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Distressing trip into the heart of human darkness


Stephen McGinty

Warning: This review contains sentences that some readers may find disturbing. As Police Protecting Children began, so should this article, for it is impossible to discuss the effects of last nights 90-minute documentary, the first in a trilogy, without describing its content and its content was deeply upsetting.

Two years ago the FBI arrested Thomas and Janice Reedy, a Texas couple who operated a website called Landslide which served as a gateway to child pornography obtained and posted on the internet by both a Russian and Indonesian webmaster. For $29.95 subscribers across the globe could use Landslide to enter a horrific world where children were raped, sodomised, bound up and beaten, all for the sexual delight of a global audience that is expanding tenfold each year. The tag-line on the site read: "Just Pre-Teen Hardcore!!! Nothing Else!!! No Bullshit!"

The pictures, as you can imagine - if you missed it, perhaps you should not - were so much worse. Thick black blocks screened the worst and protected the BBC from prosecution under the Protection of Children Act 1978, but what remained visible was vile. In Britain 7000 people paid their subscription fee to view - not just an obscenity, but a criminal act by credit card - and so left a paper-trail that led the Child Protection Serious Crime Squad to their door, usually early in the morning.

For 18 months film-maker Bob Long and his team accompanied the squad on their raids and while the young victims identities were obscured, the voyeurs to their pain and distress were not. So we were introduced to Gary Clement, a primary school teacher who had 13,000 images of child pornography on his computer. During his police interview we heard him explain how he had grown to hate the children in his charge and so exorcised his feelings on the internet. The worse he felt, the more extreme the image viewed. "The harder the image, the younger the child, the worse the scene that was going on."

Yet while the police arrested lawyers, accountants, company directors, TV executives etc, the greatest time on screen was given to a more minor offender: Pete Townshend. The Who guitarist had logged on to the site on three occasions, in February, July and August 2002, and paid by Barclaycard. No further evidence or downloaded pictures were discovered. He was given a formal warning and his name placed on the sex offenders register. Yet the footage of him nervously trying to crack a joke about his hearing with officers showed a desperate man. In the police interview broadcast last night he maintained his defence of researching for a campaign never launched.

The impression, however, was of a man drawn to the forbidden. "I wanted to see what was going on in the real world." What he saw, and yet what draw him back, was an early image of a baby being abused. "I think that was the worst thing I have seen. I was very disgusted and very angered by it."

What was surprising about the documentary was the consistent courtesy of the police with their suspects. A few minutes after arresting a child pornographer coming off a flight from Thailand, officer and criminal were discussing the countrys traffic problem. When Townshend thanked the duty officer for a cup of tea, he replied: "It was an honour."

Perhaps the rubber hose is pulled out after the camera crews depart, but I doubt it - if anything positive can be gleamed from this brief journey into the heart of darkness it was the dedication and professionalism of the police.

And yet Police Protecting Childrenleft one nagging doubt: what did it add to our knowledge of these perpetrators that was not already covered in Longs previous film, Hunt for Britains Paedophiles? What education did the film-makers provide that made viewing those images that linger long after the programme ended worthwhile?

The answer was too little and provided early on by a WPC referring to those arrested: "They look just like ordinary people . . . There is nothing sleazy about them . . . Its not old men in dirty macs."

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