Oz obscenity trial

Three young editors of the satirical magazine Oz were put on trial for 'corrupting public morals' at the Old Bailey in 1971. The obscenity case turned into a farce, exposing hyprocrisy and corruption in the authorities, and its impact still reverberates many decades on

What was Oz and why did it get into trouble?

Oz was an independently-published satirical magazine, founded in Australia in 1964. Its co-editors moved to London in 1966 - at the time a centre of counterculture, free love and psychedelic drugs - where they launched an English version of the magazine. Issue 28, which came out in May 1970 edited by Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis, was the one that caused the trouble. It was a 'schoolkids [sic] issue' , featuring various anti-authoritarian contributions by teenage school students.

One of these, by 15-year-old schoolboy Vivian Berger, was based on a sexually explicit series of frames by US satirical cartoonist Robert Crumb. In each, the head of a rapist had been skilfully pasted over with the head of the children's character Rupert Bear. The three editors were charged with the archaic offence of 'corrupting public morals', which in theory had an unlimited punishment, and the case was heard at the Old Bailey, London, in June 1971.

What happened at the trial?

The prosecution claimed that Oz had promoted “homosexuality, lesbianism, sadism, perverted sexual practices and drug taking”. The defence lawyer was John Mortimer QC, later known as an author and playwright. He said that the trial stood “at the crossroads of our liberty, at the boundaries of our freedom to think and draw and write what we please”.

Among the defence witnesses was DJ John Peel, musician George Melly (who at one point explained a Latin sexual term in detail to the jury) and comedy writer Marty Feldman, who called the judge a “boring old fart”. With so many anti-establishment currents swirling around the pillars of authority, the case often descended into farce: at one point the defendants turned up to court dressed as schoolgirls.

What was the sentence?

After the longest obscenity trail in English legal history, the three editors were found guilty and sentenced to prison: 15 months for Anderson and Neville, but less for Dennis. That was because the judge, Justice Michael Argyle, considered him “very much less intelligent” than the other two. Shortly after the verdicts were handed down the three had their heads forcibly shaved, an act which caused public sympathy.

However, at the appeal, it was found that Justice Argyle had grossly misdirected the jury on numerous occasions. It was also alleged that Berger, called as a prosecution witness, had been harassed and assaulted by police. It has since also been alleged that the lord chief justice Lord Widgery sent a runner out to Soho one lunchtime to buy £20 worth of hard-core pornography.

The convictions were overturned.

What has happened since the trial?

The debacle of the Oz trial, and the way that legal authority figures had been undermined and derided, have made prosecutions under the obscenity law almost a thing of the past.

The case has continued to be in the news. When Justice Argyle made allegations about Dennis in a magazine in 1995, alleging that he had sold drugs to schoochildren, the “very much less intelligent” Dennis - who after Oz went on to be a very successful magazine publisher - sued the magazine for libel and won. He declined to pursue Argyle personally because of his age.

In 1999 hitherto secret Home Office papers were published. They revealed that, following the Oz trial, some of the police officers involved in the prosecution were subsequently found guilty of corruption in an internal investigation. Around 400 officers, including a deputy assistant commissioner, were imprisoned or left the force. The head of the Metropolitan police's obscene publications squad, who targeted London's underground magazines, also ended up behind bars.