Sex on the small screen: control it but don't ban it

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The Independent Online

One of the bosses of Channel 5 says that pornography should be allowed on television. He would, wouldn't he? Indeed, it was not immediately clear whether he meant that the pornography Channel 5 already shows ought to be allowed, or whether he meant he ought to be allowed to show more explicit material than the ironic programmes about porn, and the supposedly softcore stuff currently pushing channels one to four downmarket.

One of the bosses of Channel 5 says that pornography should be allowed on television. He would, wouldn't he? Indeed, it was not immediately clear whether he meant that the pornography Channel 5 already shows ought to be allowed, or whether he meant he ought to be allowed to show more explicit material than the ironic programmes about porn, and the supposedly softcore stuff currently pushing channels one to four downmarket.

It turns out that Adam Perry, controller of special events at Channel 5, means the latter. Continental European countries have so-called hardcore porn on aerial television, he says, so why shouldn't we? He has a point. Certainly, countries such as the Netherlands, Italy and Denmark do not appear to have a coarser public culture or greater problems with sexual abuse or violence as a result of TV pornography. It is hard to argue on the basis of the Continental experience that a more liberal approach would mean the end of civilisation as we know it.

More conclusive is the fact that pornography is becoming more readily accessible whether we want it or not, as a result of the communications revolution. The sluicegate of a 9pm watershed on four or five free channels already has water flowing freely over it. Satellites from outer space, and now servers in cyberspace can transmit moving pictures and sound - sometimes even synchronised with each other - to the private spaces of people's homes.

In this interesting new world, it makes sense to concentrate national and even supranational efforts on controlling those things which really do matter - the protection of children and the regulation of the portrayal of violence - while taking a much more liberal line on adult consumption of explicit sexual material.

It is true that the pornography industry is an unlikeable business, that it exploits the women who work in it and degrades women generally. But it is neither possible nor desirable to legislate against it. It would make much more sense to try to legitimise and to regulate it.

As for the consumption of its products, a distinction needs to be drawn between material which children might be expected to see, and that which consenting adults might consume in private. The first category calls for restraint - and that includes Channel 5 or any other medium which cannot easily be child-locked.

The second category calls for the application of John Stuart Mill's classic liberal principle of not interfering in what other people get up to, provided that they are causing no harm.

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