Police obscenity squad raid Saatchi gallery: Scotland fascism

10 Mar 2001

Police obscenity squad raid Saatchi gallery

Special report: child protection

Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Saturday March 10, 2001
The Guardian

The Saatchi gallery has been raided by officers from Scotland Yard's obscene publications unit and warned that they will return to seize pictures in its current exhibition, I am a Camera, unless the offending images are removed before the gallery opens its doors to the public again.

The Metropolitan police confirmed last night that officers had visited the gallery twice this week after three complaints under anti-child pornography legislation and a report was being forward to the crown prosecution service.

The exhibition features the work of a group of artists and photographers selected by Charles Saatchi himself and taken from his personal collection of photographs and paintings. It has been running for eight weeks and has been reviewed in most of the broadsheet papers and magazines from the Tatler to the Telegraph, without any public complaints to the gallery.

The police have also warned a London international fine art publisher, Edward Booth-Clibborn, to remove from sale thousands of copies of his book I am a Camera, on which the exhibition is based, by next Thursday or he will also face the threat of prosecution. "The police told me that they want them 'all out' of the bookstores," he said.

The images at the centre of the police action against the gallery involve two photographs by Tierney Gearon, a former fashion photographer, in a series of 15 snapshot-style images that document her personal family life. They both depict her two children, Emily and Michael, aged six and four, naked or partly naked while playing. In one the two children are wearing theatrical masks while in the other her son is urinating in the snow. The police have also voiced concerns about a small photograph by Nan Goldin on page 50 of the 499-page book, which also features pictures by Tracey Emin and Andy Warhol.

Inspector Brian Ward of Scotland Yard's obscene publications and internet unit first visited the gallery "as a member of the public" to see the photographs on display before he went to the gallery in St John's Wood, north London, on Thursday for a second time with other officers to confront the curator. He told them he would return with a warrant to seize the pictures if they were not removed before the gallery reopens to the public next Thursday.

The Met would not confirm last night that it was acting after a complaint from a Sunday newspaper but Insp Ward told the gallery's curator, Jenny Blythe, and Mr Booth-Clibborn that he was acting after receiving complaints from the press and members of the public. A Met spokeswoman said there had been three separate complaints but was not prepared to discuss who had made them.

Within hours of the inspector's second visit, Tierney Gearon, the photographer in question, was visited by two journalists at her home address initially claiming they were from the Telegraph. They gained entry while she was out by claiming they had an appointment. The News of the World last night denied that it was behind the complaint to the police or had visited the artist's home.

Ms Blythe of Saatchis said the gallery had been shocked by the police's action and vigorously denied that the photographs in question were in any way pornographic. "I was so surprised I could not quite believe it," she said. "They are funny and delightful. Tierney Gearon is totally devoted to her children. They are snapshots of her children at play. They are not depraved in any way."

A leading lawyer on freedom of expression, Geoffrey Robertson, is believed to have advised the gallery that what it faces amounts to censorship by police threat and that the depiction of children without sexual overtones is not indecent.

The police are understood to have taken legal advice before raiding the gallery and are acting under the 1978 Protection of Children Act, which makes it a criminal offence to take an indecent photograph of a child. Police questioned the ITN newsreader Julia Somerville under the act in 1995 over pictures she took of her seven-year-old daughter in the bath. The CPS took no action.

Mr Booth-Clibborn's book is on sale in bookshops throughout Britain and also in America, Japan and Germany. One of the controversial photographs features on the cover of the British edition. He said that police suggested he cut out the pages that contained the photographs.

The raid is the first on an art gallery since the obscene publications squad seized pictures by John Lennon and others in the late 1960s.


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