(This is 1,705 words. Just so you know.)
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. It isn't the Daily Mail's motto, unofficial or otherwise, but it easily could be. Perhaps though, in line with the Mail's sudden shock finding that paedophilia wasn't universally viewed with the same disgust as it is now back in the 70s, when the National Council for Civil Liberties had an extremely ill-advised sort of affiliation with the Paedophile Information Exchange, it could just as well be a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
That the NCCL, now Liberty, had links with PIE has been known since, err, it had links with them. It is not a startling new discovery. Indeed, not a single aspect of the Mail's investigation and its corresponding attacks on Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey (husband of Harman) and Patricia Hewitt, all leading members of the NCCL during the period when PIE was affiliated, is based on new information. I'm certain that there have been newspaper articles pointing this out on occasion in the past, pieces which have attracted a slight amount of attention and then been forgotten about. It's not a proud period in Liberty's history by any means, and it's one which current head Shami Chakrabarti has apologised for.
This said, and despite how it sounds like an excuse and a cop out, it has to be remembered that it was a different era. As the proposed changes to the law that Harriet Harman lobbied on make clear, up until this point it had not been a specific offence to take or make indecent images of children, although to an extent this would have been covered under other laws, such as the Obscene Publications Act. As we've been rather forced to acknowledge over the past couple of years, the 70s was the in-between decade, a period where the new freedoms and excesses of the 60s continued to an extent, not least in those few European nations which legalised possession of all types of pornography, even if the production remained unlawful, just not necessarily cracked down upon. It also wasn't unusual for "mainstream" European adult magazines of the period to feature post-pubescent girls under the age of 16, not surprising when the age of consent in the country of origin often was (and in some cases remains) under 16. By contrast, and as Harman in her paper quotes, the judge in the Oz trial defined indecent as a woman taking her clothes off on the beach in front of someone else's children, or athletes wearing clothing which didn't fit properly. Harman was writing only 17 years on from the Lady Chatterley trial, and a year and six months after the Sex Pistols and Bill Grundy had their tete-a-tete. Views on what was and wasn't filth were polarised far beyond what they are today, even by the Daily Mail's maiden aunt standards.
The Mail's fundamental problem with its claims, especially against Harman, is that they've produced the evidence against her in full and it doesn't stack up. Her paper's main suggestion is that images of naked children should not be held to be indecent unless it can either be proved or inferred from the photograph that harm to the child has taken place as a result. This sounds potentially outrageous, but in actuality this isn't far off from the test the authorities now have to apply when prosecuting those who have the lowest category of child abuse images in their possession, I.e. those where the child is naked and is posing in a manner considered to be erotic (see the controversy over Klara and Eddy Belly Dancing for instance). Harman's proposed amendment would have clearly left it up to the police and CPS and in turn judge and jury to decide whether or not a specific image or images were indecent. Her main justification was that parents could be prosecuted for taking such pictures when they had no malign intentions, something it was felt was possible under a new law. About the worst allegation that can be thrown at her is she was being naive, and that paedophiles would quickly exploit such grey areas. There is no evidence she was influenced in any way by NCCL's association with PIE, and the lobbying did not lead to the law being changed in the way she proposed.
Far more questionable is the NCCL's submission to the government on the age of consent, not signed but sent when both Dromey and Hewitt were with the organisation in 1976. While the Mail seems almost as upset about the proposal that it should be 14 instead of 16 (the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16 in 1885, so has never been set in stone, and while 16 seems a good middle ground between 14 and 18 to me, other Europeans nations continue to think differently), the real problem is that while it suggests that those under 10 cannot consent in any circumstances, in cases where those between 10 and 14 have sex with an older partner it should be considered that consent "was not present, unless it is demonstrated that it was genuinely given and that the child understood the nature of the act". The law as it currently stands holds that children under 13 cannot consent in any circumstances, and if the other person involved is over 18, then the act is defined in law as rape regardless of what the child felt. The NCCL's suggestion might not have quite been a licence for abuse, as the onus would still have fell on the older partner to prove the child understood and had given consent, but it most certainly would be a substantial dilution of the protection we have in force today.
Again though, the NCCL's submission did not win government support, and there is no evidence suggesting it was influenced by PIE. The other claims against the three Labour grandees is that the NCCL's association with PIE amounted to apologia or validation, in 1975 complaining to the Press Council about coverage of the group, describing it in their annual report as a "campaigning/counselling group for adults sexually attracted to children", which seems to be before the NCCL was properly aware that PIE was more than that; and that as late as 1982 the NCCL's newsletter carried a missive from a self-confessed paedophile defending himself. Clearly, newspapers and magazines have never published letters from those whose views they vehemently disagree with. One of the founders of PIE, Tom O'Carroll, was subsequently jailed for "conspiring to corrupt public morals" (and continues to promote sexual relationships between children and adults as being entirely normal), with Hewitt later writing that "[C]onspiring to corrupt public morals is an offence incapable of definition or precise proof", the Mail finding this especially damning. Except as Harriet Harman's paper makes clear, this is almost a direct lift from Roy Jenkins, who said something remarkably similar about defining "indecency". The other allegations the Mail makes, that the NCCL's submission to the Criminal Law Commission called for the decriminalisation of incest and also claimed that "[C]hildhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage", don't seem as yet to be supported by posted documents.
What though does any of this matter nearly 40 years on, and when so much has been known for so long? The obvious reason is that paedophilia is so despicable and beyond the pale that regardless of the passage of time, just the connection with a group like PIE is still to be regretted and apologised for. That the NCCL allowed anyone to affiliate and didn't at the time have a mechanism for expelling such groups isn't an adequate explanation, and indeed, it does seem as though there was a certain amount of sympathy within the NCCL towards PIE if only briefly, and then due to its stated mission as being to counsel those who found themselves sexually attracted to children. Some within the NCCL may have been more involved, as the Telegraph has reported. In part however it also seems to be about simple revenge and glee at finding three well known politically correct right-on Labour figures didn't condemn paedophiles on sight, regardless of how long ago it was, especially when the left has been so quick to pounce on the past allegiances of Tories or horror of horrors, the Mail's own history. Add in the typical Mail rage at how the BBC didn't address the topic until Ed Miliband did, and it all seems wearingly familiar. That perhaps they didn't cover it immediately as a direct consequence of being so badly burnt over Lord McAlpine doesn't seem to have entered their thinking.
It would matter more if there was even the slightest indication the three held such views at the time, which again there is no evidence that they did, let alone if they had then carried such opinions with them into the Labour party and then parliament. The fact is that they didn't, as Nick Cohen points out. While Harriet Harman has been right to express regret today, something she didn't do in her Newsnight interview last night, she has been right not to apologise, as she has nothing to apologise for. Whether perhaps Dromey or Hewitt do is more nuanced, considering their potential involvement with the age of consent submission and more besides, but again it needs to be stated that there are plenty of political figures who held opinions or which they even acted upon years ago they would now regret. Bringing Jimmy Savile into it, as the Mail attempted to, is a nonsense. They didn't validate Savile, just as the Mail and the rest of the media do not bear responsibility for failing to expose him while he was alive. Despite the criticism of the lack of response, if anything it's Patricia Hewitt's silence that seems vindicated. Reacting to the Mail just encourages it and convinces Paul Dacre that he was right. The real reason the rest of the media ignored the reports at first is there simply isn't any evidence of anything other than naivety. And if there's one thing that the Mail can't be accused of, it's precisely that.
Labels: Daily Mail, Harriet Harman, Labour, Liberty, Mail-watch, media analysis, media coverage, Paedophile Information Exchange, paedophilia, Paul Dacre, scandals