Dominic Lawson: Society really is to blame

A form of displacement activity is occurring, designed to avoid facing up to the real cause of so much abuse of children, which is the breakdown of family life
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The Independent Online

It was a crime of quite startling malevolence that Neil Weiner perpetrated against his colleague Eddie Thompson. Weiner was the handyman at the same school, Swanley Secondary in east London, where Thompson was employed as caretaker. He had conceived a deep dislike of his colleague and decided to ruin him by framing him as a user of child pornography.

Weiner achieved his aim by discovering Thompson's computer password, and then copying 177 indecent images of children – acquired for this purpose – on to Thompson's laptop. Next, he called the police under the false name of "Steve" and told them that the local school caretaker had been downloading child pornography. After the police had arrested Thompson and released him on bail, Weiner tipped off the local newspaper.

The result of that, you can imagine. Thompson was immediately ostracised – and even spat at – by neighbours, forcing him to move out of his own home: this, before he was even charged or brought to trial. Mercifully, he never was. Eventually the police, by skilful detection involving analysis of computer and phone records, discovered what had really happened. In August – fully four years after the initial offence – Weiner was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and of downloading indecent images of children.

Last week, Weiner returned to the Old Bailey for sentencing. Judge David Paget sentenced him to 12 years in prison; but what he went on to say was quite remarkable. Paget told Weiner: "You will go to prison for a long time. The prison population is not renowned for being particularly fair or reasonable. You will be suspected by many of being a paedophile and, like Mr Thompson, you may find that you suffer, both in prison and release, for the rest of your life."

This seems to be not so much a judicial sentence as an extrajudicial one. Judge Paget appeared almost to be revelling in the brutal treatment that Weiner might indeed receive in prison from other inmates believing him to be the perpetrator of sexual crimes against children – and that this would somehow form part of his proper punishment.

Anyone who works in prisons will know that there is a peculiar hierarchy among inmates. As Emily Kingham observed in her Notes From A Prison series for the Social Affairs Unit: "At the top of [the hierarchy] are armed robbers. In prisoners' eyes, these are Robin-Hood characters ... It's a warped kind of morality. At the bottom of the pile are sex offenders ... Prison reflects society's revulsion with paedophilia, but also its hysteria."

One prison psychiatrist put it to me slightly differently: "Everyone has a need to feel morally superior to someone else, no matter what they themselves have done. The so-called 'nonces' provide this sense of self-esteem for other prisoners, when in reality they may have committed crimes of much greater brutality and cruelty, whose wickedness they never acknowledge."

In other words, Judge Paget was contributing, quite gratuitously, to this "warped kind of morality", as described by Emily Kingham – or delusional self-esteem on the part of very violent criminals, as my psychiatrist friend would see it. One might even say that he was giving the state's moral sanction to the terrorising of "nonces" by other prisoners who get quite a thrill from, for example, throwing boiling water over them.

This is not a defence of what those most despised of convicts have done themselves. As a father of two girls I have, I hope, a normal degree of empathy with the victims of such crimes. Yet there is little doubt that the pseudonymous Ms Kingham is right when she speaks of "hysteria" in the country's general reaction to stories involving accusations of paedophilia.

Two years ago I wrote in this column about the travails of a mother who asked her local branch of Asda to transfer a photographic print of her son as a five-year-old on to a cake for his 21st-birthday party. Asda's bakery department recoiled in horror at Gail Jordan's request, because the 16-year-old photo revealed the naked bottom of her son as an infant. The supermarket declared – when Ms Jordan expressed her astonishment – that the photo "could be anyone's child, so it could be deemed pornographic".

More seriously, last year the Labour government drew up proposals to make punishable by imprisonment the possession of indecent images of imaginary children – in other words, not real children, but drawings or computer-simulated images. Obviously, in the case of images of real children being abused there is a sense in which the distributor is involved in the commissioning of acts of terrible cruelty. Yet this legislation set out by Labour's last Justice Minister, Angela Eagle, was nothing less than a proposal to make disgusting thoughts illegal; so terrified are all politicians of appearing to condone paedophilia that not a single MP dared speak out against Ms Eagle's plan to make the possession of indecent sketches of imaginary children punishable by three years' imprisonment – followed, doubtless, by the sort of treatment at the hands of other prisoners that inspired Judge Paget's recent peroration.

The most interesting question is why, as a nation, we have become so disproportionately obsessed with paedophilia – illustrated in its most bureaucratic form with the vetting of millions of would-be volunteers and teachers via the Criminal Records Bureau. The answer, I fear, is that it is all a form of displacement activity designed to avoid facing up to the real cause of so much abuse of children, abuse that goes on across the nation, every day. That cause is the breakdown of what we used to call "family life" and the growth of profoundly dysfunctional homes (usually state-funded) in which there are a succession of so-called "stepfathers".

Iain Duncan Smith put his finger on this, at the time of the trial of the mother and the killer of "Baby P" in Haringey. The man now charged with sorting out the welfare state observed: "The growth in broken families has been mirrored by the huge increase in the number of children considered to be 'at risk' – 1.5 million now fall into this category. Children living with their natural mother and a guesting father are eight times more likely to be on the at-risk register."

If anything, this understates the correlation of risk. Academic research by Professors Martin Daly and Margo Wilson into deadly assaults on children under five produced the following conclusion: "Homicide risk from stepfathers was approximately 60 times higher than from genetic fathers for this age group, replicating the immense differential found in prior analysis."

It is most odd – considering how much the wicked step-parent has featured in children's literature down the ages – that this correlation is so rarely remarked upon. It is almost as if this is a truth which is too unpleasant to confront, because it strikes at the heart of all our now conventional ideas about the joys of sexual freedom, and how that has made society so much happier and more contented.

Indeed, I wonder about the home lives of the sort of prisoners who inflict the attacks on "paedos" that Judge Paget appeared to promise Neil Weiner. How many of them are active participants in this culture of social and sexual chaos financed and even encouraged by a studiously non-judgmental welfare state and by what we used to call "the permissive society"? In short, the hated "paedos" were given all the conditions they need by the same form of society that produces so many of their self-righteous assailants.

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