It is hard right now to resist the impression that all this country has to offer to children is danger, brutality, suffering and misery: the Sarah Payne abduction and murder trial painfully unfolds; a novelty pop star is imprisoned yet continues brazenly to protest his innocence; and another horrific international child pornography ring is uncovered.
These, and other less high-profile stories, combine in the public consciousness to suggest that no child is safe from the hordes of abusers who lie in wait for them at every turn. The knowledge is harrowing, frightening and foul beyond words. Yet there is a sort of bitter solace to be found in the headlines screaming of murder, abuse and pornography.
It is important to remind ourselves that not so far in the past much of this hellish suffering would not have been acknowledged, let alone brought to trial. The taboo against speaking of child abuse has been well and truly broken. This did not save Sarah Payne, or the many victims of Jonathan King, or the children caught up in the internet pornography ring uncovered by Operation Landmark.
But at least, at last, everyone is facing up to an awful reality. The patterns of child sex abuse have become such a common currency that they have even become a fit subject for early-evening soap operas. Kat Slater, on EastEnders, revealed herself as a textbook victim of sexual abuse within the family, Sarah Louise Platt, in Coronation Street, acted out a didactic drama of internet grooming by a paedophile. Gone are the cryptic warnings about "bad men". Children are no longer shielded from the grown-up word for such people.
Even the advent of the internet as a new and easy disseminator of child pornography can be looked upon as having its paradoxical advantages. As long as Europe resists the pressure to tighten general rules about privacy on the internet, it appears that dedicated investigation may lead to more convictions than can be yielded during the physical trafficking of photographs and videotapes across the world. Technology may help to identify many more paedophiles. What we have to do now is work out what to do with them.
Operation Landmark has yielded nine UK arrests, which is something to be thankful for. But many people will be watching with interest to see just what kind of justice these people eventually get. Of the seven men sentenced after Operation Cathedral, which uncovered the Wonderland Club ring in 1998, several are already free. All will be released from prison by the end of next year.
There was outrage when the seven men who pleaded guilty in the Wonderland trial received sentences of no more than between 12 and 30 months. There was justification for this public reaction and, as a consequence, maximum tariffs for internet pornography crimes have been raised.
However, subsequent prosecutions for the ownership of child pornography have continued to be light. Gary Glitter served two of four months for downloading internet porn. In Scotland, Derek Longmuir received 300 hours of community service for a similar charge. The former Bay City Roller has also been allowed to carry on following his career in nursing.
North of the border generally, tariffs are lighter than in England. But a judgment in the Scottish High Court last year still serves to clarify the legal thinking behind short sentences. In an appeal decision concerning internet porn, Lords McCluskey and Weir ruled that "what the appellant did was to use his computer to access material already available in digital electronic form on the internet. Of course we recognise that the exploitation and degradation of children by creating pornographic pictures of them victimises the children. But nothing [the defendant] did had any direct or consequent effect on any other person, adult or child."
Strictly, dryly, colourlessly, speaking, this is correct. However, it treats the use of child pornography as no more connected to the production of it than the handling of stolen microwaves is to the production of them. But while stealing is illegal, making microwaves isn't. By looking at disseminated pornographic images of children, criminals are taking part in a closed illegal process that would not exist without demand. Those using child pornography should, instead of being assured by the legal system that their participation is passive, be left in no doubt that they are very much implicated in every step of the development of the images.
While Judge MacRae, in the Wonderland case, considered that the men who received the lightest sentences were doing no more than looking, they were all members of an organisation whose membership owned no less than 10,000 images. Further, international investigation has yielded the identities of only 16 of more than 1,000 children pictured within the seized material. But one of these was a Portuguese boy who disappeared on the way home from school and is now presumed dead.
Looking at pictures of this child did not kill him. But part of the sickness and immorality of looking at pornographic pictures of children is the abdication, or outright denial, of responsibility for the suffering behind them. This is a kind of passivity that should receive censure rather than sympathy.
By the same token, it should also be remembered that a paedophile is capable of seeing the most innocent pictures of children as pornographic. Hysteria is not helpful to the clear-sighted negotiation of how to deal with such a "thought crime". The police raid on the Saatchi Gallery, for example, when it was showing photography by Tierney Gearon of her six- and four-year-old children, was wrong.
We cannot criminalise the production of naked pictures of children, nor the consumption of them. In both production and consumption, at some level, pornography is defined by intent. That makes for an uneasy, blurry definition. This is why, when people are found to be deliberately accessing internet pictures defined by their producers as child pornography, the intent is a given. In a difficult area, these people are caught red-handed, full of intent.
How far that intent may lead them is another question. Some argue that the use of pornographic images of children is all that saves paedophiles from actually perpetrating acts of abuse. Perhaps this is true. If so, we must give these people better support than illegal masturbatory fantasy.
Such people, if they truly exist, are surely self-aware enough to respond to treatment, or at least to seek restraint in time of crisis. although many paedophiles are ruthless, shameless and pitiless, many are tortured by their affliction. (One of the British men arrested in Operation Cathedral committed suicide before he was charged.) Where, without vilification, can such people go?
Perhaps we need to be more proactive in offering help to people who feel they may be capable of acts of paedophilia. Certainly, however dissatisfied we may feel in these fairly early stages in the exposing of a criminal taboo, we do need to leave judgment to the judges. Whipping up lynch mobs does no one any favours at all.
In fact, I cannot help feeling that even though they are obliged to be strictly impartial, judges are influenced into caution in reaction to the atmosphere of witch-hunt that lies around issues of paedophilia and child abuse. The notorious demonstrations which followed the News of the World's naming and shaming campaign for "Sarah's Law", may have had the opposite effect to that which their participants desired. When dealing with such emotive issues, we cannot let our hearts rule our heads. Our judicial system must achieve a balance. That balance has not yet been struck.Reuse content