And then you remember.. what makes you want to do journalism: asking the uncomfortable questions

A long, really long time ago I was a reporter on Computer Weekly, in the days when you could swat really quite large animals with it, rather than anaemic spiders as is now the case. One of the stories that I got into in depth there was BT’s Customer Service Systems (CSS) project. Great fun it was (though too far back in time for Google to turn up anything useful; but it’s the reason why, when you call 150, that BT can give you service) finding out what was going on, and going wrong in the sprawl of the project; and great journalistic fun it was too listening to the PR people from BT (generally only one, but anyway) being very insistent about how things weren’t at all how my contacts were all telling me it was.

You only realise how you’ve missed that feeling when you get it again. And I feel like I have, over Operation Ore. Until a few weeks ago, I thought – like you probably did or do – that it was a stunning success for the police, in which they nailed a stack of paedophiles bang to rights. Weirdly that bang-to-rights list seemed to include Pete Townshend, fabulous Who guitarist. But, you know, people are strange, that sort of thing.

Then I got a call one day from Barry at PC Pro magazine, offering an article by Duncan “Zircon” Campbell about it, saying that while yes, Ore had caught a number of really horrible paedophiles, there were a number of people who had been charged – and frequently convicted, though if you’re charged with viewing child porn then there’s not much difference since the police will go around to your employer and your friends and so on – where there simply wasn’t enough supporting evidence to suggest that they had been viewing child porn. Things like no images on their hard drive; no evidence of accessing the porn sites; and peculiar patterns whereby their credit card had been used to buy access to sites yet they’d not gone on to access it. Which is kinda strange, isn’t it? But what the police had overlooked was evidence of fraud on the site: such as repeated transactions from the same IP address using different cards to sign up but not access a site. Like you’d expect from a fraudster, not a porn-seeker of any ilk.

To which you say – oh, come on, they were found guilty, they musta done it.

Well, not so fast. Courts and court processes are rather different from the way you’d try to frame an argument. “I didn’t” doesn’t stand up very well. Though equally “you did”, in legalese, can be a long way from the reality of what you did do if a computer is involved.

But I’ve also discovered, on getting into the topic, that there’s a well-oiled PR machine which is very insistent that Ore was, or is, a success, and that anyone or anything who says otherwise is misguided, wrong, and did you know that.. off the record…?

Bing! goes the little bell in the back of my head. I remember that, for sure. Big organisations? Protecting reputations? Whispers about some uncomfortable facts that would embarrass the big organisation? Renewed PR efforts? Oh, yes, it’s deja vu.

Background? Read

There’s something underneath all this, and parts of it don’t smell savoury at all. But today I got a call from someone who has collected a chunk of data about all this. I feel energised. Asking difficult questions about big things that you thought you knew about is a fundamental task in journalism. I think it’s time to ask some fundamental questions about a number of the Operation Ore cases.


  1. The only person I know who was caught by Ore was undoubtedly guilty as all hell. Just another data point. I suppose it comes from being the religious affairs correspondent of the Independent, but I have known two people busted for child porn; one a priest (and PR person), one a newspaper executive and former colleague. In both cases, the evidence was on their computers, though only one was busted through their credit card. And, if I remember, Pete Townshend also admitted having the pictures on his hard drive.

    I’m a lot less enthusiastic than you are about this story. I agree there is evidence that some of the people trawled were victims of CC card fraud. Some of them _may_ in theory have pleaded guilty to something they didn’t do. But I think you would have to look at the evidence in the cases which were bought to court; and that you would find then that much of it was found on the perpetrators’ hard disks.

  2. Charles

    Wednesday 16 May 2007 at 10:08 am

    Andrew, it’s good to have you jogging my elbow. I do repeatedly ask myself on this whether I’m being led up a garden path.

    There’s data both for and against at, for example, – evidence of emails from people trying to get to sites advertising kiddie stuff (which is sufficient, in UK law, to consist of “incitement” – that is, incitement to get someone to supply the muck); but also, at the end, what looks like a stat of an email from the portal owner saying he’s identified a lot of fraud on credit cards belonging to overseas people (ie outside the US) emanating from webmasters in Pakistan, in particular, which is what Duncan Campbell’s Gdn piece points out.

    The Pete Townshend case is an odd one, because that seems to be a sort of collateral-shooting-in-foot. He wrote about the circs on his blog; it’s reproduced on Smoking Gun and is really worth a read. What seems to have happened – though he’s not commenting on it specifically – is that his credit card details had been nicked and were used on Landslide, the porn portal. Separately, he was pursuing his own demons (remember “Tommy”? Remember the song “Fiddle About”?) and incriminated himself by researching Russian orphanages, which dumped a picture on his hard drive for the time when the cops came calling over the credit card entries.

    Though I’d have to differ with his claim that via search engines “the pathway to ‘free’ paedophilic imagery is – as it were – laid out like a free line of cocaine at a decadent cocktail party: only the strong willed or terminally uncurious can resist.” I’d not think of myself as especially strong willed or, I hope, terminally uncurious, but I find that stuff infinitely resistible. But then, I find cocaine eminently resistible too.

    Where people had images which could definitely be shown to be abuse, no question: that’s guilt. (Though of course the threshold is now, I think, “people who *appear* to be under 16”; and the government is trying to extend it to cartoons, which would put a lot of anime and manga into the frame.) But there seem to have been plenty more where there’s no supporting evidence, yet the cases went forward. In some cases the police wouldn’t even let people supply an alibi because they wouldn’t tell them what dates they were meant to have accessed the systems.

    There’s a huge backstory which various sites are pulling together more or less well. But it’s important to reexamine one’s assumption about what constitutes guilt in a number of the cases. That’s my point.

  3. This puts me in mind of Julie Amero – a supply teacher in the US who was convicted of impairing the morals of minors by displaying pornography on the class computer. She’s due to be sentenced on May 18, but the conviction seems flaky, to say the least. Doesn’t seem to have had a lot of coverage in the UK but there’s a lengthy piece in the Register:

  4. It’s refreshing that someone is taking a proper look at operation ore, i’m an incitement victim, where no eveidence was found. (There never was any, it’s a blatant case of fraud- yet 3 years in and I’m still awaiting trail) imagine your worst nightmare – times it by ten, that would have only taken you to 6 months…

    kind regards

  5. Child porn = images of anyone that appears to be under EIGHTEEN, not sixteen. Which basically means you can find child porn (or child abuse images as the police want you to call them) on almost any adult males computer, given that many 18+ porn models could be argued to LOOK 16-17.

  6. Charles

    Wednesday 16 May 2007 at 9:25 pm

    Thanks, PJ – though don’t they have to be doing something “lewd” too?

  7. “Lewd”? Not in UK law.
    “Indecent images” are what a jury decides to be so, but sentencing guidelines give a clue as to what constitutes “indecent”. As a guide to sentencing 5 levels of “indecent image” are defined:

    Level 1 – Images depicting nudity or erotic posing, with no sexual activity

    Level 2 – Sexual activity between children, or solo masturbation by a child

    Level 3 – Non-penetrative sexual activity between adult(s) and child(ren)

    Level 4 – Penetrative sexual activity between child(ren) and adult(s)

    Level 5 – Sadism or bestiality

  8. I am glad that someone is starting to ask about the ‘success’ of Operation Ore. I await CEOP’s imminent results with interest but here are a couple of pointers that might help in the interim:

    “Jim Gamble, assistant chief constable of the National Crime Squad, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We can name 102 children – clearly we won’t – and can also name and link them to the actual abuser.”

    102 children ‘saved’ (now around 140) sounds, and is, good but out of 4,500 arrests, represents only a 3% pickup of ‘actual abuse’.

    Given that the US authorities regularly claim a 33% pickup rate of actual abuse in simialr investigations and that the Met claimed a pre-Ore pick up rate of 6-7% for child pornography cases during the infamous BBC documentary which featured Pete Townshend, things appear rather less rosy. New Zealand manages a pick up rate of around 10%

    In Scotland, out of 350 raids, there were no convictions, no arrests and not one allegation of actual abuse.

    Interestingly, Mr Gamble chooses to reveal the headline rate of children ‘saved’, not the number of children actually abused or the number of abusers. Requests to NCS via FOI to release the number of actual abusers (alleged, prosecuted or convicted) were met with the claim that such information was not held centrally. Odd then the Mr Gamble, in the interview noted above, claims that of the 102 ‘saved’ [we] can also name and link them to the actual abuser.”

    I am sure that this information will emerge in due course but while we wait it is worth noting that equivalent US statistics the ratio of children ‘saved’ to actual abusers is about 2.5.

    “During FY 2003 ….As a result of Inspectors’ casework this past fiscal year, 91 child molesters were identified and 229 child victims saved from potential further abuse.”

    If we apply the same ratio to Ore statistics, the pick up rate of actual abuse falls to less than 1.5%

    For every 2 families where abuse was successfully detected, another 98 went through the hell of protracted police and social services investigation.

    Given that child sexual abuse is common, a 1.5% pickup rate is getting pretty close to the baseline that one might detect if 4,500 families were raided by picking names out of a phonebook.

    Many will argue that Ore was not just about detecting and preventing actual abuse but as a yardstick of the effectiveness of the operation, at least in its aim to ‘target’ real children at risk, it cleary fell well below the success rates of other countries and indeed previous UK efforts.

    There are only two conclusions, one being that the local forces who acted on upon the Ore intelligence were woefully inept, the other that the ‘intelligence’ itself was very, very wrong.

    Please keep asking robust questions. Any measure of success must take into account the very many negatives and harmful side-effects and not just look at the few commendable positives.

    It is my belief that far from being a huge success, Operation Ore has harmed far,far more children and families through collateral damage than it ever ‘saved’.

  9. Charles

    Friday 18 May 2007 at 2:08 pm

    JT, just to pick on the Scottish figure where you say out of 350 raids, there were no convictions, no arrests and not one allegation of actual abuse.

    This Scotsman story from Sept 2006 says 100 convictions.

    And another one from Sept 2005 says With all but one of the 420 cases investigated by Scotland’s eight forces under Operation Ore dealt with, 102 people have been convicted of having pornographic images of children.

    Ah, but in 2003, with the raids completed, police told the Scotsman that there had been no claims of *actual* abuse. So that’s your point. Hmm, a bit niggling. It’s too much of a stretch for me; I do hold to the point that viewing child porn incites people to create more of it.

    The more important question is how many of the 100 convictions (out of 350 investigated) involved possession. Likely all – do the Scottish courts accept the ‘incitement by just going to a site that might be a portal’ argument?

  10. Charles, thank you for the reply.

    Apologies, my statement about the Scottish experience, was unintentionally misleading. I had meant to refer unequivocally to the number of arrests etc. for actual hands-on abuse.

    The key point I was trying to make was that by the standards of comparable international and historical child pornography investigations, at least in the detection of actual abuse, Ore has fallen very short indeed. Whilst 140 children rescued is of course to be commended, if the initial intelligence was as robust as Mr Gamble continues to claim, one might have expected twice that number from prior UK experience and many hundreds or even thousands more if we use the US as a yardstick.

    You are correct about Scottish law. There is no equivalent of ‘incitement’ and indeed no comparable caution + SOR mechanism, so it would be safe to assume that all of those convicted did indeed ‘possess’ indecent material.

    What is less clear is the exact nature of such posession. Bear in mind that it is perfectly possible to be convicted of posession of or ‘making’ indecent images on the basis of a handful of thumbnails or banner images, long since deleted but still in unallocated space. In other circumstances, if these had been found, perhaps by a computer repairer, the police/CPS might have chosen not to prosecute. However when taken along with the Landslide ‘killer’ evidence that the suspect had deliberately signed up to a service which exclusively supplied child pornography (false), via a very clear route ‘Click here for Child porn’ (false) that there was no possibility of fraud (false) and that such a person was highly likely to be engaged in actual child abuse (false), any chances of a common-sense or proportionate response by the police, CPS or courts seemed remote.

    Couple that with a well-meaning but wrong-headed media campaign which re-iterated all of the above mistruths and a legal defence community who were equally unfamiliar with the legal and technical issues, it is hardly surprising that many chose to, or were advised not to, contest their cases, or that they lost such cases, even when the forensic evidence of their guilt was lacking.

    There were clearly definite sucesses for Operation Ore; a significant number of men who had deliberately paid for indecent material, and others who whilst victims of CC fraud had intentionally downloaded such material and were picked up ‘by accident’.

    These men had clearly and deliberately broken the law and will have faced the consequences but there may be many others who whilst ‘technically guilty’, had no intention to break the law and are the victims (as are their families) of an unthinking legal system,poisoned by gross distortions of the available evidence.

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