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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle