The other day in publishing history: ‘Oz’ Underground magazine editors jailed for obscenity, 1971.

This should have been published on August 5th… bit late due to one issue and another. We thought we’d put it up anyway.

OZ was an underground magazine published in London between 1967 and 1973, under the editorship of Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis. In June 1971 the editors Anderson, Dennis and Neville went on trial at the Old Bailey for, among other things, conspiring to “corrupt the morals of young children and other young persons” by producing an “obscene article”, sending said article through the mail, and publishing obscene articles for gain.

Neville and Martin Sharp had been involved in an earlier incarnation of Oz in Neville’s native Australia, an investigative and satirical mag which had twice been prosecuted for obscenity.

Moving to London, Neville and Sharp teamed up with fellow Australian Jim Anderson, to found London OZ in early 1967. Contributors included Germaine Greer, artist and filmmaker Philippe Mora, illustrator Stewart Mackinnon, photographer Robert Whitaker, journalist Lillian Roxon, cartoonist Michael Leunig, Angelo Quattrocchi, Barney Bubbles and David Widgery.

Oz arrived at the right time to take advantage of advances in printing technology, and a mood of expansion of possibilities politically and socially. Its psychedelic design was visually exciting, including wrap-round covers or pull-out posters, detachable adhesive labels, printed in either red, yellow or green… it was ground-breaking in its design.

If problematic in other ways… The ‘underground’ of the 60s was always a strange mix of rebellion, rock ‘n- roll, libertarian exploration, money-making and good old-fashioned exploitation. Oz reflected these contradictions (as did its contemporary international times) – at times genuinely interesting and exploratory, at others grossly misogynistic. Some of it is painful to look at now.

Oz was always calculated to enrage the British Establishment, with its heavy critical coverage of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, discussions of drugs, sex and alternative lifestyles, and contentious political stories, such as the magazine’s revelations about the torture of citizens under the rule of the military junta in Greece. Various issues were given over to other groups to put together, including the burgeoning womens liberation movement, a gay issue…

In 1970, reacting to criticism that OZ had lost touch with youth, the editors put a notice in the magazine inviting “school kids” to edit an issue. The opportunity was taken up by around 20 secondary school students, adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18, generally known as “Schoolkids OZ”. As usual, the magazine was a surreal mix of graphics, cartoons, articles, reviews and adverts, but a great deal of space was devoted to writing by school pupils—on such things as pop music, sexual freedom and hypocrisy, drug use, corporal punishment, and examinations (“Examinations are a primitive method of recording a tiny, often irrelevant, section of the behaviour of an individual under bizarre conditions”).

One of the resulting articles was a highly sexualised Rupert Bear parody. It was created by 15-year-old schoolboy Vivian Berger by pasting the head of Rupert onto the lead character of an X-rated satirical cartoon by Robert Crumb.

OZ was one of several ‘underground’ publications targeted by the Obscene Publications Squad, and their offices had already been raided on several occasions, but the conjunction of schoolchildren and what some viewed as obscene material set the scene for the Oz obscenity trial of 1971. In one key respect it was a virtual re-run of the second Australian trial—the judicial instruction was clearly aimed at securing a conviction, and like Gerald Locke in Sydney, the judge hearing the London case, Justice Michael Argyle, exhibited clear signs of bias against the defendants. However the British trial was given a far more dangerous edge because the prosecution employed an archaic charge against Neville, Dennis and Anderson—”conspiracy to corrupt public morals”—which, in theory, carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

For the defence, this specifically concerned the treatment of dissent and dissenters, about the control of ideas and suppressing the messages of social resistance communicated by OZ in issue No.28. The charges read out in the central criminal court stated “[that the defendants] conspiring with certain other young persons to produce a magazine containing obscene, lewd, indecent and sexually perverted articles, cartoons and drawings with intent to debauch and corrupt the morals of children and other young persons and to arouse and implant in their minds lustful and perverted ideas”. According to prosecutor Brian Leary, prosecuting, “It dealt with homosexuality, lesbianism, sadism, perverted sexual practices and drug taking”.

A central piece of evidence at the trial was a Berger’s Rupert Bear comic strip montage: parts of a Rupert Bear cartoon which had been superimposed on a strip by the American underground artist Robert Crumb. Rupert Bear had appeared in the pages of the Daily Express for years (he emerged in late November 1920 as a result of circulation battles between the major dailies) and offered an innocent, nostalgic and quintessentially ‘middle-English’ version of childhood. Crumb was one of the most prolific and notoriously ‘explicit’ of the underground artists (incidentally, established cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, often up to no good, had frequently appeared in the work of underground cartoonists) and the Crumb strip that Berger used was part of a long cartoon called ‘Eggs Ackley Among the Vulture Demonesses’, which had appeared in Big Ass Comics, June, 1969. Basically, Berger’s montage presents a sexually excited Rupert Bear violating the virginity of an (unconscious) female. Although the basic drawings and speech-bubbles are Crumb’s, Rupert’s head and scarf had been carefully superimposed on the original character, and the frame titles (there are six frames) and the characteristic narrative in rhyming couplets beneath had been retained from the Rupert strip.

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”.

However, one feminist witness at the trial later identified some of the more problematic elements in Oz:

“During the trial, the prosecuting barrister accused the community of which the magazine was a part of being without love. Richard Neville responded that, on the contrary, Oz was against the guilt and obsession of repressed sexuality and that “Oz was trying to redefine love, to broaden it, extend it and revitalize it, so it could be a force of release and not one of entrapment”.

“The irony of this was that, while this may have been true for men, it was rarely the case for women. The underground press used sex-objectifying images which had developed from being fairly romantic to stridently sadistic. The women who worked on its magazines and newspapers served the men and did the office and production work rather than any editorial work. After a time on Oz I had worked for the defence in the Oz trial, and the cover of that issue was a montage of pictures of a naked woman in erotic display. In November 1971, three months after the trial, I went to the women’s liberation demonstration outside the Albert Hall, the second against the Miss World competition, and was beginning to feel contradictions exploding inside my head.” (Marsha Rowe, Introduction to the Spare Rib Reader)

At the conclusion of the trial the “OZ Three” were found not guilty on the conspiracy charge, but they were convicted of two lesser offences and sentenced to imprisonment; although Dennis was given a lesser sentence because the judge, Justice Michael Argyle, considered that Dennis was “very much less intelligent” than the others. Shortly after the verdicts were handed down, they were taken to prison and their long hair forcibly cut, an act which caused an even greater stir on top of the already considerable outcry surrounding the trial and verdict. On August 5th 1971, Neville, Anderson and Dennis were sentenced to prison terms of 15 months, 12 months and 9 months respectively, and Anderson and Neville to be deported at the end of sentence.

The best known images of the trial come from the committal hearing, at which Neville, Dennis and Anderson all appeared, wearing rented schoolgirl costumes.

At the appeal trial (where the defendants appeared wearing long wigs) it was found that Justice Argyle had grossly misdirected the jury on numerous occasions and the defence also alleged that Berger, who was called as a prosecution witness, had been harassed and assaulted by police. The convictions were overturned. Years later, Felix Dennis told author Jonathon Green that on the night before the appeal was heard, the OZ editors were taken to a secret meeting with the Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, who reportedly said that Argyle had made a “fat mess” of the trial, and informed them that they would be acquitted, but insisted that they had to agree to give up work on OZ. Dennis also stated that, in his opinion, MPs Tony Benn and Michael Foot had interceded with Widgery on their behalf.

The sentences of up to 15 months’ imprisonment were quashed on appeal), sales hit 100,000, the magazine moved to swanky offices off Tottenham Court Road. Whatever the truth of their supposed undertaking to Lord Widgery, OZ continued after the trial, and thanks to the intense public interest the trial generated, its circulation briefly rose to 80,000. However its popularity faded over the next two years and by the time the last issue (OZ No.48) was published in November 1973 Oz Publications was £20,000 in debt and the magazine had “no readership worth the name”.

In her ‘Oz Trial Post-Mortem’, unpublished until collected in The Madwoman’s Underclothes (1986), Germaine Greer accused the magazine of naïve untimeliness:

“Before repressive tolerance became a tactic of the past, Oz could fool itself and its readers that, for some people at least, the alternative society already existed. Instead of developing a political analysis of the state we live in, instead of undertaking the patient and unsparing job of education which must precede even a pre-revolutionary situation, Oz behaved as though the revolution had already happened.”

Felix Dennis rose to become one of Britain’s wealthiest and most prominent independent publishers as owner of Dennis Publishing (publisher of Maxim and other magazines)

Neville eventually returned to Australia, where he has become a successful author, commentator and public speaker.

All issues of Oz are now online here

Here’s an interesting site looking at the case


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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