Monday, November 04, 2013

The New Gatekeepers

'There is no sight more ridiculous than the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality,' wrote Thomas Macaulay, the Victorian philosopher. And whether rightly or wrongly, it's having one of these fits right at this moment.

Since the Swinging Sixties, the British attitude to sexual mores has tended to be a teenage-style shrug and a 'Whatever.' Fifty Shades of Gray took Britain by storm just as it did America and books by the followers of that literary fashion have done well too.

However, there has been a growing sense of queasiness as people have begun to realise what children in their teens and even younger are accessing at the click of a button and the effect this is having on their own attitudes to relationships.

What has perhaps brought this to a head is the recent stream of pedophile scandals which have hit the headlines after the revelations about Jimmy Saville who died last year. For those of you who may not have heard of him, he came to fame with the programme Jim’ll Fix It, where children wrote in with their dreams and he arranged to make them come true.

He was seen as eccentric, fond of bling and big cigars – fairly creepy actually, I thought – but his reputation as a fund-raiser for charity and work as a volunteer hospital porter was stellar. The shock when the scale and depravity of his abuses – and those of the many other perpetrators which then came to light – became clear has had a profound effect.

The web is rife with pedophile networks and there is general concern at what is easily accessed out there and has spilled over to the online book stores. Next to perfectly innocent books, even those  a child might be looking for, some violent pornography and pedophilie content may appear.

WH Smith, Britain's biggest High Street bookseller, has very much a family-friendly profile. The worst of the books that have featured on their internet store have been self-published and given the scale of the operation monitoring is impossible, short of installing a huge number of watchdogs to patrol their online bookshelves. As a result they are refusing to sell any 'user-generated content' at all and at least one other major supplier has followed.

While I'm delighted that peddling violent and often illegal pornography is going to be stopped, it is a very sad day for writers with great books to sell who haven't managed to attract the attention of a mainline publisher – horribly difficult these days. Many writers who have found success by that route have then been offered proper contracts (Fifty Shades of Gray, indeed) but the law, certainly in this country, has shown increasing signs that the provider will be held responsible for content hosted on its site, and if more online retailers copy WH Smith that avenue of opportunity will  close.

So there are new gatekeepers now and the freedom that writers gained when the tyranny of editors' opinion was overthrown is vanishing again. So sad.

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