We’re still losing the war

cameuspCameron’s online porn ban….triumph or Trojan Horse?

When I read The Times piece yesterday about the ‘landmark’ ruling on the Family Courts, I had a sense of part deja vu, and part ennuie. We have been here so many times, and I have come to see how easy it is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In many ways, both the Family Courts ruling and Cameron’s attempt at an online porn ban could have unpleasant consequences.

When, last April, Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, warned Judges throughout England and Wales to “get a grip” regarding the family courts, a few folks got excited. But it was clear Munby had missed the point: he merely wanted to add two gears to the getaway car: he told Judges to “speed things up”.

By May, however, a glimmer of promise was shining under Munby’s office door: he and other senior judiciary gave a guidance that was effectively a ban. It said, unequivocally, no more jailing of people without the media knowing. The judges also specified that ‘anyone found guilty in cases of contempt of court’ could not be sent to prison without the public being told. This time there were no get-out clauses. No more frantic mothers (standing by helplessly as their kids were kidnapped by lettres de cachet Justice) would be in jail without the media knowing. Period.

This put the Family Courts’ status in an anomalous position, for in that part of the secret underground maze known as the British legal system everything and anything could be done secretly. And such is the mess our post-permissive society has produced when it comes to families during the last four decades, we are talking a staggering 95,000 cases a year here.

A ruling was thus vital, and yesterday we got it. Frankly, I’m underwhelmed. Somehow, the Forces of Darkness have lobbied hard to give back the get-out clauses to those bringing care orders and other often ill-considered nonsense into the Family Division. Judgements determining custody battles, care orders and whether children should be rehomed will in future be published unless there are “compelling reasons” not to.

Roll up, roll up, get your compellin’ reasons ‘ere, only ten a penny.

The Times perhaps ‘sexed up’ the ruling because it wanted to claim it as a victory ‘after a campaign by The Times to open up the hearings’. Er, really? You could’ve fooled me: this claim had the usual stink of Newscorp hypocrisy about it, especially as – when I tried to copy a paragraph from the piece – their new gadget (a ‘Subscribe Now’) panel stopped me from doing so. Rupert Murdoch opening things up? I don’t think so.

But as with most things emanating from Roop’s organs, the claim is bollocks anyway. From what I’ve seen of this guidance so far, it gives a conditional right for the media to know a result leading to rulings, not to sit in on the Courts – and report them freely.

If I’ve got this wrong, then please correct me somebody. My problem is I’ve seen so many false dawns in relation to these pernicious Star Chambers, I have to see a chorus line of fat ladies singing to even begin overcoming my cynicism. I’ve read “promises of swift action” (2004), promises from Balls and Harman (2005/6), the ruling that the system was “worse even than the Soviet Union” in its secrecy (2009), and this year sat at a pc emitting the odd sigh as one Judge and senior Minister after another make it clear they have little or no respect for the humanity being trafficked through these proceedings. These people are not giving a judgement in favour of equality before the law: they are being, as usual, judgemental. There is a world of difference between the two, and it is a long, long way from anything even approaching justice.

And lest we forget, even if a “compelling reason” is not produced by some bent shrink or closet paedophile hiding behind “I’m gay, leave me alone”, there is always the infamous gagging order system to shut the file – and shut up everyone involved – for anything up to 20 years. Until you’ve been on the receiving end of one of these, it is hard to comprehend just how ruthless the Establishment can be about its dirty linen.

I have similar feelings about yesterday’s two Hounslow arrests. John Stingemore, a former manager at the Grafton Lodge home run by Richmond Council, and Tony McSweeney, a former trainee Catholic Priest, were charged on multiple counts of sexual assault, buggery, and the production of indecent images. The victims were two boys aged 11 and 15 at the time. Whether these two alleged perverts are felt to have been mavericks working on their own,  or represent merely a snapshot of a larger ring of depravity, remains to be seen.

Grafton Lodge is widely assumed to have been supplying unwilling flesh for the rainbow of sexual experience to be found at Elm House, so there is a clear connection to the ‘main event’ as it were. But the results to date on the Richmond Council affair remain frustratingly peripheral, the arrests somewhat predictably low grade. We have a confusing plethora of operational code-names and some obvious suspects. After years of opening and shutting investigations into this case – and months of “intensive” activity by Plod this time around – we don’t have much to show for it. But Mayor Johnson is pleased, and if he’s pleased then that’s more than enough for me. More than enough for me to conclude that it’s going nowhere very fast.

If I wasn’t becoming so damnably cynical, I’d have welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday of a raft of measures aimed at eliminating explicit sexual content and pornography from the Internet in Britain. All new Internet subscribers will encounter a default “porn-off” setting, but will still be able to access the content if they choose to opt in. I’m assuming that everyone from GCHQ to the Met will now be alerted every time someone takes the ‘opt in’ route. Good for our cause, bad for the right of innocent people to privacy: how many more buttons are we likely to get over time?

Cameron plans to install nationwide filters to ban pornographic sites at the network node level, in co-operation with the UK’s largest internet service providers. As he, GCHQ and the key ISPs are hand in glove on routine surveillance anyway, one can understand how he got to this ‘solution’ so quickly. But here too, the obvious extrapolation is that any government can, with the ISPs’ help, ban any site of which they disapprove in short order.

Don’t dismiss me as a cynical old grump too quickly, even if I do: Cameron’s track record on this sort of stuff isn’t good. He is very well connected to Google, his bribe from the construction industry is leading him to do daft things like breaking Greenbelt rules and Help to Buy schemes, he once denied 13 times in the Commons that he had a close relationship with Rebekah Brooks, and he remains unconvincing on the plain cigarette packs/Lynton Crosby connection.

Based on the evidence so far, this Government cares only about supporters, money, spin, power and the defence of the unacceptable face of the Establishment. It would be foolish to suppose that they will do anything substantive to better protect vulnerable children…unless forced to.

Last night at The Slog: Why every baby is royal in the end