The massed angry ranks of Little England found themselves a new cause and a new figurehead this week. Still riding the wave of popular acclaim that her News of the World campaign to name and shame paedophiles brought her (claim to fame: the famous attack on a paediatrician from confused nonce-hunters), and having pretty much picked clean the bones of Heather Mills McCartney, The Sun's editor Rebekah Wade kicked off a new venture naming and shaming judges giving 'child sex beasts', crack addicts, muggers and other scum 'soft sentences'.
Heading the reasoned debate was Home Secretary John Reid who pronounced that the sentence given to child sex offender Craig Sweeney was 'unduly lenient'. (The widely reported announcement being everything to do with concern for public safety and nothing to do with distracting from the fact that, right now, the Home Office looks like a scene from 'The Poseidon Adventure'.)
Picture the scene. Ranks of concerned citizens march on the Old Bailey waving placards that read 'NO TO NONCE JUDGES' and 'NO MORE CUNTY COURT JUDGEMENTS' (a pedo/paedo-style spelling mistake or play on words? We'll never know). They chant 'MAGISTRATES OUT! MAGISTRATES OUT!' (a woman having her period is later severely beaten - somebody said 'menstruate' and things got out of hand). On the steps of the court, megaphone in hand stands John Reid. 'What do we want?' he shouts. 'Longer sentences to placate over-inflated public fears!' roars the crowd. 'When do we want them?' 'Before the Tories get any further ahead in the opinion polls!' A group of bereaved parents are then ushered in to have their unbearable grief mawkishly exploited before being despatched back to their obscurity.
This despite Sweeney being given a life sentence and the Government's own laws dictating that he should be eligible for parole (or is it the much stricter 'release on licence'? Nobody seems to care) after five years. It also remains to be seen if Sweeney will be released after five years, that being the date when his case will be *reviewed* not when he'll definitely be put back on the street. It's quite likely that he will be deemed unfit for release particularly when you remember that the treatment and rehabilitation of paedophiles as an issue is about as popular as, well, paedophiles.
It's at this point, and in deference to the chimps' tea party that passes for intelligent discourse in this country right now, with its terms dictated by the mutton-headed and over-emotional, that we make the obligatory proviso that we at The Friday Thing are not pro-nonce nor think this is a problem that should be ignored. (It's much the same way that you can't moan about the Labour Party having the morals of a tomcat without being accused of being a Tory provocateur, or wish out loud that American troops would shoot fewer Iraqi civilians without being called anti-American and pro-suicide bomber or accused of wanting Saddam back.)
The thing is, Reid's attack on so-called lenient judges (like Tony's smackdown of the Human Rights Act the other week) is an attack on a problem of the Government's own making. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 allows prisoners to be released halfway through their sentences. Its sentencing guidelines give offenders a discount on their sentences if they plead guilty. Reid going off on one is like Darth Vader going on the record about the barbaric practice of blowing up planets with giant space stations. The solution is to either fix things or stop whining.
It's also galling to see Rebekah Wade pronouncing on this kind of thing. If her husband, SAS EastEnder Ross Kemp, had decided to press charges after her alleged assault on him last year, Wade might have been looking for a little undue leniency herself. The Sun's (laudable) domestic violence awareness-raising campaign seems to have been buried in the same grave as the story of what lead to Wade spending a night in a police cell.
Doesn't it seem that moral panics are coming thicker and faster? Like Government scandals, you wait for ages for one and then loads come at once (only a cynic would suggest that the timing of both are linked). Just when paedophiles thought they were off the hook as Public Enemy No. 1 with the advent of the knife murder as this summer's reason not to leave the house. Now it seems that nonces are back in the frame, hand in hand with high court judges. The kids with the blades can get back to their shankings, undisturbed by the Government's and the tabloids' attentions just as they were the week before last.
And as ever, the hysteria involved in these panics is inversely proportional to the number of facts used in the screaming headlines or fat-headed, bandwagon-straddling ministerial announcement. Children are four times more likely to be murdered by - often mentally ill - family members or carers than by marauding 'child sex beasts'. Don't tell anybody though, we don't want to undermine the 'preferred model' of the family, do we? That's the job of co-habitees and homosexuals wanting to put their relationships on formal footings.
The figures surrounding 'undue leniency' similarly don't support the calls for tarring and feathering high court judges. In his five years as the Government's top lawyer, the Attorney General has referred 339 cases of 'soft sentencing' to the Court of Appeal and almost all of those cases had their sentences increased. This in a country, as Jonathan Freedland put it in the Guardian on Wednesday, where 'proportionally, we are the biggest jailer in western Europe; we imprison more people per capita than China, Saudi Arabia or Burma'.
Still, this hysteria whipped up in the name of headlines and misdirection is not a new phenomenon. In the newly translated Gospel of Judas, when Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount ('Blessed are the meek', 'Blessed are the peacemakers', etc), a heckler is quoted: 'Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy? Get to fuck you unduly lenient bastard! Oi Magdelene, show us your tits!'