The politics of a paedophile panic

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It used to be said that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel. In politics today, their last resort is more likely to be a paedophile panic. John Reid, the New Labour home secretary, has launched yet another 'crackdown' on child sex offenders - berating judges for handing down lenient sentences; ordering that such offenders be barred from hostels near schools after their release from prison; and indicating that the government might be willing to introduce a version of 'Megan's law', the American legislation that is supposed to give the public access to information on the whereabouts of people on a sex offenders' register.

Megan's Law was named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka, whose parents led a campaign for the legislation after she was murdered by a convicted child molester in the 1990s. In the UK, supporters talk about introducing 'Sarah's Law', since the campaign took off after the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in 2000. That gives an idea of how long this high-profile, newspaper-sponsored campaign has been going on over here. So why has a New Labour home secretary finally signalled that the government might accept it now? Has a sudden wave of paedophile attacks by convicted offenders changed Whitehall's collective mind? Or is there a new body of evidence to show that such measures as a Megan's/Sarah's Law would protect children? No. The numbers of child murders in Britain remain as low as ever, and there is no evidence that any number of new anti-paedophile laws or PR campaigns reduces the minimal risk to children. But then, the current furore is not really about paedophiles. It is about politics. The big difference between now and when the demand for Sarah's Law began six years ago is the standing of the New Labour government. Back then Tony Blair's government had its problems, but it was still in command of the agenda and approaching its landslide victory in the 2001 General Election. Today it is bereft of any clear direction, haemorrhaging support, with leading Labour members warning that the party could be out of office for the next 15 years. [...]

In the process these legal gestures also risk sweeping away important principles of criminal justice, such as the notion that people are punished for what they do, not what they might do or even fantasise about doing in the future; or that criminals who have served their time are considered to have, in the traditional phrase, 'paid their debt to society'. If these principles are no longer to apply to those convicted of sex offences, what about others? Why not a public register of convicted murderers, drug dealers, drunk drivers or wife beaters in our communities? [...]

We are witnessing the politics of the jailhouse, where everybody seeks to demonstrate that, whatever else they might have done, they are on the side of Good against the threat posed by Evil perverts. Some of us have argued since the morbid obsession with child abuse escalated almost 20 years ago that fear itself is the greatest threat to our children's future in a free society. This is no time to be put off that argument by the emotive words of a young victim's mother, or those who would use her as a human shield.

source: Article 'The politics of a paedophile panic' by Mick Hume;; Spiked; 21 June 2006