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Video Recordings Bill debate brings out fallacies ahoy!


The Video Recordings Act has had a strange life. It was passed to respond to what many sociologists describe as a moral panic over so-called ‘video nasties’. But due to an administrative cock-up, in 2009 the law was invalidated on a technicality – apparently, Margaret Thatcher’s government neglected to formally notify the relevant European government body that the law had been passed. And so it wasn’t actually a law, and for a few months at the end of 2009 people could basically sell as many dodgy DVDs as they like without the cops being able to do anything. In 2010, they reintroduced the law. It passed through Parliament without controversy – it was only re-enabling a law that the country had grown used to for the last 25 years!

During the debate, though, Lib Dem MP Don Foster made this statement in support of passage of the Bill:

In Cheltenham, for example, law enforcement officers cannot pursue a newsagent selling R18 and unrated porn DVDs that are displayed above an ice cream display cabinet.

Is it true? Who knows. Let us say it is, although one has to be careful with anecdotes (as they say in science, the plural of anecdote is not data). It is a blatant appeal to emotion. Let us grant that the police not being able to do anything about a newsagent displaying for sale some real dodgy videos is bad. The fact that the newsagent is showing the videos above an ice cream display cabinet isn’t doubleplusbad. Said newsagent must display the videos somewhere in the shop. With few exceptions, putting something bad anywhere in a newsagent’s shop in Cheltenham means it will be within “gasp!”-inducing proximity to something. Would it be worse if he’d displayed the videos next to the magazines? What about the kiddies coming in to buy The Beano? Perhaps the shop owner should have put the videos next to the sandwiches? But, then, what about the kiddies coming in to get a nice hummus sandwich to go in their lunchbox? Next to the greetings cards? Then some poor and innocent child will be confronted by Extreme Lesbian Squirting 7 on his way to buy a Get Well card for his dear grandma.

This irrelevant detail is a distraction. The law states that R18 videos are only supposed to be sold in licensed sex shops. A cheap rhetorical appeal to emotion can be made if R18 videos are sold anywhere other than such an establishment. Any establishment other than a sex shop would have the same rhetorical effect. But, you know, kids eat ice cream and they might see porno.

One problem: Foster is stating this in January of 2010. News of the accident with the Video Recordings Act was published on the BBC News website on the 25th of August 2009. Two scenarios arise: either the newsagent in question had been displaying the videos before the news of the invalidity of the Act started circulating at the end of August or he started doing so afterwards. If it was afterwards, we could reasonably infer that the newsagent started selling the DVDs as a result of the news about the invalidity of the Act. If the newsagent had been doing so before that, then this example cannot be used to show that the Video Recordings Act is required to prevent him from doing so because it obviously had no effect on the newsagent. If he started selling the DVDs after it became known that the Act was invalid then the emotional appeal of Don Foster’s statement is lost: how many children are purchasing ice cream in the autumn and winter? They aren’t exactly enjoying the warm summer holidays any more.

Just to nail this point home, check out the historical weather station data from nearby Cambridge: the max temperatures in ºC for September–December 2009 are 20.1, 15.7, 12.0 and 6.0. Now, as a point of comparison, I was in sunny San Francisco last November and it was 17ºC. Ice cream was not on my mind!

Now that the Don Foster’s rhetorical peanut of an anecdote has been thoroughly sledge-hammered, I feel that we should move onto two coconut-sized bits of wrong-speak. First, Keith Vaz (Labour, Leicester East) said this:

There has been a huge leap forward since I first took up this issue, along with others, after young Stefan Pakeerah, from Leicester, was stabbed to death in a park in Leicester in circumstances similar to those found in a video game watched by his killer, Warren Leblanc. I know that the judge in that case said that there was no connection, but the mother of the young boy stabbed to death felt very strongly that there was.

Not only did the judge make no connection, neither did the police. And, really, there was no actual causal link. Warren Leblanc did not actually own a copy of Manhunt, the game Vaz is referring to. This isn’t a clear identifiable fallacy: it is just an old-fashioned falsity. What Stefan Pakeerah’s mother believes about Warren Leblanc’s motivations to commit murder are false and irrelevant.

There is one important lesson that Vaz should have learned from the Pakeerah case: however earnestly someone believes something, and however sympathetic someone is (and Giselle Pakeerah is undoubtedly honest, earnest and deserving of sympathy), that doesn’t mean they cannot be wrong. There are undoubtedly some NHS patients who believe that their cancer went into remission due to the divine action of angels; the Health Minister would still do well to listen to what the oncologists have to say.

We’ve had a Lib Dem MP and a Labour MP. I guess to ensure we are fair and balanced (excuse the figure of speech, I do not consciously set out for false balance), we need a Tory to round it out. Thankfully, John Whittingdale (Conservative, Maldon & East Chelmsford) has got us covered:

We will debate the matter at greater length when we come to the measures against piracy through illegal file sharing that the Government are proposing to take in the Digital Economy Bill. It is worth remembering that it is not just protection of copyright that is at stake when we consider file sharing. There is equally the concern that it is being used to circumvent the protections that the House has put in place. In the most extreme cases, as I am sure the Minister will be aware, child pornography is being widely distributed through illegal file sharing. That is another reason why I share with other hon. Members the view that it is important that we get the Digital Economy Bill on to the statute book.

Non sequitur alert! The Digital Economy Bill – now Act – has nothing to do with child pornography. The powers given under the Digital Economy Act are not clear until Ofcom produce the code, but there is nothing in the relevant part of the act (clauses 3–18) about child pornography. The idea that child pornography is being “widely distributed through illegal file sharing” is wrong. What do I mean? Well, imagine if Whittingdale had said “child pornography is being widely distributed through illegal use of the Royal Mail”. The fact that you are sharing illegal material using technology x doesn’t mean that technology x is illegal. There are undoubtedly people using BitTorrent or some other file sharing technology to trade child pornography. They are also sharing Gentoo Linux ISOs. We have a statement here that borders on a compositional fallacy. Illegality is not some kind of transitive property. You can reconstruct Whittingdale’s sentence to make it reasonable: “illegal child pornography is being widely distributed through file sharing”. The fact that one uses file sharing to distribute child pornography doesn’t make that particular instance of distribution of child pornography especially illegal. Not using a file sharing network is hardly a mitigating factor at trial!

Cutting off Internet access – the harshest punishment given for alleged copyright infringers by clauses 3–18 of the Digital Economy Act – is arguably a disproportionate punishment for copyright infringers. But, even if it applied to child pornographers (which it doesn’t), it is far too weak a punishment for those trafficking in child pornography. There is already a much simpler way of dealing with child pornographers: the criminal justice system. Whittingdale’s suggestion that child pornography makes it “important” to pass the Digital Economy Bill is a total non sequitur.

Good to see that the simple administrative task of reinstating an Act that was invalidated by an administrative cockup provided these three MPs a chance to wander away from the true path of reasonableness…

This isn’t so much a fallacy as an interesting aside from Ed Vaizey (Conservative):

We need to protect children from access to violent video games, films, television shows and books. The issue is not the genre – be it video game, film or video – but the content. That is what we must protect children from.

Does this mean that Vaizey would support an equivalent to the Video Recordings Act which would put restrictions on books that match those on video games, VHS tapes and video DVDs?


From → Commons

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