Dominic Lawson: We all want to protect children from sexual abuse – but this is an intrusion too far

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The Independent Online

There's not much a government minister can propose these days without being ridiculed by the press and the opposition parties. Angela Eagle, the "Justice minister", has managed it, however. Her announcement that the possession of drawings and computer-generated images of "child sex abuse" would become illegal – punishable by a three-year prison sentence – has attracted not one word of criticism.

Perhaps that's unsurprising – who wants to be seen to sympathise with those getting their kicks from the idea of child abuse? In prisons, even the most violent killers feel themselves to be morally superior to paedophiles. Yet Ms Eagle's proposal deserves the scrutiny – and the scepticism – it has not received.

It has long been illegal to create and distribute material showing children in sexual acts. In 1999, with the development of the internet, the law was strengthened so that it became illegal to receive such images – regardless of whether any financial transaction was involved. What Angela Eagle now suggests is that even someone who draws an image of "child sex abuse" purely for himself (or herself) should be put behind bars.

Shaun Kelly, described by the BBC as the "safeguarding manager" for the children's charity NCH, declared that: "This is a welcome announcement which makes a clear statement that drawings or computer-generated images of child abuse are as unacceptable as a photograph". It does, indeed; but it is crazy.

The photograph of a child being sexually abused is a true horror – proof and evidence of the suffering of an actual person. There is a real victim of a real crime. Yet who is the victim of a drawing or a computer-generated image? Nobody has suffered in the creation of it. If Mr Kelly really believes that this is as bad as a photograph of actual abuse, then I wonder at his reason, as I do Ms Eagle's.

They had the support of a number of callers to a radio phone-in programme a couple of days ago, nevertheless. One of them, by the name of Tracy Sharp, added: "I am an animal lover too, and I don't want pictures showing cruelty to animals." Next stop: a law to prosecute country pubs for displaying old prints of fox-hunts.

Only one caller attacked the proposal; interestingly, she had been a victim of sexual molestation as a child. Her view was that a clear distinction had to be drawn between the reality of child abuse and fantasies about it.

Such common sense does not prevail in the Justice ministry, however. One of its spokesmen insisted that the authorities had "noticed an increase in the existing availability of these images on the internet". Well they might, but since it is already a crime to post such computer-generated images on the internet, this observation is otiose.

Moreover, it might have occurred to some of the bright sparks at the Justice ministry that if more people are manufacturing or drawing "virtual" images for their own private use, they might be doing so as an alternative to the rightly illegal practice of distributing photographs of such scenes. That should, if anything, be seen as a success for the law as it stands, rather than, as the Government suggests, a reason for changing it.

Perhaps Ms Eagle and Mr Kelly are of the opinion that the very act of drawing a picture of children in sexual acts would spur the creator of the image into carrying out real crimes which he would not otherwise have engaged in: or to put it another way, if the person concerned were to refrain from putting such thoughts down on paper, he would be less likely to molest a child.

If that is what they believe, then they should furnish us with the evidence. If they cannot, or will not, then I think we can reasonably surmise that the evidence for such a proposition does not exist. Of course, such drawings or images could properly be described as disgusting; but if they are only seen by the person who creates them, how can they even be said – in the words of the old obscenity laws – to "deprave and corrupt"? The Government, in effect, is seeking to punish people for having disgusting private thoughts – and to make those thoughts public, doubtless to the ruination of the individual concerned.

It is true that this is not a "thoughtcrime" in the sense that George Orwell meant when he invented the word in his novel 1984. For Orwell, this term was linked to the oppression of dissident thought – freedom to think independently of the political directives of a totalitarian government. Yet this development is in another way very close to Orwell's dystopian vision, which was of a society in which the state had a spy camera in every home, so that there was absolutely no sense of a distinction between the private and the public; in fact, nothing could be said to be purely private.

Perhaps this is not so surprising: Orwell's idea of Big Brother has, in 21st century Britain, been turned, by a grotesquely imaginative act of low cultural alchemy, into a successful television programme on which British citizens actually volunteer to destroy their own privacy in the most humiliating circumstances. This too, is the modern Britain which tolerates the placing of spy cameras in personal waste-bins – to ensure that no family crimes against recycling go undetected.

Admittedly, there was some sort of public outrage against the waste-bin spy camera. The man who mis-sorts his rubbish is not – outside certain environmentalist circles – regarded as more of a danger to society than the unobserved paedophile: the hysteria attaching to the latter is unmatched in its vigour and fury. In one sense, this is completely understandable. Which of us, as parents, do not experience a spasm of agonising empathy when we read of the misuse of a child for sexual purposes? Yet in another sense this pursuit of the paedophile – real or imagined – is a displacement activity to disguise a much wider problem: the way in which mainstream modern culture encourages the sexualisation of children.

Thus you had Bhs producing a selection of padded bras and "saucy knickers" under the slogan "Little Miss Naughty". Now withdrawn, the range was apparently designed for under-10s. Asda, for a while at least, seemed happy to sell black lace lingerie and push-up bras to girls as young as nine. The clothing company Next, for its part, produced T-shirts with the slogan "So many boys, so little time", to fit girls of six.

Of course, none of this amounts in itself to child abuse. It is merely grotesque: but if we are worried about adults seeing children as sexual objects – which is presumably the point of Ms Eagle's proposed legislation – then we might also consider the role of the cultural mainstream, with all its influence, as much as the solitary activities of pathetic perverts.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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