Anyone remember the Great Paedophile Hunt of The Year 2000? I think that was the moment that I began to fear that the Blair government wasn’t just a routinely opportunist, routinely semi-competent, routinely confused – but also routinely rather well-meaning- Labour administration with a bit of shiny packaging. Instead it seemed that there was, as advertised, something genuinely New about Mr Blair’s Labour. These people weren’t going to get too upset if a few innocents got hurt.
Innocents? In a paedophilia scandal? With wearisome predictability, the answer is ‘yes, especially in a paedophilia scandal’. The News of the World, the most openly pornographic of Rupert Murdoch’s publications, had been making rather obvious hay with the case of Sarah Payne, a young girl kidnapped, raped and murdered by a paedophile. The NotW bought her parents’ story, which was indeed horrific.
Rebekah Wade- the editor of the rag, the girlfriend of a corpulent and talentless soap opera performer named Ross Kemp, and by dint of both these great achievements a dinner companion of the Prime Minister and his wife- decided that making a bit of cash out of a bereaved couple’s agony was not enough. There must be a Campaign, for ‘Sarah’s Law’, which would compel local authorities to notify the public of the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles.
Actually, there was plenty to get horrified about in this case, beyond the utterly disgusting details of Sarah Payne’s death. Her killer, Roy Whiting, was indeed a convicted paedophile. The judge in his original case had advocated a lengthy period of imprisonment and recommended that if he still appeared to be a risk he should be kept indefinitely in jail. With no sign at all that he had reformed, he was released after a mere two years. This does not strike me as the work of a functioning, equitable justice system.
I do strongly believe that something should be done about the State’s treatment of paedophiles, a belief dating back to my first job after university, working in a home for disturbed children, of whom a large proportion had been sexually abused. (I didn’t last long in the job: I am mildly annoyed with myself for believing that someone so young, untrained and inexperienced had any chance of doing it well, and very angry indeed with the supposed professionals who employed me.) I have a very clear memory of reading one frequently abused girl’s personal file: at least four adults had had some kind of sexual contact with her up until the age of eleven, for which one (1) man went to jail for a total of ….thirteen months. Good job he didn’t do anything really serious.
Serious tabs are not kept on these people following their release, and at least some of them will re-offend, as Roy Whiting did. The solution to me would seem to be much longer jail sentences, for reasons both of deterrence and public protection, and then some form of rigorous psychiatric assessment and supervision before and following release. Both these options cost money, and would compel us as a society to see if our anti-paedo feelings are strong enough to accept tax rises or spending cuts. So a bit of a non-starter, then.
But obligatory publication of the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles- ‘Sarah’s Law’- would be a standing incitement to acts of violence. Not just against the perverts themselves- and as a supporter of the rule of law, I shouldn’t say this but I think I wouldn’t be too upset at the beating up of a few child rapists. No, a lot of the violence would be aimed at people who looked like, or whose names sounded like, the real paedophiles. We all know how easily rumours start and how fervently they are believed; we all know that some people enjoy bullying and others are easily led.
So if a popular newspaper printed dozens of photos of ‘Paedos’ with their believed whereabouts, there were no prizes for guessing that the likeliest victims would be innocent men who looked approximately the same and lived in more or less the right districts. This is what happened, the most horrifying case being the hounding of a disabled man on a poverty-stricken Hampshire housing estate, who resembled the subjects of one of the photos because they both wore neck braces.
The Police did their job well and rescued the unfortunates. The Prime Minister of the time might have been expected to issue public condemnation of the News of the World. The Home Secretary, then? The Minister of State at the Home Office? All were rather too busy to make any comment while the mobs rampaged. (By contrast, when a satirist named Chris Morris poked a little fun on TV at the mob reaction, Tessa Jowell told us that his programme was ‘”tearing down the barriers of TV decency”, while the then Child Protection Minister, Beverley Hughes, opined it was ‘unspeakably sick.’ Morris’s programme was broadcast by Channel 4, incomparably less powerful than the Murdoch empire.)
At the time my disgust at the Blair Paedo Pander was tempered by a belief, or hope, that little lasting harm had been done. At least Blair could look at ugly consequences of inciting lynch mobs, and resolve in future to be a little less accommodating of the Murdoch Press. What a fool I was.
There was a full-blown hysterical reaction underway, a demand that the Police ‘Do something’- and do it cheap- and so they did Do Something. Something hysterical. Something badly planned. Something that turned out to reveal the rather sinister synthesis between a certain type of modern policing operation and big business. One big business- the media combine of a tax-dodging billionaire- incited mob violence as a few pitiful louts attacked even more pitiful victims whose offence was bearing a slight facial resemblance to out-of-date photos of convicted kiddie fiddlers. And then another group of big businesses- the high street banks- told credulous and careerist detectives and Home Office bureaucrats that since there is no such thing as the fraudulent online use of credit card details, anyone whose credit card appeared to have been used online to view child porn was guilty, no need to ask questions.
No previous Labour Prime Minister would have allowed incitement to violence on the front page of a national newspaper. And it strikes me as unlikely that any post-1945 Tory PM, even those who were very close to the tabloid barons, would have done such a thing: Margaret Thatcher was prepared to use the Murdoch Press, and to do Murdoch all sorts of favours in return, but she knew that Parliament was there to protect, and the Police to uphold, the Criminal Law, and she never let him muck around with that.
By contrast, in the third year of the New Labour Government, Rupert Murdoch defecated all over the Public Order Laws, and Blair’s responses were to invite the responsible hack to tea whilst siccing the police, briefed by dishonest bankers, on to putative child porn viewers.
I would like to believe that this will end badly for all concerned, but I have to say I doubt it: there were just too many people, too many institutions, too much power involved in the Great Paedo Hunt for there to be an honest apportionment of guilt. I don’t think we need a Conservative Government- but we do now desperately need conservative government. We need to conserve the rule of law and the respect for public order which our last Prime Minister found to be so unhelpful, so outmoded, so… so Old.