The politics of a paedophile panic
Why supporters and opponents of 'Sarah's Law' are as bad as one another.
It used to be said that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel. In politics today, their last resort is more likely to be a paedophile panic.
John Reid, the New Labour home secretary, has launched yet another ‘crackdown’ on child sex offenders – berating judges for handing down lenient sentences; ordering that such offenders be barred from hostels near schools after their release from prison; and indicating that the government might be willing to introduce a version of ‘Megan’s law’, the American legislation that is supposed to give the public access to information on the whereabouts of people on a sex offenders’ register.
Megan’s Law was named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka, whose parents led a campaign for the legislation after she was murdered by a convicted child molester in the 1990s. In the UK, supporters talk about introducing ‘Sarah’s Law’, since the campaign took off after the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in 2000.
That gives an idea of how long this high-profile, newspaper-sponsored campaign has been going on over here. So why has a New Labour home secretary finally signalled that the government might accept it now? Has a sudden wave of paedophile attacks by convicted offenders changed Whitehall’s collective mind? Or is there a new body of evidence to show that such measures as a Megan’s/Sarah’s Law would protect children?
No. The numbers of child murders in Britain remain as low as ever, and there is no evidence that any number of new anti-paedophile laws or PR campaigns reduces the minimal risk to children. But then, the current furore is not really about paedophiles. It is about politics.
The big difference between now and when the demand for Sarah’s Law began six years ago is the standing of the New Labour government. Back then Tony Blair’s government had its problems, but it was still in command of the agenda and approaching its landslide victory in the 2001 General Election. Today it is bereft of any clear direction, haemorrhaging support, with leading Labour members warning that the party could be out of office for the next 15 years.
It is against this background that Reid has seized upon the paedophile issue in a desperate attempt to ‘connect’ with a constituency, to show that New Labour shares the public’s concerns on one issue where everybody agrees there is a clear line between Good and Evil. Playing the populist card against an imaginary army of sex offenders at the school gates is a rare opportunity for a politician like Reid to pose as a man of the people, and have a swipe at the bewigged judges while he is at it.
It is not often we on spiked find ourselves agreeing with much that a chief police constable has to say. But Chief Constable Terry Grange of Dyfed-Powys, the child protection spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, had a point when he suggested this week that the government had ‘surrendered’ policy on child sex offenders to tabloid newspapers. ‘It is impossible to work consistently, coherently when every month or every six months there is a policy change or reaction brought about by pressure from the media…. The only people with any real strategic intent and understanding of where they want to go and the will to be ruthless in getting there is the News of the World.’
Of course one can point out that it is a bit rich for today’s PR-obsessed police chiefs to complain about anybody else fixing policy to ‘play’ well in the media, and that Grange focuses far too narrowly on the supposed power of the News of the World. But his characterisation of a government without ‘any real strategic intent’, being blown this way and that by the latest headlines, trying to surf any passing popular wave however low it might go, rings true. It gets closer to explaining New Labour’s apparent change of heart on Sarah’s Law than anything that has happened to do with child sex offenders.
Whatever one thinks about the best way to deal with the handful of predatory paedophiles in our society, the sort of stunts that Reid and Co are indulging in are worse than useless. They will have no effect on the rare cases that hit the headlines, such as the abduction and sexual assault of a three-year-old girl in Wales by a convicted child sex offender who was known to the girl’s family. But such high-profile measures will have an impact in further cranking up public fears and anxieties about child safety.
In the process these legal gestures also risk sweeping away important principles of criminal justice, such as the notion that people are punished for what they do, not what they might do or even fantasise about doing in the future; or that criminals who have served their time are considered to have, in the traditional phrase, ‘paid their debt to society’. If these principles are no longer to apply to those convicted of sex offences, what about others? Why not a public register of convicted murderers, drug dealers, drunk drivers or wife beaters in our communities?
But if the government is guilty of grandstanding, preying on prejudice and panic-mongering for political gain, and painting a picture of a poisonous society where no child is safe, then so too are its opponents. The arguments being put forward by opposition politicians and police chiefs against introducing a version of Sarah’s Law are just as weighed down with fear and toxic ideas about the human condition. Rather than an alternative to scaremongering, they offer an alternative school of it.
One former chief constable who is now the vice-president of NACRO, the charity that deals with the rehabilitation of offenders, spoke for many when he argued that ‘if we make very public where particular well-known sex offenders are, we divert attention from people who could pose a much greater risk’. The greater-risk people he had in mind were a child’s family members, friends and neighbours. Where the government plays to fears about stranger danger in our parks and playgrounds, its opponents harp on about the alleged dangers that lurk behind the closed doors of family homes – if anything, an even more poisonous message.
For their part, opposition politicians have emphasised the supposed dangers of a Sarah’s Law-type public register giving rise to ‘mob rule’, or ‘vigilante law’, as the public goes on an anti-paedophile pogrom. This contemptuous view of ‘ordinary people’ as a mindless hate-mob is usually supported with only one piece of ‘evidence’: the story of a paediatrician in Wales who had ‘Paedo’ daubed on her door, a tale which, as my spiked colleague Brendan O’Neill has previously exposed on BBC News Online, has been exaggerated and distorted beyond recognition (see Whispering game, by Brendan O’Neill).
These shrill warnings about hypothetical lynch-mobs on housing estates also ignore the hard fact that the paedophile panics of recent years have been launched and sustained from the top of society downwards. Everybody from the Home Office to the BBC and the NSPCC to radical feminists has repeatedly pumped out the same messages about our children potentially being at risk of sexual, physical and emotional abuse from their parents, carers, and every other adult. Then these self-righteous self-appointed guardians of what’s good for the kiddies recoil in horror when a newspaper or a parents’ campaign takes their warnings seriously and demands yet more action.
As I have argued before on spiked, after the conviction of Sarah Payne’s murderer in 2001 put the campaign in the headlines, ‘Sarah’s Law can’t protect us from fear’. Nor could a law protect us from politicians and others prepared to stoop so low to exploit our most basic concerns.
There will be no winners from this messy, tired panic. Every time the government introduces a new crackdown on child sex offenders, it will only give rise to demands for yet more, fronted by a haunted victim’s mother. Yet there are likely to be plenty of losers. Paedophile panics risk damaging everything they touch, from the criminal justice system to public trust and intelligent debate. Nor do they offer any respite to the relatively small numbers of real victims, whose ordeal can only be made worse by endless public scrutiny and pronouncements that their lives have been ruined. As for the millions of children who will never experience this sort of abuse, the current climate risks sentencing them all to a life of mistrust and insecurity.
We are witnessing the politics of the jailhouse, where everybody seeks to demonstrate that, whatever else they might have done, they are on the side of Good against the threat posed by Evil perverts. Some of us have argued since the morbid obsession with child abuse escalated almost 20 years ago that fear itself is the greatest threat to our children’s future in a free society. This is no time to be put off that argument by the emotive words of a young victim’s mother, or those who would use her as a human shield.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.