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Page Turners

To what extent is censorship acceptable? If legal censorship is not acceptable, should it be imposed upon people working for the government? If so, when?

The right to look at pictures of topless models might not at first blush appear to be the cutting edge of legal freedom. However it does raise certain important questions.

The Ministry of Defence has apparently stopped soldiers serving in Afghanistan accessing page 3 of the Sun online. For those who do not know (or those who pretend not to know) page 3 of the Sun has a daily picture of a topless beauty. What is not clear is whether page 3 of the Sun was specifically targeted by the Ministry, or whether it is part of a wider targeting of pornographic websites. (In saying this, I am referring to the motivation of the ban, rather than suggesting, which I personally would not accept for a moment, that topless pictures could properly be categorised as pornography. Certainly I doubt that they could be in the era of widespread topless bathing.).

The issue of pornography is a tricky one for those who advocate freedom of speech and expression. I would have thought it goes without saying that the law should prevent pornography being disseminated which either involves those who cannot consent (those under the age of 18, animals) those who have not consented (trafficked women etc) and those images which involve the infliction of injury or other degradation. It should also seek to prevent access by anyone under 18 to any pornography, and if and insofar as this necessitates restriction of access by registration so be it. If and insofar as pornography or categories of pornography could be shown to be reasonably likely to have an effect upon people inclined to commit sexual offences then it would seem to me that the rights of people to watch what they want without censure from others (and the right of people to produce for others to watch what they wish) could well be outweighed by the need to protect the public, provided that this appeared to be a demonstrable effect rather than mere assertion. Ultimately, save for the protection of the defenceless or the prevention of crime or harm to individuals, the government should not be an arbiter of morals.

Having said all that, in general I believe that employers including the government should have an absolute right to restrict access to pornographic material during working hours. That is not a restriction on freedom of expression, it is a reflection of the fact that people want to access material irrelevant for work they should do it in their own time.

However with the military it is different. Soldiers serving abroad do not have the luxury of going home in the evening. Their private space is all government space. Therefore what they access has to be accessed through government computers. There is thus no room for "private use". If soldiers are old enough to fight and die, they must be old enough to make their own personal choices within the law. That would apply to pornography generally. The idea that they should be prevented from looking at page 3 is frankly ludicrous.

One suggestion which has been made is that it would be inappropriate for soldiers to access material which would be offensive to Afghans. I could understand that if it were being publicly screened. Having spent time in Afghanistan, I have at least some insight as to how such matters appear from an Afghan perspective. I was once having breakfast at an Afghan home where they had television and were playing Al Jazeera. For sporting coverage, they cut to the BBC where there was a picture of a woman in a bikini walking along the beach. She had the full attention of everyone in the room where we had breakfast, (everyone obviously being male: there would be absolutely no question of bringing in a woman in the presence of a foreigner) and having for weeks seen women at a distance with shrouded face and figure so that you could not tell if they were old or young or indeed anything other than their height, I confess at the sight of a woman in the bikini I nearly fell over and gauged something of the reaction of shock and appreciation which the Afghans must have felt. It is obviously crucial not to offend the sensibilities of any nation (so for example I would eat no pig products and drink and no alcohol in a Muslim country where that was unacceptable, i.e. anywhere other than Turkey). However what the soldiers view on screen will not be known to the Afghans.

I fear the dull hand of political correctness at work in preventing soldiers having access to page 3 (or indeed anything else which is lawful). It may not appear the most important of battlegrounds for liberty. However for the soldiers concerned, this may be the last liberty they ever have, if they are killed. Save for the reasons I have indicated, the government has no place legislating for or enforcing morals whether by rule of law or otherwise, and although as employer it can do so in the workplace, that cannot possibly apply where the employees effectively only have a workplace and no private space at all. Soldiers operate under abnormal pressure. It is bad enough that all too often they do not have the equipment they deserve when having to risk their lives. They can do without the interference of a nanny state as well.

Michael J. Booth QC