Why I...believe there must not be any 'no-go' areas for research

January 23, 2003

Media speculation about Pete Townshend's encounter with child pornography centred on the question: Was he really doing research into the issue or was he just another sick punter? I have always found approval for the inspection of pornography for disinterested "intellectual" reasons to be a dubious one since it assumes that no one else can look at this stuff without turning into perverts. This assumption is underwritten by the snobbish notion that middle-class academics and celebrity researchers can be trusted while ordinary proles are assumed to have depraved motives.

But it is important to insist that, no matter how sensitive the issue, there must be no curbs on the freedom to conduct intellectual exploration. The idea that anyone doing research on paedophiles must consult officialdom and gain special dispensation from academic or non-academic authorities is a repellent one. In the past, a variety of institutions - from the Catholic Church to the Stalinist bureaucracy - have supplemented their regime of censorship with a system of dispensation for the privileged few.

Some might argue, why should the criminalisation of any form of contact with child pornography have any implications for the free pursuit of knowledge? Experience shows that when a zealous crusading temper goes unchecked it invariably encroaches on every aspect of life. As Reading University criminologist Bill Thompson discovered ( THES , January 17), an unsubstantiated allegation that he might have had child pornography downloaded on his computer was sufficient to turn his world upside down.

After a police raid on his office and home, Thompson was suspended from his university post. Although this year-long suspension was eventually lifted after the police investigation was abandoned, a climate of hysteria is likely to deter others from asking uncomfortable questions about the subject of paedophilia.

Our obsession with child pornography has already led to a situation where virtually any photo of a naked child can be deemed pornographic. These days it is likely to be the interpretation of those who look for the worst possible motive that can expect the affirmation of a supportive cultural environment. Is this an exaggeration? According to the Society of Editors, schools across the country are refusing media requests to photograph pupils. One local newspaper editor was challenged over taking pictures of a Christmas pantomime in a public hall and asked if he had the permission of the parents of all the children in the performance. Schools in the West Midlands, Norfolk and Luton reportedly stopped the audience videoing or taking digital pictures of nativity plays. Numerous schools have decided to take pictures of their pupils off their websites in case they are misused.

How long before the school photograph becomes a curious historic relic of a permissive age? Worse still, how long before the possession of a class photo is interpreted as evidence of malevolent intent?

In the present climate, we don't even need intrusive ethics committees or pornography-obsessed police officers to prevent research and debate on this question. The very fear of being implicated in an investigation is likely to deter even the most curious soul. Just typing "child pornography" into Google is likely to be experienced as tempting fate.

Academics are used to the dispassionate evaluation of panics that take place outside the university. Most of us were appalled by the recent News of the World "name and shame" campaign. But are we going to be brave enough to "just say no" to attempts to undermine the freedom to research sensitive areas such as child pornography and paedophilia? The irony is that if we cannot trust ourselves to look at those images we end up imagining our world from the perspective of the paedophile. Like them, we believe that we simply cannot help ourselves.

Frank Furedi is is professor at the school of social policy, sociology and social research, University of Kent at Canterbury

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