Comment: The other face of ‘Digital Britain’ –

Comment: The other face of ‘Digital Britain’ –

Julian Petley, professor of Film and Television at Brunel UniversityJulian Petley, professor of Film and Television at Brunel University

Monday, 26, Jan 2009 08:02

A while back, British newspapers were harrumphing about the Australian government banning Aboriginals from accessing pornography, as a knee-jerk response to a report showing high levels of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children. What they signally failed to notice, however, was that one of the nineteen new offences announced in New Labour’s 54th criminal justice bill since it came to power was the possession of what it calls ‘extreme pornographic images’. Those found guilty risk three years in gaol, or a hefty fine, or both. They will also be put on the sex offenders register, and thus have their lives wrecked.

In spite of a concerted three-year campaign against this measure, and great swathes of the bill being dropped as it passed through parliament, the anti-porn clauses not only remained in the bill but were actually widened in scope. This can only be regarded as a direct smack in the faces of those like Backlash, the Spanner Trust, Index on Censorship and a considerable number of academics, who had the temerity to object to it in the first place, and a clear warning that the government intends to intimidate and criminalise not only the entire BDSM community but very considerable portions of the DVD/video-owning and website-visiting communities as well.

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, which is just about to come into force, defines an image as pornographic if ‘it is of such a nature that it must reasonably be assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal’ and as extreme if it is ‘grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character’ and ‘if it portrays, in an explicit and realistic way, any of the following’:

a) an act which threatens a person’s life,

(b) an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals,

(c) an act which involves sexual interference with a human corpse, or

(d) a person performing an act of intercourse or oral sex with an animal (whether dead or alive),

and a reasonable person looking at the image would think that any such person or animal was real.

So, any jury involved in a case under this Act will have to consider the motives of the maker of the material in question – thus taking us into the realm of thought crime. They will also have to consider if it is grossly offensive or disgusting – thus taking us into the realm of highly subjective judgements with which the law should not concern itself. But, perhaps most serious of all, the Act’s targeting of ‘explicit and realistic’ images unequivocally and indubitably brings within the Act’s ambit both images of consenting BDSM activity and films not classified by the British Board of Film Classification which involve, and not necessarily simultaneously, scenes of unsimulated sexual activity and scenes of simulated violence, necrophilia or bestiality. Thus, for example, collectors of the work of Jess Franco, Joe d’Amato and other Euro sleaze-meisters, all of whose works are readily available from that sink of pornographic depravity,, could soon find themselves locked up for a considerable period of time. The Act’s supporters (which inevitably include the Daily Mail) routinely insist that this measure should concern only those possessing a very limited range of pornographic images. The truth is very different indeed.

Furthermore, it needs to be stressed that although works classified by the British Board of Film Classification are exempt from the new prohibition, extracts from BBFC-classified films (even single images) come within its ambit ‘if it appears that the image was extracted (whether with or without other images) solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal’. Desiccated and deathly the prose may be, but yes, you read this right: if you put together a montage of favourite moments from BBFC-certificated films, and if these contain representations of sex and violence, you may well end up having your motives probed in court and, if they don’t pass muster, you’ll be sent to prison. Thus dawns the era of thought crime.

In terms of BDSM images, the bill is quite clearly yet another malign consequence of the Spanner case . As a result of this truly shocking affair, people taking part in entirely consensual sado-masochistic activity have had to come to terms with the fact that their consent is not in fact valid at law, a point which the notes attached to the original bill was at pains to rub in, stating that ‘the material to be covered by this new offence is at the most extreme end of the spectrum of pornographic material which is likely to be thought abhorrent by most people. It is not possible at law to give consent to they type of activity covered by the offence, so it is therefore likely that a criminal offence is being committed where the activity which appears to be taking place is actually taking place’. And in the case of purely staged activities, ‘the government believes that banning possession is justified in order to meet the legitimate aim of protecting the individuals involved from participating in degrading activities’. Thus is revealed the mark of the true authoritarian: promoting oppressive legislation on the grounds of protecting people from themselves.

‘Degrading’, ‘abhorrent’ – this is the over-heated language of the moral crusader, not the dispassionate prose of the legislator. But frightening people into behaving ‘properly’ (by making it abundantly clear that internet activity is increasingly subject to official surveillance) and appeasing the moral authoritarians has always been at the root of this measure. Indeed, the accompanying notes to the original bill are remarkably upfront about this, stating that ‘the government considers that the new offence is a proportionate measure with the legitimate aim of breaking the demand and supply cycle of this material which may be harmful to those who view it. Irrespective of how these images were made, banning their possession can be justified as sending a signal that such behaviour is not considered acceptable. Viewing such images voluntarily can desensitise the viewer to such degrading acts, and can reinforce the message that such behaviour is unacceptable’.

However, the vainglorious idea that this measure will break the ‘demand and supply cycle of this material’ shows that the government knows absolutely nothing about the internet, and still less about the global pornography market. Even if the entire UK population could be completely and instantaneously cut off from the entire supply of internet porn, it would register barely a blip in the global economics of the industry. To seriously believe that international porn barons give a damn about what the British government does or doesn’t do betrays a quite stupefyingly over-inflated sense of this country’s importance in the scheme of things.

Furthermore, the ‘message’ which this measure sends out is not the one which is so portentously intended. Rather, it says that, for all its encomia to modernisation and new communications minister Stephen Carter’s commitment to a ‘Digital Britain’, much of New Labour is actually profoundly ignorant of and ill at ease with the modern media, and, as far as attitudes to the internet are concerned, is quite happy to place itself in the same camp as not simply Australia, but also Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea.

Julian Petley is professor of Film and Television at Brunel University and a member of the board of Index. His latest work (written with Philip French), Censoring the Moving Image, was recently published by Seagull Books.

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