First they came for the porn stars: the problem with an online filter

The idea that you can tackle misogyny with a porn filter or a plastic bag is one of the more ludicrous conceits of social conservatives in modern times.

A few days ago, Conservatives received an email from David Cameron Himself, boasting of his new porn filter, a filter that will “protect childhood itself”. Underneath his signature, written in teeny-tiny text, was the message: “Blocked by your spam filter? Add bulletin@news.conservatives.com” to your address book.” Even the best filters still catch out the morally pure. 

The Co-op supermarket have implemented a filter of their own, demanding that lads’ mags be delivered in opaque modesty bags. The move comes after pressure from campaigns like “Lose the Lads’ Mags” run by Object and Feminista, who would prefer it if the Co-op would stop selling such titles altogether. Their spokesperson referred to the bags as ‘misogyny bags’, which is the point where the logic of their campaign falls apart.

Let’s take two examples, and in the comments below you can tell readers which you think is more misogynistic, more objectifying.  In the first example, Kelly Brook is on a beach, wearing a bikini. She has travelled there to work consensually with a photographer and editor on a professional collaboration, producing pictures on her terms that she likes. One of the pictures is printed on the front cover of FHM with a caption saying that Kelly Brook competes with the desert to see who’s hottest. It is obvious that she is looking at the camera, interacting consensually with the photographer.

In the second example, Kelly Brook is on a beach, wearing a bikini. She is on holiday. A paparazzi photographer takes pictures of her from an unflattering angle. They find their way to the desk of Heat magazine, who publish the picture on the front cover with the headline: “Does Kelly Brook look fat to you? Readers give their verdict.” Doubtless Heat would argue that they were joining the debate in Brook’s support, highlighting the absurdity of calling an obviously beautiful and healthy woman "fat". But if Heat really wanted to tackle the vile culture of body-policing that pervades modern media, they could simply choose not to participate in it.

The idea that you can tackle misogyny with a porn filter or a plastic bag is one of the more ludicrous conceits of social conservatives in modern times. The digital version of drug prohibition, it is a gesture to traditional values that allows politicians to give the impression of action without addressing the root issues. For all their talk about misogyny, campaigners seem more interested in tackling sexuality. For all their talk about the safety of porn stars, campaigners seem more interested in driving them out of their jobs than reforming the industry.

That’s the other effect of filters – they censor. Deborah Orr, writing in the Guardian, sees no problem with censorship. But then why should she? Orr is middle-class, and has regular access to a newspaper column in which to express her opinions. Her voice is safe, and if others aren’t that’s their problem. Her writing treats such people with contempt - women who enjoy "violent" porn are, to Orr’s eyes, picking up “useful tips on fictional rape”. But it’s precisely that sort of bigoted attitude to minority sexual preferences that inspires unease about the increasing efforts to censor the internet in accordance with "mainstream" tastes.

Of course for Deborah Orr there is no censorship, because Deborah Orr is a privileged middle-class woman with considerable personal agency – she can simply press the button at any time and have the filter deactivated. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that not everybody is in the same position. If you don’t own a house, if your landlord, partner (or abusive partner), parent, flatmate or university owns the connection, you may not have the same choice that Orr does. Anyone can choose not to seek out porn, not everyone can choose to have access to it.

And of course it won’t just be porn. It can’t be, because filters simply aren’t good enough to make a clear distinction. As Wired reported over the weekend, all other kinds of "objectionable" content could be included too. “As well as pornography, users may automatically be opted in to blocks on "violent material", "extremist related content", "anorexia and eating disorder websites" and "suicide related websites", "alcohol" and "smoking". But the list doesn't stop there. It even extends to blocking "web forums" and "esoteric material", whatever that is. "Web blocking circumvention tools" is also included, of course.”

To date, advocates of a porn filter have failed even to adequately define porn, let alone demonstrate that it causes significant harm in our society, or that a filter will have any impact in reducing that harm. Meanwhile the negative consequences of a filter are demonstrable. Thousands of people will be barred from legitimate exploration of their sexuality, and have their access to advice on sexual health, sexuality, and mental health issues removed. The most vulnerable people in society will be the least able to circumvent the block.

But that’s okay, because Daily Mail readers will be able to sleep soundly in the belief that they have made an import contribution in the war on misogyny.

1955: A model leaves a photography studio after posing for pornographic shots, and walks out of the building into the light. Photo: Pryor/Three Lions/Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.