Rehearsing for the Apocalypse / Part 1

Oz Obscenity Trial 40th Anniversary Special by Den Browne

Fourty years ago one of the most ludicrous trials in the history of British jurisprudence reached its climax with the editors of a British underground magazine Oz being sentenced to up to 15 months’ imprisonment.

Tony Palmer’s book The Trials of Oz transcribes a lot of the court proceedings verbatim, and Vivian Berger’s defence is worth citing at length:

Asked by Mr Mortimer [defence] why he had contributed the Rupert Bear cartoon, he [Berger] replied: “I think that, looking back on it, I subconsciously wanted to shock your generation: to portray us as a group of people who were different from you in moralistic attitudes. Also, it seemed to me just very funny, and like anything else that makes fun of sex”. Mortimer asked: “You say you did it to shock an older generation? What relevance did Rupert have as a figure or symbol?” Berger replied: “Well, Rupert would probably be known to many generations as the innocent young character who figures in magic fairy tales. Whereas here, he’s just doing what every normal human being does.” “Was it part of your intention,” he suggested, “to show that there was a more down-to-earth side of childhood than some grown-up people are prepared to think?”

“Oh yes”, Berger responded cheerfully. “This is the kind of drawing that goes around every classroom, every day, in every school.” The Judge looked wounded. “Do you really mean that?” he asked… “Yes, I do mean it,” Berger replied immediately. “Maybe I was portraying obscenity, but I don’t think I was being obscene myself.”

Mr Leary [prosecution] then elucidated from Mr Berger that he lived with his mother and his two sisters, aged 10 and 12. Yes, he had often bought Oz magazine and yes he had usually left it around the house. His mother had known about his involvement in School Kids Issue and had actually encouraged the lad to contribute. No, she did not think that it had depraved or corrupted him… Mr Leary lurched to the meat of the matter, as he described it. “You were asked by Mr Mortimer,” he nodded, “about your contribution to the magazine. Do you remember saying: ‘I thought it was portraying obscenity, but not being obscene myself’?”

“Yes, I do remember saying that,” Berger replied, somewhat hesitantly. Quick as a flash Leary inquired: “And what did you mean by that?” Berger was not to be cajoled. “Well,” he replied, “if the News covers a war or shows a picture of war, then, for me, they are portraying obscenity—the obscenity of war. But they are not themselves creating that obscenity, because it is the people who are fighting the war that are creating that obscenity. The obscenity is in the action, not in the reporting of it. For example, I consider that the act of corporal punishment is an obscenity. I do not consider that the act of reporting or writing about corporal punishment is obscene”.

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