Editorial dishonesty at the SMH

On the sixteenth of March 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald had an editorial calling for Government control of pornography on the Internet. You can read the editorial at the link below. This post is my response.


The editorial is a classic example of placing two things side by side to allow and even encourage the reader to assume that there is a relationship between them, while offering no actual evidence of any such relationship and and maintaining plausible deniability that one ever implied anything of the sort.

[…] abused him from a very young age and shared him around a global network of paedophiles for years.

In Britain, steps have been taken to break these networks through blocking all pornography on the internet as the default setting. Yet any move made by government here to do so is met with horror from freedom activists.

See what the writer did there? Link “networks of paedophiles” and “all pornography”. Not “child porn” – “all pornography”. Even allowing that this was the reason for Britain’s action, how exactly does stopping all internet porn “break these networks”? Even if it did, would that step make sense?

Let’s pretend hovercraft are illegal. Does it make sense to attack hovercraft aficionados by banning all communication on the Internet about all forms of transport? Discussions about bicycles, cars, aircraft, trucks, trains, scooters, motorcycles and skateboards should all be illegal, because SOME people want to discuss hovercraft? Remembering of course that the number of people wanting to discuss hovercraft is vanishingly small and the number of people wanting to discuss all other forms of transport is, well, everybody else.

This is the true horror: internet child porn rings are a threat to our children. In the US, Congress heard, half of all child pornography offenders possessed images depicting sexual abuse of a child under six. Widespread publication on the internet of porn and degradation has the effect of normalising the crimes by which we are appalled.

Oops, he/she did it again. Three times!

First, with “this is the true horror:”¬† It neatly applies to both the phrase before it, about freedom activists, and the phrase (actually a complete sentence) after it. Like the famous vase/face optical illusion, your attention flip-flops between one meaning and the other. It applies to the activists as you read; then moves to the porn rings when you pass the colon. You can read it as often as you like – the effect never goes away.

Second, in the context of the editorial, the “crimes by which we are appalled” are child abuse crimes. The phrase cleverly widens that narrow subset of crimes to whatever crimes appall the reader. That is then placed beside “publication on the internet of porn and degradation”.

Third, the phrase “publication on the internet of porn and degradation” associates “porn” and “degradation” without offering the slightest evidence that the one is always the other. It also introduces the idea that “degradation” is in and of itself a problem.

More important and more duplicitous is the overall strong implication that all porn normalises child abuse. Duplicitous because the writer doesn’t actually say that, and if pressed would be able to deny saying it, but in spite of all that somehow has said it.

No length of incarceration nor porn filters will bring back Daniel Morcombe.

And again. Place “longer incarceration” (which would unquestionably have saved Daniel Morcombe) right beside “porn filters” (which would almost certainly not have saved Daniel Morcombe) to encourage the reader to draw the conclusion that lack of porn filters contributed to Daniel’s death.

Someone who writes for a living does not do this sort of thing accidentally. This editorial uses a cynical rhetorical ploy to deliberately align all online porn with the commission of horrible crimes.

That paedophiles often have child abuse images may be fact. But to leap from that to the idea that the images are the cause rather than an effect of paedophilia is highly dubious. And to make the double leap that child porn is porn therefore all porn should be censored is not only unsupportable, it is intellectual dishonesty.

[This is a modified version of an email I sent to the EFA privacy mailing list on 17 March 2014]

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