Why would a mother want to broadcast the views of paedophiles? Claire Fox spoke to Dea Birkett, maker of the controversial Channel 4 documentary The Devil Amongst Us
And the devil spake unto her
Watching the news in January 1997, journalist Dea Birkett saw convicted child molester Alan Christie being hounded from his home in Stirling for the second time. 'The image I saw on television was one of a man with a jacket over his head so you couldn't see him at all and a group of screaming women shouting "beast out, beast out". I wanted to go and confront him and pull the jacket from his head.' Over the next year, the idea of pulling that jacket away turned into a practical project. The result was Force 10 Production's documentary The Devil Amongst Us, screened amid much controversy on Channel 4 in January this year.
In the film, Dea Birkett tackled the taboo topic of paedophilia by interviewing men who admitted they are sexually attracted to children. 'I went to talk to these people to break down this hidden, hazy image we had of the devil.' And what were they like, these devils amongst us, these paedophiles? Dea Birkett was anxious to clarify a point about terminology. 'Paedophile' has become a catch-all word, but actually describes somebody who has sexual feelings towards children. They need not have acted on or intend to act on them. This is distinct from child sex offenders who are convicted of abuse. To conflate the two, she says, means criminalising people for 'illegal fantasies'. In the film, Dea Birkett interviews both categories.
'I felt very differently about different men. There's not a composite paedophile; you can't say someone's a paedophile, therefore you do ABC to them. There's a huge number of other factors from whether those thoughts become practice etc, which aren't taken into account now. There's no degree of response any more. It's all "hound 'em out", "lock 'em up" and it's just not appropriate. People are different levels of threat, pose different problems.' This idea of a composite paedophile is one of the gripes Birkett has with her critics, who did not like her film because it showed that the stereotypical man in the shadow waiting to snatch children, is not the full picture. She objects that the only paedophiles they want us to see on TV are those 'who confess to abusing, say they're sorry and repent; but that's not what they are like'.
Another composite figure which informed Dea Birkett's decision to make the film was the image of the women trying to hound out the local paedophile, the frightened and angry mothers protecting their children: 'People would presume I as a woman would be naturally standing with those mothers. And I felt I couldn't stand next to them. This was no solution to this complex issue.' Many people assume Dea Birkett is not a parent, because 'if I'm a parent I have to be standing with those women'. When they find out she is a mother, says Birkett, they say 'but you have a child' almost as an accusation: 'It is as if I am betraying my own child.'
Dea Birkett is keen not to blame the women who, in 'an atmosphere of hysteria and national obsession' may well believe 'that every second house houses someone coming to snatch their children'. But she sees a danger that, in the absence of rational discussion, this fear is greatly exaggerated and very destructive. 'What is terrifying is the effect it has on the children. A lot of children are being brought up in this atmosphere of fear and distrust. I think that is not good for a child. I think that that is actually a far greater risk to a child than any possible threat from being snatched in a park.
'The people leading these campaigns are often working class women. The only person they can have power over is the paedophile. They can hound that man out of his home. It makes them feel powerful. But actually fear is not empowering. All you are doing is making things worse. The whole thing about having a sex offenders' register and community identification doesn't make us feel safe. It makes us feel less safe, far less safe, far more afraid. It's not empowering, it's disempowering and we're disempowering our children by giving them this fear.'
'The point is', says the film's producer Kevin Toolis, 'things are far more complicated than is painted in this atmosphere of hysteria, and the role of sections of the media in all this is disgraceful'. If the media in general has played a less than creditable role, Dea Birkett is keen to give credit where credit is due. 'Whatever people say about Channel 4, they did broadcast The Devil Amongst Us. That was a very brave thing to do. It was very controversial. We didn't know how controversial it was going to be.'
The film was met with a flood of abusive letters and opinion pieces in the press. The NSPCC called the programme 'chilling' and 'unbalanced' and called on the film-makers to hand over evidence to the police. Michelle Elliott, director of Kidscape, who has made a career of scaremongering about children, joined groups like Childline in demanding that the film be withdrawn before she had even seen it. For Dea Birkett this only showed that 'the objections were to the programme in principle, not to anything in particular. All you were allowed to do was to stand outside someone's house and scream. That was approved. Any other action was disapproved and I just thought this is absurd. We can't even have a documentary on the television about it. They wanted to silence us'. Dea Birkett objects to the notion that 'if I don't like an opinion I'm supposed to pretend it doesn't exist'.
One of the major accusations from people like Michelle Elliot was that the film could encourage people to be paedophiles. This astounded Dea Birkett, since she felt she had presented the life of a paedophile as utterly miserable. 'Consider how sad and pathetic were the lives of those interviewed. Here we have a group of miserable, thwarted, threatened men, a sadder, more unattractive way of living could not have been presented and the suggestion is that everyone's sitting there thinking "Oh, that looks an attractive lifestyle". Even the men themselves said "This is a curse. I would love to be otherwise".
'I mean, the idea of someone sitting in their front room and someone on the telly saying "I'm a paedophile" and so he thinks "Oh, I hadn't thought about that before. I think I'll go and have sex with a four year old". It's so absurd. Do they really think people are like that?
'I respect people. You know, I am an intelligent, rational human being like 99 per cent of the population. If someone tells me something that is horrific, I know that and you have to trust me. The critics of the film didn't trust people, the viewers. Experts, so-called experts, don't trust us, the British public, to make our own minds up. Therefore they are not going to let us hear things that they think are going to warp us. Well I'm sorry, but we all have a right to access to that information, however difficult it is, however unpleasant.'
I invited both Dea Birkett and Kevin Toolis to speak at the LM/ICA festival, Free Speech Wars, because I thought the discussion around their film raised important issues in the free speech debate. When Birkett insists that paedophiles and sex offenders - 'the people who are at the heart of this debate' - must be given the chance to speak, I am not convinced. But I am convinced that attempts to stifle public debate on this issue will seriously damage the cause of free speech. Dea Birkett agrees that this is an important emphasis: 'The criticism of the film wasn't that these men were allowed to talk, the criticism was that we were allowed to hear them. That was what was said. You mustn't hear them. It's not right you listen.' She suggests we turn the whole argument around: 'It is not about giving free speech to paedophiles, it's about allowing access to every kind of view. That's about trusting people to make up their own minds and that's something we must defend.'
Kevin Toolis thinks that just because there isn't a formal ban to be broken, 'it doesn't mean to say that there is not a real boundary - what one is allowed to say, what one is allowed to hear, what one is silenced by, given the interlocking consensus. Channel 4 broadcasting that programme is pushing the boundaries on free speech'.
Dea Birkett feels it has been easier for her to argue her case as a woman, because 'any man who speaks out is open to being accused of being a paedophile'. But for her too, 'it is a very difficult position. You are so much out on a limb'. Kevin Toolis says that the most common response from 'everyone, friends of ours, people you talk to' is one of rage, '"you're talking about someone abusing my kids". That's what always comes back at you'. He understands this; after all their children are their most precious possessions. 'They see all this as a threat, so that seems to close all discussion down. But when people conclude "Who cares about rationality?", that's the scary bit.'
Dea Birkett thinks another reason she receives a lot of abuse on this issue is 'because victims feel as though you are personally attacking them. I think the victims themselves become victims of this hysteria, which is no help to them. When you have Michelle Elliot on television with a victim sitting next to her I think that means being twice victimised - once by the abuse that she has suffered and twice by this parading of her victimisation. I get very cross when I watch those debate shows where the victim of abuse responds "I've been abused 135 times". As if that was an argument. As if I'm going to say "no you weren't abused" or "that's good" rather than "that's bad". I didn't say child abuse doesn't exist; don't parade a victim in front of me as an argument against me. I'm not talking about that. I am talking about our attitude towards offenders. But when the victim speaks, that's it; it's like a statement "There's no debate now"'.
Dea Birkett hopes that as a result of her film 'the debate has been nudged on. But I think we have to nudge it further'.
Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998