Making sure the green shoots don’t wither away

The UK may be in recovery, writes Scott Barnes, but how can we keep it that way?

Recent third quarter GDP figures for the UK showed a growth of 1.0 per cent, however when these figures were announced, many commentators were keen to point out that discounting this summer’s Olympic Games and Diamond Jubilee spending, the economy has remained stagnant year on year. Although this is a continuation of the current pessimism around the UK economy, the question is whether when you take a closer look at the situation, this is justified. 

Some recent research undertaken by us in conjunction with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that mid-sized businesses have actually, for the most part, been growing well during the past few years of economic stagnation. After taking a closer look at this growth, it found that mid-sized businesses have been able to boost their productivity, with turnover per employee 18 per cent higher than the UK average, and as a result increase their turnover by £25.7bn over the past year. 

In addition, the third quarter of 2012 company liquidations were down 2.8 per cent from the previous quarter, and 6.6 per cent less than the same quarter in 2011. One of the major factors behind this is that the current low interest rates mean that struggling businesses are better able to service their loans and pay off the interest. As a result, banks are less concerned about calling the loan in. Those businesses that can’t afford to tackle the debt itself are given a bit more breathing space, allowing them to concentrate on growing revenue, rather than struggling to meet loan payments. 

The latest quarterly Business Confidence Monitor from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales and Grant Thornton shows that business confidence is actually higher in regions outside of London and the South East. There have been some encouraging initiatives recently from the Government and it will be interesting to see how this glimmer of regional confidence is affected by the recent review by Lord Heseltine and the Coalition Government’s "City Deals" plan. Together, these schemes have called for more government funds to be diverted to regional governments and greater powers for mayors to support this entrepreneurialism and dynamism across the UK.

The pervading economic climate continues to be a proving ground for companies, with those that are still in business emerging lean, organised and efficient. Businesses are taking a fundamental look at how their business is run in order to weather the worst of the economic storm. Clear effective governance, robust planning and attention to financial levers mean they are now equipped to deal with this kind of environment. 

Before businesses start to invest again, economic confidence needs to come from somewhere, and the government must shout about how well we’re doing, and keep providing support for British businesses. If just a fraction of the estimated £720bn of cash reserves in British businesses was invested back into the economy, business investment would return to pre-crisis levels. While the "new normal" means we have to adjust our growth expectations, confidence is needed to ensure the recent economic growth doesn't just prove to be an anomaly and continues.

Green shoots. Photograph: Getty Images

Scott Barnes is the CEO of Grant Thornton UK.

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