Porn News

“Why nearly everbody got the ISP ‘porn blocking’ story wrong this week”

from www.computeractive.co.uk – One of the things you quickly learn as a specialist journalist (in my case, as someone who writes largely about technology) is the woeful nature of the mainstream media coverage of your subject area.

It’s well known that many journalists, trained in arts and humanities subjects, simply don’t understand numbers, which is why so many science and medicine stories go awry (not to mention spurious surveys).

But it’s not just maths and stats: coverage of almost any kind of specialist subject, in broadsheets or tabloids, on television or radio, is remarkably poor. We regularly see technology stories misrepresented, badly written or sometimes completely wrong. Talk to a science journalist and they’ll tell you the same about science stories, and talk to a music journalist and they’ll tell you the same thing about music news.

What brought this irritation to the fore was the announcement earlier this week that the [UK’s] four biggest internet service providers (ISPs) are to introduce new options for people to block pornography from their internet connections.

Unfortunately, nearly everyone who reported the story got it wrong.

Part of the problem is the need felt by many old-fashioned news organisations to get to the news first, before everyone else. That, obviously, leads to corner-cutting and means journalists don’t have time to properly research the facts. In this case, it seems there was also confusion over the language used.

What’s going to happen is that, when new customers join them, the big four ISPs (BT, Virgin Media, Talk Talk and Sky) will ask them whether they would like free parental control software. That’s all. It’s known in the trade as an ‘opt-in’ scheme, in that if you want the extra controls you must choose to have them – nobody will be automatically blocked from receiving porn or anything else.

That’s not the impression you’d get if you read the coverage in most of the press. The Guardian’s story, published in Tuesday’s ‘dead tree’ paper and online just after 1am the same day, opened with “Subscribers to four of the UK’s biggest internet service providers will have to ‘opt in’ if they want to view sexually explicit websites, as part of government-sponsored curbs on online pornography.”

The quotes around ‘opt in’ allow for some ambiguity over the exact meaning, but fundamentally the Guardian’s report is at best misleading, and at worst downright wrong. Columnist Brooke Magnanti wrote a spirited and informative piece about the ‘adult’ industry, but unfortunately its opening (below) is complete and utter nonsense.

To no one’s surprise it has been announced that the prime minister, David Cameron [pictured], will meet four big internet providers to discuss opt-in schemes for internet porn. In other words, websites flagged as adult or objectionable content will be blocked unless you say you want to see it. If you’re a customer with one of the big internet providers, expect to be sending them a copy of your ID in the not so distant future.

The Guardian’s original story was written by a general news reporter and that afternoon a story by the paper’s technology editor Charles Arthur appeared, clarifying things and reporting the ISPs’ statement that only new customers would be affected. The story rather coyly reported the earlier ‘confusion’ but didn’t correct the Guardian’s earlier story.

Even the next morning, the Guardian was still getting it wrong: an interesting column by Anna Arrowsmith has the unfortunate standfirst: “The government is playing to the crowd with its opt-in plan for online porn, ignoring the positive role it can play”.

The Guardian was far from the only offender. In the evening, the Channel 4 News ‘Snowmail’ email arrived in my inbox with details of that night’s bulletin and including the dreaded ‘opt-in’ phrase. At this point researchers would have had several hours to check the facts but, apparently, the facts hadn’t reached the newsletter. In fairness, the 7pm news bulletin got it right.

The Daily Mail was far worse: its scaremongering story screams: Four of Britain’s biggest internet service providers will force customers to specify if they want to view explicit sites.

The Telegraph the next morning reported that all the confusion was the result of misleading briefings by Downing Street officials:

“This has ambushed a rational and productive dialogue between government and industry with what appears to be politicking that, wilfully or otherwise, misunderstands both what is technically possible and what is in the best interests of protecting families online,” an industry source said. He complained that some families may have got the wrong impression that their children would be protected by default. Those without children had meanwhile been misled that their internet access would be censored.

The paper suggests that the inaccurate release might have been designed to “appeal to female voters, following Mr Cameron’s recent apology for the way he had treated women MPs in the Commons, and to divert attention from the controversy surrounding Liam Fox and Adam Werritty.”

That’s no excuse: a few quick calls to ISPs would have given the correct impression, or at least made the reporters question what Downing Street was telling them. When Computeractive called the four ISPs concerned the morning the story broke they were eager to give us the real story, which is that new subscribers will be asked whether they want parental controls on their connections. PC Pro, likewise, got the correct story simply by calling round the ISPs.

As a senior figure at one of the ISPs told us, the mistakes were down to “Lobby briefing by Number 10 to political journalists: people who don’t know what they’re talking about telling technical things to others who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Some of this confusion is down to ‘churnalism’, some down to laziness, some down to the reporters not understanding what they were being told and some down to the simple desire of the modern press outlet to simply be first with a story – any story – regardless of whether it’s right or wrong.

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