NSPCC chief exective Peter Wanless on the charity’s campaign to remove child abuse images from the internet
How we deal with the sexual abuse of children is one of the biggest challenges facing society.
This year we have heard truly horrific allegations of historic sexual abuse, including Westminster paedophile rings killing boys, and only today there was a warning that children are being groomed in every town.
But there is another battle in the war on child abuse, and it is one that we can win.
I recently joined a summit of international experts dedicated to eradicating one of the vilest crimes which currently plagues the world – making, circulating and viewing pictures of children being sexually assaulted and raped.
It was successful in the sense that it raised awareness of the problem, demonstrated cross-border commitment to taking action and showcased interesting ideas.
But even as the delegates were enthusiastically embracing a new-found co-operation, the grim reality of this sordid business was being played out in criminal courts across the country – and continues.
While Prime Minister David Cameron was announcing a new specialist crime unit to target criminals who deal in these online images, a middle-aged man was jailed for a second offence of possessing them.
Another had been caught with 50,000 illegal pictures and a third claimed he viewed indecent material because he was “lonely”.
This was not an exceptional day. Pick almost any other date in the year and you will find someone being found guilty of downloading or possessing images which would make decent people recoil.
The sheer volume of this appalling material is also quite staggering.
NSPCC research a couple of years ago revealed 26 million child abuse pictures had been confiscated by just five of 43 police forces in England and Wales.
And those caught with them come from all walks of life.
They range from teenagers to pensioners from a variety of professions – paediatricians, policemen, journalists, social workers, undertakers, lecturers, teachers, company directors, sports coaches, electricians, bell-ringers, caretakers and on and on.
It is the way the tentacles of this terrible crime have reached all sections of society and the apparently continuing ease of access to these images which leads me to fear we may be on the brink of something very dangerous – becoming sanitised to a crime that thrives on the sexual abuse of the very young and vulnerable.
Around four in five images feature a child under the age of 11 – including babies – and half of them show children being tortured or raped by an adult.
Fortunately most of us will never see these images, but that doesn’t mean we are immunised against their effects.
Any society that allows such an evil scenario to play out uninterrupted must surely be demeaned and every one of us should feel at least a little guilty while it persists.
Most importantly, we must never forget that these are not just pictures.
They are crime scenes and children have been abused to create them.
There is also evidence that some – not all – of those found with images will have committed other sex offences against children.
So, while the summit’s glow of satisfaction has dimmed, we have to turn to the real and ongoing job in hand: cleansing the web of all child abuse images.
That may sound like pie in the sky, that the web is too intricate and full of dark corners – countless billions of pages where criminals can hide all kinds of material. But we need a zero-tolerance stance.
Do we want to blindly slide into a situation where, a few years down the line, there are endless pictures in existence and so many offenders viewing them that it becomes an almost acceptable part of the downside of life, like burglary or fraud?
Is that the kind of tainted legacy we want to pass on?
It may take time to achieve but we have to commit now.
Twenty-five years ago the NSPCC started raising concerns about the way child victims of abuse were treated when they gave evidence in criminal trials.
There was little enthusiasm at first and it is only in recent months, following our Order in Court campaign, that the Government agreed to improve the situation.
Children will no longer have to be in the court building when giving their evidence and lawyers dealing with abuse cases will need to undergo specialist training.
Likewise, when we pointed out a legal loophole that was allowing sexual predators to target children online, the Government was at first dismissive.
But again, through pressure from our Flaw in the Law campaign, this get-out for abusers has now been firmly closed.
So we can bring about significant improvements to child protection if we set our minds to it and have an effective national strategy which brings together all interested parties – industry, police, child protection agencies and government – and sets an agenda that does not end until we have achieved our goal.
I do not expect this gargantuan task to be achieved overnight. But there is already some promising progress from the Internet Watch Foundation, which monitors websites displaying child abuse images.
Now it has the funding to work pro-actively, instead of waiting for reports to come in, it has identified nearly 28,000 offending web pages – more than twice last year’s total.
Cleaning up the web sounds daunting and has never been attempted before on such a grand scale. But we must make it work.
In five years’ time I do not want to be looking out on a landscape that is still scarred by this problem which damages so many vulnerable lives.
by Peter Wanless