Surely our children deserve more than this? (23.4.94)

Evening Standard, 25th April 1994

by Eileen Fairweather

Police chiefs have suggested that Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad – a key weapon in the Met’s fight against child pornographers – may be disbanded. To do so, says Eileen Fairweather, would be a betrayal of our children


THEY use ripe, down-to-earth language, the men at Scotland Yard’s anti-porn squad. They joke outrageously and flirt like crazy. It goes with the job and the gallows humour they develop in self-protection. In a small, fuggy, windowless room filled with video screens, they can spend hour after hour staring at images of children in pain.

Ninety per cent of the Obscene Publications Squad’s work involves the lucrative ever-growing child pornography trade. Its officers cannot join the outcry about the extraordinary police proposal to disband the squad, which flies in the face of growing public concern about porn. But it is easy to imagine what they would say: what a victory for the perverts.

Mostly the ‘bastards’ they target are networkers, men who use computers, secret clubs, child-care organisations and coded ads in sex magazines to exchange little girls and boys for kicks and profits. It is a multi-million-pound industry.

Major child-protection agencies, including Childline and the NSPCC, immediately condemned the proposed disbanding of the squad. Last Wednesday Tory MP Ann Winterton tabled an early-day motion calling for the Home Secretary to overrule Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Condon.
Labour’s Clare Short seconded her and they anticipate wide support. MPs were deeply shocked by a squad exhibition at the Commons last year.

Its head, Superintendent Michael Hames, has broken the mould by successfully using politicians and the Press, courting both to highlight kiddie porn’s brutal reality. Ann Winterton describes him as a ‘superb leader’ (unlike a predecessor jailed for taking bribes), but others consider him far too independent and outspoken.

HE HAS ruffled feathers by arguing that Britain urgently needs a nationally co-ordinated anti-paedophile unit. I have worked on many child-abuse stories, including this newspaper’s investigation of pimps and por-nographers recruiting through Islington’s children’s homes, and agree: the inadequacy and inefficiency of police operations in this field are a scandal.
The Standard’s reports have resulted in Government-ordered inquiries costing millions, high-level resignations and children’s compensation claims. So what? We don’t yet have a single one of them banged up.

I am tired of concerned, dedicated officers wearily explaining that they’ve been refused the go-ahead for expensive surveillance; or they haven’t enough time (these investigations are notoriously lengthy, with young, frightened witnesses); or they can’t touch so-and-so because he’s now buggering kids elsewhere, and woe betide the officer who interferes in another force’s manor … The priority different forces and divisions give to child protection varies wildly and unacceptably because it isn’t exciting macho police work like collaring robbers. At local level, child-protection teams – to whom the Obscene Publications Squad’s work is now supposed to devolve – are significantly staffed by women. Some sexists dub them The Tit Squad.

We need more child-abuse police specialists, resources and co-ordination. Perverts are internationally organised, swapping kids and porn not just across Britain but the Third World, where children are cheaper and more ‘exotic’. In February the Obscene Publications Squad used Thai mailing lists successfully to raid several British men, including a vicar. It is represented on Interpol and assists child-protection training for Third World police through the UN. Supt Hames is proof that too much porn makes you sick: the 49-year-old suffered a heart attack last autumn. The proposed scrapping of his squad is ironic given that recent events have finally forced parents, politicians and psychologists to heed his warnings. Anti-porn campaigners no longer seem puritan killjoys after the role of video nasties in several recent murders and the discovery that violent computer porn is traded in school playgrounds. Broadsheet newspapers have long agonised over whether censorship increases sexual repression and homophobia. The free-speech lobby’s strength is such that possession of child pornography was made an offence only in 1988 – even though it cannot be made without the abuse of a child.

Recently The Times even worried whether the squad’s prosecution of a gay sado-masochism ring meant that innocent love bites between consenting adults were now illegal. Phooey. Unlike most commentators I have seen some of the stomach-churning porn this group produced. It was far worse than could be shown in court, and included Nazi regalia. Some of the men already have child-abuse convictions. Yet, mind-bogglingly, the civil-liberties group Liberty supports their appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

NON-VIOLENT adult erotica is not the porn squad’s target. I am amazed that many soggy socialists do not see porn and child abuse as class issues, involving the exploitation by moneyed men of less powerful chil-dren and women. At least one of the Obscene Publications Squad’s current investigations, to which the Standard fed information and in which arrests are imminent, will prove embarrassing for establishment figures.

The millions in December who viewed Lynda La Plante’s thriller Prime Suspect Three, in which a major child-sex-ring investigation is kiboshed to cover up the involvement of high-ranking police officers, might be forgiven for suspecting a conspiracy against the squad. The truth, I believe, is more prosaic. Who in power really cares about abused children? The socialists are naive (Islington’s former leader Margaret Hodge, now Labour candidate for the forthcoming Barking by-election, still privately claims the Standard bribed children in ‘care’ to invent stories). Nor can most Tories expect future votes from the paedophiles’ favourite targets: kids in care and vulnerable single-parent families.

Disconcertingly, the squad often investigates people like us: poshies, professionals or pseudo radicals. Recent squad investigations include a top paediatrician and a ‘gay-rights activist’ child-care consultant.

The doctor’s filing cabinets at a London hospital contained indecent pictures of hundreds of children, some his little patients. Trapping and interviewing paedophiles is a specialist skill because often they are extremely clever, plausible men manipulating positions of trust, particularly in education and social work. One continued to abuse a boy even after he married into a child protection officer’s family. After seven years’ silent suffering the child spoke up. The man is now jailed. How can the squad’s lead in paedophile profiling, training and detection now be scattered piecemeal between local teams already handicapped by low status and few staff? Among the material the Standard gave the squad were names and addresses of a suspected paedophile ring forwarded to us by a frustrated regional officer; frustrated because his seniors couldn’t be bothered to investigate. They didn’t consider it a priority for limited resources. Yet some already have convictions.

The squad is frank: with just 17 men and more than 100 investigations under way, this inquiry may get nowhere. It shouldn’t be this way.

The police are under Government pressure to save money and increase productivity.
How likely is a local police chief to rubber-stamp trips by a suburban team to Amsterdam and Thailand? Or to pay for the high-tech equipment and training which allow the squad access to computer ‘bulletin boards’ on which paedophiles advertise children (blond, age eight, etc) like dishes on a menu? Local teams are reactive – responding to abuse, often within the family, which has already taken place – whereas the squad is proactive. It cross-references information from numerous sources, including paedophiles: they compulsively record abuse in elaborate diaries and correspondence. ‘Ninety-nine per cent’ of squad raids yield paedophile material. Last year it netted more than 54,000 videos and 200 convictions under the Child Protection Act. The average paedophile will hurt 200 children before being convicted. That speaks volumes about children’s fear of speaking up and of a legal system which aggressively trashes them as unreliable witnesses. Only a shocking two per cent of child-abuse allegations result in convictions. The photographic proof of a man’s paedophilia spares children from giving evidence. Several specialist police units currently face abolition, but many appear safe, including the Stolen Car Squad.

Doesn’t a child deserve as much protection as a Ford Sierra? They don’t cry when stolen or flinch in court. Surely our children deserve more than this?

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