During a week in early June this year when, after the conviction of Mark Bridger for the murder of five year old April Jones, the British media was consumed by a single question: ‘What can we do about this?’
As is often the case when a criminal conviction becomes a national tragedy the best time to talk about the reasons why Mark Bridger committed the crime he did was not in the immediate aftermath of his loss of liberty. Yet, as residents of Machynlleth where April had lived appeared on the evening news, the search for answers took place. One central theme emerged, based around the evidence presented in court that in the hours before the murder Bridger has viewed violent porn and indecent images of children via the internet. Pornography, specifically images of children, was at fault. The government needed to look at how easy it was to access this filth. In the future the internet could not be allowed to corrupt people and turn them into new Mark Bridgers.
A few very basic facts about the internet were ignored, or at least only spoken of in hushed tones. Perhaps because most MPs were born and raised earlier than ‘the web’ became a part of public life understanding from them of how the internet works was greatly lacking. The misassumptions that illegal pornography of the type Bridger viewed and owned is part of the mainstream ‘everyday’ internet environment accessed by the vast majority of the public and that web providers have any control over the uploading of such images were both banded about in public. Indeed the idea that the internet could be controlled without the kind of cyber-censorship the West is rightly critical of in Iran and China, that somehow Google (treated as the de facto owner of the web) would sort it all out instead, was also a common theme.
Although the issue faded from the front pages after a week and no immediate action was taken the coalition’s planned restriction of internet pornography announced today is the result, largely, of that week in June. An astonishing lack of understanding on how the internet works has once again been shown, as has a real crassness about what drives people to commit such terrible crimes.
Psychological illness and a troubled background in the case of the accused is an almost universal theme in trails for child abuse, sex crimes and the most violent of murders. Mark Bridger left school at sixteen, had a number of previous convictions and was described as a ‘pathological liar’ by the judge during his sentencing. If we are honest with ourselves Bridger’s to put it mildly, unstable mental state was probably the single most important factor in all of his crimes. However we are not being honest with ourselves. Instead we’ve become fixated upon the idea that accessing illegal porn made Bridger a paedophile. Being mentally ill, specifically being a paedophile, made Mark Bridger want to access illegal porn. The fact that the backlash to April Jones’s murder was focused mainly on pornography and not on how we assess and try to help vulnerable people highlights just how skewed both public and media opinions of crime are. There is a paranoia that the most heinous crimes can be committed by anyone rather than rational analyse of the facts, that in almost all such cases there is an underlying issue of health that has been the catalyst driving the offender onwards. The notion that as one event follows another the first must be the cause is, in this case, wrong.
That is not to say that pornography is necessarily a good thing. It often encourages highly negative perceptions of its subjects, especially women, and is part of a culture that is responsible for the promotion of a homogenised and unhealthy idea of what being attractive is. However it is infinitely preferable to the way the tabloid press treats women. Porn may often be little more than the sterile, emotionless portrayal of sex and gender but The Sun’s page three goes further, marrying portrayals of the ‘perfect’ female body with overwhelmingly negative emotions towards women. Curiously the tabloids, especially the Daily Mail with its highly sexist ‘sidebar of shame’, has been at the forefront of the ‘ban this filth’ campaign. David Cameron’s refusal to tackle Page 3 as part of these new ‘child protection’ measures suggest that at its heart the bill that brings these measures into law will be a highly political entity, driven by the fear of the tabloid press still entrenched in British politics.
Cameron’s reasoning for not including Page 3 in the regulation of pornography was that buying a copy of The Sun or Daily Star was a ‘consumer choice’. This of course ignores the facts that viewing porn is as much a consumer choice but arguably one that is harder to make. The Sun appears on every newsstand and in almost every shop in Britain. In contrast even legal porn does not flood the internet to the extent that either pop-culture or overly concerned parents would have you believe. On a computer with even basic security software one has to actively go looking for any pornography, something mostly children are unlikely to do until they are in their teens. Should a five year old walk into their local corner shop they are almost certain to see images similar to those Cameron wants restricted online. The question as to how, given these two situations, internet porn can be deemed more of a direct threat to children does not need to be answered.
In fact children, especially young teenagers, need more adult content rather than less. PSHE classes in the British school system are laughably inadequate. Being able to frankly discuss sex in the classroom and to recognise that, whether you want to watch porn or not, it is all an act in the end are vital in shaping young people’s attitude towards sex and gender. As it is sex education, in state schools at least, is a badly organised class often treated as an embarrassing joke lesson that generally revolves around the constant advocacy of safe sex and little else.
At the heart of the issue is why something the law declares to be legal needs to be restricted. When framed in this way the idea of forcing internet users to ‘opt in’ to viewing pornography sounds little better than an attempt to restrict freedom of expression (and indeed opponents of a ‘ban’ on porn often cites such a move as such). However it portrays more a lack of understanding of both the way the internet works and the nature of criminality on the part of legislators. There is very little link between legal and illegal pornography on the internet and blocking it is not going to tackle the issues that conspire to create people like Mark Bridger. If we want to protect children from the negative influence of pornography we need to teach them properly about sex and gender in schools. If we want to stop the likes of Mark Bridger we need to speak and act honestly about how the criminal justice systems provides mental health care (perhaps a good start would be by trying to preserve the NHS). Restricting the general access to legal pornography will lead to nothing other than a surfeit of frustrated teenagers and a rise in sales for Lads Mags and the tabloid press.