The irony of male cameramen issuing instructions to the protesters. All photos: Anoosh Chakelian
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Irony alert: how a protest about porn turned into a lot of men gawping at women

At the porn protest outside parliament today, the people sitting on other people's faces behaved impeccably. So why did I come away feeling slightly dirty? Oh yes, because of the way some male cameramen behaved.

Excitable anticipation of today’s “Face-Sitting Demo” has been flying around Westminster all week. Journalists were enthusiastic about a fun Friday afternoon writing colourful copy about porn industry insiders and fetish fans carrying out a particularly demonstrative demonstration against new porn laws. With face-sitting.

The anger, in case you’ve missed this particular incident of government tomfoolery, is due to the arbitrary, and sexist, nature of new regulations some civil servants and politicians have cooked up for the UK’s porn industry. The regulations ban showing female ejaculation on screen, restrict things like fisting and face-sitting, and only allow for “gentle” spanking, whipping and caning.

Jolly protesters held humorous banners (“We cum in peace”, “Life will be fine if we both 69”, etc) and sang a jaunty face-sitting-themed song to keep morale up during the uncomfortably cold, and sparsely attended, demo. Here’s the first verse:

Sit on my face and tell me that you love me,

I’ll sit on your face and tell you I love you too,

I love to hear you oralise,

When I’m between your thighs,

You blow me away.

However, something didn’t feel quite right with what should have been a sharp, witty and necessary protest. A huge throng of mainly male cameramen and reporters in their anoraks and scarves surrounded a small number of demonstrators, who were mainly women, as they engaged in the kinky protest. And there were far more journalists covering the demo than there were people demonstrating.

The irony of this was made all too clear when one woman sitting on another woman’s face was told by a cantankerous cameraman to “move backwards a bit, because I can’t see her face”. “That’s kind of the point, mate, it’s face-sitting,” said an incredulous woman standing next to me. “It doesn’t work visually,” he replied, looking disappointed. “Is this what it’s supposed to look like?”

How ironic that the protest itself reminded us of the shortcomings of the porn industry.  For too long, it has been geared towards men, and just as it is slowly making progress on this issue, the government has dived in with a raft of measures blocking women's opportunity to be seen as active participants, or enjoying themselves.

The irony of women performing for a crowd of male onlookers with cameras issuing instructions to them was not lost on some of the female protesters I spoke to.

“I wanted to turn the cameras round from us on to the cameramen,” a woman with dreadlocks holding a whip tells me. She describes herself as being “on the fetish scene”. “There are a lot of men journalists standing around looking very happy,” she sighs, shaking her head.

Another woman in a long leather black coat adds, “I wonder how many photos they are taking for their newspapers and for their own personal wank bank? Is it really work-related? PUT YOUR HAND UP IF YOU’RE AN OFFICIAL CAMERAMAN OR IF IT’S FOR YOUR BANK!”

I speak to a woman wearing a red rubber ball gag around her neck about her disappointment with the protest. “There aren’t as many people here as I would have hoped.” She tells me “it’s ironic” that the event has turned into men watching the protesters and telling them to perform for their cameras, and finds their gaze “offensive”.

“Pornography has always been aimed at men: bang, bang, bang, done," she says. "Cum shot. Over the last decade, this has been worked on and is better than it has ever been. These laws are taking us all the way back.”

And is coverage like today's helping it?

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder