Heart of darkness

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It’s all sunshine and smiles on the Golden Mile in Blackpool as the summer holidays bring throngs of families to Britain’s premier resort.

For most of the town’s older visitors, the experience will revive memories of happy childhood memories, while their kids get to discover the magic of Blackpool for themselves.

But there’s a darkness behind the bright lights of our showcase seafront, one that reaches into the heart of residential communities and occasionally blights the tourism scene, too, and it’s that darkness with which former detective and now TV presenter and resident Waking the Dead police expert Mark Williams-Thomas is all too familiar.

It’s in every seaside resort, he takes pains to point out, because paedophiles will always prey upon places where children play, particularly older children, young teenagers, already growing up far too fast, who may not realise they are playing with fire.

But he also stresses that a lot of abuse begins at home....

Mark knows Blackpool well for all the wrong reasons. The specialist script adviser to such big name British series such as Waking The Dead, the Inspector Lynley mysteries, Silence and Wire in the Blood, can reel off a litany of our lost girls, headline-hitting cases and highlight other threats, from online abuse to human trafficking.

Gathering such information, looking into some of the highest profile investigations in the land, what went wrong, or right, and secured a conviction, or the recovery of a missing child, is part of Mark’s crusade for a national database to hold all child abuse material.

“While I love my work with TV drama, it’s really a platform for the bigger picture,” says Mark, who formerly specialised in major crime and child protection in his work with the police.

He adds: “The reality is that we can do better, and, while it may be uncomfortable for some police officers, politicians, and professionals working in the field, to accept that we are not leading the way, they need to swallow their pride and effect change.”

He’s advised the media on most of the headline-hitting crimes over the last three years, from the death of Baby P and the Plymouth nursery paedophile investigation, through to the murder of Joanna Yates, the Crossbow Killer Stephen Griffiths, the Ipswich serial killer Steve Wright, and the Cumbria spree killer Derek Bird. He’s been involved in TV investigations into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, Shannon Matthews and Jaycee Dugrad (in the United States).

Paul recently presented a report for BBC Newsnight, which focused on the importance of victim identification and the vital need for the creation of a national database to hold child abuse material.

“I visited Lyon, headquarters of Interpol, and spoke with Mick Moran, head of child protection. We featured a current case in which they were looking to try and identify the horrific abuse of a young girl, aged five or six years, by someone well known to her. The reality of sexual abuse was that this male was most likely to be her father.

“I was also shown a past case in which officers from Interpol studied a series of pictures and videos, and through careful analysis and international co-operation, saved numerous young people from ongoing sexual abuse.

“Some of those victims included very young children, including babies, at a nursery.

“Child abuse goes back to ancient times but I think one of the most disturbing developments of recent years has been the abuse of babies. It sickens you to the very core.

“Offenders have more opportunities today to gain access to children. In terms of abuse and offenders, there are three elements, opportunity, motivation, access. We need to focus on access and opportunity. Blackpool police and other agencies are effectively doing this through Operation Awaken.

“But the UK doesn’t have a national child abuse database. It has the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) as the national centre, which has a database (childbase), but it works in isolation and is not updated or fed material by police forces after it is seized.

“Forces seize millions of images every month, but these are not routinely forwarded to CEOP. This is a major issue and requires every force to be instructed to do so.

“If the Dutch can achieve a national database, so can the UK. It will help every police force. It will certainly help Blackpool. It is a victim of its own success, it has a pull, it attracts people, including the wrong type of people. It has one of the largest concentrations of sex offenders registered in the country.

“Parents who live locally, those who visit, must be aware child sex offenders are very different to other offenders, they present themselves as likeable approachable individuals and have a great ability to worm their way into situations and families. Don’t be fooled.”