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The Paedophile Information Exchange was a product of a different time and culture

The Daily Mail has been exploring the relationship between the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL, now known as Liberty) and the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in the 1970s, and has embroiled…

Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt in the good (or bad) old days. PA

The Daily Mail has been exploring the relationship between the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL, now known as Liberty) and the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in the 1970s, and has embroiled deputy leader of the Labour Party and former NCCL legal officer Harriet Harman in a bitter war of words. Clearly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the exchange is much more about politics than history, and it has been characterised by piecemeal historical knowledge and shallow research.

To the Daily Mail and other media outlets, PIE’s affiliation with the NCCL and its presence at the organisation’s annual general meetings is incomprehensible, and is enough to condemn the NCCL and its members. If we accept this framework, no further analysis is required. But of course, it is highly problematic to identify and criticise the relationship without considering the history of the two organisations, issues regarding civil liberties politics more generally, and the context of 1970s sexual politics.

First, it is worth considering the structure and history of the NCCL and how this made affiliation possible. From interviews I have conducted – and from other sources – it certainly seems that NCCL staff, members and executives were hostile to PIE. Yet its structure – a legacy of its formation in the 1930s – meant the NCCL had a strong democratic streak, which permitted widespread affiliations and the input of members and affiliates at annual general meetings. Anyone or any organisation that supported the NCCL could become a member, and the NCCL did not offer support to all these groups.

During the 1930s, this position made it possible for the NCCL to include members of the Communist Party of Great Britain while staying ostensibly “non-political”. Affiliation simply meant access to newsletters and material, and allowed organisations to raise issues at AGMs.

The rush to make politicians apologise or express regret relies on a base assumption that it is inappropriate for any organisation to have any relationship with a group working for paedophiles' rights, but the appropriateness of a civil liberties group having a relationship with a paedophile organisation is open to debate. While the NCCL-PIE affiliation is clearly problematic, it is worth looking in a bit more detail about the issues raised at the NCCL’s AGMs.

These covered the threat of chemical castration of sex offenders and the question of unlawful attacks and harassment of known or suspected paedophiles. Evidence of this can be easily sourced from NCCL Annual Reports and other printed sources in the Liberty Archive of the Hull History Centre.

Whatever we might think about the rights of sex offenders, it seems understandable that such issues were under discussion by a civil liberties body. Indeed, it was only for this reason that the NCCL Executive let them be raised.

What the Daily Mail’s campaign ignores, then, is the question of whether NCCL members from the 1970s should really be expected to apologise simply because they considered these civil liberties concerns – or because the structure of an organisation built long before they joined it permitted the affiliation of any member that claimed to support it.

Fighting the good fight?

Throughout its history, the NCCL’s reputation suffered whenever it associated with individuals or organisations whose civil liberties concerns bordered the margins of acceptability, be they communists in the 1930s and 1940s, mental health patients in the 1950s, National Front members during the 1980s, or terrorist suspects more recently. The difficulty is that those on the boundaries of acceptability are those most likely to need to test the boundaries of civil liberty. The NCCL has therefore always been unable to avoid controversial and divisive issues, and it would be pointless if it did not engage with them.

Even so, PIE was a small and marginal organisation with around 200 members. It barely had a relationship with the NCCL, and it would be wrong to see the NCCL’s operations in the 1970s entirely through the prism of PIE. It now seems obvious that this was a highly problematic and potentially dangerous organisation, but PIE was also highly manipulative and able to present itself in different ways to different audiences.

It pursued a strategy of affiliating with organisations as a way of appearing presentable and networking with relationships with the NCCL, differentiating the idea of the “child-lover” who would never harm a child from that the sexual molester, and engaging misleadingly with wider discussions about the appropriate boundaries regarding the age of consent. As time went on, such positions simply became untenable for PIE as it was scrutinised by campaigners and the media.

As historians Mathew Thomson and Lucy Robinson have highlighted, this was a period in which the boundaries of sexual acceptability were open to debate. In a post-Freudian world, the idea that children were not sexual was increasingly queried, whilst counter-cultural and sexual liberation groups were eager to stress the culturally constructed nature of sexual values. This was not just the case in Britain.

Although PIE was clearly met with hostility throughout its existence, that it existed and even dared to have aspirations of entering the mainstream only shows how different the sexual politics of the 1970s were from those of the present day. It is probably more historically useful to understand those values, what they represented, how they emerged and how they conflicted with more mainstream sexual mores than to view them entirely through the lens of our contemporary political, social and cultural norms.

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34 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Goodwin

    Post Doctoral Fellow in Public Policy at University of Cambridge

    This article is the only sensible thing I have read on this story so far. Evidence-based and even-handed - credit to the author & the blog for posting

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  2. Charles Dowie

    Retired/Researcher

    It is not about apology Chris - your analysis is way off track - a piece for teh sake of a pice I think. This is about morals and behavioural traits. What was know and what was done about it reflects those morals - or lack of them.

    I really do think academics should stop trying to 'justify' this lack of moral leadership - after all these people are now leaders of our community - would you like to rethink?

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    1. Mark Goodwin

      Post Doctoral Fellow in Public Policy at University of Cambridge

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      All due respect Charles I'm not sure that another round of condemnation or 'justification' would really add anything on this story. Seems more important to do some proper research and try to establish the facts of the case, in the proper context as this article attempts to do. Obviously people are then free to make up their own minds about whatever rights and wrongs may be involved.

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    2. Paul Burns

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      I agree with Mark Godwin that the article was refreshing. Thank goodness for a calm voice amidst this questionable piece of journalism and the hysteria it has tapped into. The Mail and other mainstream media are hypocritical because they have contributed to the sexualisation of children

      We know the hysteria is out there because vigilantes have assaulted and killed innocent people they assumed were paedophiles

      Sexual abuse of children is a terrible crime and some were naive in response to the case made by PIE that their members were not exploiters but sought to liberate children. However, many members of the public only began to understand the deviousness that paedophilia can involve when clerical sexual abuse became a international scandal

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    3. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      "A piece for the sake of a piece" is a very cutting comment, Charles, and entirely unjustified. And your comments about morals are also beside the point. The whole issue is about morals, the way they have changed, and the basic "morality" of the Mail in whipping up synthetic hysteria on the issue.

      Who is justifying what? Chris Moores wasn't justifying anything in his most excellent article, just displaying a welcome grasp of the actual facts of the case.

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    4. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Paul Burns

      I think you are all missing the point of the issue - it is about moral leadership and judgement. It is not about political retribution.

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    5. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Chris Jeynes

      Fact? The article does not display knowledge of the facts - if it did we would all know more now wouldn't we.

      The fact remains - someone's moral compass was and still is spinning.

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    6. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      You said, "This is about morals and behavioural traits. What was known and what was done about it reflects those morals - or lack of them. I really do think academics should stop trying to 'justify' this lack of moral leadership - after all these people are now leaders of our community - would you like to rethink?"

      What makes you think there was a "lack of moral leadership" in those days? As I read (and remember) the history, there was a vigorous moral debate then. The "point" is that we can…

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    7. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Chris Jeynes

      I strongly believe that everyone has a moral compass and it is not shrouded through time lapse. My argument is still that the morally right thing to have done was made it very plain what needed to be done - not turn a blind eye.

      There - that is my interest - what is yours?

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    8. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      My interest? As a Christian my morality is fairly "traditional" and as a scientist I like to see valid arguments. As both I am deeply interested in the truth. And I am not a moral relativist.

      One issue here is, did Harman and Dromey do wrong? To which the answer seems to be a pretty clear NO. They systematically opposed what the PIE stood for.

      Another issue is, did they do wisely? Here we are being asked to judge if their apparent (and limited) toleration of the PIE was culpable…

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    9. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Chris Jeynes

      Apologies for typos Chris. On the point of not being a moral relativist - at what point in time do morals change? As society changes? Imagine then if it is OK for PIE to exist - because it was OK at the time - where would our morals be now?.

      I do believe that a moral compass does exists across time - it is an internal guide for us all to do the right thing - but it appears to have been a little awry at the time of PIE incident. What happened over the intervening period to re-set their moral compasses?

      My point - again - is that the present judgement and moral leadership of these people is in question.

      And I am not a fan of the Daily Fail either.

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    10. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      I am not a moral relativist. Morals don't change. What is wrong now was also wrong then, and vice versa.

      PIE existed then for various reasons, including (apparently) their ability to be all things to all men and to say what people wanted to hear. This is a matter of politics (and deviousness), not morals! What does change over time is our sensitivity to various issues, and consequently the political and social environment. PIE was viewed differently then to the way we now look back on…

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    11. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Chris Jeynes

      I am not talking about the organisations morals I am talking about individual moral compasses - politics is not my bag. However - I do take your point about sensitivities changing over time - witness Savile.

      Resetting the moral compass is what we are talking about - I too have researched the available 'evidence' on PIE and am not convinced that the H&D story stands up - at that time and certainly not in today's environment.

      The Daily Fail is on a crusade against H and others - but are failing…

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    12. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      Charles, I would emphatically endorse your desire for "our willingness as good men to do something about the ills we see in ... society" (but why refer to 'liberal'? I fervently believe in liberty, and, moreover, in liberality, but you mean something pejorative by 'liberal', and I don't know precisely what).

      We should not, and indeed we cannot (since "silence is consent") take a "neutral view of morals". This applies to everyone, including (and perhaps especially) academics. I refer consistently to Michael Polanyi's great book "Personal Knowledge" (1958), as fresh today as it was then.

      You question H&D's "intentions on why PIE were allowed air-time through a legitimate organisation [NCCL]". My reading of the evidence, sketchy as it is, tells me that they were honourable throughout. What exactly did they do wrong?

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    13. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Chris Jeynes

      Excellent reference on Polanyi. I follow his philosophy.

      ...seems that new 'evidence' on what happened and who knew what is being revealed on a daily basis in the media - not looking too good for the officers of the NCCL - damaged by the 'media effect'.

      What they did wrong was 'nothing' - they did nothing.

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  3. Hugh McLachlan

    Professor of Applied Philosophy at Glasgow Caledonian University

    This is an excellent piece. In yesterday's Times (26th February) there was similar sort of sensible article by, I think, David Aaronovitch.

    In Scotland, there is the curious position that one can get married at sixteen but cannot legally have sex a day before then. Commonsense would suggest that the age of consent for sex is too high or the age for consent for marriage is too low.

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  4. Steven Crook

    Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

    While I think the Mail has, as usual, missed the point entirely, I'm not so sure that Harman et.al are entirely correct in their statements saying that PIE was so marginal that they'd practically not heard of it and really didn't know what they were about.

    I was a teenager during the 70s and I'm fairly sure I remember a representative of PIE being interviewed on the BBC PM programme. It stuck in my mind, because my mother was in the kitchen at the time and she got pretty angry that a group like PIE was even given air time. I'm pretty sure I remember the PIE rep. saying that children were naturally sexual and that there was nothing wrong with a consensual sexual relationship between adults and children.

    Of course memory is fallible, does anyone out there have any memory of this?

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  5. Hugh McLachlan

    Professor of Applied Philosophy at Glasgow Caledonian University

    Should we assume that all other countries that have a different age of consent for sex than we have at present in the UK are irrational and immoral?

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    1. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Hugh McLachlan

      Hugh: you ask, "Should we assume that all other countries that have a different age of consent for sex than we have at present in the UK are irrational and immoral?" It seems obvious to me that you assume that the answer to this question should be "No", as indeed it should be since the fact that other countries are different from us makes them neither necessarily irrational nor necessarily immoral! (This is ignoring the problem that "countries" are capable of neither rationality nor morality - only people are capable of that!)

      So why do you ask the question? Excessive brevity on the internet is not informative.

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    2. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Hugh McLachlan

      A philosophical response? or just a teddy bear in the corner because someone dared question you? I expected more from you.

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    3. Paul Burns

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Hugh McLachlan

      Such sensitivity to the suggestion of sarcasm!

      Adding the age of consent to the debate with such brevity was unhelpful.

      As you have picked up the ball and stormed off, the rest of us will have continue with the game that we were playing before you joined us.

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  6. Steven Crook

    Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

    There was an interesting interview with Ian Paice on the BBC World At One yesterday. He's been investigating PIE and probably knows more about the group than anyone else.

    From what he said, it's clear that PIE was not some distant affiliate that no-one knew anything about, NCCL actually put paid adverts in PIEs magazine. A magazine clearly that intended to provide support and encouragement to paedophiles
    Listen here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01t01rb.

    Didn't NCCL have a motion to recommend the reduction of the age of consent to 10?

    Not suggesting Harman et.al. are directly responsible, but I can't help feeling that there's been a lot of scurrying for cover as they (and others) realise that all those views they held 40 years ago are something of a liability.

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    1. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Steven Crook

      It is Ian Pace (not "Paice"), and his blog is promised to cover it later. Here is some information he gives, "without comment" :-

      http://ianpace.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/nccl-and-pie-documentary-evidence-1/

      It strikes me that 40 years ago people were debating the age of consent in good faith. We now have concluded that the age of consent should be nowhere near as low as was mooted then, but that (in itself) does not make them monsters (even if we now all agree that they were wrong…

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    2. Charles Dowie

      Retired/Researcher

      In reply to Chris Jeynes

      ...you are still missing the point in all this - actions have consequences (as does inaction). And I recall the 70's very well and any debate on sexual exploitation of children was abhorent even then. So who tried to change the nations morals - would that be our clear thinking political leader or should I call them followers since leadership means exactly that and it is clear from what has been said that they were simply following opinion. This is all starting to sound like a Nuremburg Defence - sadly.

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    3. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Charles Dowie

      Charles: there are all sorts of people around who have opinions I consider immoral. But following what Voltaire supposedly said, that doesn't make the debate of those opinions itself execrable (you said the "debate on sexual exploitation of children was abhorrent even then", and note that those who advocated it did not think it was "exploitation").

      And the "nation" doesn't have morals, only people have morals! What the nation has is a common law and common custom, neither of which is…

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    4. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to Chris Jeynes

      I accept that the opinions held by the NCCL 40 years ago were in good faith, but that's really not the point. They were wrong then, they're just more obviously wrong now.

      All the NCCL 3 had to do was say yes, we got it wrong, we should have done more and we didn't. Instead, all we get is something that appears to be the three monkeys defence.

      Harman's Newsnight interview is something of a revelation. I've wonder if she is fit to be deputy leader of the labour party, not because of what she…

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    5. Chris Jeynes

      Senior researcher at University of Surrey

      In reply to Steven Crook

      Fair point. I thought they were clumsy too. I suspect that they were thrown off balance by the outrageous attack in the Forger. Easy to say they should be used to it, but the Forger people are very clever and know which buttons to press.

      I still think this storm is entirely synthetic, and persist in thinking very highly of the NCCL as was, and now Liberty. We are safer because of them, lapses and all.

      Charles Dowie was talking (properly) of morality. My view is that people like them upheld morality. Everyone is flawed, but they are heroes too. We should keep some perspective.

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    6. Steven Crook

      Programmer and software designer at Currently resting

      In reply to Chris Jeynes

      I have no problem accepting that the NCCL did some good work, and I'd agree that the Mail isn't doing anyone much of a service in the way its gone about things. But.

      The NCCL 3 have mishandled the entire business. They've managed to turn a molehill into a mountain that could still crush Harmans career.

      Having heard part of Mr Dromey's statement today it's clear that they still think that bluster about their time at the NCCL coupled with accusing the Mail of gutter journalism will see them through.

      Who knows, they may be right, the press have a short attention span. If they can hold out until the end of next week they'll be safe. Unless something nasty falls out of the NCCL archive.

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  7. Dennis Anthony

    logged in via Facebook

    A bit off topic but how did we get in the position of using the word 'paedophile'?

    I am a paedophile and statistically most of those subscribed here are also.

    Surely the apt word, to describe the proclivity/leaning would be paedosexual as in hetero/homosexual, asexual.

    I am also a Francophile - does this mean I like to abuse France?

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