Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Net effects of online pornography demand some controls

Campaigner: Mark Whitehouse
Campaigner: Mark Whitehouse

How do parents protect their children from the ocean of pornography – some of it violent, some of it portraying rape – awash on the internet?

Can filters be put in place to block access to this vast amount of porn? David Cameron has promised that his Government will do that by 2014, but there are many sceptics who say it will never work – including Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia.

Kids are more tech-savvy than their parents, critics point out, and will be able to dodge the filters Cameron claims the major internet servers have pledged. Criminals and paedophiles also use the 'deep web', which is beyond the reach of most controls.

There is also the conflict between freedom of the individual and the social good. State censorship, even with the best of intentions, always infringes the rights of the individual.

But the unfettered liberty of the individual generally ends up being exploited by unsavoury opportunists peddling sex for cash.

I grew up in the Republic at a time when there was book and movie censorship, sometimes of a draconian kind – it reached its peak in 1953, when more than 600 literary works were banned.

Naturally, it seemed to our generation, any thinking person would be against such censorship and I heard the great and the good of the literary world inveigh against it.

Those who believed there should be some form of control of reading (and viewing) matter, so as to uphold public decency and protect the young from obscenity, argued that little by little, standards would be degraded and the worst pornography would gain a foothold.

The writer Sean O'Faolain said it was ludicrous to say that literature, or true art, would ever lead to pornography. Low filth had nothing to do with freedom of expression by serious writers. The Lady Chatterley's Lover trial in London in 1960 proved to be a watershed, when Penguin Books published the DH Lawrence novel, which contained explicit sexual scenes.

The good and the great of the literary world entered the witness box to attest that the Lawrence oeuvre was high art and could never corrupt anyone.

The prohibition on the book was lifted and it set a precedent for the liberty to read literature freely. It also set a precedent to access low trash.

On several occasions, during the 1970s and '80s, I interviewed the anti-porn campaigner Mary Whitehouse. She believed firmly in social controls because, she said, the pornographers had their sights on the young, who were easier to influence and exploit. Whitehouse was jeered to the rafters for her crusades.

However, by the end of the 20th century, Whitehouse had attracted one group who began to say she had a point: feminists who charged that pornography often degraded and objectified women and sexualised ever-younger girls. And then came the revolution of the internet, which no one could control, so the debate seemed archaic.

As huge sums of money are made by porn barons, who have no compunction about portraying rape, or the sexual abuse of children, if there is a market for it, can we still believe that there is an untrammelled liberty to publish anything?

My instincts are to uphold freedom – I saw state control in East Germany and Russia and it was deplorable – yet those who believed in responsible censorship were not always wrong in their predictions.

But addressing the consequences of unregulated liberty is a different question. Genies can seldom be put back into bottles.

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