5 November 2009

On internet banning orders...

This is a blog typically given over to a measure of pompous frivolity. What follows, however, is a discussion of a subject which is anything but frivolous. I’m sure all of you have read, skimmed and encountered the harrowing, suggestive accounts of the crimes against children perpetrated by Neil Strachan and James Rennie. Lord Bannatyne gave both life sentences, Strachan with a minimum term of 16 years, Rennie 13 years. Four others were convicted of offences associated with this conspiracy. It must have been an appalling case for the jury to encounter. An experience which none could have anticipated as they gingerly approached the receptions with their forms from the court’s clerk on their first day. Encountering the indictment, hearts must have sunk.

I don’t intend to add anything more to the discussion of these people’s crimes, nor comment on their punishment. Rather, what is of interest is the broader significance of the case, which has been described as a “landmark” in the identification of sexually abusing conspiracies – and the transmission of that identification into successful convictions in Scots courts. Kenny MacAskill has blandly repeated that “lessons will be learned” from the case. This I don’t doubt. Experience and integration of its teachings are an inevitable part of activity. What particularly concerns me – troubles me – is some of the policy options and the restrictions on liberty which are being mooted.

Personally, I find the intervention of senior police officers into policy discussions generally rather problematic. Certainly, informed insiders can identify regulatory failures and barriers to their efficient performance of their tasks. Equally, countervailing interests insist that regulation should present a barrier, that implementations and enforcement of public power must be constrained. Although little-commented on, at the very end of October, the Herald carried a story, quoting Detective Superintendent Allan Jones, who was in command of the police operation which brought Rennie and Strachan to court, in which he made the following suggestions.

“The ubiquitous availability of the internet and its use as a discreet and efficient medium of contact has meant that some perverted individuals have used this otherwise positive attribute as a means to perpetrate their deviant behaviour.

“My personal view is that people who have been observed electronically exchanging this type of imagery should, after appropriate investigation and punishment by the police and other authorities, have their internet service provision withdrawn.

“This is because there can be no guarantee that having been punished, they are not going to go back and do it again.”

Although appropriately keen to stress this is a personal opinion, and not a corporate suggestion, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice told parliament, on the issue of restricting sex offenders’ use of the internet that “We’re prepared to look at anything in how we make our communities safer from serious sex offenders”. I must say, I’ve serious qualms about this suggestion. Although MacAskill is clearly committing himself to nothing, the idea that anything is permissible is, I think, a pernicious one, however hideous the convicted person.

Part of the explanation for this, I think, originates in our confused and ambivalent categorization of individuals broadly labelled ‘paedophiles’. Terms such as wicked, wilfully evil come readily to mind – both public and judicial – in summarising feelings of condemnation and horror. The idea of choice, responsibility and connivance are all implicated in lending this judgement its full force. Simultaneously, look at what the police officer says, and what it seems to imply. Consider the place which psychological, medicalising accounts of child sex offenders has in the field of people who talk about the “management” of paedophiles. An idea of lack of control, of an almost irresponsible, organic drive to behave in a particular way exemplified by the idea that he’ll do it again does not sit easily alongside justifications for punishment and a pecuniary analysis of guilt which can be effaced by “paying debts to society”. Here we are treading on the boundary between traditional explications of the legal and criminal process – and ideas of confinement and constraint for public safety. Between insanity in bar of trial – and the supposed wilful and consciously enacted malice of a sagacious prisoner.

My point, and my qualm, really concern the extremity and proportionality of the measure. People use the internet in innumerable ways to banish loneliness, overcome isolation, make material acquisitions, as bloggers to engage in the creative exchange of opinion, to communicate with people, to spend hours on World of Warcraft. “Serious sexual offenders” are an unpopular category. Few might be pinched by a serious curtailing of their liberties of movement and relations with the world. Obviously, as MacAskill describes it, the category is far, far too unjustifiably broad. Rape is a profoundly serious matter, but typically has no connection with use of the internet at all. What of those whose offences do have such a connection? Who decides?

I imagine that this is a subject where the blogosphere may fan into a spectrum of opinions of many colours. I’d be interested in your views – and how you’d conceptualise the problem or justify or refute the restriction on the liberty of citizens being vaguely proposed by the police officer and vaguely answered by the Cabinet Secretary. For myself, I’m not convinced that the extremity of the measure and the restrictions on liberty implied are justified, even by the evil which police officers might cite to justify it. Lack of control can be a haunting experience. Overcompensation lending a sense of control and having a robust account of statutory powers of discipline can seem to stopper these anxieties about basic powerlessness. Yet beneath the bung, I’m not sure that pressure doesn’t build up all the same. Shouting to jilt the silence and make you feel less alone does not furnish you with real company.

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