Pornography series: the police

Published November 1994 

In October last year, the Prime Minister, John Major, stood up in front of the Conservative Party Conference and made a solemn public promise to fight pornography. It was one of the headline elements of his plan to go back to basics. He described it as “a loathsome trade” and he pledged his backing to the police who were dealing with it.

Thirteen months later, his promise is in pieces. The police have been given some new legal powers but the detectives who have been trying to use them are trapped by internal politics and they are now making the kind of complaints about their commanders and about the Home Office which once belonged only in the mouths of extreme left-wingers.

Instead of being boosted, the Obscene Publications Squad at Scotland Yard has spent the months since John Major’s speech fighting for survival. Last month (Oct) the Yard’s policy committee finally agreed to reprieve it – but at a cost. The squad will no longer be responsible for dealing with most adult pornography. All but the biggest international cases will be passed out to the Clubs and Vice Squad in the West End of London, who have numerous other responsibilities. If they take any action against distributors, it is highly unlikely that they will have the resources or the backing to try and trace the producers or the women they have exploited.

The squad will be left with child pornography, where the truth is revealed by a simple statistic: according to the squad’s intelligence database, there are some four thousand men who are now waiting to be investigated for their activities in child pornography. These are not simply names that have cropped up in somebody’s address book, but men who have an established interest in the sexual abuse of children. They have been caught smuggling child pornography into the country, or buying it or selling it or they are implicated in its production. But in the whole of Britain, the Obscene Publications Squad in London is the only police unit whose job it is to investigate these people; it has only 17 officers; and some of them fully expect to be cut in the near future.

Michael Hames, who spent four and a half years as the detective superintendent in charge of the Obscene Publications Squad until he retired in September, shakes his head in despair. “We should be targetting these people, running an intelligence-led operation, like they do for burglars or robbers. Working in that squad, all the time, I was conscious that we were not putting in enough resources.”

Senior officers who have worked in the squad complain that they do not even have enough video machines to view the material which they confiscate. It sits in stacks waiting to be monitored. When they tried to tackle computer porn last year, they were made to wait for months before they were given any equipment and then it consisted of a single computer terminal, manned by a constable who had taught himself to use the Internet. In all the rest of the country, only one other officer, a sergeant in Manchester, is trained and equipped to deal with computer pornography.

They say that they are at the back of the queue when they ask for surveillance equipment. For example, if they need a concealed camera to ensure that a paedophile is not taking children into his home, they say they will have a lower priority than a detective from a crime squad who wants to check the movements of a suspected burglar.

The problem, they say, is police politics. Chief officers are fighting to protect their budgets. To do that, they have to convince the Home Office that they are using their funds efficiently. To do that, they need to deliver statistics.

In his years in the Obscene Publications Squad, Michael Hames saw this at work: “This is all about detection rates. In other words, if you don’t catch a burglar, he will go out and he will commit a lot of crime which will then be reported and it will damage your detection rate. But if there’s a paedophile out there, the chances are that the children he is abusing will not report him. You can’t blame the child for that. We all know what they go through, the pressure they’re under. So we may have a whole load of intelligence on a paedophile but if we don’t catch him and he carries on committing his offence, the chances are that it won’t be reported and so it won’t damage the detection rate.

“If it is not reported crime, it is not what we call ‘black ink’ crime – written down in the book, to be detected. If you look at crimes against property – burglary, car crime, mugging – then that’s crime that is reported. So the commissioner has said this year that he’ll give top priority to burglary, armed robbery, firearms. That’s very laudable. But where do kids come into this? They will say ‘Oh, we have Child Protection Teams, we are fully committed to this area’. I beg to differ. The Child Protection Teams are doing a great job dealing with offences if they are reported. But that is not enough. We need a pro-active national squad to go out and gather information and to target these people – like they do for burglars and robbers.”

With their limited resources, the Obscene Publications Squad have had a few striking successes by approaching pornography from a new point of view. Instead of seeing the video or the magazine as a crime in itself and either seizing it or prosecuting its distributor, they have looked at it as evidence of a more serious crime – the original assault or rape which was portrayed in the pictures – and then gone after the people who produced it. This has sometimes involved a whole chain reaction of discoveries.

For example, they raided a pornography dealer in Brixton and found that he was selling child pornography to man in Leicester. They passed this on to the Leicester police who raided the man and found that he, too, was dealing in pictures of child abuse and that one of his buyers had an address in Liverpool. They passed that on to the Merseyside police, who raided the man and found that he had been abusing two mentally retarded children in Lancashire and that he had been exchanging photographs with a man who lived in Greenford in west London.

When the Obscene Publications Squad turned up on this man’s doorstep, he broke down and led them to a hidden compartment in his kitchen where he had stored a personal record of 20 years of intensive child abuse – diaries and photographs of boys as young as eight. He had begun with a neighbour’s child, moved on to the boy’s younger brother and then started to target children by following them home from schools and playgrounds. He carried a business card with a cartoon character on it and, once he had found a child’s address, he would knock on the door and explain to the parents that he was developing a childrens’ television programme for which he needed their child’s help. He was, by his own admission, out of control. Yet, not one of the dozens of children whom he had molested had ever reported him. He was jailed for four years.

Pornography is not only a source of clues. It is also unarguable evidence of abuse which generally means that there is no need for the victim to give evidence at trial. But the officers in the Obscene Publications Squad are like a little boy with a bucket trying to empty a river as a steady torrent of magazines and videos flows by them.

There was one video which they selected of a boy of about 13 lying naked in the back of a camper van, showing off his backside and genitals to the camera before a much younger boy moved into the picture and started to have sex with him. The boys looked Mediterranean or North African and, by pursuing the lead, the Obscene Publications Squad prosecuted an English schoolteacher who had been taking his camper van to Portugal and paying impoverished children to let him abuse them and film them in the back of the van.

In one of the most haunting and notorious child videos, the detectives saw a young boy of about eight cowering on a sofa while a man who was evidently holding a camcorder under his arm, ordered him to open his mouth so that he could rape him orally under the camera’s lens. And all the time that he was abusing the retching child, he had the sound of Raymond Briggs’ song, The Snowman, playing in the background. There were clues in the film – the man’s accent, the contents of photographs on the mantlepiece, a distant car – and the man was traced. It turned out that he had been babysitting the boy.

And yet most of the children and most of the films cannot be pursued, because in the eyes of the Home Office, child pornography is a low priority crime. When Michael Hames talks about this, he becomes quite passionate, and his anger is all the stronger for knowing that other officers have been making exactly the same complaint for nearly a decade.

Back in 1986, two senior detectives, John Lewis and Roger Gaspar, completed a massive inquiry into child pornography and child abuse in Kilburn. They dealt with 653 complaints, charged 20 different adults including a barrister and ran three trials. But what really struck them was that the whole investigation had been triggered by one complaint from one social worker and, for once, instead of limiting themselves to dealing with the single complaint, they had followed all of its leads. They could only begin to imagine the scale of offences which would emerge if it were ever investigated systematically across the country.

When the inquiry closed, the two detectives produced an internal paper. It was entitled “People not Property” and it argued the case for setting up a central, pro-active unit to dig out evidence of child pornography and abuse. They pointed out that Scotland Yard’s specialist squads were devoted to protecting property – arts and antiques, cheques, counterfeit currency, stolen cars, frauds, robberies, burglaries. They wanted a squad that protected young people. They said they could gather intelligence by visiting runaway children who had returned home, or victims of abuse who had had time to recover, or convicted paedophiles who were serving sentences. Once they had the intelligence, they could target the suspects.

They presented their paper to the Association of Chief Police Officers and to the men who were then in charge of serious crime at Scotland Yard, but nothing came of it. As if to add insult to injury, Detective Chief Superintendent Gaspar was put in charge of stolen cars.

One of Michael Hames’ predecessors, Iain Donaldson, who ran the Obscene Publications Squad from 1985 to 1989, mounted exactly the same argument in a formal proposal, entitled “The Investigation of Multiple Offences of Child Exploitation Outside the Family” – and with exactly the same empty result.

Michael Hames says he spent four and a half years trying to explain his case without ever feeling that his bosses or the Home Office saw the seriousness of the situation. At one point, he was given six extra men, but then he had two of them taken away. “Maybe they don’t really understand the problem. They have finally got to grips with domestic violence but I don’t think they have got to grips with this. But why not pick up the message from the Prime Minister last year? He made pornography top of the agenda. It is not so terribly expensive. You could double the size of the Obscene Publications Squad and make a tremendous impact operationally.

“They talk about public consultation and partnership with the community. I’m afraid there was no public consultation whatsoever about the future of this branch.

“You get hooked by this kind of work. You feel you’re doing the right thing – saving kids. Unfortunately, some of the senior people do not understand. They say ‘You’ve got it in the blood, have you?’ In this patronising way. Of course, the right answer to that is ‘Yes, I certainly have.’ But we started to almost apologise for getting involved.”

If the policing of child pornography is low profile, the attack on adult pornography is almost invisible. Customs and Excise have seen their frontier staff cut back to the bone and their intelligence arm diverted almost wholly into the politically popular war against drugs. The Post Office will seize pornography if it falls out of a broken package, but they have no mechanism for actively seeking it.

Those professional criminals who have started importing video spools from abroad face only the most haphazard frontier controls and they need to evade them only once to produce scores of copies. Filco, which sells Third World videos from a Leicester PO box, boasts in its catalogue: “The videos that are sent to you are clear, first copies taken from the original masters brought into this country. This way, we no longer have import or Customs hassles.”

Inside the country, the policing of adult pornography is being abandoned step by step. There are now only three specialist squads which deal with adult pornography, in Manchester, West Midlands and London. The biggest of those, the Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad, has been spending 90% of its time trying to pursue material involving children. Now, for want of more resources, it is to lose virtually all responsibility for adult material. And West Midlands officers say that they, too, are thinking of spending less time on adult porn and more on paedophile.

Informally, some of the magazines and their distributors have started policing the market themselves. This month’s edition of Playboy had a page removed on the instructions of WH Smith’s lawyers who were alarmed by a photograph which appeared to show a couple having sex in a cinema seat. But for the most part now, no one is watching.

Who is this woman with the shoulder-length hair, pegged out on her back while a man urinates down into her mouth? Did she really give her free consent for that? Who is this woman hung upside from her ankles, her hair tumbling on to the floor, while a fat woman in a black corset thrashes her back and breasts with a bullwhip? Or the woman with black hair, tied in knots, while endless little balloons of burning wax drop down on her skin from a candle? Nobody knows and just about nobody is trying to find out.

The camcorder has made the production of pornography easy. The urban empire of drugs and prostitution is now building an active colony in the world of hard-core pornography, inflicting one more misery on women who are already being ruined by crack and pimps and punters. It is, as John Major, said “a loathsome trade”. If police continue to withdraw from the adult market and to give such low priority to children, there is almost nothing now to stop its further growth.

To give him credit, the Prime Minister did try to make good his promise. Senior officers say that when Scotland Yard started sharpening its knife over the Obscene Publications Squad earlier this year, he spoke personally to the Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, and was assured that the squad would survive. Michael Hames is one voice among many who are trying to explain that if Britain now hosts a well-developed industry which is entirely devoted to the sexual abuse of women and children, that is not enough.


the police