The conviction at the Old Bailey in London of a 10-year-old boy and an 11-year-old boy for attempted rape is bad enough. That the children were convicted despite the fact that the eight-year-old defendant admitted in court that she had made up the story of her ordeal is even worse. But what was worst of all was the very public exploitation of these three children for the purposes of working out adult fantasies.
This sordid spectacle had nothing to do with justice. As the trial judge Justice Saunders acknowledged, the case would have collapsed if the defendant had been an adult, because the evidence provided by the young girl was so inconsistent. That’s another way of saying that in these proceedings, what really counted was not the evidence on offer, but adult prejudices and the imperative of sending the ‘right message’.
What makes this case particularly important is that it exposes the insidious consequences of the disintegration of adult control over children. In recent decades, parents and adults more broadly have come under tremendous pressure not to discipline children. Punishment has become a dirty word in child-rearing manuals, smacking has become stigmatised, and parents who raise their voices to their children are denounced for being ‘emotionally abusive’.
Teachers, too, face tremendous pressure to pretend that they don’t see any misbehaviour in their classrooms. They have very few effective means of disciplining youngsters. Consequently, most of the time children’s behaviour is relatively uncontained by adult behaviour. By the time they are 10 or 11, far too many children know that if they use the f-word in public or misbehave on the streets, the grown-ups around them will pretend that they heard and saw nothing.
The flipside of grown-ups’ paralysis towards containing children’s behaviour is a new reliance on formal processes to compensate for the loss of adult authority. So when the situation with a certain child appears to get out of hand, we issue an anti-social behaviour order or, as in this Old Bailey case, carry out a showtrial. Through such a showtrial, the prosecution can pretend that it is punishing individuals who are ‘criminally responsible’ rather than admitting what it is really doing: disciplining children. As is the case with all showtrials, the aim was not just to punish the so-called offenders but to send a message to a wider audience.