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Tuesday, June 20, 2006 

Welcome to paedogeddon.

Back in those halcyon days of 2001 before the whole world fell apart, the spoof documentary show Brass Eye returned for a one-off special dealing with paedophilia and the media hysteria surrounding it. In 2000 the "newspaper" the News of the World, alongside its campaign for a law to be drawn up allowing parents to be informed when a sex offender moved into their area, "named and shamed" known paedophiles. The government at the time managed to persuade the newspaper that such methods were counter-productive. While the satire in the resultant show, obviously influenced by the hysteria of the Screws was a lot broader and less humourous than that which had been in the previous series shown in 1997, it resulted in a predictable furore, which was what the makers of the show knew would happen and wanted. Ministers queued up to denounce the show despite not watching it (Home Secretary David Blunkett criticised it, despite definitely not being able to view it) and even the Guardian suggested that the show had gone too far.

5 years later, and we've learned nothing. Following last week's attacks on judges in the Sun newspaper, and the resultant anger after a judge followed the "formula" which meant a paedophile who was given a life sentence could be freed after 5 years, John Reid gave in to 6 years of campaigning from the News of the World. Alongside its report that hostels which held offenders near schools were apparently full of slobbering sex offenders waiting to pick up kids on their lunch hour, it showered praise on Reid, who has decided to look into how a "Megan's law" (the campaign for similar legislation in the UK has been renamed Sarah's law, after the schoolgirl, surname Payne, murdered by paedophile Roy Whiting), the legislation enacted in America following the rape and murder of Megan Kanka, would work over here. He's therefore decided to send the prisons minister for a summer holiday (surely fact finding trip? Ed.) to America.

Not all is well though with the government's apparent capitulation to the agenda of certain tabloid newspapers. One brave police officer, the chief constable of Dyfed and Powys, Terry Grange, no doubt soon to be christened as a politically correct lunatic, told Radio 4 that:
"The last three years has been a litany of abandonment of any real strategic design in the Home Office in the management of sex offenders, in favour of trying to find out what one particular tabloid newspaper wants and then complying with their wishes."
Which is a bit over the top. The real rush to find out what the tabloids want has been since the beginning of this year, as scandal after scandal has rocked the Labour party. Grange then added:
"Anybody who has watched the last six months in all forms of the debate on public protection, whether it's our own home-grown criminals, foreign criminals, the immigration and nationality department, sex offenders, violent offender orders - one of my favourite on-the-hoof policies - all brought about by the media putting pressure on the government and the government responding.
He certainly has a point. We only have to look back on the last 2 weeks to witness how the government has responded to a tabloid campaign. With most attention being on the World Cup, there hasn't been much hard political news. In the resultant vacuum, the Sun launched its shameful attacks on judges for being "soft". Just hours after the paper had hit doorsteps across the country, John Reid had decided to write to the Attorney General over the sentence given to Craig Sweeney. It seems unlikely that the two things are unrelated. As the Sun built up the storm further with more outraged and distorted editorials, the reality became clear: that judges are getting harsher, that life sentences are getting longer and that because of the constant crack-downs the prison population is close to bursting point. Despite this, with the News of the World breaking its story that sex offenders were being kept in hostels near schools, John Reid, apparently determined to be the worst in a long line of bad home secretaries, decided that "Sarah's law" is worth a look after all.

All of this is resultant of a constant barrage of tabloid headlines about human rights laws favouring criminals, that our police are in the apparent clutches of a bunch of polticially correct idiots who couldn't run a tap, and that the criminal justice system is collapsing around our eyes. None of which is true, but it sure makes for something to moan about as the red-top tabloids continue to haemorrhage sales. In the last ABC figures, it was only the Sun and Daily Mirror that were losing readers (The Financial Times was also down, but the FT has long sold the majority of its copies outside the UK). Almost every other newspaper for a change had increased its sales. Labour's response to this has not been to criticise the agenda of certain newspapers, or to question whether they're right or not. Instead it has been to take their criticism on board. After all, the tabloids don't just do whatever the editor or proprietor wants; they do what their readers want, and they're reflecting their views. Or that's at least what their argument is. Blair's spokesman, in response to Grange said:
"I'm not aware of the law which says it's wrong to reply to a media organisation's questions... There's nothing wrong in meeting representatives of the press.
Well no, there certainly isn't. It's just strange that after six years of disagreeing with the way the News of the World has demanded that paedophiles be revealed that suddenly John Reid thinks that it might be worth a go. After all, Beverly Hughes back in 2001 said:
it was "unworkable" because "it drives offenders to ground".
80% of sex offenders comply with their orders in the US following Megan's law, compared with 97% in the UK. At the moment, MAPPA, which monitors sex offenders in the community, decides on a case to case basis whether parents and schools should be notified when a sex offender moves into their area. Their hard (and good work, which goes unnoticed, it has to be said) graft is being undermined by ministers who give in to the whims of the tabloids for short-term political gain. This is what Labour is now desperate for. The polls have gone against them in favour of the Tories now for 6 months, and the debacle surrounding the Home Office has been a huge reason for it. The party's response has been to ask a load of leading questions under its hideously monikered "Let's Talk" iniative, handled by the similarly unlikeable Blairite robot Hazel Blears.

There's no doubting that there is public unrest about the criminal justice system in some cases, especially about the foreign criminals wrongly released without being deported. The rules regarding guilty pleas and the resultant reduction in sentences also need to be looked into again. What has been happening instead has been the knee-jerk reactions of a party which is already looking forward to years in opposition, probably to rebrand itself as New New Labour. When a judge breaks his silence to talk openly, itself a very rare occurrence, and is especially forthright about the attacks on his colleagues, by politicians and newspapers alike, there has to be something wrong with the current atmosphere. Everyone needs to step back, examine what will actually work as opposed to being a quick fix that will please newspapers that were formally supporters of the government, and then decide how to proceed. More new laws and more new initiatives will only make the public more cynical, and they will be right to be.

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Ah, wish I'd seen this first. I'm working on a webcomic stripblog which has a few chapters on this matter. I was hoping to get your permission to include a screen capture of a few lines from The Hounding of Colin Stagg article in the mix. Url reference included. Drop me a line if you have doubts and I'll provide you with more details. - drew dot luke at gmail dotcom. (The blogspot is dont-get-lost)

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