Wanting to protect children from online porn has nothing to do with social conservatism

Too many people have fallen for the myth that any attempt to control the internet is bad.

To people of a certain age the word “pornography” conjures up images of Playboy centrefolds. However, a great deal of porn now easily accessible on the internet is about as close to a Playboy centrefold as Famous Five stories are to War and Peace.

I have a vivid memory of the mother of a 10-year-old girl who approached me after a school’s parents’ evening. She became quite upset as she described the nature of a video she had found her daughter watching. The child’s friend had sent a link. I am not going to provide the same level of details about what was going on - let’s just say it appeared to involve one woman, three adult males and a range of electro mechanical devices. The focus of attention at the denouement was the woman’s mouth and face. Mum’s tearful question to me was "how do you explain that to a young girl who has still not had her first kiss?".

Even now I am not sure how I would approach such a challenge but what is truly outrageous is that this mother had to confront it at all. Yet if you deconstruct the monotonous, never changing outpourings of a collection of so-called free speech campaigners at root it was really Mum’s fault. She had failed to learn about, understand and act upon the need to install filters that might have prevented any porn reaching the child’s screen. She had failed to find a way to convince her daughter not to click on such links or maybe the feckless parent was simply providing an inadequate degree of supervision of her child’s online behaviour.

The kind of stuff this 10-year-old child saw was never intended to be viewed by children. It may be illegal anyway as some would never receive a BBFC classification for public display, or possibly even an R18 which would allow it to be sold in licensed sex shops.

Yet it is found on the homepages of websites where anyone and everyone can see it, whether by accident or design. It is usually presented as a “teaser” to get you to pay for other material which is “even better”. 

There is simply no question that the practice I have just described is illegal in the UK. In R v Perrin in 2002 the Court of Appeal said gross pornographic material must be put behind a barrier of some kind, eg a paywall, so as to ensure only adults who positively want to see it can do so. Yet we’ve got millions of webpages where that just does not happen and search engines provide immediate access for all UK residents.

The problem, of course, is that the images are published from overseas. In recent years the police have shown little enough interest in prosecuting UK residents under the Obscene Publications Act and as far I know they have never made any effort to extradite anyone for such offences. It is usually at this point people throw up their hands and say it is all too complicated, nothing can be done or that the price of doing anything would present intolerable challenges to adults’ rights. That is self-serving codswallop: look how the gambling industry has effectively eliminated kids from their sites.

Much of the evidence cited to “prove” porn does no harm predates the immersive internet and did not involve a study of its longer-term effects on children. Thus I am astonished that more people are not willing to accept that the point at least is moot. That being so shouldn’t the precautionary principle kick in? Shouldn’t the search engines, for example, not return links to sites that do not attempt to restrict children’s access? Should the banks and the credit card companies refuse to process payments to such sites?

Ultimately the question turns on how highly we value our children and what risks we are willing to take with their futures. It has nothing to do with social conservatism or moral panics. We need to call a halt to this rash experiment. If adults want to watch porn that’s their business, not mine. But we really out to be able to do more for our kids. The UK’s internet service providers have said they are going to do more in this direction. We shall see. Yes, there may be privacy concerns for the rest of us, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

Too many people who ought to know better have fallen for the heavily-promoted, convenient West Coast money-spinning myth that all attempts to control content on the internet are bad and will lead swiftly but inevitably to perdition. Iran does it so it must be bad. That’s the beginning and end of their argument. It won’t do.

Shouldn’t the precautionary principle kick in? Photograph: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle