The Daily Mail’s relentless campaign of misinformation and outright lies against 0898 premium rate phone lines.
The British love nothing more than a moral panic, especially if it is whipped up by a cynical media trying to sell newspapers by exploiting our fear of technology, sexuality and artistic freedom. Some of these periods of mass hysteria become defining moments of the era, cultural moments where generations, cultures and class divisions clash as the traditionalist, sensationalist and manipulative press go all out to prevent the ‘corruption and degradation’ of the rest of the world from infecting our island nation. Think of the Video Nasties panic in the early 1980s, the trial of Oz magazine a decade earlier, the Lady Chatterley and Fanny Hill trials of a decade before that… and of our present ongoing battle over internet porn and the efforts to control it.
For the Daily Mail – especially the Mail, though they are far from alone in this – it is less about genuine, heartfelt worries about the soul of the nation than it is about selling newspapers and, more importantly, flexing their muscles in a display of power. Setting the agenda, watching politicians jump to action and creating a public panic about something that the public had previously been blissfully unconcerned about (or even unaware of) is what gets these newspapers off. For them, it’s just a game and they’ll cheerfully move on to something else once they’ve mined a panic for all it is worth.
Given that newspapers like the Mail thrive on stoking fear and moral outrage amongst their middle England readership, it’s unsurprising that they will try to float many ideas and make many claims about how British civilisation as we know it will imminently collapse unless something is done about all manner of things. All too often, this leads to half-baked knee-jerk legislation or a tightening of the rules by governments that foolishly believe that by being seen to act, they will somehow score public support and media brownie points – though, of course, the press is never satisfied and just move on to something else that needs to be controlled and legislated (though of course, that never includes the press itself).
For all the famous, significant moral panics, there are many that either fail to take off or slip out of the collective consciousness almost as soon as they have happened. The panic over horror comics in the 1950s was significant at the time but was almost forgotten soon afterwards; the legislation that was passed to ban such publications was essentially forgotten by publishers and legislators alike within two decades.
Similarly, the 1992 moral panic about phone sex lines has long since faded from memory and ultimately had little impact. But for a while, the Mail pursued this campaign with its usual fervour, pulling out all the tricks, disinformation and faux outrage that has worked so well in other cases. And in many ways, it never quite went away.
Phone sex arrived in Britain with the advent of premium rate phone numbers in the late 1980s, a way for businesses to raise revenue through telephone services that would previously have been charged at a standard call rate. This included TV, radio and magazine companies that quickly realised that they could make a great profit by running competitions that had laughably easy questions – or sometimes no questions at all – and required people to call in their answers. With big prizes on offer, many people were willing to gamble a couple of quid – especially as the cost would only appear on your phone bill and unless you were calling a lot of these numbers would be barely noticed. Other businesses offered various information and entertainment services – again, charging a premium for what had previously been given away.
The adult entertainment industry is never slow to see the possibilities of new technology, and the adult chat line business quickly exploded. Sometimes, these involved one-to-one chats that would involve handing over a credit card number or making some other form of pre-payment, but mostly they were pre-recorded stories that could be found at the end of an 0898 or 0891 number. Like the rest of the British sex industry at the time, these pre-recorded messages were a lot more coy than the advertising suggested – the leering come-ons and photos of glamour models in the ads often led to a rather twee little recording that was short on graphic, explicit language. Even at the early stages of the premium rate number, businesses were playing it safe and heavily controlled.
Nevertheless, these lines – both pre-recorded and the rather more free-wheeling live services – proved to be staggeringly popular. The recorded messages at least had a finite length – the live calls could go on for as long as it took for the caller to climax. There was some concern – not much, of course – that lonely and desperate men were being exploited, running up huge phone bills by operatives who had good reason to keep them on the line for as long as possible. But of course, for most of the men who called these numbers in order to jerk off, there was little likelihood that they were going to be on the phone for more than a few minutes.
A bigger concern was the usual British suspicion about sexual entertainment, sexual pleasure and the possibility that people might be doing something that the establishment disapproved of. There was some disquiet about the appearance of ads for chat lines in newspapers and magazines that children might see – and indeed, there was no theoretical block on horny adolescent boys calling these lines and running up huge phone bills without even realising it. That was also a problem for married men who found themselves suddenly having to explain a sudden increase in the monthly phone bill*.
Still, no one was too concerned about embarrassing family situations – if anything, they made for comedy gold, given that the tabloids and their readers loved nothing more than humiliation and shame, especially if sex was involved. The real panic about these phone lines was the fear that, just like any other sort of porn, they would deprave and corrupt the listener. The British have always had a curious belief in the idea of the corruptive influence of sexual pleasure and in 1992, the UK was still proudly boasting about having the strictest porn laws in the Western world. Adult entertainment was strictly regulated, either through various licensing bodies like the BBFC or through local councils that would allow or ban sex shops, sex cinemas or sex anything. As we’d seen with home video a decade earlier, the idea that something might somehow be escaping regulation was abhorrent to the tabloid press (unless anyone suggested even slightly regulating their output, of course). While there was some question about whether or not these phone lines contravened the Telecommunications Act, it was generally seen as something that would be difficult to prove – the chances of a jury convicting grown adults for talking dirty to each other seemed rather slim. No, it seemed that new laws would be needed to stamp out this menace. But first, it had to be shown that it was a menace.
While the Tory government had been only too keen to push through moral censorship controls over the years, by 1992 they had bigger fish to fry. Margaret Thatcher had been forced to resign in 1990, taking her brand of Victorian morality with her, and while John Major had led the Conservatives to another victory in April, his government remained in a state of disarray and would soon be caught up in several sex scandals that undermined any moral authority that it may have had. Just as notably, the once-powerful Mary Whitehouse was fast on her way to becoming insignificant (she would resign as the fuhrer of the National Viewers and Listeners Association in 1994) and the anti-porn Radical Feminist movement of the previous decade was out of favour with a new generation. If action was going to be taken against the sex lines, it would need to be pushed by a veteran of moral panic creation – the Daily Mail.
The Mail – actually, the Mail on Sunday, but let’s not split hairs – started to stoke up panic about the phone lines as early as 1989, but in November 1992 it upped the ante and launched a relentless campaign against what they described as “the menace of the sex chat lines”. The campaign was given a boost with the conviction of 24-year-old American sailor Kevin Wightman for the rape of a teenage girl in London. During the trial, it was claimed that Wightman – who had a wife and child back home in America – had been ‘driven’ to rape after being “sexually frustrated and overwhelmed”. It was also shown that he had spent £400 on calling sex lines. To quote the Mail:
The case proves conclusively once again, the direct link between attacks on women and telephone sex lines in which girls murmur down BT lines the most graphic sexual fantasies to men at 45p a minute.
Of course, the case proved nothing of the sort. There was no evidence that the sex lines and the murmured fantasies had driven Wightman to rape. Presumably, he had called the lines to relieve his sexual frustration – but courts love to make these vacuous conclusions. The Daily Mail in particular has a long track record in running with this sort of thing and presenting highly questionable theories as proven evidence.
In fact, it turned out that phone sex lines were already regulated. The Independent Committee for the Supervision of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS) had been set up by the government to make sure that no premium rate phone services overstepped the mark. While the Mail dismissed it as “feeble” – because it hadn’t banned all sexual discussion – ICSTIS had in fact banned chat rooms and closed down up to eight companies operating the lines. Services that were too explicit could have their licence suspended, giving them a financial motive for following the rules. But that was never going to be enough to satisfy a tabloid with the smell of blood in its nostrils.
The next weekend, the Mail was reporting that MPs – led by furious moral campaigner Terry Lewis, a Labour MP – were “demanding tougher action” against what was now being described as “huge loopholes in the law”, though, of course, this was nonsense unless you think that ‘things that are legal but which I don’t like being allowed to operate’ is a loophole. The paper also ran quotes from anonymous phone sex operators – referred to as ‘shadowy’ figures a week earlier but now apparently willing to tell Mail hacks about how they flouted the law. As in most of these cases, it’s almost certain that these rather-too-convenient quotes were invented by the Mail writers.
The horror stories, the vague claims, the dubious connections and suggestions of criminal activity from legally established companies continued for weeks. By December, the Mail was claiming a victory by handing a ‘dossier’ of phone filth conversations compiled by a male hack (who I’m sure was disgusted by it all) to ICSTIS. It seemed like a mean-spirited vendetta – the company that was being ‘exposed’ was run by the same woman whose business they had been complicit in closing down in 1989. The Mail also took the opportunity to congratulate itself and show just how it was setting the agenda:
Nigel Griffiths, Labour MP for Edinburgh, quoted extensively from one of our articles. The Home Office should now carry out the same kind of detailed investigation as our reporters, who had produced an excellent study, he said.
Well, the Mail on Sunday won. At least it would claim so. In fact, as in many of these campaigns, the new legislation and operating rules were more cosmetic than anything – enough for everyone to claim that action had been taken and that the tabloids had once again saved our mortal souls, but actually not making very much difference beyond mild inconveniences for punters and operators alike. In 1994, new rules banned the advertising of sex lines outside of adult magazines (which would become increasingly dominated by this sort of advertising in subsequent years) and introduced pin numbers to force the caller to opt-in to the call – as if dialling the number wasn’t an opt-in to begin with. This did mean that it was less likely that unauthorised users and hackers could call the lines, but that was the only real change. The phone lines – especially the live services – actually became more explicit. The sex line’s share of the premium rate market did fall dramatically – 1% in 1996 from a high of 18% in 1992 – but that was due as much to a massive expansion of the premium rate market rather than a decline in the phone sex industry. Oh, and the prefix for adult lines was changed, though everyone still calls them 0898 numbers.
You might think that the Mail would be outraged by this lack of actual change. After all, if its journalists genuinely thought that these lines had caused a rape, surely they would be relentless in their campaign. But it’s all a game to them. The truth didn’t matter, not even the truth about how successful their campaign had been. In any case, other moral panics were waiting in the wings – a year after this campaign, the ten-year-old killers of Jamie Bulger were convicted and the judge in that case made another fatuous connection – this time to ‘video nasties‘, in this case the BBFC-approved Child’s Play 3 – and the tabloids went into another feeding frenzy, throwing the truth aside and foaming at the mouth as they pushed Britain very close to a position where any film rated higher than PG would be banned on home video (in the end, their ‘victory’ here was just as empty, with a tightening of the rules for home viewing that were completely ignored by the BBFC).
Phone sex lines have never quite gone away – the popularity of channels like Babestation brought new life to the industry and new clashes with regulators. And there is still plenty of fretting about illicit phone conversations, though these days it tends to focus on issues of sexting, something much more open to abusive situations and even more difficult to legislate against. It seems unlikely that the premium rate phone sex line will ever cause quite as much outrage again – if only in a smartphone age, the idea of people actually making phone calls seems increasingly quaint – but we can be sure that the tabloids in general, and the Mail in particular, will continue to use faux outrage, invented claims and wild exaggeration to stoke moral panic and keep themselves relevant and influential.
* To complicate matters, there were genuine hacks taking place, where scammers would break into a domestic phone line and use premium rate chat rooms to talk to each other while some poor unsuspecting bugger was landed with the bill. However, this was not too common and most of the people who claimed to have been hacked were probably trying desperately to cover up the calls that they’d actually made.
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