a conviction under obscenity law than in any other way. Yet if the primary concern was about obscenity, there were plenty of more obvious targets. However, police spokesmen at the time were inclined to exonerate mainstream pornography, arguing that this was something that had existed for centuries. One explanation for the police strategy emerged only several years later. Detective Chief Inspector George Fenwick, head of the Metropolitan Police ‘dirty squad’, was later prosecuted for corruption, and given ten years imprisonment; while the overall commander of the Serious Crimes Squad, Wallace Virgo, was sent down for twelve years. Home Office papers revealed many years later showed that the police were in the pay of the genuine pornography industry, based in London’s Soho: when they came under pressure to crack down (not least from religious campaign groups like the Festival of Light), prosecuting Oz seemed to serve as a convenient distraction or decoy.

The Oz Trial did undoubtedly expose the hypocrisy, ignorance and prejudice of the ‘establishment’ in Britain at the time, not least in relation to sexual matters. While the prosecutor, Brian Leary, was clearly somewhat of a showman, and used whatever arguments he could in order to discredit the defence witnesses, the interventions of the judge, Justice Michael Argyle, are often quite extraordinary, and at times truly laughable. This was not, by any account, the British legal system’s finest hour.

Reading the transcripts of the trial today is like journeying back to a very different time. Leary’s primary tactic was to focus almost exclusively on what he called the ‘dirty’ parts of the magazine, repeating and paraphrasing them with a kind of prurient relish in order to provoke the jury. The magazine’s satirical and parodic intentions – which were apparent even in the mock ‘hard sell’ of its ‘Back Issue Bonanza’ – were persistently ignored or misread. The implicit assumption throughout the prosecution was that sex was a filthy business, which should be kept behind closed doors and in the marital bedroom, and should not be spoken about in public – especially not in front of children. Certain sexual practices – including legal ones such as homosexuality and oral sex – were tacitly (and sometimes overtly) seen to be deviant or perverted; although the prosecutor and the judge frequently appeared to be ignorant of what such practices actually involved. Several of the expert witnesses called for the defence were questioned about their own sexual activities, and in some cases how they would talk about such matters with their own children. Their expertise was systematically denigrated: Judge Argyle’s rudeness and contempt towards some very illustrious expert witnesses was quite remarkable, and was condemned by the Lord Chief Justice at the eventual appeal.

Much of the allegedly obscene content that became the focus of the prosecution case (the cover, the Suck ad, and the contact ads) had not been created by the ‘schoolkids’ in the first place; but their presence in a ‘schoolkids issue’ significantly increased their potential to offend. As the defence lawyers pointed out, Schoolkids Oz was not primarily produced for schoolchildren, but by them. Evidence presented on behalf of the publishing company (Oz Publications Ink Limited) included testimony from newsagents showing that the magazine was hardly ever sold to children. Much of the content that was cited by the prosecution was very obviously not aimed at them. As for the charge that it might ‘debauch and corrupt the morals’ of young people, or ‘arouse and implant in their minds lustful and perverted desires’, there was no evidence presented at all. Expert witnesses who worked directly with young people, including the psychologists Dr. Lionel Haward and Dr. Michael Argyle, argued that it was unlikely to do so, and in some cases might well have the opposite effect. However, as is often the case in such debates, the evidence of the text itself (that is, the parts of Oz that were repeatedly read out or held up in court) was implicitly seen as sufficient evidence of its effects.

If the trial was, as Neville argued, a political occasion, the actual politics of Oz – and specifically the liberationist arguments of the Schoolkids issue – were almost entirely absent from the discussion. Some of the expert witnesses called for the defence – most notably Leila Berg and Michael Duane – could potentially have addressed these issues; but even here, the questioning by the prosecution was bound to focus on matters of obscenity, and sexual conduct more generally. Throughout all this, there was very little attention paid to the ‘schoolkids’ themselves. While Vivian Berger, who created the Rupert cartoon, was called by the prosecution as an ‘accomplice’, the others were absent from the deliberations. Both Duane and Berg argued that the prosecution itself could well have been much more damaging and destructive for the young people involved than the magazine might have been, but this argument was ignored. Inevitably, most of the defence witnesses were brought in explicitly to address the central charges – although even high-profile academics such as Professors Ronald Dworkin, Richard Wollheim and Hans Eysenck failed to generate the informed, critical discussion of obscenity law that was undoubtedly needed. While it made sense to focus on the actual charges at hand, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that an opportunity was missed here.

Neville and his co-editors were initially found guilty, although they were cleared of the charge of conspiracy, and sentenced to terms of between nine and fifteen months; Neville and Anderson were told they would be deported back to Australia when they had served their sentences. Symbolically, their long hair was shorn once they had been sent down to Wormwood Scrubs prison. Their treatment after the trial helped to galvanise the opposition. Against Judge Argyle’s wishes, the three were granted bail pending an appeal; and when the case came back to court, the convictions were quickly quashed, largely on the grounds that the judge had misdirected the jury in his closing statement, especially as regards the definition of obscenity.

At least briefly, the trial helped to construct the editors – and Neville in particular – as high-profile martyrs for the underground. The circulation of Oz rose for some months following the trial, although it declined quite quickly thereafter. Anderson seemed traumatized by the trial, and eventually retreated to California; Dennis refocused his energies on his business interests, perhaps in response to the judge’s estimation that he was ‘very much less intelligent’ than the others – he eventually became a massively successful publishing magnate, with a multi-million-pound empire. Neville, for his part, seemed to lose interest in Oz: a couple of years later, with a plummeting circulation, the magazine was closed, by which time he had already returned to Australia.

Neville later claimed that he was uneasy about having to justify the magazine in political terms or on ‘high moral grounds’, but little of that uncertainty was evident at the time. In his opening speech, he presented the trial as a wider attack on the ‘alternative society’, on young people, and on freedom of speech; and in later statements, he remained keen to ‘spin’ the trial as a massively significant event in the history of the counter-culture. In an interview for Jonathon Green’s oral history, he states that it was ‘the great climax of the underground movement’; and in his autobiography he claims that

Within days of the sentence, the case catapulted from being ‘the longest obscenity trial in British history’ into one symbolizing the clash of generations, the limits of freedom, the highs and lows of the counter-culture. (344)

This may be true in some respects, but it vastly overstates the significance of the trial: Oz did not represent the whole of the counter-culture, and Neville was not its spokesman (even if he attempted to promote himself as such). Ultimately, the trial was not primarily about politics, but about sex; and in this respect, it was merely one moment in a much longer history of changing attitudes and lifestyles. At the same time, Neville’s assertions also obscure some of the more interesting aspects of Schoolkids Oz itself – and especially the involvement of the young people who produced it. Oz 28 was a victim of its own notoriety – a notoriety that was undoubtedly encouraged and promoted by Neville in particular. Yet in becoming a cause célèbre, much of its political significance was marginalized.


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