Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Harriet Harman & the NCCL

Is this a story or isn't it? On the one hand, it's been public knowledge for 40 years that the Paedophile Information Exchange was affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties, and that some senior Labour politicians cut their teeth in the NCCL. On the other, it just kinda has the hallmarks of a story doesn't it? Senior politicians, paedophiles: that tends to be a combustible mix.

The reason that this didn't feel like a story (at least until Harman and Ed Miliband turned it into another 'isn't the Daily Mail beastly?' campaign) is principally that it's not new. But there's something odd in how happy people seem to be to accept the old autre temps autre moeurs excuse on this one. Sure, the 70s were odd, sure the NCCL had a 'no enemies on the left' policy that brought in some rather uncomfortable fellow travellers, but you know? Things were different then. What's odd about this is that often the same people shuffling their feet and mumbling it about the NCCL feel very different about Jimmy Saville and Operation Yewtree. Which is it? Do we sweep our weird pasts under the carpet, or do we prosecute them with the moral fervour of the present day?

In terms of the meat of the story, there are really three principal charges. The first is the simplest one: PIE were affiliated to the NCCL. This is usually defended as a generic 'everyone could be an affiliate' - Harman has said as much here. But I'm not sure this entirely washes. The NCCL were asked to clarify their relationship with PIE in 1977 and said:
The NCCL has no policy on [the Paedophile Information Exchange’s] aims – other than the evidence that children are harmed if, after a mutual relationship with an adult, they are exposed to the attentions of the police, press and court.
Which is a lot closer to support than a generic 'anyone could join'.

The second charge is that the NCCL supported the PIE's principal policy of lowering the age of consent. The defence here is twofold. The first part is that this all happened before Harriet Harman joined the NCCL, which is sort of true but only sort of relevant (Patricia Hewitt, for instance, was in charge of the NCCL at this point). The second is that this was all part of the campaign to equalise the age of consent for gays and straights alike, and that opposing it was part of the prevailing homophobia at the time. Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, horseshit. The NCCL proposed lowering the age of consent to 14 in any circumstances, and also to 10 if it "was demonstrated that [consent] was genuinely given", which is basically jaw-dropping.

The third charge is that Harriet Harman signed a letter from the NCCL in which it campaigned for the law against child pornography to be loosened. It's the only one of the three charges that really strikes against Harman herself, and it's also the one with the best defence - it was a classic civil liberties defence against censorship. Not all naked photos of children are pornography (as a million white pile rugs with post-bath babies in parents' albums can confirm) and it would be ridiculous to prosecute on that basis. That said, the proposed catch, where photos would not be illegal unless the photo "caused the model physical harm or pyschological or emotional disorder" looks a bit loop-holey to me.

There's nothing exactly slam-dunk in any of this as far as Harman is concerned (although it does rather underline how loopy the left was in the 1970s), although the questions are a bit more pointed for Dromey and Hewitt. I think there are legitimate questions though (not least, 'what the hell were you thinking joining an outfit that had these blokes in it?') and it's daft to try and wriggle out of it all as a 'smear campaign'.

There's one point about Zoe Williams's article defending Harman that does need addressing though.
It is extremely easy to taint anybody with anything, so long as you set your bar of what's reasonable and proportionate low enough – as McCarthy found in America, as the German right found when it tried to paint the Green party as a gathering of paedophiles. (To halt anthropogenic climate change? Good plan!).
Yes, about that. The German left was even more flat-out batshit crazy in the 60s and 70s than the British left, and the Green Party in particular was definitely infiltrated by paedophiles in the 70s and even the 80s. Danny Cohn-Bendit's 'hilarious' story about getting toddlers to wank him off was very much not an exception, even for him. Here he is (and remember this man is the leader of the MEP group that includes the UK Greens and the SNP) again:

At nine in the morning, I join my eight little toddlers between the ages of 16 months and 2 years. I wash their butts, I tickle them, they tickle me and we cuddle. … You know, a child's sexuality is a fantastic thing. You have to be honest and sincere. With the very young kids, it isn't the same as it is with the four-to-six-year-olds. When a little, five-year-old girl starts undressing, it's great, because it's a game. It's an incredibly erotic game.
You don't have to be Joe McCarthy not to want that under your daughter's bed. But then, Cohn-Bendit's never really had to explain this to his  German or French voters, so maybe that isn't really a story either?

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