Like most British people, I was unaware how heavily censored we are in the UK; at least, until I starting developing web sites in the mid-90s for the online porn industry. After working for a number of clients in that field, I launched my own site in 2004. At that time, TV and video each came under strict censorship regimes, but no regulatory body had responsibility for Internet. However, it was clear that powerful censorship regimes had been put in place for cinema, TV and video, and it seemed inevitable that the powers-that-be would regard the Internet as a threat to their control, sooner or later.
When Claire Perry MP held her parliamentary inquiry into “Protecting Children Online”, I was invited to appear as a witness on behalf of the adult industry. I was happy to attend the inquiry and advocate against censorship - not simply because I was selling porn online, but because I have always been an ardent advocate of free speech.
I was disturbed, shocked even, to find that the free speech advocates at that inquiry consisted of myself (a porn vendor) and one other person, Jim Killock, of the Open Rights Group, a small campaigning body. Here was an all-party group of MPs considering whether it would be right to introduce Internet censorship for an entire democratic country, and the entire “free speech lobby” appeared to consist of myself and Jim. Such an inquiry in the US would have threatened the First Amendment to the Constitution, and would have provoked activism and legal action. Was Britain really so weakly defended against censorship?
As I began to encounter media regulations and regulators, and research the history of British censorship, I found that a series of laws have been put into place over the past several decades to limit free speech in Britain, with no serious opposition at all. There is a simple routine to introducing new censorship laws:
Step 1: Identify a “threat”;
Step 2: Create a moral panic in the media to build the “threat” until Parliament is forced to respond;
Step 3: Pass new laws which give bureaucrats more power, and slice away another piece of free speech, without addressing the “problem” (because the problem either didn’t exist in the first place, or could be dealt with using existing legislation).
In the 1980s, the “video nasties” moral panic convinced legislators that horror videos were swamping British culture, and unless censorship was introduced, there would be a huge rise in rape and murder as people copied what they saw in the videos. In reality (as we now know) people don’t copy what they see in videos. Sane, non-violent people aren’t turned into serial killers by watching the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But the panic did its job. The Video Recordings Act (VRA 1984) introduced into Britain the most draconian censorship system for video in the democratic world. And we still have it.
What was most frightening about the “video nasties” panic is that there was no voice of common sense. The press, police, prosecutors, and MPs of all political parties, bought into the fear, and climbed over each other to call for restrictions to our free speech.
In response to the freedom provided by the Internet, we face claims of new “threats”, each one (we are told) requiring new censorship measures. These threats range from terrorism to “sexualisation”. Even the riots of 2011, triggered by the shooting of a young man in Tottenham, were blamed on social media. Indeed, after the riots, the government asked Blackberry to provide a “kill switch” for their BBM chat system; thankfully, Blackberry told them where to go.
The “Sexualisation” panic is clearly based on the “video nasties” exercise of 30 years ago. We are told that our society is being “sexualised” to an unprecedented extent. Everything from “our children” to “the high street” have fallen prey to this new menace. And yet, nobody can define this scourge or even provide any evidence for its existence. The coalition commissioned a report on Sexualisation in 2010, on which almost all discussion is based. And yet, this report was written by the head of a Christian organisation, and it provided no evidence - simply surveys of parents and children.
The purpose of the Sexualisation panic is the same as the video nasties panic: to extend the reach of the censorship bureaucracy - which already controls our access to film, video and TV - into the realms of the Internet. There are huge vested interests involved.
As well as appealing to conservatives and control-freaks, censorship is a growing business; a nice little earner. On the periphery of the panics about “sexualised imagery” and porn, moralists are also launching attacks on strip venues, and trying to get prostitution pushed back underground. We are in the midst of the strongest conservative assault on sexual freedom that we have seen since at least the liberalising era of the 1960s.
We have never, since the birth of the printing press, been as censored as we are today; and yet nobody is taking a stand. The two main political parties are almost silent on matters of free speech. The Lib-Dems are a little better, as are the Greens, but I’m pleased to see the Pirate Party arrive on the scene with a forthright defence of civil liberties. This doesn’t come a moment too soon - unless we defend our historic legacy of free speech, we will lose it; and this moment is closer than many people realise.
Having closed my business last year (yes, in the face of censorship) I am creating resources for those people interested in tracking opposing censorship of all types; I am working on a book called Porn Panic! and can be followed on Twitter: @PornPanic and Facebook. Please contact me via these routes if you are interested in finding out more, or lending a hand.
Although my focus is on defending sexual expression, in reality there is only one type of censorship: once the laws, regulations, bureaucrats and mechanisms exist, they can be instantly adapted to any purpose.
This is already happening; and you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Jerry Barnett is a photographer, writer, technologist, entrepreneur, and campaigner with an interest in a wide variety of political and social causes. You can follow Jerry on Twitter @PornPanic and Facebook.