Podcasting is a wide genre which ranges from the casual and conversational through to the broadcast quality documentary. When I was commissioned by the Internet Watch Foundation to produce Pixels from a Crime Scene, I knew it would have to be at the high end of the scale. Anything less would not have done justice to the subject matter and the people involved.
IWF Chief Executive Susie Hargreaves commissioned six half hour episodes that would explore the dark world of online child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The purpose was to make listeners aware of the scale of the problem and of the IWF’s great work combatting it. I knew it would be both challenging and rewarding.
A lot goes into making a series like this, some of it obvious, some of it less so.
Almost before you start, you need a narrative arc. For this project, beginning from a limited understanding of the subject matter, the journey would explain the nature and size of the issue and the difficulties involved in solving it; there would be personal stories from victims, offenders, their families and IWF staff to put a human face to the issue. Finally, it had to end on a note of hope. Executive producer Vince Hunt and I sat down to work out that story. Our first draft was jotted down on a napkin in an Indian restaurant and became known as the curry house podcast plan. At a later storyboarding meeting at the IWF we came up with the idea that each episode should bust a myth about CSAM.
Early on, we also knew we wanted a palette of textures to explore the subject, and this started with the music. I commissioned a young composer Jay Richardson, who understood the brief immediately and came up with a haunting piano piece in a minor key with several variations so we could use it to punctuate the interviews. He also composed a version in a major key for the last episode to end on an upbeat. My graphic artist came up with the logo of the screen wrapped in police tape, and the IWF design team imposed it on their pixilated image of a child. Only then did we begin to gather content.
The IWF comms team were invaluable in setting up interviews, making introductions and arranging logistics. The array of guests they conjured up was impressive; their reputation meant that people were only too willing to take part.
This is where my own education really began. John Carr, one of the world’s leading authorities on children's and young people’s use of the internet, explained the history of CSAM. Rhiannon, a survivor of child sexual abuse who had waived her right to anonymity told me her story. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation provided recordings of offenders and put me in touch with a partner of someone convicted of viewing CSAM. Dark web expert Jamie Bartlett explained the difference between the clear and dark web.
Conversations with Simon Bailey, Chief Constable of Norfolk and Britain’s top child protection expert, Rob Jones from the National Crime Agency Denton Howard from INHOPE, the international network of hotlines, gave me a much better understanding of the action being taken to solve the problem. A global perspective was provided by hotline managers from India and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I also spoke to child safety bosses at Google, Facebook TalkTalk and Microsoft. I wanted to understand their perspective and learn what steps they had taken to remove material from their sites and prevent it being uploaded in the first place. And I spoke to many of the staff at the IWF who gave me an insight into their often harrowing work. There were uplifting stories too, such as Paul, who was able to help police identify a child by her school uniform.
Putting the episodes together was like an audio jigsaw puzzle and, having heard all the interviews, we had to revise our outline to work out what went where. We were also listening for stand-out quotes to trail future episodes. Time was getting tight by this time as the IWF wanted to bring the launch forward because of the Covid pandemic. The lockdown was putting children at added risk because they were spending more time online and had more opportunity to fall victim to predators, and secondly, people who look for this material had more time to do so.
The series was been very well received with reviews applauding our handling, saying: “powerful subject, thoughtfully expressed” and “a harrowing topic that needs to be heard.” If listening to the podcast educates one parent or carer about how to protect their child, our aim will have been achieved. The UK hosts less than half a percent of all CSAM but Britain has the second highest number of men (and it is almost exclusively men) looking at it. I hope that by listening to Pixels from a Crime Scene, people will be educated and consequently more able to fight it.