Townshend fails to block BBC film on pornography arrest

New documentary shows Who guitarist being interviewed by Scotland Yard's Child Protection Team after he was detained for logging on to a child porn website. Andrew Johnson reports
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The Independent Online

Lawyers acting for the guitarist Pete Townshend tried to block a BBC documentary about his arrest for viewing internet child pornography, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Lawyers acting for the guitarist Pete Townshend tried to block a BBC documentary about his arrest for viewing internet child pornography, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The film, to be broadcast on Tuesday, includes exclusive footage of Townshend being interviewed by detectives in January 2003. The rock star appears shell-shocked and at times close to tears as the police, following standard procedures, ask if he needs help reading, or would like to see a drugs counsellor. And the programme features a sound recording of the formal interview in which Townshend gives his reasons for logging on to the illegal site.

"His lawyers would have given anything for the documentary not to happen," said Bob Long, the film's producer. "They didn't want it to happen. But they took no legal action, I think because they would have lost."

However, sources close to Townshend insist his lawyers were confident they could have prevented much of the footage being broadcast - but decided against legal action because this would have generated even more adverse publicity.

Tomorrow Townshend will play his first concert in Britain with The Who since his arrest, one of three low-key London gigs in preparation for a one-off performance of Townshend's rock opera Tommy at the Royal Albert Hall the following week in aid of a children's cancer charity.

The explanations he gives in the interview room portray him in a more sympathetic light than the humiliating public spectacle of his being arrested and taken to Twickenham police station. The BBC crew followed Scotland Yard's Child Protection Team for 18 months to make the hard-hitting three-part series called Police Protecting Children. They were on hand throughout the Townshend episode, from the police briefing before his arrest through to his questioning in custody.

But use of the footage is likely to raise issues of privacy and whether Townshend is being treated unfairly because of his profile. Although the documentary - the first in the series - is about internet paedophilia and follows the police as they pursue hard-core pornographers who deal in rape, abduction and bondage, it is dominated by Townshend. The police make it clear they always considered him a low priority, and the other paedophiles, some of whom are sentenced, have their faces blurred.

Townshend was arrested after the FBI found his name on a list of people who had used a credit card to pay to look at a child porn site and passed it to the British police. He had looked at it only once, and maintained it was for research. Forensic analysis on his 12 computers revealed he had downloaded no images - compared to the tens of thousands discovered on the computers of paedophiles - and emails backed up his claims that he had been in touch with child protection charities about accessing the site.

"In a way I wish we hadn't filmed Townshend, because he takes attention away from the real pornographers," said Mr Long. "But he serves as a cautionary tale - don't be tempted to look at child porn because your life might be ruined. Our footage shows a living legend reduced to being asked if he has learning difficulties. It's a big leveller."

In the police interview Townshend admits to having been "stupid, foolish, ignorant and arrogant" and apologises for "all the trouble I've caused everybody in this investigation". He later accepted a police caution and was put on the child protection register for five years.

Ironically, his arrest has led indirectly to this month's performance of Tommy. The piece famously contains elements of child abuse, which Townshend says he was subjected to for a brief period. At the time of his arrest many newspapers suggested this pointed to his guilt, although the relevant parts - such as the song "Fiddle About" - had been written by Who bassist John Entwistle.

In an interview with April's Uncut magazine, Townshend says he decided to remaster Tommy after his arrest because he couldn't work - it would take four months for police to analyse all his computers and clear him.

And in the same magazine, The Who's lead singer, Roger Daltrey, says part of the reason he wanted to do Tommy was to lay to rest the innuendo surrounding it. "I'd like to do Tommy again to say we're not ashamed of this, we've nothing to be ashamed about," he said.

'I truly regret logging on to that website'

Police interviewer: You have been arrested for the suspected possession of child pornography and inciting another to distribute child pornography. Do you understand?

Pete Townshend: Yeah.

PI: Have you anything to say about that at this stage?

PT: I did subscribe to that website, on that day. I felt that by using my real name I would be able to enter and research and see what was going on the website. That's what happened, and I greatly regret inciting others to do so. I was planning to campaign, I was in the middle of a campaign, to try to shut down the user groups or to start a lobby, a voice to shut down the user groups, and I wanted to know whether what was going to happen is, I was going to come up against a lot of apologists who would say to me this is not really going on, what is really going on is just money changing hands and I wanted to see the reality of it, because what was being provided free on advertising banners was so horrific.

PI: Did it contain child pornography?

PT: I can't remember ... it may have had images on it of children. They may have been in a state of undress. I can't really recall. [Later] They have not been burned into my subconscious or my memory in the way the first images I stumbled upon, the listings, which were free. Those were the ones that burned me up because it was maybe less than seven key strokes in Google that got me to that place ... and I thought my son, who's a young boy, could so easily stumble on this. And I wanted to see what was going on in the real world and I understand that it was stupid.

PI: Can you recall those images, now? You say they were burned into your mind. What did you mean by that?

PT: I remember there was one image in particular, which was of a baby boy being sexually, erm ... sodomised by a boy ... and I think that's about the worst thing I have seen. And I was very disturbed by it, and very angry by it.

PI: Do you appreciate that the actions that you did, entering that site and viewing the material, was wrong?

PT: Absolutely. [The interview continues]

'Police Protecting Children' is on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesday