Earlier this year, two British men were arrested for their involvement with an online paedophile network that spanned the globe and traded in more than 400,000 images of children being abused.
After a two-year investigation by the FBI in the US and the Queensland police in Australia, the images were passed to their countries of origin, and eight children from the UK – between the ages of 6 and 14 – were identified after a painstaking search. Six men are now serving jail terms for sexually abusing them.
Yet this is only one investigation, one seizure of one collection of images, one drop in a very deep ocean. Six men provided the images, but how many looked at them? And once an image is released to the web, it can never really be erased; even when the child in that photograph is an adult, the image remains frozen in time.
According to last year's annual report by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which hunts down illegal internet content, the number of images of serious child abuse online had quadrupled over the previous three years.
While the IWF's success means it is rare for a UK site to host an abusive website, last year it identified a core of 2,755 websites hosted abroad and investigated 31,776 reports of illegal images of children.
This is the dark side of the web, which lets individuals transmit hundreds of photos from one continent to another, at the click of a mouse. And they do. Every day.
It's one of the most emotive subjects around. And taboo. Which is why, when the BBC decided to create Fiona's Story, a drama imagined from the perspective of a wife whose husband is caught downloading illegal images, my extensive research brief was paramount.
Behind the headlines of every arrest, there are often important figures sidelined in the story. Who talks about the offender's family? Who cares? There is often an assumption that the wife "must have known". ' Preconceptions are often a bulwark to caring too much. But what if, one morning, the police knock on your door, and this is the first you know of your partner's illegal online activities?
The script – woven together from a collection of stories from anonymous interviewees – explores the effects on an "everyman" family when the husband is arrested. It was already well under way when, with horrible coincidence, the comic actor Chris Langham was charged with exactly this offence. It brought the discomfort close to home: a respected professional, a family man, a much-liked individual, now charged with making images of children being sexually abused. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison for making 15 counts of indecent images of children.
Terminology is important here: "making" an image is the legal way to describe downloading, "distributing" is the charge when an individual sends an image to someone else. And how are the lines drawn between "just looking" and those doing the physical abuse? Many of the women I interviewed, whose partners were arrested for downloading images, said their men protested that "they were only pictures", that they could separate two-dimensional images from living children. But in a realm where images of abuse are currency, normal rules are eroded; letting fantasy take over is a dangerous game.
This is why the language used to discuss the activity is vital, and it's not political correctness that prompts many professionals to shun the term "child pornography". The people behind Child Exploitation & Online Protection (CEOP), who receive an average of 400 reports a month from the public, and last year investigated almost a million images of child sex abuse, say that calling these pictures "child porn" only helps the abusers. "Pornography", they argue, is legal in most countries, so the word invites ideas of compliance and legitimacy, rather than forced abuse. Paul Griffiths headed the victim identification team at CEOP on the recent FBI case, trawling through images in an attempt to identify and rescue children. "These images," he says, "are crime-scene photos where children are being subjected to sexual abuse." Jim Gamble, chief executive of CEOP, puts it just as bluntly: "If I were to take a woman to a hotel room, commit rape and take a picture, no one would call that pornography."
Once found, what to do with the men whose viewing appetites feed this abuse? Steve Lowe, director of the Ray Wyre Independent Consultancy, works with offenders and their families. "I'm interested in child protection, not castigating people," he says. "But over the past nine years, the whole attitude to the problem has become very antagonistic. There's little interest politically and publicly in providing proper treatment facilities. It has done such disservice to children."
Another group stepping into this breach is the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which, between opening its "Stop It Now!" helpline in 2003 and this June, received 10,976 calls. In the first year, one internet offender called; last year, it was up to 199.
The scale of the problem is only starting to come to light. It may still be taboo, but it is clear that the children in those images – and the families involved – need somebody to talk about it.
'Fiona's Story' will be broadcast on BBC1 at 9pm on 31 August. For more information, call 'Stop It Now!' on 0808 1000 900; the Ray Wyre consultancy on 01483 527 857; or visit www.ceop.gov.uk or www.iwf.org.uk
Wife 1: 'I can't tell anyone'
"It was 8am on a Monday, over a year ago, when suddenly there were all these voices in my house. I thought they were Jehovah's Witnesses at first. Then they said they were the police. They didn't tell me why they were there for ages but they knew things about my children – their names and what they were doing. I got more and more scared – I don't think I've ever shaken so badly. Then they showed me the search warrant – I couldn't believe my eyes. The words 'indecent images of children'. I was in shock and had no inkling of what my partner was doing, yet at the same time I had a sort of sudden understanding of why he hadn't been easy to live with for so long. I had to send the police off to the business we run, to arrest him. I thought, that's the end of my world.
The first thing he said when he was arrested was, 'I'm going to have to commit suicide.' That's the first thing I thought he'd do when I read the search warrant. I've known him for 20 years – I knew what he'd think.
Meanwhile, they searched the house, took away any computer materials. The senior policewoman came with me to wake my teenage daughter. I told her what had happened. She didn't take it in. Then we went to the school. My other daughters were taken into a room one by one with me and their older sister and the police, and told what had happened. They were devastated. Then, without me, they were questioned about their relationship with their father. It was devastating. That their dad had this interest, and also that someone might think he was doing that to them, which was not the case.
They chewed us up and spat out. How do you deal with it? We did lots of talking. We were all sitting on a bed that night, and someone thought of dad all on his own, and we sent him a text, saying we loved and supported him and were there for him. He didn't come home. He could have, but didn't. It was better that we had some space.
We spoke on the phone the next night. It was dreadful. He's such a kind-hearted person, and he felt strongly that he wanted his children to have a childhood, yet it didn't occur to him that he was taking away someone else's. I've always thought the people doing these things were monsters, but I can't think that any more because this does not define him. He has a heartfelt desire to deal with the problem, and it is something he has to atone for. He got a non-custodial sentence, but this has tainted him forever. I feel tainted forever. I didn't tell anyone for an awfully long time: my mother and siblings don't know. I did tell a few friends, but aside from one couple who stood by both of us, they support me but not him. I don't blame them, but it upsets me – it doesn't work unless they support all of us.
I'm an open person, but I can't communicate with people in the way I used to: there is always this black cloud that I can't tell anyone about. I feel sad about it, but I made the choice for my family to have as normal a future as possible, and for my future and his to be as normal as possible. We'd been together for years but actually got married after this happened. Just our daughters were present. We realised our family was the most important thing in our life. And as a couple? We have a lot of work to do, but that has to come after he has done the work on himself first. If I didn't have absolute confidence that in his heart he wants to overcome this, I couldn't do it.
None of us view his arrest as anything but positive because it is really the only route out. He needed help to stop; I know that he tried to stop himself at least once because actions he took ,which didn't make sense at the time, now fall into place. But how could anybody with three daughters, addicted to illegal activities of this nature and on whom the entire family was financially dependent, ever admit what he was doing?"
Wife 2: 'Neighbours won't say hello'
"When my husband and I were first arrested, we were about to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, so I thought I knew him. We met at university and married at 22. Both teachers, we had two children, and had worked our way up through the profession. I became a university lecturer, he a head of department. We were a stereotypical middle-class family.
The knock came on my door at 7am. My husband was away. It was the police who told me they were arresting me on the grounds of suspicion that I'd been downloading child pornography. My jaw dropped. I didn't say 'There must be a mistake,' or anything like that, I just stood there and burst into tears. They said I'd better get dressed – I couldn't. The policewoman came with me to my bedroom; I was trembling. I said, 'I don't know what to do, I can't decide what to wear,' and she said, 'How about what you wore yesterday?' 'But then you'll think I'm dirty,' I said. I curled up in a ball but they told me I had to witness what they were bagging up.
We've got tons of photographs, and they started searching them. Then, of course, the panic: what if we have a picture of the grandkids in the bath? I really can't applaud the police enough. They were polite and considerate, and explained that they take it in the context of the album as a whole.
In the police station it was horror. I'm a primary teacher as well, and chair of the school governors: my whole life has been dedicated to protecting children. You couldn't have accused me of anything worse. So every time they asked me if I had done this, or had I done that, I burst into tears. At the end of the day they bailed us both; I thought they'd let me go.
Back home, he admitted it straight away and oh, the fury, the horror, the confusion. And I'll never forget his reaction: "But it's only pictures." But they're pictures of real children, I said. The absolute shock on his behalf that they were connected to real children kind of helped. He didn't think he was hurting a child. He'd denied it to the police, so spent two years trying to reverse his statement, but they said that until the computer was searched there was no point in another interview. It was two-and-a-half years before it came to court.
Although we'd both retired from full-time teaching, I was still part-time. The day after the arrest, they withdrew our police clearance to work with children. I had to resign from all my posts, two days before term started. I let everybody down. I said we had a horrendous family circumstance, and I had to leave. Everyone assumed I had days to live, and were so sympathetic, and I was thinking, 'If only they knew.'
I never lie, so we drew up the drawbridge as I couldn't face people. Next, social services said we couldn't see our grandchildren without supervision. We were a key part of the family working structure: babysitting, that kind of thing. That all collapsed. They said they were telling our daughter's borough immediately, and would visit her to make sure she protected her children from us both. So we had to tell the kids. There's no way of doing it; I just blurted it out.
In the two-year lull, my husband and I had no physical contact. I always thought if it happened to me I would go – how could you possibly stay with such a despicable creature? But initially I was so distraught that I wasn't fit to go. Then I thought he was going to commit suicide. That would solve everything, I thought. I didn't know I was capable of such hate.
The truth gradually emerged: he had retired from teaching on the grounds of depression and ill health 10 years earlier, and had got further depressed, and was on anti-depressants. Then he was drinking, and we'd had terrible rows – I'd stomp off to bed, and he'd go on the computer. He never bought anything or visited illegal sites, but met people online who were swapping pictures. And because he had sent pictures he was charged with distributing. Whatever he'd been looking for he hadn't found it, and the police found that he'd stopped doing it 10 months prior to the arrest.
Time gradually heals; you can't be angry every day. I said I couldn't be a wife but I would be a friend. After the second Christmas, when I couldn't be with our grandchildren, I reached rock-bottom. That's when I rang the Lucy Faithfull helpline. They said I had to share this with people. So, one by one, I did. My husband and my father used to be so close, and I think that's damaged now. I have to say, it's turned out to be Christians or people with strong faith who have been most forgiving and believe he deserves a second chance.
My husband got a 15-month sentence, and had to do seven and a half. The neighbours were good to me while he was away. They looked after me, but now that he's home, they don't say hello, not even to me. It's not nastiness, just silence.
I inch forward each week, but then the probation service meetings send me right back. I won't be able to leave it behind until it stops hitting me in the face every week. Once his probationary licence ends, he'll be on the sex offenders register for 10 years, and have to tell the police where he's sleeping. I would have never have thought I could contemplate putting it behind me, but I want to be a wife. I'm trying."
Wife 3: 'My child cries all the time'
"The police came to our door on a winter's morning, just after 6am, arrested my husband, and took away the hard-drive of our computer. The children in the photos my husband looked at are not the only ones who were affected; I will never forget driving our children to school that day – the whole thing profoundly hurt them. One was extremely emotional: crying, not wanting to go to school, needing to know what was going on. The other was deathly quiet in the back seat, all the emotion bottled up inside. At school they became disruptive, misbehaving; it was very difficult.
I am not an apologist: it makes me feel sick to think that my husband looked at indecent images. They might have been "low category", but it still makes me shudder. But I want to know why – why do men do this? No one seems to be asking that question, and without it, nothing will change. I know that my husband never had an inkling of anything like this until he began an IT job to determine the safety of internet sites.
All the focus goes on catching the men, and while this is necessary, I stand bewildered as to why no one seems to be trying to get to the root of the problem. It has made me think about the fact that adult pornography has overtones of child fetishism. On the day my husband was sentenced to time in prison, I walked past a newspaper stand and saw the front page of a tabloid that had a glamour-model in school uniform, spilling out of her shirt, wearing suspenders. It seemed such an ironic example of the confusion that exists.
The pressure of uncertainty between the arrest and conviction was intense. He immediately lost his job, and while I was fortunate to be working, the burden of financial commitments is heavy. It's no surprise to me that men commit suicide before they go to court. It is so upsetting when the people you have for years counted as your closest dearest friends shun you. For my husband, it was like closing a door on his whole life up to that point. He can't go back – he has lost his career, his friends; there is no return to the life that he had spent all those years building for himself.
My husband had not shared images with others, had not saved them, and had begun looking comparatively recently; he somehow thought he could stay on the right side of the law if he looked at images that were called "artistic".
He had such self-deception before his arrest: in the police sessions he said things like, "I never looked at child pornography – it said on the website that these were artistic images," and once he even said, "But the children were smiling". Immediately after his arrest, he began going to therapy, and those sessions were a process of discovery for us both. I've found out things that I never wanted to know, small things, but horrible: that "making an image" means downloading an image, say.
I can't stop feeling that I should have spotted something. I can't help asking myself why didn't I see what was going on. I feel very sharply the injustice of this for me and my children. It has been very hard holding the family through this, but I am trying to keep us together."