Paying for it

The headlines and comment pages are still full of Mr Smith’s misjudged evening in. If it was purely outrage over a public servant playing the expenses system, then Jacqui Smith’s demise should have been confirmed by the second home. But the home secretary’s husband expensed porn, and porn is embarrassing and discrediting. When we’re watching the headlines rather than writing them, it’s always fun to point to the other business interests of the Express‘s parent company. “Dirty Desmond floated up to his current ‘status’ on a sea of pornographic effluent”, says this blogger.

sun-smith-porn-cover

The biggest shock isn’t that Mr Smith watched porn, or even that he haplessly charged his entertainment to the public purse: it’s that he paid for it at all. Why didn’t he just sting the Commons for a laptop and download his erotica for nothing? Like the rest of the culture industry, pornography is anxious about what the internet is doing to its business model: illegal downloading is part of it, but so is competition from freely-distributed amateur product. “The barrier to get into the industry is so low: you need a video camera and a couple of people who will have sex,” points out Paul Fishbein, a professional observer of the adult film industry.

Pornography has always helped to drive changes in media: the availability of porn on VHS was instrumental in bringing entertainment out of the theatres and into the home, and pornography expanded rapidly online, with sites like YouPorn and XTube working on the free-content model and aiming to make profit out of adverts. But while pornography has been good at delivering viewers (YouPorn claimed 15 million unique visitors in May 2007), how to turn hits into money has been less obvious: “It doesn’t make any sense! They’re giving porn away. You can’t make money on this”, says Steve Hirsch of porn giants Vivid.

The fact that I can read Hirsch’s quote for free in a full-text version of an article from a magazine I’ve never bought suggests that it’s not just the porn industry struggling with the trade off between easy distribution and vanishing profits. The internet changes the value of information enormously. A digital copy is less expensive to make than a paper or disc version, so consumers can reasonably expect downloaded product to be cheaper; the ease of digital sharing means that a relatively large number of people are going to be obtaining the product for free anyway (although it’s impossible to quantify gains and losses through free downloading); it’s easier to get your product to consumers, but then it’s also easier for competitors to do the same.

And those competitors might not even be professionals. They might be totally happy to do for free what previous operations have charged for. They might even do it better in some ways. Here’s Greta Christina – porn writer, sex columnist, and not shy of paying for what she enjoys – explaining why the personals on Craig’s List are one of her favourite sources of fantasy material. So if the porn industry – an industry specialising in opportunistic profit-making – hasn’t found a reliable way to turn hits into coin, what is the rest of the media planning on doing? The newspapers should be holding up Mr Smith as a hero for becoming the (involuntary) public face of paying for it. Or at least, getting someone else to pay for it.