In comparison to the past, children today are relatively safe. During the years 1983-93, 57 children were killed by strangers in the UK - an average of five a year... when one considers that there are 12 million children in the UK, the risk of murder by a stranger is statistically negligible.
- F Furedi, Culture Of Fear, 1997
The majority of all children countable under the Harm Standard1 (78%) were maltreated by their birth parents, and this held true both for children who were abused (62% were maltreated by birth parents) and for those who were neglected (91% experienced neglect by birth parents).
- US Department of Health Survey, September 1996
This is the story of one of the most controversial 'controversial' moments of 2001 in the UK. It is a story of provocation, stupidity, deceit, bravery and laughter. It is the story of the Brass Eye Paedophile Special.
The UK's fourth television channel, Channel 4, is a publicly-owned broadcaster whose remit includes the provision of innovative and challenging programmes. It gave a platform to a satirist called Chris Morris2, who made several episodes of Brass Eye. Brass Eye was a parody of the schlock, sensationalist documentaries that have grown in popularity in recent years. Each episode would tackle an issue in British life: drugs, sex, animals, science, crime and social decline. On 26 July, 2001, to celebrate the series' repeat showing, came the most controversial episode yet... the one-off Paedophile Special.
In recent years, the concept of the lone, predatory paedophile has become a cause of great concern in the UK. This concern came to a head with the abduction and murder of Sarah Payne, a very young girl who was out playing with her brother. The media were outraged and the editors of one tabloid, The News of the World, took it upon themselves to publish the names, pictures and addresses of known paedophiles. Almost immediately, vigilante groups attacked these people, and protest marches were held around their houses. In the hysteria, innocent people were mistaken for paedophiles and in one incident a paediatrician had graffiti sprayed over her house by youths3. The simple fact that most child abuse occurs at the hands of relatives in the home has largely been ignored. Another factor not widely considered is the tabloids' own propensity for using titillation and stories of celebrity sex as a staple of their content. The question of how such organisations can consider themselves moral barometers is a valid one, and one that is rarely raised in open fora.
As always, the programme took the form of a spoof documentary. In Channel 4's own words, there were five fundamental themes:
- Media hysteria
- Sexualisation of children
- Media hypocrisy
- Public debate
The programme makers approached 315 public figures and invited them to take part in promoting a paedophile awareness campaign. This campaign was a set-up. They were asked to read scripts containing ludicrous assertions, including:
Internet paedophiles can project poison gas through a child's keyboard using the new HOECS4 system.
Paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than humans.
'Trust Me Trousers', which were inflated to hide a paedophile's erection.
Supporting a group called 'Nonce5 Sense'.
Amazingly, several celebrities fell for it and happily regurgitated this rubbish for the camera. These people included:
- Phil Collins - Musician
- Gary Lineker - BBC sports presenter
- Phillipa Forrester - BBC science presenter
- Barbara Follett MP - Member of Parliament
- Syd Rapson MP - Member of Parliament
- Richard Blackwood - Comedian
- Neil Fox - DJ
The programme contained a sequence depicting a child pageant in the United States, with concerned parents discussing plastic surgery to help their girl win. Paedophiles were presented as garish monsters with increasingly silly methods of attack. At one point, a paedophile was shown disguised as a school, and an amputee paedophile was shown acquiring artificial limbs to become 'Robo Peado'. In another sequence, a paedophile newly-released from jail was burned alive in a wicker phallus by a vigilante hate mob. The hate mob also killed a man called 'Peter File', but apparently this was entirely his own fault for having a silly name.
Online paedophiles can actually make your keyboard release toxic vapours that actually make you more suggestible... (He sniffs his keyboard) ...now I actually feel more suggestible. And that was just from one sniff.
- Richard Blackwood
That is scientific fact. There is no real evidence for it, but it's scientific fact.
- Neil Fox
Reactions were extreme, to say the least. The tabloid newspapers, led by The Daily Mail, were up in arms. The Daily Mail called it 'the sickest TV show ever'. It also showed several still photos from a single five-second clip and appeared to pass them off as representative. Chris Morris was widely lambasted and he was probably wise to be out of the country when the programme was broadcast. Channel 4 repeated the programme the following day, 27 July, 2001, and this only served to upset the tabloids even more (which may well have been the intention).
TV watchdogs the Independent Television Commission (ITC) and the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) were inundated with complaints, which the tabloid newspapers reported with glee. They also, however, received a record number of supportive messages, which weren't so prominently reported. The final tally was:
ITC - Complaints: 1000+ against Support: 750+
BSC - Complaints: 213 against Support: 179
This is obviously a lot less clear-cut than the tabloids might have thought, although it was noticeable that The Sun, in particular, softened its stance on the issue. The Commissions' reports will be discussed later.
For the most part, the broadsheet newspapers reported the programme as funny and provocative, and noted with some amusement that the tabloid reaction was very close in nature to the original parody.
Some of the most ridiculed reactions came from the Government. A number of Ministers released statements of condemnation without having seen the programme. This roll of shame included:
- David Blunkett (glossing over the question of how a blind man can talk sensibly about images on a TV screen) - Home Secretary
- Tessa Jowell - Culture Secretary
- Beverly Hughes - Parliamentary Undersecretary of State, Home Office.
The Culture Secretary contacted the head of the ITC directly, who released a press statement confirming that an investigation was to take place. The question of why a Cabinet Minister would interfere with the role of a regulatory body without having even viewed the programme in question has never been satisfactorily answered. In an email to someone who actually raised the issue directly, it was explained that Ms Jowell approached the ITC in her role as a parent, not in any official capacity. A follow-up query that enquired how many normal concerned parents could contact the head of the ITC directly had not been answered at the time of writing6.
The ITC released its report into the programme on 6 September, 2001. It said:
The Commission accepted that satire is an effective way of making statements about a range of issues, however difficult. Exploitative media treatment of subjects like paedophilia was such an issue. It was reasonable, therefore, for Channel 4 to commission the programme.
The ITC found, however, that the programme breached sections 1.1 and 1.3 of its code, which deal with providing sufficient warning and avoiding gratuitous offence. Channel 4 was ordered to broadcast an apology on those grounds.
The BSC released its findings in early September and came to much the same conclusions. It differed from the ITC, however, in one regard: the use of child actors in the programme. The child actors were, in reality, treated according to strictly-established guidelines, and nobody has seriously claimed that they have been abused in any way. The editing in the programme made it appear that the children were being exposed to unsuitable content, and the BSC concluded that these images were presented too often to be justified:
... whilst there can be no taboo areas for satire, it does not have an unlimited licence.
The BSC received complaints from the two duped MPs, Barbara Follett and Syd Rapson. Their complaints alleged that Brass Eye had set them up and invaded their privacy unduly. In findings released on 12 December, 2001, the BSC basically said that if these people were prepared to put their name to such obvious rubbish without checking the facts, then they had only themselves to blame:
... The Commission considers that the means deployed to deceive Ms Follett were justified in the context of the serious issues raised by the programme, in particular the dangers of people in the public eye speaking with apparent authority about matters they do not understand, particularly in the context of giving advice to children on such an important matter as paedophilia.
A man was convicted of the murder of Sarah Payne, whose death started off the whole shebang. It turned out that the man, Roy Whiting, had previous convictions for child abuse, and this fact has rekindled the whole debate. The News of the World's 'Name 'n' Shame' campaign has restarted. There are calls for information about paedophiles' movements to be made public, presumably so that vigilantes can beat them up.
And the majority of child abuse in the UK is still being carried out by relatives in the child's own home.
Have you seen that reported in any tabloids recently? Thought not. Perhaps it's easier to attack a myth than solve a real problem.