Chatroom Danger: Wonderland paedophiles given the thumbs up

Saving time and money seems to be the real motive when sentencing paedophiles, but is this what society expects from the judicial system? A leading solicitor argues not.

Saving time and money seems to be the real motive when sentencing paedophiles, but is this what society expects from the judicial system? A leading solicitor argues not. WARNING: this article contains strong and sexually explicit language

After a decade of identity politics, some of which has even filtered through in a debased form to our political masters, we all know that there are classes of people who are not to be treated disrespectfully. Ways of talking to women that ten years ago would have been considered by many men to be no more than polite are now sexual harassment. Children are protected against hearing certain words on television before 9 o'clock at night, and against gender bias in the classroom all day long. These obligations are enforced with the full majesty of the law.

All this is quite good. The trouble is that there are worse things for a child than gender bias. Some of them came out in evidence at the Wonderland trial. And the result leaves an impression that our masters may have their priorities in a mess.

The seven British men held and distributed photographic images of children being sexually and physically abused over the Internet, through an international pornography ring dubbed the "Wonderland Club". Setting aside the issue of whether or not children were abused for the purpose of creating the photographs, the number of men who refrain from actually abusing a child because they have the images on the Internet is probably much the same as the number who see the images and discover a new taste for the real thing. That's guesswork. If it's true -- and no one knows -- we would not need to bother too much if the pictures are faked from innocuous catalogue material, using PhotoShop.

The trouble is that they clearly aren't. They are real photographs of real children being raped and tortured.

No one suggested at the trial that the defendants had themselves raped or tortured anyone. They had merely provided a market that made it worth someone else's while to do so. All the same, the language of the judgment, and sentences handed down, strike a perverse note. They concentrated on the evil in the images rather than the real suffering behind them. Possibly this was because the children had not been traced and had not given evidence. Possibly it was because they were foreign.

None of the defendants received anything approaching the maximum sentences available, even given the light maxima imposed under existing English law. The judge suggested that this was because they had pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge, thus saving the courts time, and the taxpayer money.

Whether plea-bargaining, in its discreet British form, took place, or whether the judge simply thought it right to reward the defendants for their patriotic gesture towards the Treasury, does not really matter. The fact is that this was a major prosecution in an area in which the courts had had little previous experience. One of the things trials are good for is finding out exactly what happened. Another is testing where old law is inadequate to new circumstances. These opportunities were flunked here.

The public purse may have benefited, but the public was ill served. We will have to wait till next time, for example, to find out whether the creaky old law of conspiracy works when it comes to Internet clubs of this sort. This time it wasn't an issue. The court accepted a plea of guilty and the defendants got time off in lieu.

Beyond the courts there is a question of political will, which translates into serious resources for the people whose job it is to tackle criminals.

Maybe it all happens in trailer parks in the United States. Maybe it doesn't. But the police here don't have the resources to find out. Maybe they're too busy rooting out asylum seekers, sellers of cannabis and the other bogeymen who tend to appear in the months before a general election.

And where have all the liberals gone? Finding offensive pronouns in school textbooks may give you a lovely warm feeling inside. But if I was six years old and given the choice between being confronted by an excessive number of "he"s in my favourite story, and being sodomised by a man with a camera, I know which I'd choose.

What are the risks of paedophiles approaching my children through Yahoo! Messenger chatrooms? Find out the details of ZDNet News' investigation in the Chatroom Danger Special Report

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