“The Paedophile Hunter,” which aired on Wednesday (October 1), is still trending on Twitter. The heart of the program is the moral dilemma over vigilantism—think Dexter, but in this case the crime it is the foulest of all: child rape.
Having pre-judged it by the response on social media, I have to concede that the methods of the “hunters” are fairer than I had imagined. They do not physically attack people; they simply gather evidence and upload it to Facebook and give it in to the police. In their sting operations on websites designed for over-18s, they do not target people; they allow the paedophiles to approach them. The paedophiles are also given repeated chances to back out in the form of reminders that the person they think they’re speaking to is under-age. This is the most important aspect in sting operations on everything from sexual predation to terrorism: anyone can be induced to say stupid things over the internet, they must be proven to have refused an off-ramp and demonstrate criminal intent, and most crucially they have to demonstrate a willingness to act on it.
Here the “hunters” get into a grey area. One of the paedophiles they speak to uploads an explicit video of himself and lewd messages to what he believes is an underage girl, but he does not turn up to the rendezvous i.e. he did not go through with his stated intent to commit a sex crime against a child; the “hunters” still uploaded the pictures, messages, and personal details of the man to Facebook. Revolting as sending explicit videos to a child is, it isn’t the same as molestation
; one is a crime and one isn’t, [correction, Oct. 3—KO] but reputations are destroyed regardless. Indeed, Hunter at one point says that simple legal punishment is not enough because these men might still be able to go on with their lives with few knowing what they have done; they must be publicly humiliated and given nowhere to hide or begin-again even after they have done their legal punishment. The arbitrariness of a self-selected group of people not even enforcing the law but enforcing their interpretation of sexual morality (even if you believed them to be correct in this case) should be obvious.
In one sense it is not fair to hold Hunter responsible for what his supporters say, but nor can he be exculpated of the fact that he walks a very, very fine line with the incitement laws. The legal experts on the show suggest that what he does is legal, and this seems likely true if it is being shown on Channel 4. But what is to be made of the moment when one of the paedophiles walks away, and Hunter says, in the middle of a fairly rough street, “Keep an eye on the kids because this guy’s trying to meet an underage girl for sex.” Thankfully it didn’t turn violent, but what if it did? What happens when it does—when somebody either emulates Hunter and is a lot less legalistic about it, or when somebody acts against one of the people Hunter exposes? What’s his responsibility then? Hunter has already faced the case of a man whom he exposed committing suicide. Perhaps it will be adjudged that the world is a better place without the man; maybe, as Hunter continually insists, the man did it to himself. (“He made the choice, not me.”) But if Hunter’s hands are so clean why does he sound so defensive? The simple fact is it is not Hunter’s place to be dealing with these questions.
I take a very hard line on crime and punishment and upholding the Rule of Law, and it is on those grounds that I dislike anything like this where mob rule and vigilantism is allowed to insinuate itself into criminal proceedings. While Hunter is a much more serious person than Russell Brand—and even seeks, in a curious way, to operate within the system in a way Brand ostensibly doesn’t—the justifications for what Hunter is doing have too many echoes of rank populism and delegitimising of British institutions that Brand uses to further his career. The only way what Hunter does can really be okay is if the British police don’t work, and at that point everybody would have to take care of themselves rather than relying on the State for security. The word for that is “barbarism”.
It would also be easier to defend what Hunter does if it was not quite obvious that some combination of vengeance, self-fulfilment, assertion of lost power, and class grievances lurk behind this enterprise as motivations. Hunter has been in a child home, on drugs, in prison, and (obliquely stated) sexually attacked. For him to speak as he does of deserving his prison sentence and for him to now seek to uphold the law—passing this information to the police when the temptation to attack these people must be very great—is in many ways admirable. But the sense that demons are being repressed with this work is impossible to miss. Because of this project, “I’ve got a purpose,” Hunter says at one point. No explanation, let alone justification, is given for why other people’s lives are a legitimate plaything for this one man and his friends to fulfil themselves with. The whole theory of liberalism is otherwise: men are ends in themselves not a means to another man’s ends—and it is only the consensually-arbitrated courts that are given the power to deprive men of life and freedom.
It is more than a little disconcerting, during one of the moments Hunter is eschewing all responsibility for anything that might happen to the people he holds up to public humiliation, to hear Hunter say: “I’m just the god who held the mirror up.” The key moment of the film though is when Hunter gets the news that somebody against whom he testified has been given a prison sentence. This is celebrated in a manner one would a football goal, and Hunter then cries with happiness and something like relief. Hunter says:
“You don’t expect it. Like with my history of being a complete piece of shit and then being believed over a teacher with a reputable career, being believed that I’m telling the truth … validates everything that us lads have fucking worked hard for.”
Suggestive, no? Would the reaction have been so overwhelming if the person caught using the “nonce phone“—the single greatest line in the program, describing the mobile phone used in the stings—was of Hunter’s own troubled background and social stratum? It seems unlikely. It very definitely matters to Hunter that he was believed over this type of person; he uses the word “validat[ion],” and that is clearly what he feels about this. This might sound too much like the Puritan view of bear baiting, but it does matter because it means this is not a disinterested legal process.
There is something deeply unhealthy in people who want to play god, and unhealthier still when they are doing so as a form of therapy. That Hunter has directed his energies at paedophiles provides a layer of protection he might not have had on other subjects. It shouldn’t. Sincere as he is, the decisions Hunter takes about other people’s lives should not be his to make.