The return of the paedophile panic
By granting people access to info about sex offenders, the Home Office is institutionalising fear of adults and paranoia about ‘the mob’.
They are at it again, it seems, both frightening children and terrifying parents. That’s right, the New Labour government has once more stoked the fires of the paedophile panic. Parents, it has announced, will be able to enquire whether a new friend, partner or colleague is a paedophile – a measure which is likely to nurture fear and paranoia in the UK.
First came the Sex Offenders Register in 1997. Currently listing around 29,000 people, from children who’ve groped other children, teachers who’ve had liaisons with students, to those who’ve sexually abused young children, it is an unwieldy, indiscriminate testament to the special place the child sex offender occupies in the contemporary imagination (1). Its effect has been profound. The sex offender has now been officially distinguished as a breed of criminal apart, one that requires constant monitoring and house visits. Unlike others who have broken the law, the sex offender is forever stained by his offence, a subject of endless control. For the public the paedophile has become an everyday nightmare; a faceless threat living amongst us, but not like us – the enemy within. Seen in this way, it’s not surprising that since the compilation of the Sex Offenders Register, there have been periodic attempts to have its listed names made publicly available.
On Sunday came something of a breakthrough in this regard. UK home secretary Jacqui Smith finally announced that parents will be able to enquire if a new partner or a ‘named individual’ – for example someone coming into regular contact with their child, like a relative or a neighbour – possesses any convictions for child sex offences (2). This doesn’t mean they will receive an answer exactly. Rather, the police will then decide what information to disclose depending on whether they believe that the specified individual poses a risk. Such a move, coming on the back of last summer’s Home Office Review of the Protection of Children from Sex Offenders, has been hailed by some as a major step on the way to putting ‘Sarah’s law’ in place (3).
‘Sarah’s law’, named after Sarah Payne, the eight-year-old girl murdered by convicted child molester Roy Whiting in 2000, is about giving parents access to information about sex offenders: their whereabouts, their crimes, their threat level. It would be the UK equivalent of ‘Megan’s law’, itself alluding to the case of Jesse Timmendequas, a convicted sex offender, who killed seven-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. The revulsion to Timmendequas’s crime was such that 50 US states eventually passed Megan’s law; that is, they began to grant free public access to information on the history and location of high-risk sex offenders.
Yet while the Home Office’s new measures do not amount to the full ‘community-wide disclosure’ that Sarah’s law campaigners advocate, and which Megan’s law encapsculates, its new measures do suggest that it’s perfectly sensible to suspect a new boyfriend or a grandparent of being a paedophile. In this sense, the new powers do achieve one unwitting objective of ‘Megan’s law’ – they institutionalise a fear of others. More specifically, they actively encourage parents to view every other adult as a potential threat to their child. Not to do so could almost be viewed as a dereliction of parental duty. Just as the Sex Offenders Register exists as a permanent warning to the nation that there are evil people out there, so the invitation to inquire about our friends, relatives and colleagues – to check whether they are paedophiles – nurtures fear and finger-pointing. The Home Office is creating a climate of suspicion and spying on the back of the already overblown paedophile panic; every adult is invited to see other adults as potentially wierd and dangerous.
In not quite going so far as Megan’s law, as the Sarah’s law campaigners are demanding, the Home Office could be nurturing paranoia, too. Instead of granting community-wide and publicly available disclosure of offenders’ whereabouts, the Home Office is leaving disclosure to the discretion of the police and probation services. Far from making the new measures a more ‘acceptable’ version of Megan’s law, this is likely to make people ask: ‘What if the police are withholding something that I should know?’ On the parent’s side, this sense of the unknown provides a perfect climate in which to imagine the worst of everyone, despite the assurances of the authorities.
Many of the supporters of the Home Office’s new measures, be it the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnado’s or various commentators, seem pleased that it has stopped short of Megan’s law. They are relieved that there will not be full disclosure of offenders’ whereabouts because apparently this might give rise to outbursts of anti-paedophile lynch mobs and vigilantism. On one hand, we have the government institutionalising fear of adults who come into contact with children – on the other hand, charities and opinion-formers spread fear about out-of-control communities that might use the disclosed information to run riot and burn people’s homes down.
Indeed, by not going as far as full disclosure, the Home Office itself evinces a distrust of the public that is all too typical of today’s estranged political elite. As Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnado’s, a supporter of the new measures, argued, full disclosure might ‘drive paedophiles underground’, making them near impossible to monitor. Why would this happen? Because the public, apparently infused by the irrational fervour of the mob, would hound them with threats of bloody and brutal revenge.
Yet as spiked‘s editor Brendan O’Neill argued in relation to the semi-apocryphal tale of a mob hounding a paediatrician in Gwent, South Wales in 2000, stories of rampant vigilantism are frequently exaggerated, and are used to justify a particularly patronising attitude to the public. In a report for BBC News Online, O’Neill wrote: ‘The irony is that some in the media, in challenging the scaremongering over sex offenders, indulge in some scaremongering of their own. They raise fears about violent tabloid-reading protesters who will attack, hound and destroy a paediatrician – which seem to be just as unfounded as the fears about thousands of paedophiles stalking the land.’ (See Whispering game, BBC News.) Deemed incapable of handling the full story without erupting into a seething, ignorant mass of hate, the public can only be given what the authorities deem to be a safe amount of information. At the same time as fomenting and institutionalising suspicion of others, the partial nature of these measures confirm the political elite’s disparaging attitude towards an unpredictable public.
The real story here has little to do with paedophiles or their purported lynchers. It has to do with a government so short of popular support that it’ll fasten on to anything it believes the public agrees upon. Hence Jacqui Smith’s self-regarding congratulations in yesterday’s Sun newspaper: ‘I congratulate The Sun and its readers for campaigning on this issue.’ (4) And what could be better than the ready-made solidarity of the good fight against the paedophile menace? After all, you’ll not find many people coming out in support of child abuse.
The political exploitation of fear and the accompanying moral grandstanding are the key problems in the paedophile panic. As a result, a prevailing fear of other adults, indeed, of adults’ intentions towards children, will be further exacerbated by the new measures. While these measures are likely to prove ineffective when it comes to protecting the small numbers of children who are at genuine risk, they will succeed in one aspect: they will give the interminable hunt for the paedophile in our midst legal sanction. The Home Office has not demonstrated that Britain really is at risk from marauding paedophiles or thick, rampant communities – but it has, once again, shown its dislocation from and distrust of the British public, and its political opportunism.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Mick Hume urged us to stop obsessing over paedophiles. Elsewhere, he explored the politics of a paedophile panic and discussed the demands for Sarah’s Law. Rob Lyons discussed the controversial screening of Brass Eye and asked whether it was time to tear up the Sex Offenders Register. Barbara Hewson discussed fetishising images in law. Or read more at spiked-issue Risk
(1)Q & A: the Sex Offenders Register, Guardian, 18 January 2006
(2)Parents get new sex crime checks, BBC News, 17 February 2008
(3) For the Home Office’s Review of the Protection of of Children from Sex Offenders download a pdf here
(4) Finally, an end to evil secrets, The Sun, 18 February 2008
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