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.

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