Pure nonce sense: Much of the British media is lucky it's not on a register...

While hunting pedophiles has long been a tabloid hobby, they and much of the rest of British media still have an... um... '70s sensibility'.

“A Peter File was attacked in his car this evening, but I have to say, if your surname was ‘File’, would you call you son ‘Peter’?”

That quote is spoken by Chris Morris’ vainglorious Paxmanesque anchor at the conclusion of Brass Eye’s 2001 special ‘Paedogeddon’. It follows a riot that ends with an innocent man being burned in his car. It would’ve seemed like a satirical over-statement if the previous year hadn’t seen a ‘name and shame’ campaign by the now-shuttered News of the World resulting in a specialist registrar in paediatric medicine being forced to flee her home after it was daubed with “paedo” graffiti.

When the Brass Eye episode was first broadcast, The Daily Mail called it “The Sickest TV Show Ever”. Over the next two decades, that paper, its weekend sibling The Mail on Sunday, and online bilge bucket MailOnline, have frequently used the phrase “all grown up” to talk about under-age girls. Here’s an example from 2018:

Elsewhere The Daily Star notoriously included a ‘story’ about Charlotte Church — headlined “She’s A Big Girl Now” and featuring typically gross tabloid puns about how the then 15-year-old singer was looking “chest swell” — in the same edition as its report castigating Channel 4 for showing and repeating Brass Eye.

Government ministers lined up to condemn the programme and The Daily Mail continued its attacks, following The Daily Star’s lead by preceding its morally outraged spread in one paper with… a ‘story’ about Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, then 13 and 11, wearing bikinis. But, you see, when the newspapers do it, it’s just Carry On… stuff, right? It’s certainly not institutionalised sexualisation of children. Heaven forefend.

Almost 20 years after Paedogeddon, the British media has not changed in any fundamental way. Rebekah Brooks, the News of the World editor who led the ‘name and shame’ campaign and was forced to issue apologies after identifying innocent men as sex offenders, is now CEO of News UK, the British arm of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. That scandal and others that followed have not damaged her financially or socially.

The Times, which is owned by News UK, published an article by Andrew Billen yesterday, which was predominantly an attack on the BBC and what he and his editors claim is the corporation’s failure to serve people over 50. But nestled in the copy was yet another example of the deranged mentality that flows through both British tabloids and their supposedly ‘classy’ broadsheet brothers and sisters.

Discussing an interview broadcast the previous day on Emma Barnett’s 5Live show, Billen wrote:

On BBC Radio 5 Live this week the excellent Emma Barnett demonstrated the gulf between the ingrained and indeed laudable attitudes of the BBC and a chunk of its intended audience. She interviewed a 40-year-old van driver who had phoned in to defend men like himself who shout out their appreciation to short-skirted schoolgirls. It was an enlightening and well-conducted interview, but the guy must have felt like a laboratory sample rather than a financial contributor to a universal service.

The man that Billen describes there is a sex predator. He shouts sexual things at children. Normally, the moralistic, censorious, and hypocritical bobbleheads at The Times — especially those on its Comment desk — would be enraged.

Because Billen’s job here is to attack the BBC, he contorts himself into a kind of defence of a middle-aged man who enjoys shouting at schoolchildren who he finds sexually alluring. Apparently, if a sexual predator purchases a TV licence their small financial contribution should guarantee them a thoroughly respectful hearing over their disgusting behaviour. I’m happy for BBC balance to tip in favour of children and away from men who make it terrifying for school girls to walk home.

The Times will, as it always does, pretend that this a) didn’t happen or b) has been entirely misconstrued. But the words as written are quite clear. Notice how the man’s behaviour is framed — “[He] has phoned in to defend men like himself who shout out their appreciation to short-skirted schoolgirls.” — combining a minimising of the disgusting behaviour (‘appreciation’ rather than ‘sexualised shouts’) with phrasing that blames the children for ‘drawing’ that attention (‘short-skirted schoolgirls’). Billen knew what he was doing; the BBC were the bad guys in his story and that meant the man shouting at children from his van was suddenly a hero of sorts.

The newspapers have, time and time again, slapped themselves on the back about reporting on sex offenders. Of course, the press can and should responsibly talk about the threat of sexual offenders in the population. But that word ‘responsibly’ is the one they often omit, preferring instead to frame the problem as larger than it is and to sell stories with one of the most powerful emotions — fear. That the same publications often sexualise underage people — both in copy and photoshoots — seems not to bother them remotely. Comfort with hypocrisy is almost a professional necessity if you work in British newspapers.