Joan Smith: Who benefits from hearing interviews with a paedophile?

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The Independent Online

Earlier this week, excerpts from a series of extraordinary tape recordings were played on BBC TV and radio. They were clips from four police interviews with Vanessa George, the nursery worker convicted a couple of weeks ago of horrific offences against young children, and George could be heard initially appearing to co-operate with detectives. As the interviews progressed, George gradually became sullen, refusing pleas from detectives to reveal the identities of the infants she abused. She sounded cold and uncaring, but that's hardly surprising, given the nature of her crimes.

I suppose some viewers may have felt they learned something from the programme, even though it was already known that George had refused to provide this information. It won't have attracted public sympathy for child-abusers in general, and certainly not for the female paedophiles whose existence seems to have been barely acknowledged prior to this case.

Paedophiles do huge harm to their victims, leading in some instances to a life-long struggle to cope with the consequences. If the general public has belatedly realised that some women abuse children – a fact I have never doubted – then it's possible that future perpetrators will be apprehended at an earlier stage. But the BBC's decision to broadcast sections of the George interviews contributes nothing to that process, and risks stirring up violent emotions in a case which has already produced extreme reactions.

After her conviction, I heard calls for her to be skinned and rolled in salt, which is just the kind of savagery the criminal justice system is designed to avoid. There have been cases where paedophiles have been released from prison, identified and murdered, and that is something civilised societies should do their best to prevent.

For all its perceived failings, the system worked in this case, with police officers moving to arrest George as soon as she was identified as the person who had sent obscene images to one of her co-defendants. It might be argued that she should have been detected earlier, and that women who apply to work with children should now be regarded with the same degree of suspicion as men who aspire to work in nursery and primary education.

Men sometimes complain that they have been deterred from such careers by the fear of being treated as potential paedophiles, and there is a delicate balance here; the country needs adults who are prepared to look after and educate other people's children, and most of them are not paedophiles. We need vetting procedures and sensitive supervision which increase the chances of spotting abusers, without throwing the entire system into turmoil.

Sensitivity is what this subject needs most of all, and that is what was totally lacking when the BBC decided to broadcast parts of the police interrogation of Vanessa George. The interviews were carried out not to stimulate hatred and loathing of George and other female paedophiles, which is the most likely result of the broadcast, but to establish precisely what she had done and extract information that might help her victims.

One perverse effect might be to make future offenders wary of co-operating with detectives in case the tapes are released and inspire revenge attacks; now that a police force has provided this material to journalists, perhaps interviewees will in future have to be warned that anything they say may be used in evidence, broadcast on television or even published in a celebrity magazine.

It's worth recalling that the practice of tape-recording interviews with suspects was introduced to protect them, following cases in which defendants claimed they had not made the admissions in their statements or had been coerced into confessions. Since then popular sentiment has shifted unequivocally towards the view that everything should be out in the open, regardless of whether there is a genuine public interest justification or, as is often the case, nothing more than prurience masquerading as public interest. Perhaps that is why the airing of sections of the George interviews has caused so little adverse comment, even though there are powerful arguments against broadcasting material gathered in the course of an investigation.

Not least is the blurring of boundaries in a culture obsessed with famous and indeed notorious people. The public wants to hear from everybody, it seems, from their favourite soap stars and bereaved parents to convicted child-abusers, even though the belief that interviews are in some way "authentic" is contradicted by the cover of every celebrity magazine. That's where soap stars, footballers' wives and Page 3 girls nurture their public image, and their popularity is an index of the success or otherwise of that process.

Police interviews with suspects involve a different kind of manipulation on both sides, but are even less likely to deliver the unvarnished "truth" the public apparently craves. Crimes which inflict immense harm should be reported with seriousness and restraint, not the sensibility of Hello! magazine.

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