First they came for the child pornographers... It may not have quite the same resonance as Pastor Niemuller’s oft-quoted aphorism. But the reality behind this particular slippery slope is just as sinister.
The British government today announced proposals to make possession of drawings and computer-generated images of child abuse illegal. “Good on them”, is likely to be the most common response. However, it will be an ill thought-out response if it is.
Over the last few years, a great deal of new legislation has been put in place “for the sake of the children”. Sometimes it is completely new: for instance, the new child protection structures put forward by the Bichard Inquiry (pdf). At other times, it is just about “closing loopholes”.
Here the government is at it again. Some years ago the Protection of Children Act 1978 (pdf) made it illegal to possess pictures of children being abused. There are two arguments for this law.
The good and obvious one is that any and every picture of child abuse is a picture of a child being abused. It is evidence of a crime being committed. The more speculative reason is that it MAY influence potential abusers to act out their fantasies.
The reason this is considered speculative is that some experts consider the availability of porn to have an opposite effect, allowing abusers to obtain stimulation without acting on their impulses. The jury remains out on that debate.
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 added “pseudo-photographs” of child abuse to those things one may not look at. These are computer-generated images based on actual photos of children.
Similar arguments applied as for the 1978 Act – but the degree of harm involved was clearly less. This issue was addressed in the United States in 2002, when the US Supreme Court rejected a ban on pseudo-photos as over-broad and likely to have a chilling effect on speech.
Section 45 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 extended the definition of “child”, for porn purposes, to anyone aged 16 or 17. For the first time, it became illegal to possess images of perfectly legal sexual activity.
Finally, the Criminal Justice Act 2008 makes it illegal to look at images of “extreme porn”. The issue of whether adults consent or the action is real is immaterial.
At the consultation stage for this law, some Police Forces cited manga as material they would like outlawed. Manga is an essentially Japanese art form, which can cover some quite adult themes. “Tentacle porn” and abduction by aliens are common. Crucially some of the images include individuals whose age is indeterminate or seriously young. As Home Secretary, John Reid expressed his outrage that manga and similar material was not illegal.
Speaking in support of this new proposal, Maria Eagle, Parliamentary under Secretary of State for Justice, said:
“These new proposals will help close a loophole that we believe paedophiles are using to create images of child sexual abuse.
“This is not about criminalising art or pornographic cartoons more generally, but about targeting obscene, and often very realistic, images of child sexual abuse which have no place in our society.”
Government thinking in this area appears seriously disconnected. Some manga is pornographic and includes childish representations. However, taking the under-18 age limit as the benchmark, the scope of this proposal could be very far-reaching indeed.
Moreover, if the test of banning something is the actual harm caused, then this material fails the test entirely.
On the other hand, if the government truly believes that looking at certain types of material does lead to acting out, then they would not have fudged the issue. The extreme porn law allows images to remain in the public domain if passed by the BBFC – but makes it a potential offence to distribute those same images separately from the film in which they appear.
There are two further concerns. At the consultation for the Extreme Porn law, one Police Force – Kent – argued also for the criminalisation of written material. It is clear that the government has an appetite for this form of censorship. So it is not unthinkable that adult censorship will progress to cartoon material as well. Or even literature.
Professor Julian Petley is an expert on media policy and regulation. He believes this government “won’t rest content until it has terrified people into viewing only material which bears the official seal of moral approval – an ambition which it shares with Iran, Saudi Arabia and China.”
He adds: “For a government which boasts of its commitment to ‘deregulation’ and new technology, this measure, taken in conjunction with the anti-porn proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill, presents an utterly ludicrous spectacle and one which reduces the UK to an international laughing stock.”
The only light at the end of this particular tunnel is that it's all been done before.
The Children And Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 made it an offence to publish cartoons depicting crime, violence or “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature”. Only one prosecution was ever brought – for a Conan the Barbarian cartoon. And that failed. ®