The Innate Iliberalism of Liberalism

Posted on October 13, 2012

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Am having one of my ding dongs with @ieshasmall about page 3. Love these twitterbattles with her. We seem to be on the same page for so many things and yet somehow always seem to be arguing from within a shared viewpoint about the ‘hows’ not the ‘whats’ or ‘whys’ of issues.

This morning, as I said, it’s the issue of topless women in newspapers. I tweeted a link to an article where Nick Clegg says he won’t support a call to ban page 3 because it would be illiberal. I disagree fundamentally with him whilst Iesha doesn’t. Or more to the point, she thinks there are more important fights to have regarding issues of gender equality (I hope I haven’t misrepresented her here).

In some senses I don’t disagree that there are more muscular interventions a government could make, and yet the page 3 issue is the one that I feel could have the most symbolic impact. It would at a stroke show that the state had finally bested the Murdochian empire on an issue not unrelated to the Leveson inquiry:a newspaper probing into the voicemails of dead girls isn’t far removed from a newspaper probing under the clothes of living girls – and I don’t just mean the models themselves.

But this post isn’t about the reasons why I’d ban page three in a heartbeat, but about the strange position of liberalism with a small L and Liberalism with a large L. The essential argument by Clegg appears to be that the government ought to leave well alone on the issue of the media portrayal of women’s bodies. Presumably the corollary of this is that self-policing and market forces will be enough to see things right (although interestingly he seems very cagey about letting his boys see the images). And this is the problem I have with upper and lower case liberals, that the state should stay uninvolved wherever it can.

Let me first put on record that I have no issues with personal liberty. I’m not advocating that the state should involve itself in the choices individuals make any more than it already does through the legal and judicial system. In fact I think there are a number of areas in which it could be rolled back. Take the issue of page 3. I’m not suggesting for a minute that people shouldn’t have the freedom to look at such images. Or pose for them. That’s their choice, provided no individual harm was involved and that participants in the process are not exploited in doing so (and I do get that this is a grey area).

My problem is that media outlets such as News International are not individuals and should not be awarded the same rights of individual citizens, particularly when they so infrequently are held to the same responsibilities. For Clegg to say banning page 3 would be illiberal is confusing the rights of the consumer with the rights of the producer and that is a very dangerous precedent. What next? That the findings of the Leveson inquiry are blocked or stymied because they would cause anguish to the company? Don’t mock – it may be on the cards if the whispers are true.

My proposal on page 3? Treat it like all other porn. Tell the Sun that they can continue to include so-called soft porn in their so-called newspaper but if they choose to do so then it will be consigned to the top shelves and will only be sold to over-18s (interestingly, I believe that the age of adulthood for various different things should be rationalised to 16 – a truly liberal idea). If they then want to prioritise the rights of their consumers then they (not the state) can continue to hold a ‘moral’ line and publish the pics whilst seeing their circulation plummet. If not – and I suspect this will be the case – then they can change the content, act illiberally and banish page 3 and hold onto their circulation.

But what Clegg had chosen to do is to prioritise the rights of News International to publish the pictures over the rights of the women, children and – yes – men who have to face these images every day in papers like the Sun and Star, and in magazines like Nuts and Loaded. How can it be liberal to allow aggressively profit-making media outlets to support their aggressively profit-making advertising partners to sell their lingerie, liposuction, tanning salons, breast augmentation procedures, diet colas, anti-depression pills and self-help handbooks on the backs of images of half naked women?

How can it be liberal to allow organisations with suspicious attitudes towards female intelligence, capability and contributions to society (beyond having sex, giving birth and rearing children) to lace their stories about real women with these plasticised, airbrushed and infantilised images of women?

How can it be liberal to allow newspapers with a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, fnarr-fnarr attitude towards male sexuality to breed and give birth to the next generation of sexist, misogynist and potentially rapist attitudes within young men (and of acceptance of these attitudes for fear or ridicule within other young men and women)?

The answer is that it can’t be justified with the umbrella term of liberalism for this one reason (and I capitalise for the sake of explicitness): YOU CANNOT TREAT A PRIVATE CORPORATION ILLIBERALLY. YOU CAN ONLY TREAT INDIVIDUALS ILLIBERALLY.

And this is the inherent illiberalism of liberalism, or at least the liberalism as currently practiced by Nick Clegg which is beginning to feel a lot more like neoliberalism to me; freedom of the markets and of private corporations at all social costs. Give me good old-fashioned socialism (or even social democracy) any day. Whatever our faults at least we know that social costs aren’t ever worth paying to supplement the bank balance of privately-owned institutions.

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