LEADING ARTICLE: Parenting and pornography

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The Independent Online
This country seems to specialise in dialogues of the deaf. Either you believe that class sizes determine all that happens in schools - or you side with Gillian Shephard in asserting that they have no impact at all. The question of violence and children was last week reduced to the trivial and irrelevant question of whether or not parents should smack. And now we have yet another "transmit only, no receive" debate being conducted between the pro- and anti-censorship lobbies over satellite porn and violent videos.

In one corner the moralists bemoan the "tide of filth" waiting to overwhelm the country if Swedish "TV Erotica", available to subscribers with smart- card technology, is allowed to reach into British households. For this lobby any explicit sexuality is to be banned from the screens, without differentiating between material depicting violence or degradation and that showing "normal" sex. Like rabies, sex is seen as a Continental affliction waiting its chance to cross the Channel. For the time being this lobby has prevailed.

Facing them - in the libertarian corner - is the "anything goes" brigade. This group argues that there is no link whatsoever between what is watched and subsequent behaviour - despite a multi-million pound advertising industry devoted to the opposite proposition. So there is simply no problem. Furthermore, they say, the technology is already available to prevent minors viewing unsuitable material - ignoring the evidence that in too many households parental negligence (or even complicity) allows very young children to see disturbing programmes.

And the truth? We think it is more complicated. People are interested in sex and some of them are turned on by watching it on screen. There is nothing wrong or unhealthy in this per se, although it is more alien to British public culture than it would be to the Danes. But if the sex depicted is degrading, or strengthens the link between eroticism and violence, then we are entitled to ask whether society should impose limits upon what adults may do. In those cases only, the Government is justified in taking action to ban the advertising of satellite channels and the distribution of smart cards capable of unscrambling them. It has the ability to take such action.

If we can agree on this approach to what adults are allowed to see, that still leaves the vexed question of how to protect children from viewing unbanned scenes of explicit sexuality. Technology will probably weed out most kids. But the same children who would be at risk from unsupervised screening of porn channels are likely to be the ones already swapping unpleasant videos in the playground, or watching those that their parents leave lying around.

At root, therefore, this (like so much else) is a question of parenting. In the long term it is impossible to restrict what is generally available to society because a minority of parents are essentially delinquent. Which means that we must put in a great deal more effort to educate prospective parents about how to bring up children, and offer serious support at the first signs that some of them are not coping.