Brendan O’Neill

Sadiq Khan’s advert ban shows he is an illiberal censor at heart

Sadiq Khan's advert ban shows he is an illiberal censor at heart
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Six weeks ago I was one of the 1.3 million Londoners who voted for Sadiq Khan as mayor. Boy do I regret it now. Because he’s just shown what he really thinks of us inhabitants of the capital: that we’re so mentally fragile, so pathetic, so vulnerable to the wicked charms of advertisers, that he must censor allegedly sexist ads on our behalf and protect us from offence. In proposing a blanket ban on bus and Tube ads that make people feel bad about their bodies, Sadiq has revealed his authoritarian, paternalistic contempt for the people who swept him to power.

I’m amazed there isn’t more fury about his extraordinary proposal. He has instructed Transport for London to stop running ads that indulge in body-shaming. Like last year’s Protein World ad that asked commuters ‘Are you beach body ready?’, next to a picture of a svelte woman in a yellow bikini, which elicited a frankly bonkers response from feminist campaigners: they defaced it, marched against it, and got 70,000 signatures calling for its destruction, as if it were the embodiment of evil, the destroyer of women’s souls. Now Sadiq says TfL must refuse all such ads, because they can ‘demean people, particularly women’.

The irony of Sadiq accusing advertisers of demeaning women as he sets himself up as the great protector of women from allegedly harmful images is just too much. What could be more demeaning to women than the idea that their self-esteem is so weak that they need politicians to cover their eyes so that they never see anything which might make them ‘ashamed of their bodies’?

Sadiq’s ban demeans women, and all Londoners, far more than any ad for a protein supplement or piece of lingerie ever could. Sure, those ads make some people wish they had better bodies; but Sadiq’s ban calls into question everyone’s ability to use their minds, to think for themselves, to zone out stuff they don’t like. It’s shockingly infantilising. Women should be fuming. Censorship was once demanded with the cynical rallying crying of ‘Won’t someone think of the children?!’; now it’s enacted with the cry, ‘Won’t someone think of the women?!’ The censoring of imagery to protect women’s sensibilities sets back women’s lib by decades. We should be marching to City Hall about this.

Sadiq’s ban also sets a mad precedent. He says he wants to squash ads which give people ‘unrealistic expectations surrounding their bodies’. But advertising is all about unrealistic expectations. Ads are packed with stupidly handsome blokes and gorgeous women all having a mighty fine time as they book that holiday some of us can’t afford or down those beers the rest of us would also be downing if only we weren’t on our way to the bloody office. That’s what ads do: they say, ‘Hey. Don’t you wish you were doing this? And looked like this? And owned this?’

Will Sadiq also ban ads that make poor people feel bad about not having enough money to buy that car? Why shouldn’t people’s economic angst be taken as seriously as their bodily angst? Or perhaps he’ll ban ads that show mums and dads with kids. After all, some people can’t have children, and why should they be subjected to familial imagery every time they get the Tube? Now that Sadiq has set himself up as slayer of evil words and pictures to protect Londoners from feeling bad, there’s no telling what he’ll crush next.

It’s clear why there’s been so little backlash. It’s because Sadiq is justifying his ban in feminist lingo, and feminist censorship is the most acceptable form of censorship these days. Once, we had religious censorship, then ideological censorship, and now we have feminist censorship — censorship justified as a means of taming men’s rapaciousness (see the arguments for getting rid of Page 3 or putting lad’s mags in black bags) and preserving women’s self-esteem. What a double-whammy of misanthropy: men depicted as satyrs who must be controlled and women as wallflowers in need of moral chaperoning as they negotiate public life.

Everyone thinks their censorship is good censorship. Torquemada thought burning heretical texts was justified to protect people from moral pollution; Mary Whitehouse thought banning raunchy TV shows was a good way to encourage decency and stability; and the new feministic censors think their image crushing is a good, nice way to control men’s instincts and defend women’s mental health. But a censor is a censor is a censor: a patronising, illiberal, distrustful snob, whether he’s wielding a Bible or a PhD in gender studies, and whether he’s saving souls or saving self-esteem.