The Mary Whitehouse Revival: TV programmes and porn are always the problem for a certain kind of columnist

... because asking bigger questions is too difficult to handle in 800 words.

Imagine having the brass balls to suggest you know what’s wrong with the country week after week despite a past-life as one of the most incompetent Prime Ministerial advisors of all time.

Nick Timothy was one of two Chiefs of Staff that sat-navved Theresa May into the dustbin, having previously spent years with her at the Home Office when she introduced the racist ‘Go Home’ vans and was accused of “allowing state-sanctioned abuse of women” when she extended Serco’s contract to run the Yarls Wood detention centre despite evidence of sexual abuse, exploitation, rape, and self-harm.

In his latest column, a swing against the calamitous Met Commissioner Cressida Dick — appointed under May’s premiership by Amber Rudd — and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a perennial target for The Telegraph, Timothy writes:

We need to change cultural attitudes within the police to violence against women and improve police accountability. We need to improve the way prosecutors approach cases of violence against women.

We need to make sure that everybody across relevant public services understands the connection between violence and coercive control, which often involves financial control, psychological manipulation, and – after relationships have ended – parental alienation and the abuse of parental rights in the family courts.

We need to help more women to escape violent and controlling relationships. We need to crack down on stalking and harassment, online and in person. And we need to do something about extreme and violent pornography.

Timothy mentions coercive control because he was at the Home Office when Theresa May introduced the law recognising emotional and financial abuse as a crime. But what he doesn’t like to talk about is the devastating cuts to provision during the Coalition and Conservative governments since 2010, with funding to women’s refuges, for instance, cut by £7 million between then and 2018. Only 1.4% of rapes reported in England and Wales result in a charge or summons.

The Conservatives have gutted Legal Aid and left the criminal justice system on its knees. Justice delayed is justice denied and the government’s policies have ensured long delays. That means evidence gets shaky, victims get scared, and the guilty often get away with it.

But talking about the courts being broken by his political masters is never going to be Timothy’s angle. Instead, he tilts for two now traditional Tory folk monsters — pornography and the internet.

Waving your hands in the air and talking in a non-specific manner about “online harms” and “extreme pornography” is a good tactic for a tinpot moralist like Timothy. It sounds scary to the readers and taps into their ‘I reckon’ theories on what’s behind the ‘decline’ they detect everywhere. And the best part is you don’t need to refer to any evidence because everyone knows that the internet is rotting our children’s minds and turning them into sexual deviants, right?

Timothy is a mere padawan in the ‘porn peril’ column stakes though. Over at The Times today, Libby Purves dusts off one of the classic angles under the headline ‘TV is obsessed with violence against women. She writes:

… a whole industry of commercial sexual fantasy profits from depicting the abuse and murder of women.

I do not just mean hard porn. We know its perils and that in school playgrounds little boys not yet into puberty may see, on friends’ phones, brutalities their parents can barely imagine. We know that only the most explicitly illegal sites will ever meet punishment. 

‘We know’ is a powerful form of weasel words for any columnist. Unwilling to use up the word count on evidence, you can simply say that “we know X is true” and move on, fairly certain that a good portion of your readership agrees with your assertions. Think-tanks and pressure groups have been pushing the idea that school children are spending their break times passing around porn for years.

Back in 2014, a study from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), based on conversations with 500 18-years, said 70% felt porn led to “unrealistic attitudes to sex” and 66% said it pressured young women to act in a certain way. Porn is unrealistic. It’s the sexual equivalent of pro-wrestling, an exaggerated version of something that purports to be real but is clearly not.

But when columnists write about pornography, they tend to argue that it must be banned — as if somehow the internet can be cleansed of sexual material — rather than considering the responsibility of parents and the education system to ensure that young people can distinguish between fantasies — extreme or otherwise — and reality. Again, that’s because columnists prefer to deal in the black and white of old newsprint rather than nuance that needs more than 800 words to explore.

Purves column swerves away from porn though and into the more mainstream territory of television. She continues:

When a terrible crime makes us discuss street safety, CCTV, boys’ education, policing and prosecution, this anguished conversation rarely includes or questions the entertainment industry. Night after night on our screens imaginary violence against women is monetised and praised. Like Dickens’s Fat Boy, television not only “wants to make your flesh creep”, but likes to stir up sexual excitement as it does so. You can hardly kick fallen leaves in a woodland without some TV memory making you expect a sad grey foot or hand, followed by a flashback to the victim sexily alive.

… Fill in your own example: it goes all the way from Jack the Ripper reconstructions and the rapey Game of Thrones to the terrorism thriller Bodyguard, where Jed Mercurio spices up the politics by having the cop “accidentally” choking the glamorous home secretary he has earlier slept with. Apparently it’s OK because he’s a war hero with PTSD.

Strangling is, of course, especially popular with men of a particular erotic taste: indeed only now in the real world is our sleepy legislature getting around to defining “non-fatal strangulation” as unlawful and condemning the “rough-sex” defence to killings.

As is depressing common among Britain’s columnists, Purves elides and conceals to make her argument. There’s no denying that Game of Thrones, especially in its earlier series, often used sex and violence against women as titillation for telling its tale, but The Bodyguard moment was not that. Purves frames it as Mercurio secretly slipping a rough sex moment into his story rather than an intentionally horrifying scene caused by the character’s PTSD.

Purves claim that while “street safety, CCTV, boys’ education, policing and prosecution” are discussed the entertainment industry is “rarely” questioned just doesn’t hold up. Whenever there is a high-profile violent crime the newspapers work very hard to find a link between the perpetrator and a film or TV series. Similarly, the debate about violence on television, particularly violence against women, comes upon a cyclical basis.

The Bridge, which is one of Purves’ examples, prompted a great deal of debate when it was broadcast on British television in 2018. Germaine Greer wrote about it in The Radio Times, noting:

… who is watching and reading the proliferating imagery of female victimhood? Women, that’s who. Women make up between 60 and 80 per cent of readers of crime fiction. Dedicated true crime channels are principally watched by women. Strange as it must seem, the endless array of female cadavers laid out on slabs and dragged out of the undergrowth in crime drama on TV is designed to reel in a mainly female audience.

Purves’ argument continues:

I am no censor, but every time there is a grim event like the death of Sarah Everard this genre needs looking at levelly, without defensive artistic hysteria. Conflating sex and extreme violence both stokes up female fear and stimulates men who enjoy that fear (a Washington State University survey confirmed that young men enjoy the violent clips from TV crime dramas most). But it is so dominant that a few years ago the Staunch Book Prize was launched for any thriller “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”.

A Google search for that Washington State University study throws up Purves’ article first. I’ll continue looking for the paper as it would be interesting to read its findings outside of a newspaper column. It’s a shame that the full reference isn’t included to make it easier for readers to look into claims further; that damn word count again. Or perhaps it’s just better for Purves’ argument if the reader thinks that it’s predominantly men who are consuming these dramas.

It would be foolish to argue that television and movies play no role in how society thinks about violence against women. After all, I argued in a recent edition of this newsletter that tabloid newspapers play a significant part in creating a toxic culture for women.

But columnists can make an easier argument for the pernicious influence of porn and telly than they can break down the failings of the system. The primary purpose of British newspaper columnists is to defend the status quo while noisily claiming to be mavericks and renegades. Parroting the usual lines about porn and ‘video nasties’ is all part of that.