Pete Townshend, the guitarist of the Who, is to be placed on the Sex Offenders Register for the next five years after being cautioned for paying to look at child pornography on the internet.
The announcement that the 57-year-old rock legend will not face a criminal charge for using his credit card to access a website containing photographs of babies and children being sexually abused is the latest episode in Britain's biggest ongoing police inquiry. The investigation, codenamed Operation Ore, is likely to see up to 6,000 people cautioned or prosecuted for similar crimes.
Townshend's caution – issued yesterday at Kingston police station in west London – drew criticism from some child campaigners who said it was far too lenient, while the man himself continued to defend his actions and issued a lengthy statement to reporters and photographers gathered outside his mansion in Richmond upon Thames.
It also brings to a close four months of frenzied media coverage and speculation about the rock star's future.
While outwardly a caution may seem like a lenient punishment, it does have wide-ranging implications for Townshend and could greatly restrict his future movement.
One consequence of being placed on the Sex Offenders Register is that Townshend is likely to be banned from travelling to the United States for the next five years.
It was inevitable that the multi-millionaire would be punished when in January he admitted that he had used his credit card in 1999 to access the Texan based website, Landslide Productions, which charges £21 a month to access child abuse of the vilest kind. Investigators have stressed the horrific nature of some of the images of abuse, and several journalists in Canada who were shown examples of the material later need counselling.
Townshend's credit card details were among those of about 6,500 British men, and a handful of women, identified by American postal inspectors during an investigation into the subscribers to Landslide Productions. The details were passed on to the British police about a year ago, who then launched a massive inquiry to identify the offenders and bring them to justice.
The operation hit the headlines when it emerged that among the suspects were two police officers closely involved in the Soham inquiry to catch the killer of the 10-year-old girls, Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.
As the police worked through the huge list and Townshend's name was discovered, it was only a matter of time before it reached the press.
Confronted by dozens of journalists, the rock guitarist quickly issued his defence and admitted the crime, but said that it had been for research for an autobiography, which includes passages about his being sexually abused as a child, as well as a campaign against child abuse that he had been planning for seven years.
Police seized his computers and officers from the Scotland Yard's Child Protection Group carried out a four-month investigation in which they established that Townshend did not possess any downloaded child-abuse images.
It came as no great shock then, when Scotland Yard announced yesterday that rather than being charged and face a possible jail sentence, Townshend had been cautioned for the access and payment for child-abuse images.
As well as not downloading the images – an offence that attracts a maximum five-year jail sentence – other factors in his favour are that he appears to have only made one credit card payment; he did have a credible explanation for his actions; and he did not have a history of similar offences.
Conscious of being accused of favouritism towards a celebrity, Scotland Yard also stressed that they took advice from the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure "fairness and consistency in the handling of suspects across London" in this type of case.
The Metropolitan Police also went to some lengths to point out the seriousness of Townshend's actions. A Met statement read: "The access and payment for child abuse images is an offence, and inciting others to distribute these images leads to young children being seriously sexually assaulted to meet the growing demands of the internet customer.
"It is not a defence to access these images for research or out of curiosity."
A caution means Townshend has a criminal record and he automatically goes onto the Sex Offenders Register for five years. Furthermore a sample of DNA has been taken and he has been fingerprinted and photographed. For the next five years he must notify police of any intention to travel abroad for eight days or more and inform them if he changes his name or address. He will also undergo a multi-agency assessment to determine whether he is of any risk to children.
A spokeswoman at the American Embassy in London said that anyone with a criminal record would not be given a visa to travel to the United States, but they could apply for a waiver, which is decided on case by case. But a US source said that it was "highly unlikely" anyone on the Sex Offenders Register would be granted one, particularly one connected to child abuse.
Townshend yesterday issued a statement in which he insisted police had "unconditionally accepted" his explanation that he was looking at the site as research for his "campaign" against child pornography.
He continued: "I accessed the site because of my concerns at the shocking material readily available on the internet to children as well as adults, and as part of my research toward the campaign I had been putting together since 1995 to counter damage done by all kinds of pornography on the internet, but especially any involving child abuse."
He added: "I accept that I was wrong to access this site, and that by doing so, I broke the law, and I have accepted the caution that the police have given me."
But his explanation and the severity of his punishment have not impressed many child-abuse campaigners.
A spokesman for Phoenix survivors, a group which represents victims of child abuse, said: "We are appalled at the leniency of the punishment Townshend has received.
"He gave money to child molesters, which doubtless paid for the next child-rape photo session.
"It makes little difference to what happens to us if the sex offender is behind the monitor, the lens or the blanket – our suffering doesn't change."
The children's charity, the NSPCC, took a slightly more measured respond, highlighting the consequences of being placed on the Sex Offenders Register.
But Jennifer Bernard, from the NSPCC, said that no one should forget the suffering behind the images people pay a few dollars to watch on their computer scenes.
"Every child seen on an internet pornography site is a real child who is likely to have been abused time and time again," she said.
'I accept that I was wrong to access this site'
Pete Townshend's press statement, which was posted on his website, is given below:
"After months of investigation officers from Scotland Yard's Child Protection group have confirmed that they have not found any downloaded child abuse images on rock guitarist Pete Townshend's computers. They added that Pete co-operated fully with the investigation and that the decision to caution was made in accordance with the MPS Case Disposal Policy for this investigation.
"Pete stated: 'From the very beginning, I acknowledged that I did access this site and that I had given the police full access to all of my computers.'
"He added: 'As I made clear at the outset, I accessed the site because of my concerns at the shocking material readily available on the internet to children as well as adults, and as part of my research toward the campaign I had been putting together since 1995 to counter damage done by all kinds of pornography on the internet, but especially any involving child abuse.'
"The police work closely with the internet industry through the Internet Watch Foundation to monitor paedophile activity and any member of the public accidentally discovering such images should notify the IWF through their website.
"Ironically Pete later contacted the Internet Watch Foundation on the subject of the offensive site.
"He pointed out: 'The police have unconditionally accepted that these were my motives in looking at this site and that there was no other nefarious purpose, and as a result they have decided not to charge me. I accept that I was wrong to access this site, and that by doing so, I broke the law, and I have accepted the caution that the police have given me.'"