Children's column: The vetting controversy - who said what

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children Monday, 27th July 2009

Against my better judgement, in the interests of coverage for BookBrunch, I put my toe back into the Vetting Children's Authors debate. I said my two bits worth in a somewhat misleadingly titled piece in the Times , in which I made the point, from my own experience as a child written to by William Mayne, that ill intentions are often imperceptible though in fact a check of records would not have identified any danger from Mayne. (And, just to clarify, no, I was not abused by him.) This is a round-up of what has been said in the debate so far. To generalise, the coverage on the right has been anti-vetting, and on the left has been pro-vetting, which is unfortunate, because it blurs the issues.

There was an explosion of coverage on 16 July, including stories on BBC News, in the Times (by Laura Dixon) and in the Daily Mail reporting Philip Pullman s, Michael Morpurgo s, Anne Fine s, Quentin Blake's and Anthony Horowitz's objections to the vetting of authors on school visits, and their threat to boycott school visits if the legislation, with its computer database, is activated in October. Their arguments are principally, if I have understood correctly, that vetting destroys trust between children and authors, that it will discourage the invaluable interaction between writers and child readers, that authors are not left alone with children in schools and addressing a crowd is not dangerous, that suspicion does more harm than good, that it is an ineffective measure, and that it is time our culture of paranoia came to a halt.
Ryan Kisiel in the Daily Mail on 16 July took the opportunity to attack the spread of computer databases under Labour. Meanwhile Alison Flood in the Guardian reported Children's Laureate Anthony Browne's view that authors should not be specially exempted from checks if other people have to undergo them. He was backed up by Gillian Cross, in favour of anything that might protect children, and by Robert Muchamore, who took a dig at the grey-haired mafia of renowned children's authors .
Beatrix Campbell, also writing for the Guardian, argued that the gesture: should signal to young people that their school thinks their bodily integrity matters; and that it matters more than a minor interruption of adults' privacy'. She asked, of children's authors: What is their problem? . One comment, from Peter Guillam, gave a reply which seems to me to sum up the argument succinctly: I would guess that they see it as part of an overblown panic culture that has zero impact on the prevention of child abuse.
Peter Whittle in the Telegraph blogged on 17 July about the Stalinist absurdity of vetting. And Mayor of London Boris Johnson came down against our phobic and paranoid society on his blog and also in the Telegraph on 20 July.
Deborah Orr in the Independent on 18 July argued that the scheme would not safeguard children: any system that treats everyone as equally suspicious is in danger of marginalising common sense, personal instinct and even, in certain circumstances, actual pejorative knowledge. (She's got the bit of paper, so I must be wrong.) But she added that every tiny indication that a person might be a sexual predator should be pursued .
Josie Appleton of The Manifesto Club ( for freedom in everyday life ) argued on Spiked Online that we should support the stand of Pullman and his fellow authors, and pointed out that The Manifesto Club had been running a Campaign Against Vetting since October 2008. Many Petition Against Vetting signatories have resigned volunteer positions, including: model flying coaches, canoeing instructors, church representatives and parents who help out in schools. Others say that they would resign when this database comes into force, meaning that there could well be a mass rebellion.
And the children's books website Achuka, run by deputy head teacher Michael Thorn, has lined itself up on the side of the anti-vetters, arguing that a register creates a false sense of security, and supported by, among others, librarian Jake Hope.
See also coverage and comments in The First Post (piece by Jack Bremer) and on the Open University website. The links in this piece ought to cover the issues enough to enable everyone to make up their own mind.