I was lucky enough to be on Radio 4’s ‘The Media Show’ yesterday, to talk about Cameron’s porn-blocking plans: I think I was invited as a result of my blog post from Monday, asking 10 questions about the plan. I didn’t have much time – and I’m still very much an amateur on the radio – and though I think I managed to get across some of what I wanted to say, I didn’t get close to persuading the other person talking about the subject – Eleanor Mills, of the Sunday Times. I think I know why: she’s in many ways correctly identified the monster that she wants to slay, and she thinks that she’s found the silver bullet. The problem is, for porn, there IS no silver bullet. It’s not that simple.
The solution that she suggested – and she said that ‘the man from Google’ told her it was possible – was a simple ‘switch’ to turn a ‘porn filter’ on or off. If you wanted to see ‘restricted’ material for some justified reason (e.g. to look at material for sex education purposes) you could turn it on, and you’d be asked a question in a pop-up, something like ‘Do you want to look at this for research purposes?’. You’d click OK, look at the stuff, then turn the filter back on. Simple. Why not do it?
It doesn’t really take a technical expert to see the flaws in that plan even if it was possible to create such a switch – how it wouldn’t stop viewing stuff for bad reasons (who’s going to be honest when asked why you want?), how it avoids the fundamental question of how you define ‘porn’, and all the other crucial issues that I mentioned in my other blog. That’s not to mention the technical difficulties, the problem of over-censorship and under-censorship, of the way that the really bad stuff will avoid the filters anyway – let alone the even more fundamental issues of free speech and the need to be able to access information free of fetters or limitations…. There are so many flaws in the plan that it’s hard to know where to start – but it’s easy to see the attraction of the solution.
We all want to find easy solutions – and computerised, technical solutions often promise those kinds of easy solutions. Porn, however, is not amenable to easy solutions. It’s a complex subject – and sadly for those looking for silver bullets, it needs complex, multifaceted solutions that take time, effort and attention.
We do, however, know what a lot of those solutions are – but they’re not really politically acceptable at the moment, it seems. We know, for example, that really good sex and relationships education helps – but the government recently voted down a bill that would make that kind of education compulsory in schools. The ‘traditional’ education favoured by Michael Gove and the Daily Mail has no truck with new-fangled trendy things like that, and the puritanical religious approach still claims, despite all the evidence, that ignorance of sexual matters is bliss. It isn’t. Better education is the key starting point to helping kids to find their way with sex and relationships – and to make the ‘poisonous’ influence of ‘bad’ porn (which, it must be remembered, is generally NOT illegal) the kind of thing that Eleanor Mills justifiably wants to deal with. If she really wants to help, she should be fighting the government on that, not pushing technical, magical solutions that really won’t work.
The next stage is putting more resources – and yes, that means money – into the solutions that we know work well. The IWF in dealing with child abuse images. CEOP in dealing with sex-offenders online activities. Work on a targeted, intelligent level. The experts know it works – but it’s hard work, it’s not headline-grabbing, and it’s not ‘instant’. What’s more, it’s not cheap.
The other part of the jigsaw for me, is to start having a more intelligent, more mature and more honest debate about this. If the politicians didn’t go for soundbite solutions without talking to experts, but actually listened to what people said, this might be possible. Sadly, with the current lot of politicians on pretty much every side, that seems impossible. This isn’t a party-politcal issue: Labour are every bit as bad as the Tories on this, with Helen Goodman a notable offender. It’s an issue of politicians being unwilling to admit they don’t understand, and unwilling to take advice that doesn’t fit with their ‘world view’. It’s an issue of the corrosive influence of hypocritical and puritanical newspapers like the Daily Mail on the one hand calling for internet porn bans and on the other parading their ‘sidebar of shame’ complete with images and stories that objectify women and girls to an extreme.
The one saving grace here is that the solution they suggest simply won’t work – and eventually they’ll realise that. In Australia, a similarly facile solution was tried, only to be ignominiously abandoned a few years later. If only that lesson was the one from Australia that Lynton Crosby managed to get across to David Cameron….