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“I think the dead are with us”: John Berger at 88

The work of John Berger, who has died aged 90, represents a challenge. How to describe a writer whose bibliography contains ten “novels”, four “plays”, three collections of “poetry” and 33 books labelled “other”?

In 1967, while working with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr on A Fortunate Man, a book about a country GP serving a deprived community in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, John Berger began to reconsider what the role of a writer should be. “He does more than treat [his patients] when they are ill,” Berger wrote of John Sassall, a man whose proximity to suffering and poverty deeply affected him (he later committed suicide). The rural doctor assumes a democratic function, in Berger’s eyes, one he describes in consciously literary terms. “He is the objective witness of their lives,” he says. “The clerk of their records.”

The next five years marked a transition in Berger’s life. By 1972, when the groundbreaking art series Ways of Seeing aired on BBC television, Berger had been living on the Continent for over a decade. He won the Booker Prize for his novel G. the same year, announcing to an astonished audience at the black-tie ceremony in London that he would divide his prize money between the Black Panther Party (he denounced Booker McConnell’s historic links with plantations and indentured labour in the Caribbean) and the funding of his next project with Mohr, A Seventh Man, recording the experiences of migrant workers across Europe.

This is the point at which, for some in England, Berger became a more distant figure. He moved from Switzerland to a remote village in the French Alps two years later. “He thinks and feels what the community incoherently knows,” Berger wrote of Sassall, the “fortunate man”. After time spent working on A Seventh Man, those words were just as applicable to the writer himself. It was Berger who had become a “clerk”, collecting stories from the voiceless and dispossessed – peasants, migrants, even animals – a self-effacing role he would continue to occupy for the next 43 years.

The life and work of John Berger represents a challenge. How best to describe the output of a writer whose bibliography, according to Wikipedia, contains ten “novels”, four “plays”, three collections of “poetry” and 33 books labelled “other”?

“A kind of vicarious autobiography and a history of our time as refracted through the prism of art,” is how the writer Geoff Dyer introduced a selection of Berger’s non-fiction in 2001, though the category doesn’t quite fit. “To separate fact and ­imagination, event and feeling, protagonist and narrator, is to stay on dry land and never put to sea,” Berger wrote in 1991 in a manifesto (of sorts) inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book he first read, in French, at the age of 14.

Berger’s influence in the literary and wider artistic worlds is a little easier to measure. “He is the lodestar of the contemporary literary experience,” the Irish novelist Colum McCann tells me. “I cannot imagine my bookshelves without him. The other writers would collapse.” Susan Sontag described him as “peerless” for his ability to merge “attentiveness to the sensual world” with “the imperatives of conscience”, though Berger himself prefers to be described, simply, as “a storyteller”. Social and political commentary, subjective response and aesthetic theory are the ­basic elements of much of what he writes – but it all begins with seeing.

When I arrive, wet, to meet Berger at a house in Paris one recent gloomy morning, he looks concerned. “You’re cold!” he says, urging me to sit down by the radiator while he disappears into the kitchen to make coffee.

 

***

 

Born in Hackney, London, in 1926, John Berger was sent to boarding school at the age of six. He was away from his parents for ten months of the year, an experience he has described as “monstrous”. “That school in Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . was the Côte d’Azur compared to those places,” he told the Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan in 2005.

“I was, in a way, alone in the world,” he says as we settle down at the dining room table. “I don’t say that very pathetically. I just took it as a fact of life. But being like that means you listen to others, because you are seeking landmarks to orient yourself in relation to – and, unlike what most people think, storytelling does not begin with inventing, it begins with listening.”

Berger left St Edward’s School in ­Oxford when he was 16. He refused an officer’s commission with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, after which he was posted to Ballykelly, Northern Ireland. In 1946, he enrolled at the Chelsea School of Art under the tutelage of Henry Moore, whom he rounded on less than a decade later, referring to the sculptor’s work in a review in the New Statesman as a “meaningless mess”. Though he rejects the title of “art critic” because it “suggests somebody deciding how many marks out of 20 to give”, he began to write regularly about art and culture for the NS and other publications in the early 1950s.

“It wasn’t easy,” he recalls. “Every Monday at 11am, I would go up the stairs to the office with my pages and fight to get them to publish what I brought in.” The piece on Moore, for instance, provoked outrage among NS readers. (Stephen Spender wrote to the editor that Berger’s work was like “a foghorn in a fog”, to which Berger duly replied: “Assuming that a poet always picks his images carefully, I must thank him for the compliment. For what, in a fog, could [be] more useful?”) This was an art world governed by connoisseurs, collectors and “experts”, the very crowd whom Berger later denounced in Ways of Seeing as marshalling “the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline”.

“It wasn’t so bad,” he says of his first regular writing job with the NS. “There was coffee.” The magazine’s then editor, Kingsley Martin, was “difficult to describe because there aren’t people like that any more: very open, tall, worn face, in his way a militant and a puritan. I respected him long before I wrote for the paper.”

One day, Martin called Berger into his office. “He said, ‘Look, John, I’ve decided I want to learn to draw. I’m retiring now. Do you know anybody who could help me?’ And I said, ‘Yes, let me try, I think I can.’ So, every ten days or so, I would visit Kingsley in his flat, which was off the Strand, and encourage him. This considerably changed my position on the paper, because when I went in with the next little piece and there was another argument (which I wasn’t ­winning), I would say, ‘Could I go round and see Kingsley and see what he thinks?’ He didn’t always support me but most of the time he did – and my life became easier.”

Berger spent his years in London among political refugees, European Marxists such as the Hungarian art historian Frederick Antal and the French-born painter Peter de Francia, who had fled the Nazis in Belgium. “The hierarchy of British authorities did not impress them because they’d seen something harder and fought it,” Berger says. “I think I learned from them, not exactly confidence, but a kind of indifference, a refusal to be intimidated.”

In 1962, after four years in rural Gloucestershire (where he first met and became friends with John Sassall), Berger moved to Geneva, where he was introduced to Jean Mohr by the Swiss film-maker Alain Tanner. Berger wanted to learn to take photographs and Mohr had offered to teach him. “I quickly lost interest,” he recalls. “I noticed that when you take a photograph, you stop looking at what you’ve shot. I was more interested in looking. I think I gave my camera away.”

Berger, who is 88, is wearing a navy fleece and baggy corduroy trousers, his smooth white hair standing upright. He concentrates intently on our conversation. Too intently, perhaps: he has left the gas burning on the stove.

Oh, merde! Oh, no!” he calls out, hurrying back into the kitchen.

“Remember that, up to the age of 30, I was a painter,” he says, scrubbing the base of the blackened kettle with hot water and soap. “I’d spend my days in a room I called a studio, drawing and painting. I don’t paint any more but I draw frequently . . . I live enormously through my eyes. The visible is simply a very important part of my experience of being in this world.”

In 1974, he relocated to the French hamlet of Quincy, nestled in the Alps with a clear view of Mont Blanc, living and working among agricultural labourers – or “peasants”, the term Berger prefers and uses without the slightest whiff of urban condescension. He remained in Quincy with his son Yves and his American wife, Beverly Bancroft (who died in 2013) for more than 40 years.

Today Berger continues to draw, speak publicly and write what he calls “notes”. Surprisingly, there has been no ­biography. The facts are often difficult to secure – something that may not be accidental. “If someone asked, I’d say, ‘I can’t stop you but I’m not collaborating.’” I ask why. “I’m all for the diffusion of what I’ve written,” Berger says, “but my own story doesn’t interest me.” He pauses. “There’s a risk of egocentricity. And to storytellers, egocentricity is boring.”

 

***

 

The house where we meet, in a suburb on the outskirts of ­the city, belongs to Nella Bielski: a writer and actress born in the Soviet ­Union and an old friend of Berger’s. “How long have you been in Paris?” I ask her, over a lunch of smoked eel, blini, devilled eggs and lamb’s lettuce salad. “Fifty years,” she says. “The longer I stay, the more Russian I feel.”

As the water boils for a second pot of coffee, Berger lays out a series of illustrations that have arrived in the morning’s post (along with his daily newspaper, the communist L’Humanité). “They’re by a friend of mine, a cartoonist of Turkish origin called Selçuk Demirel,” he explains, leafing through the drawings, responses to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. “He wants me to imagine a text to them.”

I had been due to meet Berger at the end of last year at the launch of his Collected Poems, published by the Teesside-based Smokestack Books, but he was forced to cancel because of a painful back. “At my age, that’s nothing,” he says. “It doesn’t get worse. Sometimes it gets better. I’ve used it like hell – haymaking, and so on.” When I remind him of our missed rendezvous in Middlesbrough, a town formerly known for its steel production, he tells a story.

“When I was, oh, in my mid-twenties, I got permission to draw and paint at a ­foundry in Croydon, which cast bells for churches. It was an incredible experience,” he says. “In a foundry like that, because of the risk factor, the complicity between the workers is amazing to see.” I ask how they responded to the young guy loafing in the corner with his easel. “Very well. I went every day during the same hours as the shift. They were working and so was I.”

Among the many pictures on the wall, there is a small watercolour depicting street acrobats in Livorno, Italy. “That’s more or less how I painted at the time,” he says. The image is dynamic – realist and a little romantic but not naturalistic. Along with steelworkers and street performers, the artist Berger painted welders, builders and fishermen. Though his technical approach differed, the choice of subject matter suggests the influence of Caravaggio (“the first painter of life as experienced by the popolaccio, the people of the backstreets”), Picasso and the French cubist Fernand Léger. Berger credits Léger’s treatment of “cities, machinery [and] workers at work” with creating “a new kind of beauty” – a forward-facing art, in “symbolic contrast with the hypocrisy and corruption of the bourgeois world that plunged with self-congratulation and inane confidence into the 1914 war”.

An interest in “the lower depths, the under­world”, led Berger to visit a series of abattoirs in London, Paris and Istanbul in the 1970s. “I didn’t directly write about it,” he says. “I just needed it as part of my awareness of the world. Interestingly enough, the slaughterhouse in Istanbul was the least ruthless of them all. The idea of sacrifice still existed somewhere in the procedures.”

It is difficult to imagine Kenneth Clark, the tweedy aficionado whose stately TV series Civilisation provided the stimulus for making Ways of Seeing, engaged in clandestine research amid the bloodshed at an ­abattoir. “Clark was a good man in his way,” Berger says. “I knew him and we got on quite well. But he totally represented the connoisseur explaining to the populace this is how it is. Ways of Seeing was a collaboration. We wanted people to ask questions. It was the opposite of the ivory tower.”

The series of four 30-minute programmes and the book that followed were an attempt to demystify the history of art and identify the prejudices we unconsciously impose on the act of looking. It has been a staple of ­British art school education ever since.

Berger argued that a critical obsession with form and technique removed paintings from “the plane of lived experience”. Technology – mechanical reproduction – created a “visual language” out of images previously confined to churches and galleries, and with it new possibilities for both control and liberation. (On the last page of the book, following a print of Magritte’s On the Threshold of Liberty, a painting of a cannon facing various conventional canvases and images, are the words: “To be continued by the reader . . .”)

Even in the age of Tumblr, Pinterest and Google Images – not to mention the endlessly reproducible objets licensed out by artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst – the book remains relevant.

“Adults and children sometimes have boards in their bedrooms or living rooms on which they put pieces of paper: letters, snapshots, reproductions of paintings, newspaper cuttings, original drawings, postcards,” Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing. “Logically, these boards should replace museums.”

“That was a long time before digital,” he says now, laughing. (Though Berger uses email only on occasion and prefers to speak on the telephone or to send letters, I had noticed that he had recently been using an ­iPhone. ­Sample text message: “Awaiting u. Laughs & wishes best, John.”) He argues that the internet, like the language of images, “possesses the same duality of possibilities, one opposed to the other, as both an instrument of control by the forces that govern the world – that’s to say, financial capitalism and what I call ‘economic fascism’ – but also for democracy, associating directly with one another, responding in a spontaneous but collective way”.

 

***

 

Midway through the afternoon, we head out to run a few errands. It is still raining. “Even after 30, 40 years, I still have a very strong English accent,” Berger says, as the cashier wraps up two bottles of white wine at the épicerie. “It’s the same thing when I go to London, which isn’t often. I’ll be in a pub and someone will ask me, ‘Where are you from? You speak English very well.’”

I walk back with the groceries and sit with Bielski, who is watching a Rossellini film and chopping vegetables, while Berger attends a physiotherapy class, for his back, at the local municipal pool.

Reading John Berger in 2015 can be disconcerting, not only stylistically – he tends to write in hefty sentences, building an image or idea the way that a draughtsman adds lines to a sketch – but in terms of what we expect to encounter. Contemporary fiction – think Åsne Seierstad’s Bookseller of Kabul or John Boyne’s Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – suggests that empathy and imagination can help the reader understand hardship and injustice. Berger’s is a more materialist outlook. He insists on action.

After A Fortunate Man and his 1972 Booker victory, Berger’s focus began to shift from industrial workers, Léger and Picasso, to rural peasants, Van Gogh and Millet – earlier painters whose work, he claimed, spoke to the present. “Unlike William Morris and other romantic medievalists,” Berger wrote of Millet in 1976, “he did not sentimentalise the village . . . [He sensed] that the poverty of the countryside would be reproduced under a different form in the poverty of the city and its suburbs, and that the market ­created by industrialisation, to which the peasantry was being sacrificed, might one day entail the loss of all sense of history.”

So, art has a historical function, “entirely opposed to art for art’s sake”. It restores to memory that which has been, or is being, eliminated. “During the second half of the 20th century the judgement of history [was] abandoned by all except the underprivileged and dispossessed,” he wrote in a 1978 essay on photography. The focal point, or anchor, for Berger, was the village.

In a 1936 essay, Walter Benjamin identified two kinds of “storyteller”: “someone who has come from afar” and “the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions”. Berger represented both during his years in the Alps, writing Pig Earth (1979), Once in Europa (1987) and Lilac and Flag (1990) – a trilogy of novels about the disappearance of the European peasantry and their culture. Perhaps what connects Ways of Seeing with the lesser-known trilogy is an attempt to reveal what would otherwise remain concealed. “What makes me write is the fear that if I do not write, something which ought to be said will not be,” he explains. “Really, I’m a stopgap man.”

I ask whether the desire to live among people who had access to their shared history lay behind the move to Quincy. “It’s what I discovered when I got there,” he says. “The past is very present to me and has been for a very long time. I first became aware of this quite intensely when I was a teenager, because of the First World War. You see, I think that the dead are with us.”

Berger’s father, Stanley, served as an infantry major in the trenches during the 1914-18 war and was awarded the Military Cross. He remained in the army for a further four years until 1922, organising war graves for the British dead. It was Berger’s mother, Miriam, a working-class woman from ­Bermondsey, London, who helped him to return to civilian life.

“What I’m talking about now is a very ancient part of human awareness. It may even be what defines the human – although it [was] largely forgotten in the second half of the 20th century. The dead are not abandoned. They are kept near physically. They are a presence. What you think you’re looking at on that long road to the past is actually beside you where you stand.”

 

***

 

Before I leave, and having shared several glasses of wine, Berger shows me a box. It is a beautiful object. It has a lid, under which are smaller boxes filled with matches. Each one has a different songbird painted on the top. “Somebody gave me this from Russia,” he says, almost in a whisper. “I was thinking, ‘I want to give it to Rosa Luxemburg, who loved birds and flames.’ So I’m writing a text to send it to her.” Luxemburg, the Polish-German revolutionary, was shot and dumped in a Berlin canal in 1919 but I say, “I’m sure she’ll love it!”

He laughs. Something that surprises people who have read but never met Berger in person is his extraordinary warmth. One reason he has cited for leaving England – other than his hatred of the “class awareness . . . so embedded in British comportment and judgement” – is that the stiff-upper-lipped English considered him “indecently intense”. When I mention this, he simply says that while he can be “angry and outspoken . . . hospitality seems to me to be an incredibly important human capacity. And the first rule of hospitality is to accept the presence of somebody and exchange.”

“Nelska” and “Jeanie” – as Bielski and Berger affectionately call one another – are winding down. Bielski emerges from the kitchen with a bottle of Kir. The conversation turns to politics. With Walter Benjamin’s essay in mind, I mention the indignados (“the outraged”) – the movement of students, the retired, and unemployed public-sector workers whose campaign of personal storytelling led to the creation of the left-wing party Podemos in Spain. Likewise the women of Iran, Turkey and India, for whom public expression has been a vital tool in the fight against ingrained misogyny and violent abuse.

“I follow that and underline it completely,” Berger says, rising to welcome Bielski’s granddaughter Helena, a student at a university in Paris, into the house. “And it’s very important to emphasise how it is something new, opening up a scenario that we can’t quite imagine because it’s very different from those that we know.”

In 2009, Berger donated his personal archive – a collection of letters, drafts and sketches accrued over a lifetime and lovingly stored by his late wife, Beverly, in a stable at Quincy – to the British Library. A few days after I met Berger in Paris, Tom Overton, the researcher who was responsible for cataloguing the archive, explained how the process had worked. “I’d find something and have no idea what it was,” he said. “I’d scan it in and email it over to Beverly. Some time over the next week, often early in the morning or late at night, I’d get a phone call. A familiar voice would begin: ‘Can I tell you a story?’”

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

Mike Lombardo via @moreMiLo
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“I was almost brainwashed by him”: How male YouTubers get away with preying on young fans

A multitude of YouTube stars have been accused of taking advantage of young fans, but little is being done to tackle the problem.

In June, a 24-year-old YouTuber named Austin Jones was charged with two counts of producing images of child abuse. Court documents allege that the internet personality – who has more than half a million subscribers to his YouTube channel – solicited explicit videos from two of his young female fans. According to the criminal complaint, Jones asked one of the teenage girls – known only as Victim B – to dance for him, and said: “Bounce again and smile at the camera while you bounce. And while you bounce, say ‘I’m only 14’ 3 times throughout the video.” Jones has been released on bail and is awaiting trial. Jones’ attorney Gerardo Solon Gutierrez points out that the singer is “innocent until proven guilty”.

A few weeks later, a YouTuber known as Durte Dom was accused of filming a 15-year-old girl from behind while she danced at a party, without her consent. “He filmed my ass dancing,” the girl wrote anonymously on Twitter. Dom responded to the allegations via the social network, writing: “the party was 18+, the girl snuck in. don't fool yourself.” He says he will now “start having people sign release forms” before he films them.

These allegations are not isolated. In 2014, a Tumblr user called Olga accused the YouTuber Tom Milsom of coercing her into sexual activities when she was 15 and he was 21. Milsom did not comment publicly on the accusations and was never charged. Only a month earlier, a YouTube musician, Mike Lombardo, was jailed for five years on child pornography charges after soliciting explicit photographs and videos from 11 of his underage fans. 

These events set off a series of other allegations. Vlogger Alex Day admitted to having “manipulative relationships with women” after 14 women and teenage girls accused him of manipulation and abuse. One anonymous 15-year-old wrote on Tumblr that Day had sex with her knowing she was underage and “didn’t listen to me when I asked to stop”. Day denied any sexual relations with underage girls, and none of his alleged victims pressed charges. Another YouTuber, Ed Blann, admitted in a now-deleted Tumblr post that he “manipulated” an of-age fan into sex even after he was “repeatedly told to stop”. Like Day, Blann never faced any charges, but, also like Day, he apologised for his actions.  

 In September 2014, a 19-year-old woman accused the YouTube prankster Sam Pepper of raping her, and another woman filed a police report accusing him of rape. Pepper denied the accusations, was never arrested and charges were never filed. He did, however, apologise for YouTube pranks that included pinching women’s behinds while wearing a fake hand.

A Tumblr post set up to track emotional and sexual abuse in the YouTube community to date features allegations against 43 YouTubers.

***

Social media revolutionised the concept of celebrity – and celebrity-fan interactions. YouTubers are both incredibly adored and incredibly accessible. Products they design sell out overnight and their live events fill arenas. At the same time, fans are often just a few clicks away from engaging in private, one-on-one conversations with their heroes.

“I feel like I was kind of blinded to the whole situation, like I was almost brainwashed by him,” says Ashley LaPrade, a 16-year-old who claims that when she was 15, Austin Jones coerced her into creating sexualised videos on the messaging app Kik. She posted screenshots of their conversations on social media after the news of Jones’s arrest broke.

“It was kind of casual at first and he asked me to model his merchandise for him... so I did. I took a couple pictures and I’m a gymnast so I was trying to like impress him and I did like splits and stuff,” she says. She alleges that Jones asked her to film herself from behind while bending down or dancing. “I didn't want to upset him and make him not like me,” she says.

LaPrade explains that as a young 15-year-old fan she “looked up” to Jones and was initially excited by his interest in her. After she began to feel uncomfortable with his requests, they stopped talking, but she continued to listen to his music and go to his concerts. She says that she only realised the severity of his actions after his arrest.

Many young fans like Ashley are initially unable to comprehend that anything wrong – legally or morally – has happened to them. Neesey Pathan is a 20-year-old student and YouTuber who claims she was sexually harassed by Sam Pepper hen she was 15. In 2014, she posted a YouTube video of her allegations, showing screenshots of alleged conversations with Pepper in which he asks her to “do a naked a dance” and show him her cleavage.

“As a young naïve 15-year old girl, I just wanted to keep talking to him because I was a huge fan,” Neesey tells me. “When he started to get inappropriate with me, at the time that made me feel uncomfortable but I didn’t understand how serious that was, because of how young I was.

“I wanted him to stop being inappropriate with me but I didn't want him to stop speaking to me.”

***

Since the concept of celebrity was invented, nefarious individuals have used their fame to manipulate and take sexual advantage of young fans. In the 1970s, Lori Mattix was a “baby groupie” to musicians – alleging in a Thrillist article that she lost her virginity to David Bowie aged just 14. When the guitarist Ted Nugent couldn’t legally marry 17-year-old Pele Massa, he became her guardian instead. Anna Garcia met Prince aged 15 and began a relationship with him aged 17. “I guess it’s kind of a dream to a young girl of 17,” she said in the Nineties. “You can be influenced very easily and stuff like that because he’s 12-13 years older than me.”

It now seems as though a slew of YouTubers have taken advantage of this imbalanced fan-creator relationship, and have deliberately exploited the naivety of their young fans. Ashley and Neesey both claim they were emotionally manipulated.

“I think I put him on this pedestal, which put him in a position to very easily manipulate me and get what he wanted,” says Neesey. “I was just so excited to get to speak to someone who I had looked up to for a long time.”

Ashley claims that when she wouldn’t film increasingly explicit videos for Jones, he treated her coldly. “He went on about how he was in a bad mood now and he didn’t want to talk any more,” she says. “If I did something wrong to him, like if I didn’t blow a kiss or something, then he would make me redo [the video].”

In 2015, Jones was first accused of asking his underage fans to film themselves twerking. In a video entitled “Setting The Record Straight”, he admitted to asking for the twerking videos and said he became suicidal after this news became public. “I’m a pretty insecure person... I began researching different suicide methods. I started planning my suicide. It’s something I was very, very serious about,” he says in the video. 

“A lot of times when we were talking he was talking about how he was going to therapy so I kind of felt bad for him and that’s why I didn't really say anything [to the authorities],” says Ashley.

The American National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines on its website that threatening suicide can be a form of emotional abuse. “If your partner regularly threatens suicide, particularly whenever you’re not doing something he or she wants you to do, or when you’re trying to leave the relationship... this is a form of emotional abuse.”

According to Neesey’s screenshots, Pepper flippantly mentioned he was “suicidal” when she refused to show him her breasts. In Olga’s blogpost about Tom Milsom, she alleges: “he’d like sob and cut himself in front of me he threatened weird suicidal shit a lot”.

“Obviously, if someone is saying to you that they're suicidal, you want to help them, because obviously they don't mean it but as a young person you think they do,” explains Neesey. “And you don't want to be held responsible for them hurting themselves and you maybe care about this person because you’ve been watching them for so long. So you’re manipulated into carrying on contact with them because if you don’t, what will happen...” 

***

To date, Lombardo is the only YouTuber who has ever been jailed for sexually abusing his fans. There are a multitude of reasons for this. Some victims are too afraid to press charges, fearing backlash from a YouTuber’s fandom. Many victims are unable to see the severity of their abuse until they are older. More still are manipulated into silence. Parents can’t comprehend YouTube stardom, and fail to understand what is happening in their children’s lives. Some victims simply don’t know which authorities to turn to.

“I'm kind of steaming about this whole issue,” says Michelle LaPrade, Ashley’s mother. “I can’t even look at a picture of the guy. It makes me want to punch him.”

At the time, Ashley never told her mother about Jones’s behaviour, but Michelle overheard conversations about it between her daughter and her friends. “I feel like a bad mother. I never even really investigated it. Because I know girls and their drama and you know, [they] overreact sometimes.”

After Jones’s arrest, Michelle wanted to report his interactions with Ashley to the authorities, but she found her local police department unhelpful. “I don't know who to turn to,” she says.

Many more victims are unaware that a crime has even occurred. “When I was 15 I didn't see how problematic it was,” says Neesey. “I knew it was a bit strange, and I did feel uncomfortable, but I didn't realise that he was actually sort of committing a crime in terms of asking a minor, as an adult, to do these things...

“It wouldn't even have crossed my mind to go to the police.”

While the UK has the large-scale Operation Yewtree into sexual abuse by celebrities, there is no equivalent for YouTube. Despite the multitude of allegations spanning half a decade, there is no single helpline or dedicated investigation into YouTube abuse. When questioned on this, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“We cannot allow social media platforms to be looked upon as a safe space for predators to target our children and share indecent images. It is vital that communication service providers have easily identifiable reporting systems for people to flag inappropriate or illegal content – and that they are clear about what is and isn’t allowed on their sites.”

A YouTube spokesperson said: “We have clear policies against harassment and we enforce these policies by removing both flagged content and comments that break our rules as well as terminating the accounts of repeat offenders.”

Sam Pepper is still on YouTube, where his channel has over two million subscribers. Alex Day returned to YouTube in December 2015, and now has over 80,000 subscribers. Austin Jones’s YouTube channel remains live, though he is not allowed to use social media before his trial.

***

“I feel like it is really hard to be taken seriously,” says Ashley. On social media, people are prone to victim-blaming Ashley and other alleged victims, saying that they should have stopped replying to the YouTubers harassing them. “Yeah, we did send stuff back but it was... we were being pressured into it and we didn't want to upset him or anything like that,” Ashley says. Her mother tells me she is glad Ashley “took the high ground” in not sending overtly sexual videos to Jones.

Unsure which authorities to speak to, many victims turn to social media to discuss their abuse. Accusations play out on Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube itself. Ashley tweeted screenshots of her interactions with Jones, while Neesey created two videos about her conversations with Pepper. Although this is an effective, and unprecedented, way for victims to get their voices heard, many online are distrustful of complaints that didn’t go through the authorities. Many more leave misogynistic and hateful comments.

“People will just be absolutely horrible to you and call you demeaning things... I got called a flirt, I got told it was all my fault because I continued speaking to him...” says Neesey, of the reaction to her videos. “I think that's a lot of the reason why people sometimes don’t come forward, because they don't want to go through all that stress again. They’ve already dealt with the situation; why would they want to deal with the stress of people being horrible to them about it?”

Some commenters criticise Neesey and other victims who have made YouTube videos and claim they were doing so for attention. “No one in their right mind would do it for attention because the attention you get is negative,” Neesey says. “I honestly don’t believe that someone would sit down and accuse someone of doing something if they didn’t mean it. So I really think it should be taken seriously.”

Whether it makes sense to those outside of the community or not, many victims' first recourse is social media, not the police or authorities. The accusations about Durte Dom – the YouTuber who allegedly filmed a 15-year-old dancing – were publicised by another YouTuber, Elijah Daniel, on his Twitter page.

Damon Fizzy is a YouTuber who called out Austin Jones after the initial accusations in 2015, and continues to do so on Twitter now. Although he agreed to speak with me, he was unable to find time to do so over a series of weeks.

For many YouTubers and their victims, social media is more important that the traditional media. Perhaps this makes sense – when the Mail Online covered the arrest of Lombardo, the YouTuber who solicited child abuse images from 11 underage fans, they added inverted commas around the word “star” in their headline. If the media and the authorities can’t take YouTube seriously, how seriously will they take accusations of YouTuber abuse?

***

In the past, YouTubers have often been good at self-policing. Hank and John Green are American brothers who run the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, which has over three million subscribers. They own a record label, DFTBA, and run the annual YouTube convention VidCon. Lombardo and Day were DFTBA artists, and were dropped from the label after the accusations emerged. The Green brothers also banned Pepper from VidCon.

After the storm of accusations in 2014, an enormous number of popular YouTubers made videos in response. Hank Green explained consent to his audience, while the comedy YouTuber TomSka created a guide to YouTube gatherings. The popular YouTube duo Jack and Dean even made a music video about consent. The community came together to exile those who weren’t being punished in other ways. The subscriber numbers on the accused’s channels dropped dramatically.

Yet within a few months, many disgraced YouTubers can return to the platform to harness a new generation of fans, many of whom might not be aware of the accusations.

“YouTube still allows them to create content and make money off it, and that to me is just communicating that the behaviour is just not that bad. It’s sort of equivalent to a slap on the wrist and it doesn't convey the extremity of the situation of what they’ve done,” says Neesey. “I think they should be completely ostracised from the community, and have their status stripped from them, and I think YouTube should support that. Because they’re criminals.”

On Twitter, YouTuber Damon Fizzy claims he received backlash from Jones’s fans when trying to speak out years ago. “It’s crazy the backlash I received versus now. I was literally treated worse than the person who uses his underage fans for sexual gain,” he wrote.

And it’s true that YouTubers’ leagues of adoring fans can make it difficult to speak out about abuse. It is hard for many adults to understand how consuming being a young fan can be, particularly when manipulation is involved. When I ask both Ashley and Neesey what they would say to young female fans who start talking to YouTubers, they both say this is fine. Neesey warns that when a youngster becomes uncomfortable, they should end communication, but both she and Ashley feel that safe, normal fan-creator interaction is fine, indeed desirable.  

Sapphire Putt is a 20-year-old who claims a YouTuber coerced her into filming videos of herself dancing when she was 16. When I ask if she thinks it would be OK for the YouTuber to return to YouTube, she says she would be “cautious” but “wouldn’t throw the possibility of maybe giving him a chance again”.

“If he actually shows that he’s learned, you know, I would give it a chance and if he would mess it up again then that’s it, you know.”

When I ask Ashley what she would say to people who remain fans of Austin Jones she says: “I’d say that I probably understand... but they also need to understand that what he’s doing isn’t right and no one should be treated the way he is treating people.”

***

The NSPCC is currently calling for an independent regulator to scrutinise internet companies and fine them if they fail to keep children safe.

“We want the government to draw up a list of minimum standards that internet companies must observe to protect children, and children should be automatically offered safer accounts that protect them from grooming and harmful content,” an NSPCC spokesperson says.

“We know from our Childline service that online sexual exploitation is increasing so it’s vital that more is done to protect young people from abusers who use social media to target and manipulate them.”

For now, Ashley is simply glad things didn’t go further. “It's scary not knowing what could've happened, knowing that I was brainwashed like to believe it was OK, and I'm just happy he's not able to message other girls at this point,” she says.

Neesey hopes that schools will get better at teaching consent. “As a young person, I knew I felt a bit uncomfortable but I just thought that I was being dramatic... so I think people need to be educated, for sure.”  She says education needs to be improved not just in schools, but in the media.

“Unfortunately, people are sort of used to it now, after quite a few YouTubers, so it’s sort of like, ‘Oh another one.' People aren’t talking about it as much – not that it’s old news, but it’s not as shocking. People aren’t giving it as much attention as it needs.”

The NSPCC advises that if a child is worried about an online situation they should talk to a trusted adult or contact Childline on 0800 1111. Parents can find out more about talking to their child about staying safe online by searching Share Aware or visiting www.nspcc.org.uk

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta