Andrew Billen - Nowhere to hide

Television - A sober documentary about catching child pornographers offers no opinions, writes Andr

The nice woman detective couldn't believe how ordinary the paedophile porn users she had just arrested seemed. They were middle class, just like her neighbours, nothing sleazy about them. If you were introduced, you'd think what a lovely person, what an interesting person. And none of the suspects whose arrest during Operation Ore was followed on Police Protecting Children (9pm, 23 March) was more lovely or more interesting than Pete Townshend, who had paid five dollars to enter a child-porn site for, he said, research purposes. Nor did anyone look more ordinary than the Who guitarist, anoraked and head bowed, once in custody. Did he need any help reading, asked the triage copper at the desk. "Help breathing?" he asked. What he needed a little help with, he agreed, was hearing. That and help having his head examined.

Townshend's was one of 7,000 names on a list that the FBI handed to the British police when they shut away for life an American couple who had become multimillionaires running a child-porn site called Landslide. Because he did not live with children and had no history of offending, Townshend would have been among the last to be arrested, had his name not been leaked to the press. The police, unconcerned that one of their number had earned a little something by doing so, then did as the Sun suggested: went for him. In the end, he was let off with a caution and his name was put on another list, that of sex offenders. "I was trying to do something useful and I was foolish and stupid and ignorant," he said. And he was also on television.

There was plenty of necessary pixelation in this sober 90-minute documentary, including the faces of some police officers, but the offenders were left nowhere to hide from the camera. As justice must be seen to be done and publicity is part of the punishment, perhaps we should have whole channels devoted to criminals being arrested. For the moment, however, it is paedophiles, rather than murderers and insider dealers, who are deemed to deserve 15 minutes of TV infamy. The rest of us could hardly fail to feel a little smug as we saw these saddos getting cuffed. Whatever else Big Brother will get us for, it won't be child porn (that is, not unless we open that dodgy e-mail).

Oddly, however, not one of the miscreants seemed to object to the cameras or, indeed, to notice that a TV crew was accompanying their arrest. Perhaps they simply had other things on their minds. The arrests were the full Sweeney: smashed windows at dawn, battery-rammed front doors, and one pigtailed pervert slammed to the ground as he was checking in to a Comfort Inn after a delayed flight from Thailand. As a detective chief inspector told his team, by the time you leave their homes, these guys could well have lost everything: marriage, family, job.

What was surprising, touching even, was the civility with which the coppers treated them thereafter. As Gerald Crompton, Mr Pigtail, was driven away, a policeman engaged him in conversation about foreign travel and going off the beaten track. Where was Detective Sipowicz when you needed him? When later, bailed, Crompton returned to retrieve his passport, the police wished him a happy holiday touring Russia with his 90-year-old father. Take care and thanks for coming in. Days later, they arrested him again after a tip-off that he was planning to abscond to Thailand for good (and, obviously, evil).

The methodical process by which these men were investigated and their hard drives exhumed could only impress. And theoretically, there is no arguing with the police's contention that buying child pornography links the buyer to commissioning it. No demand, no supply. But the documentary could not disguise that the FBI had given the Yard permission to go on a gigantic fishing expedition. Scotland Yard had hoped to discover rings of British pornographers. Instead, all it got, or all it could prove it had, were porn-users. Their sentences were commensurately minor. Even Crompton received only nine months.

Was this public money well spent? The film, although fascinating as a social document, offered no opinion. It did not tell us how much Operation Ore cost, or if any of those prosecuted had ever been accused of assaulting a child. One policeman pored over a downloaded short story featuring a semi-literate account of brutal sexual attacks on a baby. You could not tell him this had been accessed by accident. "But what was wrong with just reading it?" asked an interviewer off screen. The real answer was everything - but if you can't stop people imagining such things, it is hard to know if you can stop them writing or reading them.

DC Neil Albrechtsen's answer was that pornography was not a harmless release that prevented real child abuse but a fuel. It lowered barriers against child sex. Normalised it. Made it seem acceptable. Provoked it. Seventies liberals did not accept this argument when it came to Oz and Deep Throat. Frankly, I am loath to accept it now. At this rate, every jail in the country will be filled with ordinary and interesting people with a filthy but internet habit. Meanwhile, congratulations to the FBI for jailing some pornographers.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times