Media witch hunts do nothing to make schools safer.
Jim Jepps and Andy Newman
Surely no one thinks it is a good idea that paedophiles should be working in schools. So Ruth Kelly, the utterly useless Education Minister, is under pressure from all sides following the revelations about Paul Reeve. Tory spokesman David Willetts has made great play of this emotive issue, and has said Kelly should resign. Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, described the situation as "terrifying". The National Union of Teachers has said nobody on the sex offenders register should be allowed to work in a school.
This story broke when it was revealed that Paul Reeve, whose name appears on the sex offenders register, was given a job as a PE teacher at a school in Norwich.
Reeve was placed on the register after accepting a caution for having 'banned images' on his computer, which police discovered after his name was among the 7,000 names given to them by US authorities as part of their Operation Ore.
At the time Reeve resigned from the school where he was teaching in Kings Lynn. When he applied to a new school in a new town he was completely open about his caution and the fact that he was on the sex offenders register. He was hired because Reeve was not placed on the 'List 99' and Ruth Kelly's office had written a letter to Reeve (which he showed his future employers) saying they did not see him as a threat to children.
But this has not stopped some of the papers incorrectly implying that Reeve was secretive about the caution and had deceived the school;
"But Mr Reeve, believed to be in his 30s, was only stopped from working as a PE teacher when police, who had warned he was a risk, alerted the school's head teacher. " The Times Educational Supplement, or, "The man's name, therefore, did not show up on List 99 and the school was apparently waiting for the disclosure form from the Criminal Records Bureau from which unproved allegations are usually included." The Telegraph
The press agenda on paedophilia starts and ends with the idea that sex and violence sells news papers and they are hardly adverse to 'sexing up' a story that might in truth be rather bland. You can imagine the Daily Mail editor slavering in delight as he imagines each new horrifying headline - regardless of the veracity of the story, or lack of it.
In the press there have been numerous comparisons with double murderer Ian Huntley - but Huntley had come to the attention of police in various parts of the country for sexual offences, rape allegations, and sexual acts with under age girls and sought to cover up these facts when applying to work in a Soham school - Reeve was cautioned for a single offence and the Secretary of State's office deemed that that the evidence against him was "inconclusive." Is it really meaningful to compare a serial sex offender who goes on to kill with someone with no convictions who the government, after investigation, felt had probably accidentally come across banned images and was not a threat to children.
Part of this revolves around the use of the term paedophile. The idea that there is a continuum where at one end you have someone who has raped and killed children and at the other someone with no criminal convictions who has accidentally accessed a banned image on their computer and that they are both somehow in the same category is bizarre. That somehow Paul Reeve, who has never been tried or convicted for any offence is somehow similar to the Soham murderer or the babysitters recently convicted of raping an 18 month old baby is frankly an insult to those who have been victims of horrific sexual assault.
Even if Reeve had intentionally accessed child pornography, and on the evidence available this seems unlikely, it is not necessary to lump him in with murderers to be clear those actions are wrong. It's similar to comparing shop lifting to armed robbery, or being a bit of a bully to committing a racist killing.
Grown ups know the difference, and keep a proportion - the headline writers unfortunately have no interest in pursuing a grown up debate. It is reminiscent of the brilliant satire Brass Eye's paedophilia special that ruthlessly attacked the unthinking bile of the press that had led to horrific vigilante attacks on people completely unconnected to sex offences (the paediatrician who was attacked springs instantly to mind).
Child pornography is appalling, involving not only the degradation of the children filmed, but also probably encouraging some people to actually commit child molestation and abuse. Quite correctly society has laws against child pornography and seeks to enforce them in order to protect children.
But if we allow our judgement to be distorted by moral panics, we lose sight of fundamental principles of justice. There are cases, and Paul Reeve seems to be one of them, where there was reasonable doubt whether he had intentionally or unintentionally accessed child pornography. In such circumstances a police caution, and entry on the sex offenders register seems a prudent precaution, but surely it is sensible for there to be some discretion. That is the current law: Being on the sex offenders register does not automatically mean you will be placed on List 99, the register of those banned from working in schools. The final decision is made by the education department.
Alternatively, do we want a situation where anyone who innocently types in the wrong web-site address into their browser, and accidentally accesses an inappropriate web-site, should immediately become a pariah and banned from working with children? If there was no intent to commit a crime is it right for that person to lose their job? We need a real debate about these issues not a fake moralism coming from the press - a section of society that some might feel are least acquainted with any real moral standard.
But a mature debate neither sells papers nor weakens the government. Kelly is not a minister that socialists have much in common with, but equally we need to ensure that the debate is not pushed into a reactionary and authoritarian fear agenda where injustices are bound to occur.
Most worrying is that the press can lead government policy by creating such witch hunts. Ruth Kelly has announced an urgent review of "a small number" of cases where people have been put on the sex offenders register but not on List 99. The concern is that this is code for doing whatever the press want to get themselves out of a short term hole.
Far more sensible was the statement by a spokesman for the Prime Minister who said "There have always been borderline cases and decision-making problems have remained substantially the same for decades," the spokesman told reporters. "Borderline cases" might include somebody who had been looking at pornography on the internet and accidentally accessed child pornography, he said.
Unfortunately Ruth Kelly has reacted exactly as we would expect in the face of a press induced moral panic. Instead of calmly explaining and justifying the case for discretion, she has said that she wants ministers to lose their final say over who works in schools.
Apparently this is a decision far too sensitive for elected representatives to take when in possession of the full facts, it is much better that the decision should be taken by tabloid newspaper editors armed with nothing but the knowledge that child sex allegations sell papers.
The fact is that in this case government policy set by the press is even worse than government policy set by the government.
A sample of the press attitude towards the case
Few answers from Kelly on sex list row Channel Four
How many of our children are at risk Daily Mail
Kelly defiant in sex offender row Daily Express
Kelly defiant in Commons Telegraph
Kelly to face MPs over offenders Guardian
News blog- what the papers say Guardian
How many school pervs The Sun
Kelly to make statement on sex offenders Independent
Kelly in school pervert furore Manchester on line
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