The Murdoch press won't back Labour. Will anyone?

As News International's titles prepare to defect, Brown can only count on the support of the Mirror

It has been clear for some time that the Murdoch press, so assiduously courted by New Labour, will throw its weight behind the Conservatives at the next election.

The Sun and the Times's support for the Tories in last month's European elections and their endorsement of Boris Johnson as London mayor last year suggests that both are preparing to abandon Labour at the general election for the first time since 1992.

Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Sunday Times, who worked alongside Rupert Murdoch for many years, has argued that the government's more redistributive approach means there is "no doubt" that News International's titles will endorse the Conservatives.

In addition, the Daily Telegraph's Christopher Hope recently reported that the fierce criticism of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson by the Guardian over the phone-hacking scandal had persuaded Murdoch to back Coulson's new boss, David Cameron, at the next election.

The News Corporation head and his ideological guru, Irwin Stelzer, were initially sceptical of Cameron and attracted to Gordon Brown. Both were impressed by Brown's intellect, his work ethic and his religious commitment.

Murdoch, a strong opponent of monarchy and aristocracy, and nostalgic for the days when Margaret Thatcher's cabinet contained "more old Estonians than old Etonians", was also reluctant to support a man with a background as privileged as Cameron's.

As John Rentoul writes in his column today:

One thing Rupert and James (Murdoch) do seem to share is an anti-establishment mentality, a resentment against British snobbery directed against their family business: they have no affinity for someone of Cameron's background.

But as Brown's woes have multiplied such doubts appear to have been buried.

There are those who argue that newspaper endorsements are of little consequence; fewer people are reading papers and few have ever read the leaders in which endorsements are made.

Yet crucially such editorial judgements come to shape a paper's general news coverage, as embarrassing stories are amplified or diminished accordingly. The winning party can also count on a fair hearing from the relevant titles once in government. In this regard, it must be a matter of some concern to Brown's aides that Labour appears to be losing the support of much of Fleet Street .

Besides the News International titles, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express (which rescinded its support for New Labour in 2005) can naturally be relied upon to rally behind Cameron, while Brown's famously warm relationship with Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, has failed to deter that paper's increasingly visceral attacks on Labour.

The Financial Times, which has backed Labour since the 1992 election, is known to be prepared to support the Tories but as the most Europhile title on Fleet Street its anger over Cameron's fierce Euroscepticism may yet prevent such a defection.

The Guardian cannot credibly endorse Labour so long as Brown remains leader, having called on the party to force him out. There is even less chance of an endorsement from the Independent, which is likely to call for a hung parliament or support the Liberal Democrats.

Only the Daily Mirror can be relied upon to offer Labour unambiguous support at the next election.

The migration of the press towards the Tories is likely to become more, not less, explicit as the election draws closer. The left may have been resigned to right-wing dominance of the media for decades but even so, the flight of the press from Labour can only further damage the morale of an increasingly desperate party.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times