The writing's on the wall

Local councils are trying to clamp down on fly-posting. If they do, they will stifle artistic expression and curb our political freedoms, say the pop impresarios Malcolm McLaren and Tony Wilson

At first glance fly-posting is a comparatively trivial issue that ranks alongside litter, graffiti and dog fouling in the hierarchy of crimes against humanity. To most of us it's mildly irritating but there are more important things to worry about.

At first glance fly-posting is a comparatively trivial issue that ranks alongside litter, graffiti and dog fouling in the hierarchy of crimes against humanity. To most of us it's mildly irritating but there are more important things to worry about.

But on Friday, magistrates at Highbury, north London, will hear a prosecution for fly-posting brought by Camden Council against a marketing company called Diabolical Liberties that is widely regarded as a test not simply of the litter laws but of a far more profound question: what sort of society do we want to live in?

Camden has already successfully used the threat of anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) against executives from music giants Sony and BGM to make them stop fly-posting. Now it wants the courts to use the same device against four executives from Diabolical Liberties. If it is successful, the accused could face fines or up to five years imprisonment if they persist in fly-posting anywhere in the country.

While you couldn't quite call it a cause célèbre, the case has mobilised some surprisingly heavy guns in what could be described as a fight for the soul of our streets. On the one hand are the Government, local councils and the advertising industry, which argue that fly-posting is an anti-social scourge that costs councils millions of pounds a year to deal with. It creates feelings of alienation and fear among those who are subjected to it and gives unfair commercial advantage to the perpetrators.

The case, which is being watched by local authorities up and down the country, is of particular importance to Camden, which has more clubs, theatres and venues than any other council in the UK, and which claims to spend £250,000 a year cleaning up after fly-posters. "Illegal fly-posting remains a major cause of alarm and distress for many people in the London Borough of Camden," says council leader Dame Jane Roberts. "It makes people feel unsafe and uncomfortable and impacts negatively on the quality of the environment. This is why we are determined to outlaw it, as part of our commitment to making the borough a cleaner and more attractive place to be."

Ranged against the forces of law and order is an alliance of creative types, entrepreneurs, political activists and the human rights organisation Liberty, which argue that banning fly-posting could have a disastrous effect on the vitality of our cultural life. They also argue that the use of Asbos represents a threat to civil liberties.

Malcolm McLaren, the former manager of Seventies punk band The Sex Pistols, sees the clampdown on fly-posting as symptomatic of a prissy, authoritarian sensibility, largely emanating from the Government, which wants to sanitise our inner cities and create "Stepford streets". "I have always thought that London is obnoxious and ugly. Fly-posting helps make that ugliness more beautiful. It adds authenticity to the inner-city experience. If you want perfect order in the streets, move to Buckinghamshire or Beckenham," he says.

In McLaren's view the fly-posting issue isn't really about tidiness at all, but power and control. "Fly-posting is often the only voice that new bands, clubs, theatres and theatre groups possess. This seems to be about ensuring that control of culture remains with those who can afford it. To ban fly-posting will be another arrow in the heart of our ability as a society to accommodate contrary points of view."

Others take the argument even further. They argue that the cultural vibrancy engendered by fly-posting is often transformed into economic vibrancy. Tony Wilson, the former boss of Eighties indie label Factory Records and Manchester's Hacienda club, says that fly-posting played a small but significant role in the regeneration of Manchester in the early Nineties.

"Fly-posting is one of the most important forms of social communication. The authorities in Manchester certainly realised that it plays a key role in youth culture, which incidentally is one of the few things we are still a world leader in," he says.

The artistic director of one of London's best-known theatres warns that if Camden is successful, the consequences will be dire. Roland Muldoon, of Hackney Empire, says that fly-posting is often the only way a venue can get the word out about its productions. "People don't realise its importance - there wouldn't be a Hackney Empire without fly-posting. This decision being pushed forward in Camden is terrible for theatre and arts venues because more councils will follow. Small venues will lose a lifeblood - affordable publicity."

But it's not only commercial and cultural diversity that may be at risk. Fly-posting is also the favoured communications medium for a range of small political groups. The use of Asbos to deal with fly-posting could be a threat to democracy, says Gareth Crossman, policy director at Liberty. "The legislation is drawn far too wide and it criminalises civil offences. It would worry us if it was used to affect political diversity."

Despite Camden's assertion that its new militant approach to fly-posting is only aimed at those (mostly large companies) that cause widespread nuisance, it has already demonstrated the political dangers of its militant stance. In July it attempted to prosecute a local political activist who put up a poster urging council tenants to vote against its attempt to shift control of its housing stock to an independently run company. The case was dropped before it got to court for procedural reasons.

Despite these arguments, it is hard to find anyone who supports a complete fly-posting free-for-all. Even the likes of McLaren and Wilson think that fly-posters need to behave responsibly and that over-posting legitimate poster sites, or posting on shop fronts is wrong. Many suggest a compromise used in other cities, that of community noticeboards or designated posting areas, which are not free but offer very low rates for small local businesses. The revenues are used to maintain the sites. Cardiff has been running such a scheme for three years and it has transformed the city centre by getting rid of unlicensed posting. "It has boosted our city brand and saved us £60,000 a year in cleaning," says Paul Williams, who manages Cardiff city centre.

Camden will not entertain the idea. "We've discussed the idea of community noticeboards and we don't feel inclined to take it forward. We are trying to reduce the amount of street clutter not increase it," says a spokesman.

It sounds like a sniffy response. But then when you discover that the biggest company running such schemes is in fact owned by the same people as Diabolical Liberties, perhaps it is understandable.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'