"In nearly every family photograph album in Britain, there will be pictures of our children bathing, running around the garden naked, or being bounced on their grandparent's knee, that could be misinterpreted," says Sue Amphlett, director of Parents Against Injustice (Pain).
Last week Julia Somerville, the television newsreader, was questioned by police along with her boyfriend, Jeremy Dixon, the eminent architect, about allegedly pornographic pictures of her seven-year-old daughter, reportedly taking a bath. Ms Somerville and her partner have strenuously denied any wrongdoing, but the case has left every parent casting an eye over their own family album. If the pictures they contain are taken out of context, just how far might they be misunderstood? Where does decency end and indecency start in a society that is so anxious about the protection of its children, and who, ultimately, is the moral arbiter of taste? To a healthy family, the image of a child bathing or frolicking naked, or taking a bath with a parent, is a happy memento of growing up. But to the shop assistant in Boots the Chemist, where Mr Dixon picked up his photographs, or a policeman, or anyone outside the family, it may assume an entirely new meaning.
"Although we have laws to protect against it, there's nothing in the statutes that tells us what indecent really means, so we are left to the standards of the day," says Alan Levy, QC, an expert on child law. "Photographs can be very subjective, and of course there is a risk of innocent parents being caught up in a case of misinterpretation, in the genuine pursuit of those who are guilty."
For one family in the south of England, the nightmare became a reality seven years ago. After a family outing to a funfair, there were three shots left on the end of the film in their camera, and the parents decided to use them up taking pictures of their three-year-old daughter lying naked on her tummy in front of the fire after a bath.
The first the family heard that the film had been handed over to the police by their local branch of Boots was when investigators arrived at their home.
"It was terrible, and I could only think they'd got the film muddled up with someone else's," says the mother, who prefers to remain anonymous. "Then when they showed us the pictures I couldn't believe it: they were ours. We'd been going to get one of them blown up for her Nanna, and here they were saying we'd done this terrible thing.
"They realised we'd done nothing wrong on the same day. One of them said he could tell we were innocent because our home was so nicely decorated. So what would have happened if we lived in a dumpy house?"
This atmosphere of suspicion is a clear concern for campaigners eager to protect parents and children from wrongful accusations of child abuse. "We have this culture where the more we report our concerns, the more children we protect, but we're creating a whole new group of traumatised children at the centre of wrong claims," says Ms Amphlett.
Ms Amphlett has had experience of other parents being wrongly accused, and cites the example of a photographer who had taken pictures at a family occasion. He let camera click on the children, some of whom were naked. The photographs included a group of naked girls doing handstands, which was enough for the film's processors to alert the police and make the photographer the subject of an investigation. He managed to convince the police that the images were innocent.
But what is one man's innocence may be another's pornography. "To some extent pornography must be in the eye of the beholder," says David Batcup, a criminal lawyer. "A paedophile may find a naked picture of children in the bath arousing. Most normal people would see a picture of a child having fun. You can only apply your own standards of decency. But children have to be protected, and it may be the price that has to be paid to ensure the cases of wrongdoing do come to light."
Private family snapshots have an added potency today, when one in 12 families includes at least one stepchild. Of those, 86 per cent comprise a stepfather living with the natural mother. Coupled with the ever-heightening profile of child abuse, these changes have done much to cast suspicion over the most seemingly innocent family activities.
"There are many stepfathers out there who are now extremely anxious of their role," says Erica De'Ath, chief executive of the National Association for Stepfamilies. "Is it appropriate for them to give their stepchild a kiss or a hug? That kind of doubt can be very damaging to the child."
The debate over what constitutes an appropriate image of a child is intensifying year on year. The Somerville case has now brought it right into the home, but the worlds of art, fashion and advertising are already familiar with its agonising implications. Lewis Carroll's passion for photographing little girls went unremarked in his day; two years ago, photos from his collection were seized by police, who announced they were "smashing" a paedophile ring.
Their owner was Graham Ovenden, an internationally acclaimed artist who has built a reputation on paintings and photographs of children, often nude. His work focuses on the female figure at very onset of adolescence, and the portraits include commissions from distinguished parents. Under the 1978 Protection of the Children Act (making it an offence to take, or permit to be taken, any indecent photograph of a child), Ovenden's clients were also liable to prosecution. No charges were brought. A petition signed by, among others, Peter Blake, Lucinda Lambton and Laurie Lee, helped to secure the return of his work, along with some Miss Marple videos also seized by the Obscene Publications Squad. Nicky Akehurst, whose gallery later exhibited some of Ovenden's seized work, accused the police of a "witch hunt", and insisted indecency lay only in the eye of the beholding officers.
Another photographer, Sally Mann, has been repeatedly caught up in controversy with work which explicitly depicts her children as sexual beings. But the art world still enjoys greater license than advertisers - or even, after the Somerville case, the general public. One Mann shot, of a pre- pubescent child sprawled on a urine-soaked bed, provoked great disquiet, but not censure.
But when, last September, Calvin Klein launched his latest commercial campaign, condemnation was instant. Pictures of splayed-leg adolescents prompted claims that the designer was peddling jeans on the back of child pornography. The campaign was abandoned, and the FBI were called in to investigate. Unease about these pictures extended beyond the easily offended constituency of the Daily Mail and Mary Whitehouse. An Advertising Standards Agency spokesman accused Klein of being "inappropriate and irresponsible, especially in the light of research which shows images like these can appeal to paedophiles."
Two years ago, the photographer Corrine Day was vilified for a Vogue underwear fashion shoot featuring superwaif model Kate Moss looking childishly vulnerable. And last season's "baby doll" catwalk look again raised fears about the blurring of boundaries between good and bad taste.
The Internet has also done much to raise fears about the spectre of child pornography. Britain's first successful prosecution for receiving porn on the information superhighway was secured two weeks ago, after disks containing images of children having sex with adults were seized from a Manchester businessman. Electronic distribution of such material is proving practically impossible to combat.
If the world's fashion and art worlds cannot decide what constitutes an appropriate image of a youngster, we should perhaps not be surprised when a film processor at Boots finds himself in a dilemma. And it is an issue that the law has still to resolve satisfactorily. In 1988 the Home Office amended the law to make possession of photographs of child pornography a crime which carried a fine, in the belief that "the shame of conviction for this new offence could be a greater punishment," according to John Patten, then Home Office Minister.
Amid concern that the innocent might be targeted, he also gave assurances that it had never been the intention to target innocent family snaps of naked children in the bath or on the beach. But with no clear guidelines for what the standards of the day might be, a Boots shop assistant has as much power to be arbiter of decency as anyone.
The logical extreme would be for Britain to issue a blanket ban on taking pictures of our naked children.
"All anyone can do is look at the pictures they are taking and ask if they can be misconstrued," says Mr Levy. "If you do take pictures of a seven-year-old in the bath, you are now playing with fire. We have our own standards, but we have to rely on the fact they could not be misunderstood."
For those who have been misunderstood, it is a memory that will not fade. The mother whose child's fireside shots were seized says: "The pictures are in an envelope in the attic now, because we couldn't really look at them after that. It was like they'd made them dirty."
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