Censorship and Freedom: the Longford Report

It used to be said of certain parliamentary constituencies that a sheep or a scarecrow would be elected by them if it bore the rosette of Conservative or Labour, whichever was favoured there. Likewise, it is predictable that the direst rubbish will be acclaimed by sections of the population, so long as it is rubbish supporting Christianity and seeking to put more fetters on people’s lives. And that is the essence of the Longford Report on pornography, whose long-awaited foregone conclusions appeared at the end of September. Despite the adverseness of reviews such as Bernard Levin’s in The Observer, one has actually to read the Report to find how low it is: a methodological mess, a rag-bag of contradictory allegations given the name “evidence” and ulterior motives called “conclusions”.

One example will show what the Report is at. In the general introductory section, the third chapter is headed “Violence and Pornography”. A lengthy paragraph associating social revolution and the “underground” with violence leads straight into an account of Julius Streicher and Der Stürmer. Streicher, it is said, collected pornography. The counter-information that Hitler did not is given backhandedly: “very little is known about Hitler’s own interest in pornographic materials” — i.e., being wicked he must have had some even though we’ve no evidence for saying so. However, Hitler was “probably” impotent, and his mistress (a contradiction there, surely?) Eva Braun “may, it is thought” have practised lesbianism with her sister. Over the page, and we are back with hippies and “peaceniks” playing sexual perversions.

Making Dirt Stick
The Longford Report is the dirtiest book in town, throwing and smearing mud in all directions. Some of it is hair-raising in crude audacity. The special sub-committee on advertising which finds “We are satisfied with the disciplines that the advertising industry has voluntarily imposed upon itself” comprised four members—of whom two are Chairmen of advertising agencies. The sub-committee quotes from and recommends the British Code of Advertising Practice, and points a special finger at one publisher refusing to observe it: curiously enough, Paul Raymond, proprietor of Men Only, which was raided by the police shortly after the appearance of the Report. Note should be made, too, of the nature of censorable books proposed in a chapter by Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard: “Not unsuitable because of anything: just unsuitable.”

The conclusion of the Report is a draft “Obscenity Bill”, with two prime concerns. First, a new “test of obscenity” is laid down:

“For the purposes respectively of the Obscene Publications Acts 1959 and 1964 and of section 2 of the Theatres Act 1968, an article or a performance of a play is obscene if its effect, taken as a whole, is to outrage contemporary standards of decency or humanity accepted by the public at large.”

The second object, with particular reference to the theatre, is that the sections of existing Acts allowing for “public good” as a defence against prosecution “shall cease to have effect”. As stated in the 1959 Act, this defence is

“that the giving of the performance in question was justified as being for the public good on the ground that it was in the interests of drama, opera, ballet or any other art, or of literature or learning.”

Lord Longford has denied that these changes attempt to extend censorship. Of course they do. What is the Report about, except to demand that what Longford, Mrs. Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, Cliff Richard (and eleven ecclesiastics, and Moral Rearmament) disapprove of should be banned?

Who Constrains Whom?
The Socialist attitude to these questions can be simply stated. We are against all censorship, and in favour of unrestricted expression of opinion and sentiment by everyone. There is no reservation in this statement. “All” does not mean all except that of obscenity, etc., and “everyone” includes our opponents (those involved in the Longford Report, for instance: atrocious as it is, no Socialist will deny or impede their right to say any of it). Nor is the argument one of artistic merits and the interests of the higher things in life. The position is that while any one section of society has the power to regulate what others may see, read or know, the minds of the majority are held in chains.

Part of the Longford case is that the minds of many need to be chained. Mrs. Whitehouse is quoted as saying “it has nothing to do with taste, it has everything to do with the kind of world we are trying to build”. A “senior consultant, F.R.C.P. and former Dean” refers to “the necessary function of government in preventing mental pollution by the mass media”. Masud Khan, editor of the International Psychoanalytical Library, proposes that pornography (but not censorship, however) is “inherently fascistic”. Lord Platt is recorded as having visited the Study Group to say that the Bible — “on sale in children’s bookshops, in school libraries” — contained disgusting pornographic material and was likely to corrupt children; but perhaps that is not what the Study Group wanted to hear.

Thin Air
Yet, for all the laborious efforts here to prove a case for banning pornography, it remains unproven. David Holbrook cites psychiatrists, philosophers and biologists. The American President is quoted pronouncing the non sequitur that if the mind is elevated by great works it must be lowered by bad ones. The only decently-researched item in the Report is the Appendix by Maurice Yaffé, summarising the voluminous findings of the US Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, 1970, and other recent enquiries. This Appendix is referred to several times in the main text of the Report, making one wonder if any of them (apart from Holbrook and Mary Miles, who add a disapproving paragraph) read it. For the conclusions on page after page are that no evidence exists for connecting pornography causally with anti-social behaviour or sexual crime, or for claiming any effect on children.

Indeed, there is one factor which is treated altogether curiously by the Report. Notwithstanding the impression given by phrases like “widely sold” and “big business”, the fact is that pornography is expensive and hard to get. How many of the newspaper readers have ever seen, let alone bought, it? The Report tells how Mary Stott of The Guardian went to the Study Group’s office “simply anxious to see her reactions to hard pornography”. If it were as over-accessible to the public as Longford’s crew represent, why did not Mary Stott pick up a bundle at the corner shop long before? The cheapest price for a pornographic booklet is about £3 (the same as an agency ticket for Oh, Calcutta!, with which the authors of the Report seem obsessed). In those terms, the talk of easy availability to children is a monstrous red herring. The pious question asked, “Would you like your child (or godchild) to read this?” needs a supplementary: If you would, can you afford it?

Propaganda & Capitalism
The point is not at all frivolous. Most people’s views on pornography are founded not on what they have seen of it but on what they have heard. The first chapter of the Report speaks of “the influence of literature on behaviour, with special reference to the Bible, Das Kapital and Mein Kampf”. If one grants that these books have been widely influential, the influence has not come through reading them. The first and the third have been pressed on populations among which it is difficult to find persons with more than vague knowledge of what is inside them. The number of people who have read Capital is, even today, relatively small. The influence has come from their presentation for propagandist purposes, in directive renderings to which independent reading would be an antidote. This is another side of censorship where the censor seeks to form his subjects’ conclusions for them, laying down the reaction which makes reading unnecessary and imposing social and political penalties on whoever reacts otherwise.

The purpose of censorship is to support the rule of class-divided society. Thus, though Socialists oppose it, we do not campaign for its abolition: the belief that any class government anywhere can permit this is unrealistic. Politically, the reasons why capitalism needs its Official Secrets Acts, libel laws and prohibitions on incitement to this or that are obvious enough. In the field of what is called morality, the purpose is simply to ensure that the working class gives no trouble. In this regard, the hypocrisy of the “establishment” should be seen for what it is. Despite all the talk about art and humanity, the authorities stiffen or relax censorship on strictly practical grounds and only to a marginal extent because of theoretical arguments. Considering all that goes on in our world — supported by the contributors to the Longford Report — it is the depth of cynicism to speak as if seeing a dirty book were the worst thing that could befall a child. If only it were!

Exploitive Society
Of course there is no case to be made out in support of pornography, any more than there is one for football or detective novels or jig-saw puzzles or a thousand other recreational phenomena. The condemnation that large sums of money are made from pornography comes strangely from supporters of capitalism, which exists by making money out of every human desire and need. Much bigger profits are made out of “just” wars, housing shortage, and taken-for-granted activities which poison the environment. Presumably the Hodder company will make profit from the publication of the Longford Report; Malcolm Muggeridge is paid for writing and speaking against pornography and birth-control; but no-one suggests that the viewpoints presented are thereby disqualified.

However, there is one comment on most pornography that is not made in the Report. Its nature is, above everything else, exploitive. Its subject-matter is seduction, humiliation, infliction, indignity — people persuaded or made to do things for other people’s gratification. Far from violating the values of present-day society, this picture of personal exploitation accurately reflects them. That is the real difficulty for the censors in defining pornography. Its forms may be elusive, but the content is no different from that of the allegedly respectable functions of a society based upon the exploitation of man by man. Perhaps the indignation of the Longford Study Group is Caliban’s rage at his own face in the glass. One can see in it also, however, the bitterness of disappointed Fabians. A lifetime’s social reform was supposed to turn the working class into sober, moral, acquiescent people: and here they are, as recalcitrant and randy as ever.

Freedom, not Humbug
Don’t be taken in by the Longford Report — or by the majority of its opponents. Censorship can never be in the interests of any section but the ruling class. It is not stated like that, so the arguments for it have to be specious ones invoking illusory menaces and the welfare of the young and “vulnerable”. On the other hand, most self-styled “opponents” of censorship are seeking not its abolition but its transfer — themselves to have freedom, others to be shut up. Socialism means the freedom to say, see and know without restriction. It is worth saying also that this includes not being forced to accept what one does not want; but that is a freedom capitalism won’t give us either.


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