Two Labour MPs join rock star Townshend in child porn inquiry
Former ministers reported to be on list of suspects who accessed site
Two MPs are under investigation for accessing child pornography websites as part of a huge police operation that this weekend embroiled the rock star Pete Townshend.Sources have confirmed to the Guardian that the names and credit card details of the two MPs are on a list of subscribers to a child porn internet portal sent to Scotland Yard by the US authorities.
The MPs, who are both reported to be former Labour ministers, are the latest public figures to become caught up in Operation Ore, the largest inquiry into child pornography undertaken in the UK.
More than 1,300 people have already been arrested as part of the police investigation, including judges, teachers, doctors, care workers, soldiers and more than 50 police officers.
On Saturday Townshend, lead guitarist with rock legends The Who, admitted that he had used his credit card to access a child pornography website. The admission followed reports in a newspaper that Scotland Yard detectives were investigating a "legendary British rock star" and deciding whether to make an arrest.
Townshend will be questioned by detectives and have his computer removed for analysis before police decide whether to press charges.
In a statement, Townshend, 57, vehemently denied being a paedophile and said he had visited the site purely for the purposes of researching a campaign against child abuse and for a book he is writing. The rock star, who believed he was sexually abused between the ages of five and six, said: "I've been in touch with Scotland Yard to tell them what I was doing. I have contacted them but no police officers have contacted me.
"I was worried this might happen and I think this could be the most damaging thing to my career."
Later, Townshend's spokesman said they had tracked down the officer he claimed to have spoken to in October 2002. Jackie Malton, then a detective chief inspector working in Fulham, said in a statement: "I told him he had two choices, either to contact a former detective inspector who had joined the national crime squad as a civilian working as a computer expert and a former colleague of mine, or that he should contact the paedophile squad at Scotland Yard."
Mark Stephens, a lawyer who founded the Internet Watch foundation, an independent watchdog, yesterday condemned the rock star's actions as "wrong-headed and illegal" and described his explanation as "no excuse".
"It is OK to lobby. There are many high-profile individuals who fight against child pornography," Mr Stephens said. "But it is wrong-headed, misguided and illegal to look at or download or even to pay to download paedophiliac material and if you do so, you are likely to go to prison.
"Pete Townshend has admitted a criminal offence and this goes to mitigation and it's a matter for a court to accept if he was merely doing research or something worse."
Operation Ore is the British end of the US justice department's Operation Avalanche, which was sparked when the US postal service closed down the now notorious Landslide Promotions gateway, which is thought to have been used by more than 75,000 people worldwide in the late 1990s.
In August last year a Texas computer consultant, Thomas Reedy, was sentenced to a total of 1,335 years for running the internet child porn empire, which had a turnover of more than $1.4m (£870,000) a month.
Although the ring was technically operating through a "gateway" based in Texas, the material being accessed was sited around the world, principally Russia and Indonesia. This made it harder to crack than standard criminal operations as it was twice as hard for investigators to find out who was behind the websites.
But the fatal weakness in the system was that all the subscribers had to provide a credit card number so that Reedy's gateway could verify who they were before charging them for access to the 5,700 sites within the network. Once the authorities cracked the code scrambling the credit card numbers they were able to track down the owners of the cards
Records of up to 7,300 UK-based credit card numbers were passed to the national crime squad and individual forces by the FBI in the spring of 2002, and there have been a series of raids and computer seizures in Britain since May.
Because of the numbers of people involved and the complexities of gathering evidence, police prioritised subscribers with previous sex convictions and those who worked in areas that brought them into contact with children. But Operation Ore has also exposed the problems of investigating internet paedophilia and the lack of resources available to police forces.
Although last month the Home Office agreed to allocate an extra £500,000 to support further action for Operation Ore - money that will be used to speed up the analysis of computers - police had been hoping for more than £2m
Last night, model and actor Jerry Hall defended Townshend, based on a discussion they had had in 1991 about the dangers of child pornography on the internet. Hall, who has known Townshend for 22 years, said: "Pete Townshend is the least likely profile of a child abuser it is possible to construct and that is because he isn't one."
Last month Jim Gamble, assistant chief constable of the national crime squad, said the police could not be reckless about making allegations of abuse. "We have to make sure we get it right," he said.
But he warned that those who had logged on to the websites in the 90s and thought they were engaging in "innocent voyeurism" were in for a shock.
"They would not have realised then that the police would be investigating this now. If you have a propensity for this kind of behaviour, we will find you."
Line of inquiry: police focus on child access
· Launched after FBI passed credit card details of 7,300 UK-based alleged subscribers to a child porn gateway
·Some 1,300 arrested, including teachers, careworkers, social workers, soldiers, surgeons, plus 50 police officers
· Forty children - 28 in London - are now under protective care
· The investigation, which will run at least until July, has focused on anyone with access to children and in positions of authority, such as police or magistrates
· DC Brian Stevens, 41 - an officer on the Soham double-murder case - has been charged with indecently assaulting three children and possessing indecent photos. The charges are not related to the Soham murders