Thursday, January 16, 2014 

The real nanny state.

You might have missed it if you've been too busy reading all the juicy, sorry I mean disgusting allegations being made against both Bill Roache and Dave Lee Travis, gleefully, I mean dutifully reported by the country's finest, but just before Christmas Cameron's great firewall of Britain was finally finished.  The other big ISPs that had yet to put in place their "default on" internet filters duly turned them on, and to no surprise whatsoever many non-adult sites were blocked.  The filters it seemed had a special dislike for anything LGBT-related, exactly the kind of sites that confused or bullied children should never be able to see, while they also forbade access to blogs dealing with file sharing, rather than just actual file sharing sites.  Big no signs also appeared instead of sex education sites, in another development absolutely everyone saw coming.  These problems were naturally called "teething troubles", and no doubt some of the more egregious ones were quickly ironed out.

Something we haven't had previously was one of those in favour of "default on" filtering coming out and properly responding to an article critiquing the entire approach.  The Graun today gave space to John Carr, secretary of the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety, to reply to Laurie Penny's piece for the paper at the start of the year.  Apart from Penny's opening paragraph, which imagined someone being phoned by their ISP and asked whether they wanted to still be able to see dripping quims, ravaged buttholes and terrorists beheading infidels (I paraphrase slightly), which isn't how the filtering is being implemented but is an accurate picture of how some, finding their access has been restricted, will be contacting their ISP's help desk, it was a decent summation of how we got where we were and how closely related it was to outright censorship.

Carr is of course having none of it.  All the new approach is doing is helping parents, "making it a great deal easier ... to use filters if they want them".  The decision is entirely theirs, not the state's.  Except, by putting such pressure on ISPs to change their policies and implement "default on" filtering it, it seems remarkably close to it in my eyes.  If the decision was entirely theirs, as adults, then surely the default should be off?  Only those of age can take out a new account giving them internet access, so where's the harm in making such filters easily available but have them off by default?  Indeed, isn't the very fact they are on unless you choose to switch them off a wonderful example of providing a false sense of security?  Making parents believe the net will be safe for their children due to the new filters, meaning they don't have to do anything to protect them, seems even more irresponsible than the situation we had before to this layman.

Still, Carr says ISPs are just catching up with the mobile firms that have had their filters turned on since 2005.  What he doesn't mention is that only those with a credit card (not a debit card) can turn the filtering off, which excludes a decent chunk of the population.  Those without one who wish to have it turned off need to find their provider's local store and bring ID to prove they can look at mucky pictures if they so wish on their smartphone.  It's a great example of infantilisation, but one we're apparently prepared to live with.  Carr also dismisses Penny's claim that all we've heard about to do with filtering is pornography, or indeed child pornography, which the likes of Claire Perry willfully conflated in a successful campaign for something to be done.  How would a 9-year-old sleep after viewing a double chainsaw murder, he asks?  Considering that such extreme violence is even more difficult to stumble upon than pornography without specifically searching for it, this seems a rather moot argument.  A better question is how many 9-year-olds would be seeking out gore videos, the likely answer being hardly any.  Carr next mentions "women-hating violence", such as three men simultaneously beating and raping a woman.  Unless I've missed something, one of the few things yet to be recorded and posted online is the actual rape of a woman, so one presumes Carr is talking about a scene cut out of a film.  Again, how likely is a child to find something of that nature, especially one as young as 9 without looking for it?

This distracts in any case from the main arguments against, which are the filters should not be on by default and that if we must have filters, they should be a good deal smarter than the ones we seem to have been stuck with.  They should also be as transparent as possible: as mocked as O2's short-lived filter checker was (this blog was blacklisted on the under-12 filter, along with much of the rest of the internet), it was the only example of an ISP being clear with those supposedly responsible on what was actually being blocked.  Just as adults are able to see what ratings films and games have been given and make their own decision as to what to allow their children to see/play, why should there not be something similar to O2's checker where you can put in a URL and see its classification?  Perhaps it's because, as Cory Doctorow wrote, that such lists are considered to be trade secrets.  Carr says the filters will get better and errors can be easily rectified, but will they be?  Mobile operators are still incredibly reticent about their blocking practices, not inspiring confidence ISPs will be any different.

Carr finishes by saying that parents shouldn't "feel obliged to provide unrestricted access to all its horrors", but this obfuscates the issue.  Filters and censorware have long been available, only it was up to parents to make the decision for themselves as to whether to use them.  Making filters available as they have been, just not demanding they be default on, would fulfil Carr's argument.  We've reached a position where not just pornography but "extremist" material, file-sharing sites and everything in between is blacklisted by default, something you don't have to be a conspiracy nut to think is beneficial to both government and big business.  This has all been achieved through the age-old method of asking "won't someone think of the children?", the default fall back argument of the censorious everywhere.  Combined with the child porn angle pursued by the Mail, it's not a surprise the ISPs and Google gave in, or at least gave the impression they had.  What ought to be surprising is that a party which has constantly derided the "nanny state" and urges personal responsibility at every turn has been the one to do so.

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Monday, November 18, 2013 

An invented victory over an invented threat.

"Stunning victory for Mail campaign", screams the eponymous newspaper's front page.  "GOOGLE BLOCK ON CHILD PORN", it goes on, while David Cameron says that Google and Yahoo have "come a long way" following his speech earlier in the year calling for action.  You could easily be fooled into thinking that with one stroke, the major search engines have dealt a critical blow against the depraved and evil people sharing child abuse images and videos online.  Cameron says there's more to be done, and there's the little matter of p2p sharing and the "dark net", but Claire Perry's pleased and the Mail is similarly delighted, so clearly the pressure has worked, right?

Well, sort of.  Read the reports a little closer, and it instead becomes fairly apparent that Google has reacted to the demands of the ignorant by making it look as though they've done more than they actually have.  In his piece for the Mail, the executive chairman of Google Eric Schmidt talks of how the results for 100,000 queries "that might be related to the sexual abuse of kids" have been cleaned up, while the BBC reports how the new algorithms "will prevent searches for child abuse imagery delivering results that could lead to such material".  In other words, there is absolutely nothing to say that any one of those 100,000 search terms did lead to such material in the first place, or that all of those queries had been used by someone looking for abusive images.  It's worth remembering that despite all the ravings of the Mail and friends in June and July, not a single journo claimed to have been able to access child pornography (and no, calling it child pornography does not legitimise it, unless you're too stupid to understand the nuances of the English language) through using just Google or any other search engine, although we did have Amanda Platell tell us that a professionally shot adult scene featuring an 19-year-old was in fact child abuse.  Charles Arthur wonders why it took Google so long to do this; the reason, apparently enough, is that it didn't really need to.

Nor has Cameron's other key demand from his speech, that there are some search terms so "abhorrent and where there can be no doubt whatsoever about the sick and malevolent intent" that no results should be returned at all become a reality.  Instead, Google has put warnings from both themselves and charities at the top of the pages for around 13,000 results.  The implication is that none of these search terms returned material either, but again, it looks as if they've given in to pressure to do something, however futile.  Where the furore does seem to have resulted in some real action is it looks as though Google has developed a video equivalent of Microsoft's PhotoDNA, where pictures can be traced even if they're resized or the colours altered.  This again however isn't going to make much difference when neither photos or videos of child abuse are much shared on YouTube or the main social networking sites.

The real question to ask might be just how counter-productive this debate by megaphone has been.  Cameron reckons a Google deterrence campaign "led to a 20% drop off in people trying to find illegal content", yet apparently puts this down as a success rather than wondering whether it in fact means they went elsewhere.  This entire episode has been defined by ignorance, and it's not necessarily a good thing that a lot more people now know about Tor or the other "dark nets" than they did previously.  Cameron says he's going to sic GCHQ onto them, and while it's somewhat reassuring that previously the NSA and GCHQ failed to crack Tor, it's clearly possible they could break it, endangering those who do use it to evade the surveillance of authoritarian states. 

All that's likely to have been achieved by Google etc humouring the government and the Mail is a few of the more boneheaded perverts being told by their computers they need help, while doing nothing to help those in the clutches of the abusers.  Politicians and newspapers trying to make complicated and intractable problems look easily solvable while making them the responsibility of others? Who woulda thunk it?

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Thursday, October 17, 2013 

Where are the Voltaires of yesteryear?

James Bloodworth, via Chris, wonders where today's equivalents to Voltaire are, especially in the social networking age when tabloids and users compete as to who can be the most outraged about what someone else has either said or done.  The obvious answer is they mostly died out not long after Voltaire himself; we might have had Thomas Paine, and more recently produced George Orwell, but believing in the American model of freedom of speech and expression has never been a popular pursuit in this country.  You could blame the press principally for this, and the countless campaigns down the years for the public to be protected from themselves over the latest moral panic, yet it's surely more that we never got round to having a proper written constitution, the closest thing we do have being the European Convention on Human Rights, which naturally is loathed by the tabloids and right-wing politicians for "favouring" criminals and terrorists over the public.

For instance, despite how we pride ourselves on being a tolerant democracy, with our politicians occasionally going into raptures about our parliament being the mother of them all, even if it wasn't until the 19th century that the common man was able to vote (women had to wait another 60 years), there's been relatively little criticism when people have been jailed for making either off colour jokes or wearing t-shirts with offensive slogans.  It was a protest by a tiny band of Luton based Islamists against the homecoming of the Royal Anglian regiment that prompted the forming of the English Defence League, as though the country needed the protection services of a bunch of wannabe football hooligans against such horror.  Most seriously, two young men were sentenced to four years in prison for setting up phony event pages during the riots of August 2011, terms longer than many of those who did take part in the disorder received.  Unlike Paul Chambers, neither Jordan Blackshaw or Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan received the sympathy or financial backing of celebrities in an effort to get their convictions quashed.

The thing I find really strange about the campaigns against page 3 and lads' mags is they're ran by people who consider themselves liberal who, whether they realise it or not, are echoing the exact same arguments made by the censors of the past.  Just as the likes of the Mail and Mary Whitehouse claimed at the dawn of mass ownership of video recorders that horror films could deprave and corrupt the naive and innocent, so now we hear the likes of Zoo and Nuts objectify women, help to sustain a sexist culture and at their most malignant even have the potential to turn their readers into rapists.  While there's no doubt they're often tasteless, and on occasion have veered off into the truly vile, the idea that simply seeing a cover of one can constitute harassment is ludicrous, and if LTLM's interpretation of the Equality Act is correct, then it quite apparently needs to be redrafted (it's worth noting the entire Caroline Criado-Perez Twitter stupidity began after she invoked the Equality Act as demanding there must be a woman on a bank note). Moreover, the idea that removing lads' mags from the shelves will achieve anything in age where sexting and revenge porn are the new cause for concern seems the equivalent of generals always fighting the last war.

The same could be said for the stalemate over press regulation.  As much as it is specious nonsense to claim the royal charter would be the end of 300 years of press freedom, such have been the attacks of the past week anyone still saying we shouldn't worry about the potential for a change to the regulator via a two-thirds majority in parliament ought to think again.  Self-regulation has manifestly failed and a reconstitution of a slightly beefed up PCC needs to be resisted, yet the alternative now appears worse.  Ofcom can't be trusted as far as they can be thrown, which should rule out their involvement, which leaves us with just about nothing.  Perhaps the answer will be that newspapers in their current form are dying, some faster than others.  With the shift towards online publishing, it could be possible to better hold the press to account such will be the reliance on advertising rather than the shifting of newsprint.

Of courser, it might just be that rather than having Voltaires, we now have contrarians, or those paid to go against the consensus view on every subject.  And let's face it: no one wants to be Brendan O'Neill.

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Monday, July 22, 2013 

Moral panic: on by default.

We live, so it seems, in a distinctly weird world.  Never before have we had such easy access to a full array of sexual imagery, and yet despite being able to summon up almost any fetish at the click of a mouse, we don't seem to want to discuss why something turns us on, or what it says about us personally.  Fundamentally, that's down to how we don't want to be judged; despite porn being consumed as never before, we still regard it as being embarrassing or difficult to talk about, understandably so.  We also don't really want to know whether our friends or loved ones might have say, a scat fetish, or even something more prosaic like being partial to BDSM.  What goes on in someone else's bedroom is their business, so long as no one gets hurt.  The same applies to watching other people doing what we would like to, or fantasise about doing; no one else needs to know.

Except, when we don't talk about and rationalise it, what we end up getting is the semi-moral panic we're currently going through, stoked almost solely by the government and certain newspapers.  They have provided absolutely no evidence whatsoever for any of their claims, most specifically that images of child abuse are proliferating, or that normal "online pornography is corroding childhood".  That they haven't is nonetheless irrelevant; without parliament so much as being involved, from the end of the year the big four ISPs, having been pressured into doing so, will block the majority of pornographic sites by default.  These default filters will almost certainly wrongly block plenty of material that is not pornographic (as this blog was by some mobile internet providers), but who cares when it's all about protecting children?  It's surely a small price to pay for something approaching peace of mind.

Here's how the campaign by the likes of Claire Perry and the Daily Mail has worked.  Having failed to build momentum behind their demands despite the Bailey review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, they struck upon conflating child pornography (as we're not allowed to call it, as apparently simply describing it as such is to somehow legitimise it) with legal pornography.  Helped along by the Tia Sharp and April Jones cases, the haranguing of ISPs and search engines for not blocking child porn (despite the fact there is relatively little they can do when they're not the ones hosting it) morphed into haranguing them for allowing a so-called free for all.  Responsibility it seems is not with the parents or adults to ensure that their children can't access material not suitable for them, it begins instead with the ISP.  As I've pointed out before, for a supposedly conservative government to be passing the buck from those truly responsible to those who provide a service to adults, considering they're the ones paying the bill, is quite a break with their usual thinking.

David Cameron's speech today was an absolute classic of the meaning the opposite of what was said genre.  He starts off by saying how difficult it is for politicians to talk about the subject, and it is indeed difficult for them to talk about when parliament has gone into recess for the summer and they don't seem to have been offered the chance to discuss it anyway.  He relates that he doesn't want to "moralise and scare-monger", the paragraph after he's stated without qualification that "online pornography is corroding childhood" and how the internet is impacting on the "innocence of children".  He says that the issues of images of child abuse and underage access to porn are "very distinct and different" challenges, but that they have something in common.  Namely, that it's been decided it's good politics to conflate the two as it reduces opposition.  After all, everyone hates nonces, don't they?

It quickly becomes clear just why the ISPs and search engines have become so agitated at what they see as the ignorance displayed by politicians.  Cameron in his section on illegal images talks as though the way in which search engines work is manual, rather than automatic and constant, saying the comparison with the Post Office isn't accurate as the likes of Google facilitate access to the illegal material knowingly.  This is nonsense.  It also doesn't seem to matter that as we've discussed, it's exceptionally difficult to find such material by accident, or indeed, even deliberately through search engines, what matters is that something is being seen to be done.  What's more, the internet giants should be putting their top people on solving this very problem that doesn't exist, to stop images and videos being posted in the first place!

Finally, and to really make clear how serious everyone is, there are some searches that are so "abhorrent and where there can be no doubt whatsoever about the sick and malevolent intent" that no results should be returned at all.  You know, like how in China on a firewalled connection if you search for "Tiananmen Square" you'll get plenty of information on the square itself but be hard pressed to find any on the massacre.  Not even during New Labour's hyper authoritarian period did they suggest censoring the internet lest anyone commit a truly "sick and malevolent" thought crime and expect to get something back if they did.  The message seems to be that the person committing the offence should be glad that GCHQ don't immediately send the police round.

When it comes to the "default on" blocking on new connections, the mindset behind it is equally transparent. Claire Perry addresses legal pornography in the same way as campaigners against drugs have in the past described cannabis as being a "gateway" to the harder stuff, saying she believes the killers of April Jones and Tia Sharp "had stumbled upon" illegal images having first browsed perfectly legal material.  This rather ignores the fact that neither Mark Bridger or Stuart Hazell were young men, still uncertain of their sexuality.  By that point, you are either sexually attracted to some children, or you aren't.  This isn't to say someone can't develop a fascination with one particular child, as Stuart Hazell may have done with Tia, and then attempt to persuade themselves that the feelings they're having are perfectly normal through accessing images of abuse, but it's relatively rare.  That both Bridger and Hazell, as adults, would have been able to turn a "default on" filter off also doesn't seem to make her think twice about her argument.

Which pretty much sums it all up.  If Perry and friends really want to protect children, then the emphasis on filters over everything else spectacularly misses the point.  Cameron mentions education in his speech, but only as an effective afterword.  No filter can block everything; sure, it'll almost certainly take out the porn equivalents of YouTube, but it won't prevent access to the few remaining public torrent sites and their XXX sections, the's where everything under the sun is hosted including porn, or indeed the numerous porn blogs on Tumblr.  Proxy servers are incredibly easy to use, and the kid that does have access is soon going to be helping out their friends who've found themselves blocked.  What it will do is treat adults as children, as they so often have been in the past for the supposed good of the latter.  Those who hate porn and don't want to engage with how it's become part of modern culture, for both good and bad, love the idea of those wanting to access it having to embarrass themselves by ringing up their ISP, as will happen, knowing many won't. As for the others who just don't want to talk about desire and turn-ons as it's icky and difficult, well, this helps them as well.  Acceptable porn, such as Fifty Shades, will still be available to all and sundry; that other stuff, the disreputable, industrialised output that could be improved if only we felt able to properly address it, will remain the standard behind the "default on", helping precisely no one.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013 

Ignorance, immaturity and idiocy: all part of the debate on the internet and porn.

I'm struggling to think of a recent issue so appallingly approached and debated as the recent blow up over the availability of pornography on the internet has been.  The only really comparable issue that comes to mind was the short lived moral panic over "meow meow", or Mephedrone, where the Sun was in the vanguard, claiming at one point that teachers would have to give the drug back to any students it was confiscated from as it wasn't illegal.  Interestingly, the "legal high" market continues to grow, leaving even more questions for potential users over safety, yet the tabloids seem to have decided the story's done.

Even that outbreak of silliness can't compete though with the idiocy that's descended thanks to the collision of technology and naked human flesh.  While the lead has been taken by the Daily Mail, the Sun having always had a problem commenting on porn thanks to its continuing attachment to publishing a topless woman on its third page almost every day, we've also had stunningly stupid interventions from the former broadsheets.  The Graun comprehensively cocked up by publishing an editorial which seemed to call for the banning of all porn, later corrected to "just" violent porn, while the Sunday Times has been caught out using some exceptionally dodgy statistics to claim we're living in "generation porn", using an image of a topless woman to illustrate its point, natch.

Obviously, there are two separate issues at the heart of the sound and fury which require entirely different responses, although the conflation of the two hasn't helped matters.  First is that any action which makes images of child abuse more difficult to find on the net is a good thing.  We don't know how Stuart Hazell or Mark Bridger got hold of the images they viewed before they went on to kill Tia Sharp and April Jones respectively, or just how much of an influence they had on their crimes, but it can't be denied they played some role. What doesn't help is the scaremongering and apparent lack of knowledge displayed by those pushing at an open door. One Daily Mail headline gave the impression that Google was the internet, and so could deal with child porn at a stroke if it wished, while it also claimed 1.5 million people had "stumbled" on such images. To top all that, it enlisted Amanda Platell to try and find some illegal material, only for the queen of the Glendas to claim a  scene from 2001 featuring a then 19-year-old was proof of the easy availability of filmed child abuse.

The reality is that unless you actively seek it out, it is exceptionally rare to encounter images or video of child abuse by chance. In 15 years or so of using the internet, and having spent a significant period of that time not always on the most salubrious of sites, only twice have I come across images that almost certainly were of abuse. The first was many years ago when exploring a back door posted on a forum into one of the early sites that offered space to host images. By refreshing a specific link, a new image was randomly fetched from seemingly all those that had been uploaded, and one, and just one from the dozens or more looked to be of abuse. The second, far more prosaically, was when I happened to be browsing /b/ on 4chan at the time as someone decided to flood it with images of children, something it's long been notorious for.

The worry is not just journalists that don't know what they're writing about, but politicians also being ignorant of how things work.  When Maria Miller talks of preventing images from even becoming available in the first place, it's difficult not to sigh.  This lack of knowledge does indeed seem to have irked ISPs, with one source complaining to the Graun about today's meeting with the government that "generally speaking the politicians there fundamentally (or wilfully) misunderstand the technical and legal aspects to the subject".  When increasingly those who are doing something dodgy move towards the so-called "darknet", or use TOR to access the deep web, there's relatively little that the ISPs themselves can do.  Giving the Internet Watch Foundation more funding to actively seek out illegal material might help, but considering in the past they've made some extraordinarily stupid decisions about what to block, handing an unaccountable organisation even more leeway isn't necessarily a unmitigated good thing.

When it comes to the easy online availability of perfectly legal pornography, it continues to amaze me how a Conservative government that preaches personal responsibility in every other area seems to think in this instance it's not the duty of parents to ensure they have measures in place to stop their children from viewing it.  There really ought to be no excuse for not doing so; the generation having children now (which, rather scarily, is my own) were brought up with computers and so can't claim to be completely illiterate.  It certainly is true that it's difficult to block access to every video sharing site, and it's all but impossible to stop children from sending each other videos they've acquired from somewhere over their phones, but if they've reached the age at which they're doing that then they're old enough to be sat down and talked with about what it is they've watched.  Yes, there needs to be a change in sex education so that pornography is discussed and addressed, but it's also down to parents to explain that porn is fantasy and has very little connection with real life.  For the vast majority, porn is not going to damage them, or make them lose their innocence.  If anything, parents tend to be shocked by how much their offspring already know by the time they get round to it.

This isn't to regard porn as a whole as being harmless, although I'd say most of it is and its spread may even have had some positive effects, but it's ridiculous to regard it as being a unique danger to children and their development.  I watch porn even though there's many things about much of it that I loathe, whether it be the despicable misogyny that disfigures the "reality" genre that now dominates, or the way that so much of it follows the same tired format of suck, fuck, "facial", the latter which is troubling in itself.  The only way we can deal with its increasing influence is to discuss it maturely: if we don't, then those who've grown up with it accessible at the click of a mouse will.

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Monday, February 13, 2012 


It's come to my attention thanks to the good people at the Open Rights Group that this blog is being blocked by the mobile phone operators O2, T-Mobile, Vodafone and Orange for those who haven't verified their age and opted out of the default censorship on their networks. Hopefully apparent as it is that this blog isn't pornography, ORG point out that those who do opt out of the default firewall are often actually asked to "opt-in" to porn.

This blocking wouldn't be so bad if it was easier to appeal against, yet it seems as though the only way to get a site removed from the blacklist is for users themselves to complain, rather than site owners. ORG have the contact details for each of the major networks on their Blocked site, and I wholeheartedly support their recommendations for how the current system can be improved:

Phone companies should ensure that:

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Thursday, October 13, 2011 

The pornography of terror.

It's proving to be a busy three months for the good people down in Soho Square. No sooner had the BBFC rejected Tom Six's magnum opus the Human Centipede II, a decision which last week they reversed after the director offered to truncate his work, removing scenes of sandpaper masturbation and barbed-wire rape, than they're banning a slightly more serious work, Adam Rehmeier's The Bunny Game.

The two films, although both in the horror genre, could hardly be more different, despite it seems sharing the same black and white aesthetic. The Human Centipede is pure fantasy, albeit it "torture-porn" indebted fantasy; The Bunny Game is startlingly grounded in reality, to the point where the film's star and co-writer Rodleen Getsic, according to the makers, genuinely endured the treatment her character receives from the truck driver who abducts her, everything you see apparently being real. Agreeing to be branded with a hot iron for your art is not the only disconcerting apparent detail: Getsic according to some reviews has experienced abuse herself in the past, something alluded to in this piece she links to from her Twitter account.

If the making of the film was in some way meant to act as both therapy and catharsis, then it poses further uncomfortable questions for both censor and viewer: the BBFC, concerned as ever with the potential for harm, for once quite reasonably worries that "the lack of explanation of the events depicted, and the stylistic treatment, may encourage some viewers to enjoy and share in the man’s callousness and the pleasure he takes in the woman’s pain and humiliation". For the viewer, there's the knowledge that if this is part of an attempt by Getsic to turn her very real past pain into a performance while also emphasising the fact that suffering ends and life goes on, then by watching are you playing a role in something which very few therapists would advise? Are those attracted to such material complicit in deriving entertainment from the very real acts of violence committed by murderers and abductors?

Without having seen the film, it's difficult to be able to say for certain just how brutal the violence is, and whether it genuinely does break new ground in the horror endurance stakes. Unlike the also recently banned Grotesque, which fitted into the Japanese mini-genre of pseudo-snuff horror associated with the Guinea Pig series of films, it instead appears to bear a resemblance to the final act of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where the character Sally endures almost a full half hour of terrorisation at the hands of her captors, before finally escaping and experiencing the euphoria of freedom. TCM was one of the few films that the BBFC's former director James Ferman felt could not be released in any form, with the organisation's student case study revealing he described it as "the pornography of terror". What it doesn't make clear is that Ferman overruled all those under him at the organisation who felt it could be released, with the unsurprising result being that almost as soon as he retired the film was passed 18 uncut.

It's this fear of the "pornography of terror" which it seems has returned to claim a new victim. Even considering the fact that The Bunny Game is far more graphic than TCM ever was, one thing that is absurd for the board to complain about is that there's no apparent explanation for the violence depicted in the film. The idea that violence, abduction and murder can always be given such an explanation is to ignore the fact that on some occasions there is no real reason; it's simply because the perpetrator can. They may well derive and sexual and sadistic pleasure from their crimes, but that is to only partially understand why. If the film's whole raison d'etre is to portray the grim reality of what some victims have gone through, then it appears the BBFC would rather that such accounts are toned down before they can be accepted as fiction. Indeed, in passing TCM the BBFC noted that

any possible harm that might arise in terms of the effect upon a modern audience would be more than sufficiently countered by the unrealistic, even absurd, nature of the action itself.

The implication appears to be that film-makers at the extreme end of horror can't win either way. Go for too much realism and you'll be banned, while you'll also find your work cut if you cast aside reality and stitch together multiple people from mouth to anus and put abrasive materials into the mix. That adults should be able to decide for themselves what they personally can stomach and experience seems as distant an ideal as it has ever been.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011 

We need to talk about porn.

This government, by its own admission, has a problem with women. Despite being able to keep the majority of this country's men convinced that a policy of economic suicide is a fantastic idea, the women for some reason don't appear to be taking to the plan of retreating to the bunker and hoping desperately that something will turn up, probably because they're the ones losing their jobs while the retirement age is being pushed up. Austerity, inflation busting fuel bills and the prospect of working even longer for those lucky enough to still be in employment are the bleedingly obvious reasons for why support for the coalition has been slipping.

What then do the geniuses in Number 10 suggest to arrest this alarming fall in contentment? As the coalition refuses to go beyond Plan A+ on the economy, the obvious answer is to simply make a number of gestures: no one besides the incredibly easily outraged cared that David Cameron had been slightly rude to Angela Eagle and Nadine Dorries in the Commons, at least amongst those that even noticed, but nonetheless shiny head came out and apologised. Next came some slight changes to child care, which are still a couple of years away and where it's not clear where the money's coming from. Now we have the similarly slight implementation of some of the proposals made by the blessed Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union, in his report on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.

If you've spotted a theme here, it might be that even though it's women the government is attempting to get back on side (itself potentially patronising), it doesn't appear as though the boys in charge could find a single one to either consult or advise them on what might just do the trick. Instead it seems as though they've just guessed, and flailed around looking for policies and legislation they'd either delayed or cast aside that at least gives the impression of doing something. Hence the latest wheeze, the adoption of an opt-in system where those who take out new contracts with any of the four big internet service providers will have to make clear that they want full access to "adult" content. Otherwise, much of the web will be off limits, behind a firewall designed to protect children from seeing explicit material.

In this the government has picked up at least one curious ally. The Guardian, the same organisation which last year brought us the Wikileaks files, deciding quite rightly that publishing American cables on Iraq, Afghanistan and general diplomacy online was in the public interest, has decided that's quite enough internet freedom as far as they're concerned. "The internet's many benefits were never intended to include the bombarding of people's homes and children by pornography", it intones. Indeed, David Cameron's modest proposal simply doesn't go far enough, especially as "the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values, harming not just children but also adults, far exceed any liberating effect which some claim to discern".

Putting aside the fact that almost as soon as dial-up bulletin boards came into being they were used by the teenagers of their era to swap unbelievably low quality semi-pornographic images, and how you could make an arguable case that without the easy access to porn that came with it the growth of the internet may not have been as exponential as it was in the 90s, it's incredibly dubious that the overall effects are as destructive as has been claimed. As we still have an understandable if debilitating aversion to openly discussing the use of pornography, pretty much all we're left with is the two opposing sides in the debate making equally unconvincing arguments. Whether it's the "feminist" porn director Anna Arrowsmith declaring that porn is unequivocally good, or Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle du Jour, saying much the same, or the Graun's surprisingly unenlightened view, no one seems prepared to delve into the middle and do research into whether the porn free for all is having an adverse effect, either on children or adults.

For there's very little even anecdotal evidence to suggest that it's as a result of this new supposed hardcore culture that other aspects of life have becoming increasingly sexualised. It has to be remembered that hardcore wasn't legalised in this country until 2000, when internet video sharing was still in its relative infancy. Rather, the pushing of sex has come overwhelmingly from the tabloid media and its hangers-on, the very same organisations which are now so vociferous in calling for the protection of children. It takes a lot of chutzpah to complain about Rihanna and friends when tits are on every other page of certain papers, and when they follow the every movement of such upstanding role models as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Katie Price, all of whom have featured in their own homemade escapades.

This isn't to suggest that the internet and the cornucopia of perversions available at the click of a mouse isn't potentially problematic: while "rough" material has been around since the very beginning, there's little doubt that American produced "gonzo" porn (and it is overwhelmingly American made porn which is the most widely distributed on the internet, even if European porn is equally guilty and may well have even started the trend) has had an effect on the genre as a whole. Where once it was rare for a film to feature anal sex, it's now probably rarer for a full-length movie to not have at least one or even two scenes containing it. Likewise, the "facial" has now become so ubiquitous that it's difficult not to look for a deeper reasoning behind why almost every scene must end with the man ejaculating onto his co-star's face. Is it all about male power, and more to the point, is it having an effect on the impressionable? There's little doubt that at the very least this, along with the grooming issues which have also been picked up upon, is having an impact on the young and their expectations of sex, something which desperately needs to be properly quantified.

None of this however justifies a blanket prohibition on internet porn at the source unless you "opt-in". Not only is it doomed to failure when the technology moves faster than that which aims to block it, as such filtering will not block the sites where copyrighted material is freely exchanged, such as Rapidshare, with individuals now using social networking sites to swap links, it also makes a mockery of this government's responsibility agenda. The parents are the ones who should decide what their children can and cannot see, with filtering software being so easily available and installable; the government should not be intervening and making that decision for them, let alone in effect decreeing that adults are to be treated like children unless they expressly ask not to be. We already have the Internet Watch Foundation, which along with its praiseworthy work of filtering child pornography also blocks material which is "criminally obscene" and "incites racial hatred". Giving ISPs the power to block effectively whatever they feel like with government approval almost invites censorship.

Equally, blocking porn, even if popular with women, is hardly going to win back their support. 79% of women might want an opt-in system (PDF), but 53% thought it would be easy to get round, as it would be. The last government was authoritarian but ineffective; this one seems determined to carry on repeating the error.

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Friday, September 30, 2011 

In the Garden of Eden...

Ah, the BBFC. Not only deciding what we can and can't watch, but also commenting on the shape of the bodies on display in the early naturist films:

"I think Garden of Eden would provoke very noisy reactions at tough cinemas like The Elephant. There are some unconsciously funny nudes. Especially one young lady with peculiar glutial muscles."

Arses commenting on arses is though rather appropriate.

P.S. Also see BenSix's post here, with a comment from yours truly.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011 

The censoring of a centipede.

It's most likely a indication of my slow, all but unnoticeable declining interest in "extreme" cinema that I haven't seen the original Human Centipede. Like a good few films in recent years, the hype surrounding it was that it could well be the sickest ever made. Unlike those other, mostly flaccid entries in what became known derisively as the "torture porn" genre, it wasn't an unoriginal retread, remake or homage to either a 70s exploitation piece or an 80s slasher flick. No, here was something resembling an idea, even if it was being pulled off in the confines of a traditional mad scientist/maniac plot: you can after all only be brutalised or killed in so many ways. What's more frightening than being slowly hacked to pieces by an unknown assailant? It's surely not just being deprived of the ability of any means of escape on your own, but also being forced to share the experience with others, and when I say forced I mean literally. However ridiculous and scientifically ludicrous the idea is of three people being able to survive surgically joined together at, to put it in the nicest possible way, bottom to mouth, it's a concept so horrible to the average person that it just about works. For anyone else, well, there's got to be comedy lurking in there somewhere.

Opinions differ as to just how well director Tom Six pulled off his undeniably affecting conceit, with Peter Bradshaw in the Graun, notoriously difficult to please, giving it three stars, while Roger Ebert decided it was beyond his own star system of ranking. Kim Newman, the veteran horror journalist, declared it was odd and unforgettable but never quite as outrageous as it threatened to be. Indeed, discounting the gross-out inevitability of the lead person in the centipede failing to control his bowels, there was relatively little graphic footage in the film of the necessary surgery to construct the human insect, nor much once it had been created. Everything else was left to the over-active imagination. The BBFC, that august body tasked with the always onerous duty of deciding just what we can and can't see was similarly unmoved and passed it 18 uncut. There is however a clue to just how seriously they took the nastiness Six had put to celluloid, contained in their extended classification information:

The Board has taken legal advice which indicates that THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is not in breach of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 or any other relevant legislation. In terms of harm, the scenario is so far fetched and bizarre that there is no plausible risk of emulation.

This is in contrast to the two most recent new submissions which the board has cut, the remake of I Spit on Your Grave and A Serbian Film, neither of which it seems they sought legal advice over before issuing a certificate.

The reason for rejecting The Human Centipede II (Now it's personal, err, sorry, I mean Full Sequence) then is not that anyone is likely to emulate what's portrayed, even though that's exactly what the entire plot is based around, for Six's concept this time is that someone has been so taken with his original that they put it into actual practice. This breaking of the fourth wall, or attempt at post-modernism ala Scream, call it what you will, is what it seems has really upset the BBFC. Sure, they've dressed it up as they always do in terms of sexual violence, about the only thing they still do cut non-sex works for containing, on always questionable subjective grounds, and make much of how the Full Sequence "presents graphic images of sexual violence, forced defecation, and mutilation", unlike the original, yet you can't help but feel that it's because Six has specifically shown someone doing just that which they said was so "far fetched and bizarre".

David Cox has pretty much hit the nail on the head in his piece for the Graun. The BBFC complains that since the principal focus of the film "is the sexual arousal of the central character at both the idea and the spectacle of the total degradation, humiliation, mutilation, torture, and murder of his naked victims" that cutting any one section will still fail to make the whole acceptable. This is rather odd, as it passes hundreds of works each year that while not necessarily arousing the characters in the film are clearly aimed at stimulating the sections of certain individuals that other parts can't reach. What is it about this fictional character that makes what he inflicts unclassifiable, when numerous serial killer films on the market are just as unflinching in depicting their crimes, like Henry or Man Bites Dog? Key it seems is this passage:

There is a strong focus throughout on the link between sexual arousal and sexual violence and a clear association between pain, perversity and sexual pleasure.

A link between sexual arousal and sexual violence? You don't say? Is it really so awful that this be shown, even in what is an exploitation film? As for a clear association between pain, perversity and sexual pleasure, it seems that this is still too transgressive, too beyond the pale for the BBFC to even contemplate that it exists. It's certainly not clear from the BBFC's justification just how truly graphic the lead character's sexual arousal is shown as: we're told that he masturbates with sandpaper wrapped around his penis, although not whether this is implied or actively shown. The same is the case with the scene in which he apparently rapes the woman at the back of the "centipede", this time with barbed wire around his member, excited at seeing his walking, living shit eating machine in "action" as it were. If any of this sounds just slightly silly, going beyond even what some of the good people over at Bmezine have done to themselves then congratulations, you are just a little more mature and well-balanced it seems than the BBFC.

The problem the BBFC have is that so much of what they object to presented in this context they've passed in highly similar or distantly related genre pictures. Many horror films present the victims of their protagonists as "objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience"; what are the Friday the 13th pictures and many other knock-off slashers than exercises in showing how creative the writers can be at killing their teenage fodder off? Those characters exist solely as one-dimensional beings, so unappealing and impossible to emphasise with that the audience actively looks forward to seeing them getting chopped up. Sit someone down in front of Salo who knows nothing about the film whatsoever, and would they understand at the end that it's meant to be a vicious allegory of life under fascism replete with Pasolini's despair at modern society, or would they just remember the naked children being served up a meal of their own faecal matter as the degradation they're subjected to intensifies? As for rape, is there a scene more visceral, more agonising and extended than the ordeal which Alex undergoes for nine long minutes in Irreversible?

And so, inevitably, the board is left with relying on the Obscene Publications Act, that outdated and increasingly laughable piece of legislation. The United States has the Miller test, where three separate distinct clauses have to be satisfied before any work can be defined as obscene; we rely on a jury deciding simply if a film is liable to "deprave or corrupt". During the 1980s in the aftermath of the video nasties panic perfectly respectable men and women were brought before the beak for owning, distributing or selling copies of such films as Evil Dead, Last House on the Left and Zombie Creeping Flesh, with juries deciding that such tapes could indeed do just that. Almost all of those banned at the time have now either been passed completely uncut or with piecemeal edits: the most heavily truncated while still given a certificate is House on the Edge of the Park, shorn of an astonishing 11 minutes 43 seconds for its 18. Clearly when motivated enough the BBFC can slash a film into something they deem acceptable. Notably, one of the most notorious nasties, Cannibal Holocaust, has recently been passed with only 15 seconds of cuts, with just the on screen killing of a muskrat removed as required under animal welfare legislation.

Bounty Films and Eureka!, the distributors of Full Sequence plan to appeal the BBFC's decision, taking the film before the Video Appeals Committee, another collection of the great and good. They could well have a chance: Rockstar Games successfully appealed the decision of the BBFC to reject Manhunt 2. If not though, the BBFC instead of merely deciding that the film could be successfully prosecuted as obscene ought to put their case before an actual court: let a jury decide whether it really is likely to "deprave and corrupt", harm, or even slightly desensitise a significant majority of those that encounter it. What could they possible have to lose?

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Monday, June 06, 2011 

Everyone else's problem.

If you thought New Labour were bad when it came to the seemingly endless policy reviews they ordered, many of them helmed by people of the moment, almost all briefly made famous by lifestyle television programmes, then the coalition has gone one better. Previous reviews on the state of childhood by Dr Tanya Byron and Dr Linda Papadopoulos have now given way to the Big One. For such an important and definitive report on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, a truly big beast was sought. As none could be found, Sarah Teather chose Reg Bailey, head of the Mothers' Union charity instead.

Yes, if you too are scratching your head at the apparent cognitive dissonance involved in a man being the chief executive of a charity calling itself Mothers' Union, then much soon becomes clear. For Mothers' Union is nothing if not forthcoming in its actual aims, as made clear on their website:

In 81 countries, our members share one heartfelt vision - to bring about a world where God's love is shown through loving, respectful and flourishing relationships. This is not a vague hope, but a goal we actively pursue through prayer, programmes, policy work and community relationships. By supporting marriage and family life, especially through times of adversity, we tackle the most urgent needs challenging relationships and communities.

Yes, they're a Christian charity. For those who think that perhaps God has very little to do with either loving relationships or indeed, childhood sexualisation, all such complaints should be taken up with Teather and friends, although one suspects that this might be a case where Iain Duncan Smith had some influence.

Bailey at least admits that he has no special qualifications for helming such a review, other than being a parent and grandparent himself, as well as the head of a charity (he notably doesn't state its religious ethos, and the word Christian doesn't appear once in the entire document) that supports families in 83 countries. In fairness to Bailey, his introduction to the review (PDF) which follows covers its bases well: he has harsh words for the "prurient approach that has sometimes characterised the wide media coverage of these issues" and he more than once emphasises the fundamental responsibility of parents themselves to control the environment in which their children grow up in. This is a review ordered by a Conservative-dominated government, after all.

The problem that the review barely touches, if puts its finger on at all, is that for all the calls that have been made for children to be children, adults need to try to come to terms with how they project their own worries about the world they're living in onto their offspring. The report informs us that 9 out of 10 parents surveyed agreed that children were under pressure to grow up too quickly, yet it doesn't seem that the finding prompted the researchers to do the obvious thing and ask children themselves whether they felt they were under pressure to do so. The answer might well have been illuminating. For while adults fret, mainly due to how quite a considerable number yearn after their own carefree years as a child, and wish they could return to it, children on the other hand either don't think in such terms, or instead wish that they were older and so have more freedoms. I cannot at any point during my childhood recall feeling that I was not being allowed to act my age, at least within reason, or that outside influences or pressures were bearing down on me; it's only now that I look back and contemplate how quickly time passes that I regret not making more of it while I had it. I suspect this is the emotion that especially drives parents, who after all are in effect seeing little facsimilies of themselves growing up before their very eyes, into wanting them to remain in that state for as long as is possible.

As the report then can't put it as brutally as advising parents to try as hard as they can not to fuck up their children with their own neuroses in the finest Philip Larkin fashion, while still advocating proper boundaries and limits on material from whatever sources they consume, it instead either beats around the bush or puts the onus on the retailers, broadcasters and media. To be sure, they have more than their fair share of responsibility, and it is difficult to argue with the conclusion that we are living in "an increasingly sexual and sexualised culture", yet it's hardly the case that there isn't any getting away from it. Rather than it being the children pressurising the adults into giving them what they want, it seems more to be about adults demanding things that either already exist or which they can't seemingly be bothered to put in place themselves. Take the very opening of the report, where Bailey sets out the "simple" views of a child:

“I don’t know why grown-ups find it so difficult, it’s really very simple. There should be another button on the remote control like the red button so that if you see something that isn’t right on television then you can press it to tell them you don’t like it. And if more than a thousand people press it then the programme is automatically cut off”.

So said the enthusiastic 10-year-old at a
research presentation from a group of children to the Review team. “It’s really very simple.”

It is indeed very simple, or at least it seems so to this simpleton. There doesn't need to be an additional button which takes the equivalent role of Caesar at the Coliseum, you already have either the "off" button or the change the channel button, neither of which it seems see much usage. Television executives, believe it or not, make decisions based on the ratings the programmes they commissioned receive. If you don't like what you're watching, switch it off or turn it over.

This it seems is simply no longer good enough. Instead, and mainly prompted by the X Factor final where two of the least sexy performances in living memory took place in front of millions, images which the Daily Mail made its hypocritical best out of, broadcasters must "involve parents on an ongoing basis in testing the standards by which family viewing on television is assessed", as if they weren't already enough compliance procedures in place. It's still difficult to understand why there was such synthetic outrage generated by the X Factor final, especially when old Top of the Pops routines by the likes of Pans People and friends could be almost as risqué nearly 40 years ago, but then all broadcasters had to face was Mary Whitehouse and her clique. Now we have Mumsnet, which doesn't just want to interfere with factual and entertainment programming, it also wants to decide what is and isn't permissible in a soap opera, for goodness sake.

Other recommendations just seem to be the kind of gestures which these reports have long settled for making in lieu of, in this case, doing something far more counter-productive and potentially inhibiting on adults making a free choice. Hence "modesty boards" are recommended for lads' mags in newsagents, which have been in freefall circulation wise for some time, despite the effect they may still have on teenage girls' perception of what boys expect, while the proposed introduction of age ratings for music videos seems to miss the point entirely. They can conceivably be too explicit for younger children, yet the older teens will have long since moved on from their wares. Bailey recommends that the "internet industry must act decisively to develop and introduce effective parental controls", but there's only so much that NetNanny type software can block; most kids will exchange material now over social-networking sites. Parental monitoring is always going to remain key, and putting the onus on others will continue to be a cop-out.

The contradictions then are manifold. Nine out of ten parents worry about children growing up too fast when asked, yet they don't really think about it, or consider concerns about sexualisation and commercialisation too much when they aren't confronted with it, as it should be. Bailey wonders why "so many parents seem to lack confidence in their ability to help their children navigate this commercial and sexualised world", but why should he be so surprised by that when not a single one of the recommendations he makes urges parents to take action themselves? Instead of empowering them to take control or even to help them overcome what are certainly in some cases irrational fears, it remains everyone else's problem.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009 

Japanese torture-porn and working out how the BBFC works.

I think I've finally managed to work out how the modern British Board of Film Classification works. After abandoning the ridiculous prejudices of previous, and most famous former director of the board, James Ferman, they realised that every so often, in return for passing "art" films that nonetheless the right-wing press get up in arms about, such as Crash, Irreversible and most recently Antichrist, they have to ban a decidedly non-art piece of trash which makes up somewhat for them not banning something else.

Hence Manhunt 2 had to be banned because the previous game had been (wrongly) accused of influencing a murder. Murder Set Pieces, the last non-sex work to be banned by the BBFC, was refused a certificate shortly after a ridiculous furore involving the BBFC passing SS Experiment Camp, a former video nasty, far more memorable for its original VHS cover art of a partially-clothed woman being crucified upside down while an SS trooper loomed behind her. And now, the Japanese horror film Grotesque has been banned only a number of weeks after Antichrist was causing Daily Mail hacks to wail despite not having seen it.

Perhaps they're all coincidences. It's probably not a coincidence that all three share the attribute that they're not very good. Grotesque, despite not many people having seen it, appears to be the latest tiresome, low-budget entry in the sub-horror genre of "torture porn", which existed before the likes of Saw, but which definitely kick-started its re-emergence. Doubtless some will link the film further back to its Japanese predecessors, such as the "Guinea Pig" series, notorious for their effects on ultra-low budgets and how often they've been mistaken for "real" snuff films, but this seems far more linkable to its American sisters. Plot, of which there isn't apparently much of one, revolves around a couple who are kidnapped and then degraded, tortured and assaulted until one is offered the chance of saving the life of the other, a distinctly Saw-like device, before, and I'm only guessing, both are in fact killed.

As for the BBFC's reasoning, it's difficult to ascertain as the statement which was previously up on their website purporting their decision has mysteriously vanished, leaving us with the Sun's mangling of the press release, or the BBC's rather slimmed down account. Apparently it presented "little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism", "[T]he chief pleasure on offer seems to be in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake," and "Its "minimal narrative or character development," he continued, set it apart from such other "torture-themed" works as the Saw and Hostel movie series. Really? Have they honestly sat down and watched the most recent entries in the Saw series, which have nonsensically convoluted plots and where the deaths and torture devices are clearly came up with first and then the story woven around them? The key might well be the sexual sadism, with the BBFC still being cautious when it comes to sexual violence, but that might just be them covering themselves lest the company that submitted the film decides to appeal to the Video Appeals Committee, who overturned the BBFC's rejection of Manhunt 2.

It's also not as if highly similar films featuring high similar plots and doubtless highly similar graphic violence haven't been passed 18 uncut. One was Frontiers, a French film where two young women fall into the grasp of sadistic Nazi cannibals, as one (or two) does. The BBFC justified passing it 18 uncut with the following description:

FRONTIER(S) is a subtitled French film that has been classified '18' uncut for very strong bloody violence.

The film contains scenes dwelling on the terrorisation of victims and the infliction of pain and injury. The inclusion of several 'strongest gory images' (mutilation) preclude the possibility of a '15' classification. However, all elements in this work are containable, uncut, by current guidelines for the '18' classification.

Current guidelines state: The BBFC respects the right of adults to choose their own entertainment, within the law.

Another was Captivity, starring ex-24 starlet Elisa Cuthbert, which I remember mainly because of Peter Bradshaw's review in the Graun:

But there's a twist. The wacko has imprisoned a pretty boy too, Gary (Daniel Gillies) and, against the odds ... well, boy meets girl in the torture dungeon and the old chemistry starts a-fizzin'.

It could have been the basis for a bizarre black comedy, were it not for the chillingly misjudged porn-seriousness of everything on offer. It asks us to believe that Jennifer would want to have sex under these conditions, and furthermore asks us to believe that she would still look like a total hottie. Even after being tortured. Unconsciously, the storyline participates in the madman's gruesomely naive fantasies.

If that was Bradshaw's verdict, you can imagine what the likes of Christopher Tookey thought. Captivity was also naturally passed 18 uncut by the BBFC, who quite rightly don't get involved in matters of taste. Otherwise they might have also banned H6: Diary of a Serial Killer, a Spanish horror in which a killer takes home prostitutes and locks them in a room, strapped to a table, depriving them of both food and water. One begs, pathetically, for a drink: the killer obliges by urinating into her mouth. That was also passed 18 uncut.

Undoubtedly, the BBFC will have justified its rejection in terms of the possibility of "harm", a subjective definition if there ever was one. That it's unlikely that anyone other than a horror/gore hound, undoubtedly already somewhat jaded with the current material on offer was likely to rent or buy Grotesque doesn't enter into it. It also doesn't matter that in the broadband internet age that it's even more impossible to ban films than it was in the video nasty era, when copies of copies of copies of copies circulated, and when those who watched the grainy, almost undecipherable to watch sleaziness thought they were all the better for it. And of course, now that it's been banned by the helpful BBFC, the DVD cases in countries where the censorship laws are not so archaic, ridiculous and opaque will have the legend emblazoned across them that it's illegal in the good old United Kingdom. Achieved? Absolutely nothing, except for proving to the likes of Mediawatch that the BBFC does still ban some films, albeit ones that no one cares about.

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Monday, June 29, 2009 

Girls (Scream) Alone.

The prosecution against Darryn Walker, the author of the story "Girls (Scream) Aloud", has collapsed without a jury even needing to be troubled by any of the evidence. Despite having had since last July to come up with a case, although it seems it didn't come to the attention of the press until last October, the Crown failed to offer any evidence after Walker's defence demolished any hope of a conviction.

It does now appear that as I wondered back then, the key factor in Walker being charged was that his story mentioned the very real girl group Girls Aloud. It's still unclear whether he first wrote the almost identical "Pieces of Candy", which has a fictitious girl group undergoing the same torture as the members of Girls Aloud do in their version, then adapted it, but regardless, it was his decision to make it "real" that led to his prosecution. According to the prosecution, it was undertaken under the fear that those merely searching for Girls Aloud might be unlucky enough to come across Walker's fevered writings, featuring the rape, mutilation and murder and all five members of the group, and so, presumably, be "depraved and corrupted" as the Obscene Publications Act requires for there to be a conviction.

The idea that either of those things was likely was always laughable. Walker's story was (and still is) contained on an archive for writing posted on the Usenet group, and even then is not easily found; search the website itself for Girls Aloud and it is not even on the first page. It is instead hidden away on the Kristen archives section of the website, which itself has a warning which states that it is filtered by most net nanny software, then on the "putrid" sub-section, which has a further warning. You won't find it on the list though, as it's been removed, presumably at Walker's request. The page itself though does still exist. Having jumped through these hoops, you then have Walker's own warning. However, by the simple fact that the CPS thought it was worth prosecuting someone for writing a bad story, the Streisand effect has taken over, with the story now mirrored and far easier to access. My post alone on the prosecution has had a large number of hits today, meaning that any intrigued younger reader wanting to read what all the fuss was about has had far more opportunity than they ever would have had before.

That truism alone, that when you try to ban something cultural you instantly make it more alluring and more desirable regardless of its quality ought to be enough to discourage the censors, especially in this age, from attempting to do so. Walker's story can hardly be defended on artistic grounds, but it can be on the grounds that it is highly unlikely, as the psychiatrist called to defend him argued, that it would turn anyone into a sexual predator. It's also completely true that it was only likely to appeal to those already interested in such material; if someone was simply searching for "erotic celebrity fan-fiction", which fills a rather specific niche on the internet for those who prefer words to pictures, they were likely to go for more easily available writing featuring the gorgeous pouting quintet, rather than that which also involved the sawing off of arms and breasts. Unpleasant as it doubtless is for those depicted to be written about in such a way by complete strangers who then share their fantasies with others, there seems to have been very little legal action taken against sites hosting such stories. Most will admit to the vanity of searching Google for their own name; whether stars themselves dig deep into the darker recesses of the internet and discover such writing is another matter entirely.

Walker though should certainly have never been prosecuted. It raises questions, not only of those who authorised the prosecution, but also of the Internet Watch Foundation, which initially brought the police's attention to the story. Supposedly, why they simply didn't block access to either the page or the site as a whole is because it's hosted overseas and because there is no international agreement on what is obscene, quite rightly, yet as we saw during the Wikipedia/Scorpions debacle, that didn't stop them then. Presumably the page was reported to them, unless they themselves came it across during one of their own trawls, and they decided that it was so terrible and so shocking that the police had to be involved. It certainly makes you wonder about those who are in charge at the IWF; if the likes of "Girls (Scream) Aloud" makes them rush to involve Inspector Knacker, what do they go through at the sight of "2 girls 1 cup" or even the video of the death of Neda? This is, it needs stating again, a completely unaccountable body that doesn't just censor child pornography, but also material that "incites racial hatred", potentially breaches the OPA, as Walker was accused of, and now "extreme pornography", since the law came into effect in January. The law has already been used, although it seems mainly to prosecute those selling beastiality DVDs along with pirated blockbusters.

Quite how much it cost for Walker to be brought to trial, let alone the police and CPS time dedicated to considering whether he should be charged over fantastical words he wrote is irrelevant when it comes to what it has done to the man himself. Regardless of his own sexual predilections and fantasies, and that he wrote such things is no indication whatsoever that he is partial to acting out anything like that his protagonists do in his stories, his life has quite possibly been ruined. Anyone now "Googling" for him when he applies for job, having lost his as a civil servant when he was charged, will soon discover he was up before the beak on the charge of writing perverted stories about a popular beat combo, which is likely to do wonders to his chances of finding employment. It ought to be ridiculous in 2009 that anyone writing fiction, even if it is fiction which features real people, should be charged with obscenity; that someone should be potentially ruined because of it is not just ridiculous, it's disgraceful. No thought however seems to have been put into this before charging was proceeded with, just as no one at the IWF presumably thought through the consequences when they boggled at the original submission to them. This ought to lead to a reform of our obscenity laws, yet if anything they seem likely to be tightened further still.

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