TV as judge and executioner

BBC2's Hunt for Britain’s Paedophiles was a sordid show.

For some years, critics have commented that the trend in ‘reality TV’ will end with someone being killed for public entertainment. Strangely, when it did happen on British TV last Thursday night, nobody commented.

The three-part BBC2 series The Hunt for Britain’s Paedophiles is so ghoulish that even champions of the child-protection industry have avoided comment. The series has regaled the public with barely disguised child pornography with such relish that it is difficult to see the difference between the emotional charge of outrage or titillation the filmmakers are trying to provoke. But they saved the best till last.

Joining a police raid on a sex offender, the BBC was thrilled that ferret-keeper Mark Hansen allowed them to film him in situ while his overstuffed council flat was turned upside down. To the filmmakers’ delight, Hansen spoke frankly about his perverse compulsion and his life of prison terms punctuated by police surveillance.

All parties concerned adopted the cod-psychology of sex-offender treatment, with its central proposition that offenders are not in control of their urges. Hansen admitted what he did was wrong, but claimed that he couldn’t help himself. The police reduced the proposition to cliché: ‘The leopard doesn’t change his spots.’ Only later did one inspector complain that if the offender can’t help himself, are they supposed to provide a paedophile support group?

But is there really a social type called ‘paedophile’, who is driven by irresistible psychological drives to commit sexual offences? Surely it is wrong to speak of ‘a paedophile’, but rather of someone who commits the act of paedophilia. It is an act of moral depravity, no doubt, but the desire to cordon off the paedophile wing of society, just as we have the sex offenders’ wing of the prison, is a way of reaching for moral absolutes in an age where there are few to be found.

Are certain people hardwired to commit sex offences against young children? UK Home Office research on reconviction rates has indicated that sex offenders as a whole are less likely to reoffend than other kinds of offenders, and that reconviction of sex offenders aged over 30 is ‘exceptionally low’ (1).

Despite the level of public anxiety over the crime, it remains exceptionally rare - with around 900 charges under crimes specifically dealing with sexual offences against children, and perhaps 1000 more acts against children dealt with under other sexual offences. The majority of these offences are one-offs committed by family members or people the children know - while, by the Home Office’s admission, there are only a ‘handful’ of the kind of predatory paedophiles that the BBC has focused on.

But watching The Hunt for Britain’s Paedophiles, there was something unnerving about Hansen’s openness. Even in the age of reality TV you might expect a greater sense of self-preservation. The follow-up to the interview came the next day, when it was reported that he had killed himself that night, rather than face another prison term - and, presumably, the shame attached to the broadcast of the interview.

The BBC took his suicide note as consent to broadcast, while the inspector said that ‘the streets are safer’. What is he suggesting - death sentences for child pornographers? In the end it was not the gameshows that offered the public humiliation and suicide of a participant as public entertainment, but a ‘serious’ documentary.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

Read on:

Back to the asylum, by Jennie Bristow

Are you the one in four?, by Sandy Starr

There is no masculinity crisis, by James Heartfield, in Genders

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Home Office, 1994

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