Bill Hughes will never forget his first paedophile
case. It involved the cleaner's son at his police station. "The boy
was only seven. He was abducted by a paedophile ring, gang raped and
murdered. He was the same age as one of my sons at the time, it was
Hughes: 'People think we're hounding people who flick
through a few soft-focus images of scantilly clad children.
It's just not true'
The Director General of the National Crime Squad
realises that people might think there is a witchhunt against
paedophiles at the moment. "I know people are comparing us to
McCarthyism. They think we're thugs in blue uniforms, out to get
thousands of men. That we're hounding people who just flick through
a few soft-focus images of scantily clad children, and that we're
spending crucial police time chasing 'kiddy porn' when we should be
out getting burglars.
"But it's just not true. For a start, we're carrying
out the law. And once you get involved in this area, some of the
stuff you see is so disgusting that you do become passionate about
The National Crime Squad headquarters are hidden
away behind the air conditioning system of Pimlico Underground
station. Four years ago, its officers, who deal with serious
organised crime, were asked to look into online paedophilia. "It
wasn't a new crime, but an old one that had suddenly sprung a
horrible new head," says Hughes.
Then they were given a list of British suspects from
America. An inspector from the US Postal Inspection Service had come
across a pay-to-view website run by a firm called Landslide, based
in Fort Worth, Texas. It revealed the most revolting images,
including two British children, an eight-year-old girl and her
six-year-old brother, raped by their stepfather at a house in
Manchester. More than 7,000 people in Britain had downloaded the
images, paying £21 a month through their credit cards.
"It was overwhelming," says Hughes. "We're
criticised for spending too much time and money on online
paedophiles, but most of our time here is spent on drug rings,
illegal immigrant trafficking, counterfeit money and serious gun
crime. We don't have nearly enough police on paedophiles." When
Operation Ore was set up to look into the American list a year ago,
50 names were tested to assess their seriousness: each one resulted
in an arrest. "Every police force in the country is helping out and
we're still struggling. It takes days to go through a suspect's
computer. If we get it wrong, we can destroy a man's life."
Townshend, The Who guitarist, may be the most high-profile suspect
so far, but celebrities are way down the priority list. "The
first people we had to check were those involved with children:
police officers and teachers. The next were those in public life who
had influence - judges, civil servants - only then did we come to
A convicted paedophile, writing last week, made
these internet sites sound relatively harmless, with pictures of
little girls looking like fashion models or pop stars. He claimed
that even the nude pictures were "decorous and artistic". Isn't
there a concern that thousands of men's lives could be blighted by
the stigma of having surfed for pretty young girls, when if they'd
looked at adult porn, they'd still be free?
Hughes is appalled. "These sites can be horrendous.
The Operation Ore sites showed newborn babies being brutalised;
toddlers were penetrated, children were forced into the most obscene
positions. All this to the most haunting soundtracks, and over the
music, you could hear the children's screams. It was
The squad is now having to put sound-proofing in the
rooms where they viewed the material. "This is not about little
girls taking a few clothes off and being fumbled, or videos of
school nativity plays. People think they're cartoons, but cartoons
don't titillate these people, they need real kids and real
More than 60 children worldwide, from Bangladesh to
Britain, have been identified since the police went through the
material. "We'd already traced many more online abuses in the year
before that. There was one case where a man and wife were abusing
their six-year-old daughter to make money. One Portuguese child
abducted in 1998, assumed murdered, was being used on one of the
sites. Our main role is not to 'out' paedophiles but to save these
He says he hasn't come across a country yet that
condones this sort of behaviour. "From the most affluent to the
poorest, they all now see it as a priority to stamp it out. If a
family were desperate for money, they might sell a child, but it
would be appalling if we sat back and let that happen."
Many paedophiles excuse their behaviour by saying
that children are complicit. "A child of 18 months may not know
what's happening to it, but they will bear the physical scars for
ever. This is GBH. Some end up as cripples. To pretend that any
children are willing partners is madness. They may want sweets at
the end of their torture, but their faces tell it
Jim Gamble, the assistant chief constable in charge of the paedophile unit, joins in. "My last job was in Special Branch in Belfast. That was pretty tough, but this is even worse," he says. "Yet most of these people can't admit to themselves they're paedophiles."
A regular excuse is to say it's easy to stumble innocently on to one of these sites. "You can't accidentally stray, you really have to go for it," Hughes says. "First, you have to find the website, then you're given sample images and if you're still interested, you have to click to be offered membership. Next, you have to supply your credit card details. Then you are given a password, and finally you have to choose between babies, toddlers, children, teenagers and child rape."
In Canada, when the press accused the police of hounding internet child porn surfers, the police decided to show journalists a sample of the sites. "Several are still receiving counselling," Hughes says. "We couldn't do that here, but the police and the press must work together to ensure that we don't all become either too hysterical or too flippant."
Until these suspected paedophiles are proved guilty, do we need to know that they include two hospital consultants, a classics master, a former deputy headmaster, a director of a big construction site and a famous newspaper columnist? Did someone really need to speculate that there were senior judges, two Labour MPs and more celebrities involved?
"Whoever has been leaking is hugely irresponsible," Hughes says. "It undermines us all if people think we're celebrity-bashing. I haven't seen any MPs on the list. Some of it is spiteful. People ring us up to say they know that Cabinet ministers are involved. It's untrue. But the crime is committed across a huge spectrum."
Online paedophilia now seems to be taken as seriously as terrorism: a suspect could easily lose his family, friends and job.
"You wouldn't expect us to turn a blind eye to a child being sexually abused on the street," Hughes replies. "These images are created by the abuse of a real child. Every time someone downloads an image, it pays for more children to be abused. Gratification becomes more and more difficult. We've seen that in just four years. Viewers progress very fast from mild images to the really hard stuff. They're obsessive collectors."
The question he can't answer is whether the internet has allowed a repressed desire in men to come out or whether it has created a new demand; whether it is a substitute for the real thing or whether it promotes offending behaviour. He leaves that to Ray Smith, head of the US Postal Inspection Service's child exploitation programme, who helped discover the list of names worldwide.
"In America," Smith explains, "over 35 per cent of the people we have arrested in the last five years for accessing indecent material from the net turned out to be child molesters. Either they had previous convictions or, in many cases, we discovered them still abusing children."
He worries that the internet is creating more deviant behaviour. "It's so easy now to get these pictures. Some people do become de-sensitised, and a significant number, I fear, will eventually act on those fantasies."
Hughes and Smith have just been to the child abuse online international conference in Sussex, with representatives from 70 other countries. "What we agreed upon," Hughes says, "is that you have to target the viewers, the perpetrators and the distributors. It's the only way to bring this under control. You have to make it unacceptable in every community. People looking at these sites are creating child abuse. They are handing over money, which makes it worthwhile for profiteers to risk making these images."
A large number of men on the list appear to be merchant bankers, City lawyers, accountants and businessmen. "There's no obvious pattern, but they are not all the pathetic, downbeat loners you imagine," says Hughes. "Many are white collar, they have very expensive computers, credit cards and huge libraries." One man arrested in London last month had 12 computers, 2,530 CDs, 518 floppy discs, 55 videos and 99 films.
Very few women appear to be involved. "You do find women on the financial side, running the websites and a few have subscribed. But it's even less talked about because it's such a taboo," says Hughes. "Females are supposed to nurture the young, not abuse them."
His police officers are constantly trawling the net. "We need to be aware of what is going on but we try to do as little as we can get away with and involve as few officers as possible, because it's so traumatic. If you go into the police you expect to get your fair share of deaths, but this constant diet of hard-core child porn is exhausting. We can't ask anyone to do it for long."
So how high a priority would he make it? "In the end, it's up to all of you: if you think there's nothing wrong with paedophilia on line, tell the politicians, get them to decriminalise it. But at the moment, we spend more time on filling in the paperwork for catching a juvenile shoplifter."
Hughes was a crash safety engineer for British Leyland before he decided to become a policeman. "I worked my way through the ranks, but I was always obsessed by organised crime, the people who divorce themselves from the dirty end of the business but are fuelling illegal trade."
He doesn't talk to his wife about his work. "When I was younger, I went to a cot death just weeks after my son was born. It really tormented me, so I try not to bring my work home now. At parties, my wife says: 'For God's sake, don't tell them what you do'. People either run a mile or can't stop asking questions."
He realises that a handful of police officers surfing the net is never going to stem the tide. "We can't police the internet, but that's also the beauty of it, it's open to all. The internet service providers need to help. They can pull the plug on the sites. They never used to see it as a priority, but they're now becoming embarrassed."
What about the credit card companies: couldn't they clean up their act? When "Pretty Pre-Teens, Colorado" turns up on a client's bank statement, shouldn't they ask questions? "We've gone to them and said: 'Look, you don't want to be involved in something like this', and they're beginning to act upon it."
Another option is government warnings. Log on to an illegal site and your computer could immediately tell you that you are committing a crime. "That might deter a few," says Hughes.
The NCS and the Canadians are also working on a way to identify more of the abused and the perpetrators, using a facial identification system that can be used by Interpol.
"The problem is that people become more and more devious. I would hate a society where you can't be a scout master, a Catholic priest or a primary school teacher without arousing suspicion. I couldn't bear it if children could no longer go to public swimming pools or had to start wearing burqa-style clothes," says Hughes.
"It sometimes terrifies me that so many people out there seem to be involved in paedophilia. But online, at least, we have a chance of stamping it out."