So familiar is this brilliantly coloured spectacle that we hardly notice it other than as a kind of puzzle picture in which we explore the newsagent's mind to discover where he might have put the one mag we want. Yet seen as a whole, it is a cultural event as diverse and compendious as television or advertising.
WH Smith, which as wholesaler supplies about a third of all newspapers and magazines, is clearly in the habit of seeing this coloured wall as a single, homogeneous mass. Under its "box-out" system it provides 20,000 independent newsagents with a more or less undifferentiated mass of magazines. Some 80 of these titles are pornographic, a selection made by the company from the 300 to 400 published. In its own shops Smith, true to its respectable image, sells only four porn titles, but, as anonymous wholesaler, it goes further.
Others see the wall of magazines as possessed of more detailed moral significance. At Smith's last annual meeting the Campaign Against Pornography protested against the box-out system as a way of dumping porn on retailers whether they liked it or not. And now a group called Porn Free Newsagents and Convenience Stores is putting pressure on WH Smith to offer retailers a clearer choice not to sell pornography. Porn Free was set up by Hamdy Shaheen, an Egyptian newsagent, who says he wants WH Smith "to start behaving like its family business image".
In response the company has improved its system for allowing retailers to opt out of receiving some titles. In its old form this system failed regularly - embarrassingly it kept sending Shaheen porn mags however often he protested.
But, of course, Smith will still offer its 80 porn titles to anybody who wants them. The Campaign Against Pornography wants to stop the company doing this completely and Shaheen wants to ban the sale of top-shelf titles to under-18s and to insist that they all be sold in sealed plastic covers. Applying moral pressure to companies in this way is an import from America. There the Christian right wing has attempted to call the bluff of corporate responsibility. Michael Medved, for example, led an attack on Hollywood's obsession with violence. And William Bennett, a former secretary for education and the author of the hugely successful The Book of Virtues, simply pointed out to executives of Time Warner, the biggest media group in the world, the awfulness of much of its violent and sex trash output. Time Warner, he says, was puzzled. The executives could not grasp that they were being asked rather than coerced. The issue is not normally posed in terms of conscience. Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, for example, was held back from video release in this country not because Warner Bros executives suddenly felt bad about it, but because a large number of MPs felt the company was ignoring their demand for restraint on what is released on video. That is a familiar exercise of power, the kind of moral pressure head office can understand.
The Bennett approach is to ask the executives what kind of people they are. Do they want to be remembered as godfathers of a violent, pornographic society? The question is painfully difficult. As family men in suits, they wish to be seen as respectable entertainers; as servants of the shareholders, they feel a commercial imperative to exploit the market for sex and violence. The dilemma is precisely captured for a British audience by Shaheen's call for WH Smith to live up to its family business image.
The conflict is between freedom - either of the market or of the adult individual to consume what he or she likes - and virtue. The problem is that the word "virtue" is ambiguous. It is an awkward issue for, clearly, Smith can be accused of hypocrisy, flaunting respectability when its own name is attached to the sale, but happy to exploit the market when its role in the deal is concealed by the independent newsagent.
Bennett, Medved, Shaheen and the anti-porn campaigners have spotted this awkwardness and used it to embarrass companies that would rather have the contradiction buried by the anonymous complexities of the market. They have found a new way of making their case by publicising the role of companies as social institutions rather than as blank profit-making machines. The problem for the companies is that they know that, some of the time, being an efficient profit-making machine requires them at least to appear to be responsible social institutions. Every company of any size has to promote itself as more than profit-driven. Nobody buys anything because they want to improve the seller's earnings per share, they buy things because of the attachment of values, frequently values of solidity, respectability and sometimes social concern.
The campaigners' weapon is, essentially, shame. WH Smith's solid blandness, in this context, becomes a weakness because it exposes itself to the possibility of shame. With pornography this becomes a very potent weapon. Porn inhabits a fraught realm in which nobody can actually say they want it, but, equally, liberals find it difficult to say people should not have it because its availability seems to be a condition of free speech and the free society. Porn consumers, who must represent a substantial proportion of society in view of the sales figures, may well disapprove in public while buying in private. Pornography, more clearly than anything else, illuminates the hypocrisy that seems to be structurally inevitable in liberal society.
The new moralists find this hypocrisy intolerable and yet a useful pressure point. Their sudden appearance as opponents of liberal capitalism indicates the extent to which liberalism is seen to have failed. For the anti-porn feminists liberalism has failed because it appears to institutionalise the exploitation of women. For fundamentalists it has failed because it does not provide special protection for their sensibilities. And, for the moral right, it fails because it is ideologically incapable of applying a transcendental concept of virtue.
The corporate balancing act in all this moral anger and confusion has become more precarious than ever. WH Smith today finds itself wobbling awkwardly over a few mags. Silly perhaps, but, in these fragmented, media- driven times, moral apocalypse is everywhere, on every shelf, including the top.Reuse content