If Google is in the dock about child sex abuse, then so are judges

There can be no one solution to the problem society has with sexual violence

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It is important to put the Stuart Hall case into its full context.

Earlier this week, the elderly TV celebrity was jailed for 15 months for sexually assaulting young girls during the 1970 and 1980s. It comes after Jimmy Savile. It comes before trials of other celebrities for alleged sexual misconduct. And it should be read with two recent murder cases.

Mark Bridger, who was sentenced to life for the murder of five-year-old April Jones in Machynlleth, Powys, had been searching the internet for child abuse and rape images. And police who examined the Croydon home of Stuart Hazell, jailed for life for murdering 12-year-old Tia Sharp, said they had found “extensive” material featuring young girls.

There is something else, too, which has been well documented by the NSPCC and which I found astonishing when I first read it. Many cases of child sex abuse are committed by under-18s. Yes, under 18 years old. In March, the NSPCC published the results of public information requests to all police forces. Some 34 of them responded. Between them, the 34 police forces reported that a total of 5,028 offences had been recorded in the three years between 2009/10 and 2011/12 where the perpetrator was under 18, with some as young as five or six.

The alleged crimes included rape and other serious sexual assaults. Nearly all – 98 per cent – of the 4,562 offenders were boys. And where the relationship was recorded, at least three out of five of the victims knew the abuser. More than one-third of the offences appear to have been committed by a family friend or acquaintance, and one in five by family members.

The NSPCC says that, in some cases, older children are attacking younger ones and, in other cases, it’s sexual violence within a teenage relationship. The charity adds that “we know that technology and easy access to sexual material is warping young people’s views of what is ‘normal’ or acceptable behaviour… We are treating an increasing number of children who have carried out online grooming, harassment in chat rooms and ‘sexting’… Children who are sexually abusive have often been victims of abuse, harm and trauma themselves. Exposure to this can make them think abusing someone or being sexually violent is OK”.

Society thus has a big problem with sexual violence and with the pornification of children. There can be no one solution. Every part of society has to do what it can – as the NSPCC does and as internet firms are being asked to do. Yesterday, companies such as Google, Microsoft and Twitter agreed to give the Internet Watch Foundation more powers and resources to search out abusive images. The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, said the public expected that everything possible be done to remove “absolutely abhorrent” material – including images of child abuse – from the web. “What has been agreed today,” she said, “is a fundamental change in the way the industry will approach child abuse images and removing them from public view.”

This duty to do what you can applies also to parents, who may have to get used to the idea that their children need to be taught what porn is. And it applies to the processes of the law. Jail sentences, for instance, should fit the crime but should also, from time to time, send a signal to society about the seriousness of certain criminal activities. The lenient punishment of 15 months in prison given to Stuart Hall, the former BBC sports presenter, for 13 cases of sexually abusing young girls, fell short of both requirements. The judge, Anthony Russell QC, said he was bound by the guidelines in place at the time of the offences.

Wrongly, some people will see Hall’s incarceration as purely symbolic. He is no longer a danger to society. The reputation he spent 50 years building is now in ruins. Doubtless, too, friends and neighbours had started to shun him. He must have been frightened to leave his house. Moreover, Hall is 83 years old and would be highly likely to die in prison if he had been given a much longer sentence.

This compassionate approach, however, would ignore three features of Hall’s series of crimes that make them all the more horrific. The first is the sheer number of individual cases, 13 altogether. Each victim can see – by dividing the number of crimes into the total length of the sentence – that her particular ordeal, which wasn’t limited to the assault itself but also included living for many years with the knowledge of what happened, has been assessed as worthy of just more than a month behind bars, indeed only a fortnight if remission for good behaviour is taken into account. That meagre punishment humiliates the victims. It says that society doesn’t think that what they went through amounted to very much.

A second obnoxious feature was the very young age of some of the victims. Hall fondled a nine-year-old girl as he read her a bedtime story in her parents’ home. He also gave a 10-year-old champagne before assaulting her. And the third unpleasant aspect of the case was that Hall, before finally admitting his crimes, publicly declared that the girls who had complained to the police, by now mature women in their fifties and sixties, were liars. They had been taking part in a vendetta against people in the public eye. That attack on their character was his final blow and probably not much less painful than what had happened 30 to 40 years earlier.

In view of these considerations, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, has been asked to refer the lenient sentencing to the Court of Appeal. He should do so. The public would not understand a refusal. And, given that 13 cases are involved, the Appeal Judges should consider a lengthy sentence. Hall’s age cannot be a consideration. Multiply Judge Anthony Russell’s 15-month sentence by the number of cases, and you come to slightly more than 16 years. That sounds too severe, but the right term must fall between five and 10 years.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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