Ed Miliband struggles to put rift stories behind him

"Nonsense, nonsense, that's nonsense. It's nonsense."

This morning's Independent on Sunday has two Father's Day gifts for dad of two, Ed Miliband: one welcome, the other not.

The first is a bullish interview with the Labour leader -- "No regrets. No crisis. Ed Miliband hits back". The second is a ComRes poll which has Labour neck-and-neck* with the Tories and, more worryingly, gives Miliband a net approval rating of -27 when respondents are asked if he is "turning out to be a good leader for the Labour Party". The latter figure is down ten points on a month ago.

The interview offers Miliband a chance to respond to some of the claims made in a new biography "ED: The Milibands and the making of a Labour leader" by James Macintyre and Mehdi Hasan, my former and present colleagues respectively.

One of the more explosive passages of the book suggests that while Ed Miliband recalls being open and honest about his intention to stand for leadership 13 months ago, David Miliband remembers things somewhat differently. Asked about these inconsistencies, Ed Miliband tells the IoS:

I'm not going to get into the detail of this. What we both agree on is that we talked before both our candidacies were declared and talked to him about the position too and we're both on the same page on that.

Yet it is in the detail where you will find the root of the unease between the two. As Mehdi writes in this week's New Statesman, drawing on his book:

Ed says he went to David's home in Primrose Hill, north London, on the evening of 12 May ... to inform him of his own decision to stand. In a story that Ed has since repeated to friends and in interviews, he says David was polite and understanding. "I'd rather you didn't run," David is said to have remarked. "I'd rather have a campaign where my brother is supporting me, if I'm really honest." But he then added: "I don't want me to be the reason you don't stand, so I think you should do it.

Or did he? Today, neither David nor Ed can agree on when or even if this crucial meeting occurred. David is emphatic there was no such meeting: his younger brother did not set foot in his house that week.

Another assertion -- that the brothers' wives Justine and Louise fell out over the leadership contest -- is dismissed as:

Nonsense, nonsense, that's nonsense. It's nonsense. David and Louise were at our wedding a few weeks ago, and we had a great day. It was great that they were there and enjoyed themselves.

(As the IoS's Jane Merrick points out, however, David and Louise didn't attend the North London party that followed the ceremony.)

Elsewhere this morning there is no shortage of advice for the younger Miliband. Martin Ivens, writing in the Sunday Times (£), argues that Labour need to fight the coalition from the centre where they would represent a far more threatening foe than from the left. He writes:

The perverse effect of [the unions'] left-wing militancy has been to unite Cameron's and Clegg's warring troops against a common enemy. The Liberal Democrats owe the unions nothing -- they have never donated to the party's coffers -- and despise them as political dinosaurs. The Conservatives, wobbling like jellies over health, have every reason to show some backbone in a popular cause.

Meanwhile in the Sunday Telegraph, Matthew d'Ancona poses the following questions:

Was its engagement with New Labour, to borrow Blair's own language, "passionate" or merely "tactical"? Is Ed Miliband right to believe that you can shift the centre ground of politics when you are in Opposition? And is his renunciation of New Labour a step into the past or a handshake with the future?

*A YouGov/Sunday Times poll has better news for Labour (on 42 per cent), a five point lead of the Conservatives (37 per cent). The Liberal Democrats are back on 10 per cent.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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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