Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Paedophilia hysteria is robbing our kids of their childhoods

Banning photography at school nativity plays is just the latest example of political correctness gone mad, writes Fionola Meredith

Yule can't be serious: Some schools have banned parents from taking photos at nativity plays. Fears are growing that school sports days may also be slapped with a similar photo ban

How the hell did we get so paranoid? This is where the public obsession with paedophilia has taken us: we have now got to the stage where even a parent taking a photograph at a school nativity play is regarded as a potential threat.

We should be smiling at the tiny, gap-toothed Wise Man, who's forgotten his frankincense – not worrying about the danger posed to him by faceless predators.

Children in group photos of school concerts routinely have their eyes blacked out, creating a deeply sinister effect. One parent, at a school in Bangor, recently insisted that an image of her child be removed from an online picture gallery; the youngster was photo-shopped out, leaving a bizarre blank space in the line of children.

What message does this send to the child himself, or to his classmates? What are we telling them about the world and other people by reacting with such extreme and unwarranted caution?

God forbid that any parent should try to take a picture of their child winning a medal at the school swimming gala. In today's febrile climate, the very act would be seen as positively Savile-esque.

If they are permitted to do so – under strict supervision, of course – the image must only be from the waist up, with nobody else's youngster anywhere near the shot.

Much safer to do, as the Child Protection in Sport unit suggests, and "consider using models, or illustrations" of children, rather than actual photos.

In fact, why not replace all the photographs of birthday parties, concerts and Christmases in family albums with mocked-up ones featuring drawings of your children? Because you just don't know who could get their grubby hands on that album, do you? And safety always comes first.

Many schools have taken the decision to ban parental photography completely, rather than take the 'risk' that the pictures could fall into the hands of child-molesters, using them for their own depraved ends, or that individual children could somehow be identified and targeted for grooming.

As the hysteria rises, there are even warnings that those sweet nativity scenes could end up appearing on child pornography websites, with the heads cut off and stuck on to the bodies of naked children.

Meanwhile, schools and youth organisations – responding uneasily to public fear – justify their actions by making vague references to the Data Protection Act, or the Children Act.

But there is no law in existence which demands a ban on photography. Indeed, four years ago, after a father was threatened with arrest if he took photographs of his daughter in her school's Christmas show, the Information Commissioner went on the record to confirm that photographs simply taken for a family album are exempt from data protection laws.

It has made no difference. We continue to approach the ordinary photography of children as only one tiny step away from child pornography. Doesn't anyone realise how seriously screwed up all this is, both on practical grounds and as a matter of principle?

If we take a deep breath, calm down and start thinking rationally, it's clear to see that children are exposed to negligible risk by a parent snapping a picture of the school nativity or of the races on sports day.

The likelihood of those photographs finding their way into the prized collection of a predatory paedophile is zero to none. Conversely, banning photographs entirely, or removing specific images of children at a parent's behest, does nothing whatsoever to ensure youngsters' safety.

This is not about privacy, or security, or safeguarding children. It's about giving in to irrational, out-of-control fears and fooling ourselves that we are protecting our children, when we are doing no such thing.

Such knee-jerk, authoritarian reactions merely indicate that an unhealthy amount of attention is being expended on unfounded fears of lurking bogeymen, hiding in the shadows, ready to pounce.

As far as children are concerned, concerts and plays and sports days should be cheerful occasions, where the worst thing that can happen is that they come last in the egg-and-spoon race, not that they will become the fantasy object of a prowling weirdo.

Thoughts of exploitation, harm and abuse do not belong here.

But if you want to raise a confused, panicky child, who's terrified of the world around him, this is exactly the way to do it.

What's worse is that this mania has infected us as an entire society. We have corrupted our own innocence, not just that of our children, by giving in to this grotesque, paranoid dread.

By regarding every adult who interacts with a child as potentially hostile and dangerous, we contaminate these ordinary human relationships, make them subject to suspicion, freight them with terrible fantasies of the awful things that could happen.

In allowing our fears to become magnified out of all reasonable proportion, we look at the world as though through the imagined eyes of a depraved sexual predator.

And that really is the most twisted thing of all.

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