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Matthew Norman: My sympathy for Gary Glitter

When I was eight, he sat on my bed and sang a bizarre version of 'Hello, Hello, I'm Back Again'

Writing much too early to be considered for the newly founded Journalists' Hall of Fame, a clever man once remarked that he never dined with people he might have to write about lest it dilute the purity of his hatred. So in writing about the man still known, ever more absurdly, as Gary Glitter, I must admit the possibility that a childhood memory of nearly dining with him may play some part in the lack of hatred I feel for him

In this, I appear to be in a tiny minority. The joy with which many newspapers and doubtless their readers greeted Paul Gadd's arrest in Vietnam (in the circs, it feels too flip to use his stage name; "Evil Glitter Faces Death Penalty" sounds like a Chris Morris headline on The Day Today) was ferocious and undisguised, and they seem even more gleeful at the remote prospect of him being executed by firing squad, should he be convicted of having sex with underage girls in the Far East.

Mr Gadd will spend the next four months in prison while Vietnamese police investigate. But the presumption of innocence, seldom a concept to resonate with the editor of The Sun (although she may have warmed to it a little one recent morning in Battersea nick), plays no part in the case of a man who did time in Britain for downloading images of child pornography.

That there is no conceivable mitigation, let alone excuse, for child sexual abuse, be it by direct physical contact or by fuelling and perpetuating this uniquely vile industry, surely goes without saying. Red-top moralists, for all the impression they like to give, have no monopoly on instinctive revulsion towards those who harm and traumatise children.

Whether this universal reflex is reason enough not to distinguish between the severity of various offences is another matter. Even those who genuinely believe in the notion of evil may wonder whether the word deserves to be as glibly applied to a man who hires pubescent prostitutes, as Mr Gadd allegedly did, as to those who rape a six-year-old and enrich themselves by selling the pictures.

The age of the youngest girl Mr Gadd is accused of sleeping with varies from report to report. Some say she was 12, perhaps because it makes a better headline, but if, as others contend, she was 14, the range of heterosexual ages of consent around the world is worth a glance. In Canada it is 14, as it is in, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Iceland, Italy and China, a country so beloved of The Sun's owner Rupert Murdoch that he infamously binned Chris Patten's critical book.

In Colombia, the Czech Republic, Denmark and France, it is 15. In Spain - not a country we think of as wildly uncivilised - it was raised from 12 to 13 in 1999. That same year, the ex-footballer Graham Rix, whose recent appointment as head coach outraged fans of Hearts, was sentenced to a year for having sex with a girl a few months short of her 16th birthday.

Evidently there is something subjective, if not arbitrary, about this area of morality, and the mores are ever shifting. The ancient Athenians portrayed the relationship between the adult male and the adolescent boy as the most spiritual of all, while it wouldn't be an article about paedophilia without a run out for the cliché that Romeo and Juliet were barely teenagers.

There is an almost infinite chasm, of course, between two young people expressing their love and a 61-year-old convicted paedophile paying £5.50 to an adolescent Vietnamese hooker for a quickie, or enticing her to live with him in a state she reportedly regarded as marriage. Even so, the variety of opinion and law as to when the post-pubescent female is ready to decide for herself suggests more complexity than some allow.

In a sense, none of this is centrally important. If Vietnam declares the age of consent to be 18 and Mr Gadd defied that law, there can be no arguing with the fact of his criminality. The more significant general point, I think, is the venerable one about compassion.

We on the bleeding-heart, woolly liberal centre left can no more understand the livid certainties of the frothing right, as represented by The Sun, than they can appreciate our agonised refusal to despise those who offend against a moral code we fundamentally share. Few issues separate us, in an unidealistic era, more clinically than the approach to paedophilia.

To me, the pictures of an obese and bald Paul Gadd, his wig long jettisoned and so rotund he'd need the entire contents of the Bacofoil to reprise his act, are poignant. To them, they are nauseating. I regard him as a wretchedly self-indulgent slave to sexual urges he should have the strength to sublimate. They look him on as a callous predator. I see him as the victim of a life-ruining curse. They see him as a monster.

As much as anything I remember him in his pomp, both as a member of the wider gang of which he was so proud to call himself leader, and also personally. When I was eight, my best friend's father was Gary Glitter's manager, and I was invited to his house one Friday night for dinner with him, an incredibly thrilling prospect we celebrated by sneaking into the drinks cabinet and setting about the Harvey's Bristol Cream. By the time he arrived, we'd been sick several times and long since sent to bed in disgrace, from where we chanted "We want Gary" until finally he appeared, sitting on the end of the bed, and sedating us with a bizarre, quasi-lullaby version of "Hello Hello, I'm Back Again" ("did you miss me when I was away, did you hang my picture on my wall?").

Very few will miss him if he goes away again, for anything up to 12 years, and the only people likely to be hanging his picture on the wall are the police forces of any other South-east Asian countries he may have visited since fleeing Britain. And if he did seem a very sweet and gentle man to my eight-year-old self, that hasn't the slightest relevance should he be guilty of exploiting and perpetuating the underage sex industry of Vietnam.

For all that, the bloodlust exhibited towards him is so maniacal, the relish at his downfall so brutal and sadistic, that even this grizzled observer of the British press finds himself shocked. The ironic thing is that even The Sun can, when it chooses, be understanding and compassionate. In a break from licking its lips at the prospect of the Glitter firing squad earlier this week, it celebrated the election to that Fleet Street Hall of Fame of a chief reporter incarcerated after killing his wife - an offence with no age of consent even in Spain, Austria or the Czech Republic.