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
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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.