At the time, assurances were given that this measure would not criminalize parents who took innocent photos of their children, such as at bath time or on the beach. However, this reassurance proved to be worthless when the newsreader Julia Somerville, and her partner, were questioned by police about photos of one of her young children in the bath that had been sent for processing. The case attracted a large amount of media attention, much of it critical of the police action and, probably because of the adverse publicity, no charges were brought. However, the suspicion was raised that this might be due to Somerville’s high public profile and liberal credentials, and that ordinary families, in the same situation, could have found themselves in court with potentially serious consequences, as a prosecution, let alone a conviction, could well have resulted in their children being taken into care.
As a consequence of the growing paedophile hysteria the penalties for the possession of the worst kinds of such degrading and depraved material have increased considerably. Until the arrival of the internet convictions were very low, probably due to the difficulty and risks involved. However, the growth of the internet has considerably increased the availability and transmission of child pornography.
Over 7000 UK men who accessed what was claimed to be an American child porn site were identified by their credit card number and their details passed on to British police. One of those identified was the well-known rock guitarist, Pete Townshend. In a highly publicised media event, nearly a dozen police officers were considered necessary to take him into custody and to remove his computers for analysis. Townshend claimed that he only accessed the site for 'research purposes' and, in the end, he accepted a caution. However, over thirty men in a similar position had been driven to suicide and thousands more families destroyed. It has since emerged, to almost no publicity, that the web portal in question also hosted many adult pornographic sites, and that the credit card details for both the adult and child porn sites were combined. Thus many of the men, who were pressurised into accepting a caution by police, as an alternative to the publicity of a court case, may well have been innocent. Anyone accepting a caution for this kind of offence is automatically placed on the sex offenders register.
Regrettably, the laws on this subject are both vague and all embracing since child pornography is not specifically defined as such in legislation. Instead it is an offence to possess or make an 'indecent' image of a child, and for sentencing purposes this material has been graded on a scale from 1-3. Grade 1, the lowest, consists of 'erotic posing'; only the two higher grades involve any kind of sexual activity. The higher the grade, and the younger the child, the more severe are the penalties.
These days, virtually all cases of 'possessing' or 'making' indecent images of children are those found on computer hard drives or electronic storage devices. Images are automatically saved by personal computers, so viewing an indecent image of a child will 'make' the image on the computer hard drive and an offence is committed. A person (in reality only men are likely to be targeted) does not have to deliberately save such an image to be charged, or even to know how to access it. A 'child' is defined as a person below the age of eighteen. Thus anybody who has viewed an 'erotic pose' of a seventeen year old via a computer will have committed an offence, and so will be deemed by the authorities to be a paedophile, and thus a threat to all children. The minimum penalty for this offence is a police caution, acceptance of which will automatically place the individual on the sex offenders register. The maximum penalty is many years in jail, despite no sexual activity having taken place by the male offender.
Any man placed on the register will automatically lose his job if he works with children, and all those with children will be subject to investigation by the social services with the risk that their children may be removed. 'Erotic posing' does not involve any sexual activity or, in the phrase favoured by children’s charities, 'child abuse'. It is reasonable to assume that 100% of adult men are physically attracted to good looking seventeen year olds. So the law has turned them all into paedophiles – but does this mean that they are all monsters as the tabloid newspapers would have us believe? Children’s charities, the tabloid media and the police exaggerate the scale and nature of the problem, by deliberately conflating sexual activity images with relatively innocent or non-abusive pictures that are legally available in most other Western countries.
Viewing genuine child pornography, however vile, does not in itself drive demand unless payment has been made. Paying for such material in Britain is now impossible, due to the near certainty of detection. You do not necessarily have to be a paedophile to view child pornography, the vast majority who do so are likely to be just curious. The notion that those who view it are all child molesters is as ludicrous as suggesting that all those who view adult pornography are rapists. Drivers who exceed the speed limit in towns present a massively greater threat to children than those who view child pornography, yet there are no demands to imprison all such motorists.
Demand for child pornography can be effectively controlled. Broadband providers can block such sites, credit card companies can prohibit payments and the Internet Watch Foundation can proactively or reactively take action against it. The trawling of computer hard drives, and searching homes, for child pornography is a massive waste of scarce police time that might be better spent targeting real child molesters and other serious criminals, as well as a grotesque interference in individual privacy and liberty.
In the circumstances it must be asked whether it is proportionate for the State to invade citizens’ privacy by tracking down such material. No genuine child pornography sites operate in Britain (other than those operated by the police for entrapment). Present laws on child pornography risk criminalising any adult male with a computer, since with the widespread threat from malware, nobody can be certain of what is on their computer or whether it might be illegal. Those obsessive and sometimes unhinged males stridently advocating severe penalties against those caught with this material are in effect turkeys voting for Christmas. All men should wake up to the threat to their civil liberties, and potential harassment by the authorities, with which they may be faced by current child pornography legislation and the blind zeal that accompanies it.