This censored isle

Our very British attitude to porn.

There's a reason that the story of King Canute is so familiar.  The image of a monarch vainly trying to hold back the inflowing sea resonates strongly because that is the way in which authorities in this country have always behaved.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the history of official attempts to to stem the tide of (usually foreign) erotic literature and film. 

In the legend, Canute was trying to make the point that, king though he was, he remained a mortal.  He was demonstrating the folly of his courtiers' flattery.  His successors, though, have rarely demonstrated such wisdom.  No doubt because Great Britain is an island, the authorities -- politicians, police, customs officials, film censors -- have tended to behave as though it is possible to preseve the country inviolate: a censored isle set in a sinful sea.  They may only have been delaying the inevitable, but it was at times a very long delay.

In the repressive 1950s, works by such authors as Henry Miller had to be printed abroad and smuggled into Brtain, where they were liable to be seized by the police.  Copies of Madame Bovary and even Moll Flanders were burned on the orders of overzealous local magistrates, along with more than 30,000 "saucy" seaside postcards in 1953 alone.  A new Obscene Publications Act in 1959 introduced a defence of artistic merit, famously tested the following year with the prosecution of Lady Chatterley's Lover, DH Lawrence's novel first published (in Italy) in 1928.  That case is remembered as a great watershed in the history of British censorship, the moment when a new age of permissiveness dawned, or else when the floodgates opened to an unstoppable tide of pornography and moral degeneration.  But it can equally be seen as one stage in a much longer struggle for control over what people in the UK were allowed to read, see and even think.

Looking back, the forces of liberalisation might seem to have prevailed.  One wonders what Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC, who asked the Lady Chatterley jury whether they would want their wives or servants to read the book, would have made of Fifty Shades of Grey, to say nothing of the hardcore material that can be accessed in almost every modern home with a couple of clicks of a mouse.  But the censors did not simply give up in 1960.  They merely turned their attention to other things. 

Offical censorship was always imposed in the name of public standards of decency, yet the British public has often been more liberal than their rulers.  One of the striking features of prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act, which are now extremely rare, has been a repeated reluctance by juries to convict.  The Lady Chatterley case was thrown out.  So, at the start of this year, was the attempt to convict Michael Peacock for distributing videos featuring anal fisting.  It was because it became almost impossible to secure convictions, rather than any official permissiveness, that OPA prosecutions of the written word died out. (One problem, according to the late John Mortimer, who acted as defence barrister in OPA cases, is that it was difficult to find anyone who would admit to having been "depraved and corrupted" by reading a book.)  As for the moving image, the British Board of Film Classification conducts regular surveys to check that its guidelines bear at least an approximate relationship to popular taste, and usually discovers that adults are less horrified by depictions of sex and nudity than they expected.

The BBFC held the line against explicit sexual imagery until the late 1990s.  Thirty years after hardcore pornography became widely available in Europe it was still officially banned in Britain, even from sale in sex shops.  An experiment in liberalisation was eventually given the green light by Michael Howard as Home Secretary.  The theory, as the former BBFC director James Ferman told a 1998 edition of Panorama, was to "draw the line between sexual portrayals which are simply within the range of normal sexual practice and sexual portrayals which are degrading particularly bestiality or lavatorial practices or force, or violence or restraint".  But, in a foretaste of the moralism that was to come, the incoming Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw called a halt, describing Ferman's attempt to distinguish standard porn fare from the extreme variety as "circular and risible".

Ironically, that is precisely what his government went on to do in its 2008 legislation against "extreme pornography", defined as anything involving animals, dead bodies or threat of "serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals".  The BBFC, for its part, now allows sex to be shown in "sex works" (and arthouse movies, preferably in French, intended for viewing by an elite audience of middle class film buffs) but continues to cut scenes of sexual violence and other material that it considers obscene, including fisting and urination. (In one typical case, a distributor was offered a choice between keeping the sex and removing the urination, and keeping the urination but removing the sex.  They couldn't have both.)

That the forces of official censorship have moved from banning works of literature featuring rude words (or even seaside postcards) to cutting out scenes of erotic strangulation from porn videos may suggest that there has been a headlong retreat from the overt moralism of the 1950s.  Now censors and proponents of censorship cite potential harm to viewers, rather than public morality, as justification for banning things.  Harm, though, remains ill-defined, and British censorship remains by modern Western standards fairly strict.  Last year it banned outright a US horror film The Bunny Game, citing its "strict policy on sexual violence and rape".  The DVD is now on sale in the USA and in continental Europe, with "Banned in Britain" featuring strongly in the publicity material.  Are British people uniquely vulnerable to such harm?

It seems that someone thinks so.  The view from the Daily Mail has always been of a conspiracy by liberal elites to unleash a tide of depravity on an innocent and unwilling British populace -- with only themselves, or eccentric campaigners such as the late Mary Whitehouse, standing between ordinary people and the deluge of filth.  Yet official censoriousness and desire for control has been remarkably consistent.  Regulated sectors such as broadcasting and adversing still enforce standards of "decency" that are, by international standards, remarkably strict.  The interent might, as yet, be beyond the censors' control.  That's what makes it so frightening, and so tempting for lawmakers.  But the Canutes haven't given up just yet.

Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's offer to EU citizens leaves the 3 million with unanswered questions

So many EU citizens, so little time.

Ahead of the Brexit negotiations with the 27 remaining EU countries, the UK government has just published its pledges to EU citizens living in the UK, listing the rights it will guarantee them after Brexit and how it will guarantee them. The headline: all 3 million of the country’s EU citizens will have to apply to a special “settled status” ID card to remain in the UK after it exist the European Union.

After having spent a year in limbo, and in various occasions having been treated by the same UK government as bargaining chips, this offer will leave many EU citizens living in the UK (this journalist included) with more questions than answers.

Indisputably, this is a step forward. But in June 2017 – more than a year since the EU referendum – it is all too little, too late. 

“EU citizens are valued members of their communities here, and we know that UK nationals abroad are viewed in the same way by their host countries.”

These are words the UK’s EU citizens needed to hear a year ago, when they woke up in a country that had just voted Leave, after a referendum campaign that every week felt more focused on immigration.

“EU citizens who came to the UK before the EU Referendum, and before the formal Article 50 process for exiting the EU was triggered, came on the basis that they would be able to settle permanently, if they were able to build a life here. We recognise the need to honour that expectation.”

A year later, after the UK’s Europeans have experienced rising abuse and hate crime, many have left as a result and the ones who chose to stay and apply for permanent residency have seen their applications returned with a letter asking them to “prepare to leave the country”, these words seem dubious at best.

To any EU citizen whose life has been suspended for the past year, this is the very least the British government could offer. It would have sounded a much more sincere offer a year ago.

And it almost happened then: an editorial in the Evening Standard reported last week that Theresa May, then David Cameron’s home secretary, was the reason it didn’t. “Last June, in the days immediately after the referendum, David Cameron wanted to reassure EU citizens they would be allowed to stay,” the editorial reads. “All his Cabinet agreed with that unilateral offer, except his Home Secretary, Mrs May, who insisted on blocking it.” 

"They will need to apply to the Home Office for permission to stay, which will be evidenced through a residence document. This will be a legal requirement but there is also an important practical reason for this. The residence document will enable EU citizens (and their families) living in the UK to demonstrate to third parties (such as employers or providers of public services) that they have permission to continue to live and work legally in the UK."

The government’s offer lacks details in the measures it introduces – namely, how it will implement the registration and allocation of a special ID card for 3 million individuals. This “residence document” will be “a legal requirement” and will “demonstrate to third parties” that EU citizens have “permission to continue to live and work legally in the UK.” It will grant individuals ““settled status” in UK law (indefinite leave to remain pursuant to the Immigration Act 1971)”.

The government has no reliable figure for the EU citizens living in the UK (3 million is an estimation). Even “modernised and kept as smooth as possible”, the administrative procedure may take a while. The Migration Observatory puts the figure at 140 years assuming current procedures are followed; let’s be optimistic and divide by 10, thanks to modernisation. That’s still 14 years, which is an awful lot.

To qualify to receive the settled status, an individual must have been resident in the UK for five years before a specified (although unspecified by the government at this time) date. Those who have not been a continuous UK resident for that long will have to apply for temporary status until they have reached the five years figure, to become eligible to apply for settled status.

That’s an application to be temporarily eligible to apply to be allowed to stay in the UK. Both applications for which the lengths of procedure remain unknown.

Will EU citizens awaiting for their temporary status be able to leave the country before they are registered? Before they have been here five years? How individuals will prove their continuous employment or housing is undisclosed – what about people working freelance? Lodgers? Will proof of housing or employment be enough, or will both be needed?

Among the many other practicalities the government’s offer does not detail is the cost of such a scheme, although it promises to “set fees at a reasonable level” – which means it will definitely not be free to be an EU citizen in the UK (before Brexit, it definitely was.)

And the new ID will replace any previous status held by EU citizens, which means even holders of permanent citizenship will have to reapply.

Remember that 140 years figure? Doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?

0800 7318496