A clear case of poetic injustice

When Mark Vernon created a hypertext link to a US-based Web site for his own Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement site, little did he realise it would lead to an 18-month police investigation. Here he tells his story
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If it were not so serious it would be just ridiculous, that I was sat, under caution, in a windowless room at Charing Cross Police Station, being interviewed by Inspector Bell of the Vice Squad. The cause of his investigation is as astonishing as it sounds archaic. I was accused of publishing a blasphemous libel on the Internet. What actually happened is mundane when set alongside so florid an interpretation, but it arguably raises serious issues no less.

At the beginning of 1995 I had established a World Wide Web site for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM). On the pages could be found information about the organisation, comment on relevant current events and hypertext links to other Web sites of interest, including bibliographical lists, related organisations and other religious resources. The site was frequented by about a thousand people per month and provided a useful publicity tool for the movement as well as valuable information for lesbian and gay Net users.

Feedback on the pages was notable for an appreciation of the contact it afforded to otherwise isolated individuals. Keeping content up-to-date is important for any site, and so the hypertext links and other material were regularly refreshed. And as part of this turnover, for about six months, a link was provided to the US servers of the Queer Resources Directory. At this site, the poem "The love that dares to speak its name" by Professor James Kirkup could be found, a piece possibly of interest to lesbian and gay Christians because it is an attempt to explore the relationship between spirituality and sexuality.

The poem was also at the centre of a high-profile Old Bailey court case 20 years ago. In 1977, Denis Lemon, editor of Gay News, was successfully prosecuted for publishing a blasphemous libel when the magazine printed the poem, in a prosecution brought by the veteran campaigner Mary Whitehouse. It was the first criminal prosecution for blasphemous libel to succeed in the British courts in 44 years.

Though clearly aware of this history, the informal legal advice we received at the time was that a hypertext link would not conflict with any court rulings. In October 1995, as part of the routine updates, the link to the poem was taken down. I thought little more about it.

That changed six months later with a telephone call from a friend at Bath University. The police had been to visit the computer department. (The pages had been moved to Bath when the Internet account at Durham University, where the site was originally held, lapsed.) It transpired that the police had received a complaint from three individuals, including the Rev Tony Higton of the evangelical pressure group Reform.

Of course the Church of England is currently engaged in a lengthy debate over homosexuality. The momentum is for progressive change, but in the meantime conservative organisations attempt to resist steps forward. Having been tipped off about the Web site, Reform saw another opportunity in its attempts to discredit LGCM. Three months earlier, Rev Higton had initiated a brief letter-writing campaign in the religious press, though it could be judged a failure when the leading evangelical publication, The Church of England Newspaper, headed a letter I wrote in reply, "Mr Higton got his facts wrong". Would that the complaint to the police was similarly short-lived.

A couple of weeks after the Bath visitation, myself and Richard Kirker, general secretary of LGCM, were requested for interview at Charing Cross Police Station. We of course complied, accompanied by our solicitor, Angus Hamilton. The interrogations lasted about an hour each. It was an unpleasant, humiliating experience. But that would have been redeemed by a swift closure to the investigation, which I thought likely.

It all seemed too bizarre. I am a priest, and wild speculations with friends on how I might become the first minister of religion to be tried for blasphemy in several hundred years, served as a reality check on the situation. But it did not stop there. Six months later, we heard that the police had visited Durham University computer department, taken statements and seized back-up tapes. Apparently, a second wave of investigation was underway. And sure enough, I was called back for another interrogation session.

Then in November of last year, Reform saw a further chance to exert political pressure. LGCM was celebrating its 20th birthday with a festival at Southwark Cathedral. Reform was not happy. Philip Hacking, the chair of the group, wrote to Sir Nicholas Lyell, then Attorney General, claiming, "We ourselves are also now being asked why nothing has been done by the secular authorities over what is perceived as a criminal matter," and demanded knowledge of action being planned by Sir Nicholas, claiming that the poem had been "republished". But still no official noises came from the police or the Crown Prosecution Service.

My MP, Glenda Jackson, became involved in January of this year. She wrote to Dame Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, on my behalf, asking what was taking so long. We heard in reply that the police investigation was not yet concluded, though it might be "in the near future".

Six months later she wrote again. And at last an end came into sight. The police had submitted a final report in April, 16 months after the original complaint. Another two months later, the CPS concluded that there was nothing to go on. I finally heard from the police myself just at the end of last week. The threat of prosecution had been lifted after 18 months.

But the story is not ended quite here, for it raises a number of important questions. In the first instance, how much public money has been spent pursuing an absurd case? And what were the reasons for so drawn-out and thorough an investigation? Further causes for concern also open up. The Internet allows for a degree of democratisation within publishing and broadcasting, potentially taking the regulation of information from the hands of the few. But in turn, is everyone and anyone to be made vulnerable to the gross distortion of their responsible Internet activity? And will people in power be left with an easy means with which to cause anguish, as and when they choose?

Finally, if this new medium is to offer even a small part of its liberal promise, it must rise above the politics of the salacious. When a hypertext link on a Web page leads to the police knocking at the door, it is shocking, and suggests an unsophisticated, undiscerning legislature. At the very least, that the extraordinary complaints of a misguided but powerful religious group initiates a criminal investigation some 18 months long points to a certain lack of common sense