Today's story: a tale of panic and paranoia

So far as I know, there have been no known cases of authors running amok among schoolchildren
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The Independent Online

Anna Bennett, whose dad built an illegal tree-house, has been living dangerously this week. So has Emily Pepper, whose mum left home for a man 17 years younger than her, not to mention Benjamin, son of David and Michelle Platoff, both of whom are worried about the level of bureaucracy in government.

The three of them are among the many children whose names and faces, completely uncovered, appeared in the national press over the past few days. According to the Department of Education and Skills, and a growing number of local authorities and schools, their public exposure involved a small but significant risk that they might be spotted and targeted by an adult who wishes them harm.

The idea may seem alarmist, even mad, to the parents involved, but it is taken seriously enough by those whose job it is to protect the welfare of the young. As Tim Luckhurst has reported this week in The Independent, local newspapers all over the country are being discouraged from taking photographs of school pantomimes for fear that paedophiles may be scanning the pages of the local press in search of potential victims. The advice to teachers from the ministry is that, where possible, the publication of photographs of their charges should be avoided, particularly when names are given.

Concern about this issue has been growing over the past couple of years. Any moderately well-known author who visits schools to read and discuss his or her books knows that, more often than not, a photographer will appear to take the inevitable shot for publication in the local paper - writer, carefully holding up his book for the camera, pretending to read to a group of children who are pretending to listen. Now, before that can happen, a process of careful sifting must take place, ensuring that only the faces of those whose parents have signed a consent form will appear in that week's paper.

It is a difficult subject and, at a time when Operation Ore has revealed the effects of the internet, a cautious approach may seem sensible. On the other hand, there are signs that this danger-stranger mentality is becoming a touch weird and obsessive. Whereas, a few years ago, children were gently made aware by teachers and parents that some adults are not to be trusted, now it must be explained to them that the grown-up world is so full of darkness and peril that even to have one's face in a newspaper represents a risk.

In fact, even the visitor himself is not above suspicion. An eminent Arts Council-funded organisation known as the National Association for Writers in Education, or NAWE, has informed the authors whose details are included on its website that certain new rules are to be introduced. Any author who is prepared to talk in a school or college and wishes to be listed by NAWE will be obliged to get in touch with the Criminal Records Bureau and acquire an "Enhanced Disclosure Certificate" that has been issued in the past year.

This is an odd business, surely. Before a published author - or presumably, an artist, storyteller or musician - can set foot in a school, NAWE believes he should go to the police and ask for confirmation that he is not a danger to children. So, for example, if our saintly and committed poet laureate Andrew Motion agreed to read his poetry to a school assembly, he would first be obliged to prove, with the help of an Enhanced Disclosure Certificate, that he is not, nor has ever been, a paedophile.

As with the great pantomime panic, this mood of paranoia is not based on any evidence of threat: so far as I know, there have been no known cases of authors running amok among schoolchildren. Yet such is the atmosphere of fear and anxiety that at least one publisher of children's books has inserted a clause into its standard contract allowing it to suspend a book deal if so much as an allegation is made against its author.

Meanwhile, childhood itself has become something of a contemporary obsession. Public figures, particularly fathers, have never been more eager to show how evolved and sensitive they are by parading their children in public at the slightest excuse - at cup finals, award ceremonies, in TV studios. Contemporary culture has become obsessed by the corruption of young innocence, a theme that propels the film Thirteen, the Turner Prize-winning pottery of Grayson Perry, the tabloid speculation over the private life of the latest young teen sensation.

Could it be possible that the sexualisation of childhood is not just to be found in pop videos, teen mags and clothes shops - that a fearful, anguished mindset among responsible adults who see potential nonces in every newspaper reader and school visitor also plays its part? I imagine I am not the only author who objects to the idea that, in order to meet my readers, I must now acquire a good-character chit from the Criminal Records Bureau.

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