Stinson Hunter’s brand of vigilante justice makes for gripping viewing – but it’s also menacing, haunting and uncomfortable. Broadcaster says is most important documentary of the year.
The Paedophile Hunter follows Nuneaton-based Hunter and his team as they pose as young girls on internet chat rooms to expose grooming.
They talk to offenders who approach the “girls” online, tell them they are underage and see if they will still meet them. Once they have enough evidence through explicit messages they confront them and upload footage to Hunter’s website before passing the material to the police.
Nick Mirsky, Channel 4’s head of documentaries, said the documentary was the broadcaster’s most important one this year. And the filmmakers said they hope it will raise awareness of how little money police have to monitor internet grooming.
Despite his controversial methods and few resources, Hunter’s work has led to 10 convictions and exposed between 60 or 70 alleged paedophiles.
Director Dan Reed, who hoped the film would highlight the lack of police resources to monitor online grooming, said “anecdotally” Hunter’s catch to conviction ratio was “pretty high” compared with the police’s record.
He added that the filmmakers “did try and obtain figures on how many convictions there had been obtained by Warwickshire police and various police forces as result of … covert internet investigations”, but the force would not give them.
Hugh Davies QC, who appears in the film and who has been a legal advisor to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), said: “I couldn’t give you hard evidence in terms of quantum but it’d be interesting for you to ask the forces how many covert investigations they’ve conducted in the last 12 months. I suspect the answer would be lower than you might expect. Ceop’s covert investigation team was under five people.”
The documentary also features an interview with a woman whose child’s father committed suicide after he was exposed by Hunter and questions have been raised about his methods.
In 2013, one man called Sam claimed Hunter posted his photo online, although he made excuses to avoid meeting a girl who claimed she was 11. Sam said he went to the police and reported he had been talking to someone he did not believe was a child.
Police found no evidence of any offence but his children were temporarily removed.
When asked if the programme might spark copycat vigilantes, Mirsky said: “It’s clearly not a decision we made lightly but the important factor is that all that is featured in this programme [is] in the public domain anyway.”
Davies added: “There is a risk … The other side of the risk is that the public might demand a higher level of activity in this area.”
Some of the messages in the documentary are explicit. But Reed said it was important to show “the predator has been clearly informed of the child’s age” and “to show how sexual and how inappropriate these messages were”.
Speaking to the Guardian, Hunter said he was approached about making a programme by other broadcasters including the BBC and wants to make more films.
He said he saw grooming going on when he was in care though when asked in the film if he was abused he declined to comment.
Hunter, who was also in prison at a young age, said: “I hope that people don’t focus on me and the things I’ve done in the past. I want them to focus on what I’m saying and what’s going on and what your kids are doing online – given the current climate with Rotherham. I want change, I want the government to do something.”
He said he hoped the documentary would lead to more funding for the police.
Hunter, who changed his name from Kieren Parsons, said he wanted to look at the same issue in Europe and create a “stay safe online campaign” to be shown in schools and to parents.
Although the evidence is largely anecdotal, it would appear that online grooming is commonplace, and that snaring paedophiles through subterfuge is like shooting fish in a barrel. The business of vigilante justice makes for an unedifying (albeit gripping) spectacle; the techniques involved, if they skirt the legal definition of entrapment, are certainly morally suspect. And the online humiliation of would-be predators is, frankly, unpardonable.
There is undoubtedly an adrenalin rush that comes with ambushing would-be paedophiles – you felt it, horribly, as a viewer – but Hunter maintained a surprisingly professional demeanour with his targets. He promises no violence, identifies himself as an undercover journalist and explains everything clearly. However, when you simultaneously film and question your subject while pursuing him through the streets of Nuneaton, where Hunter and his work are well known, it’s not long before something like a mob starts to form. It was easy to imagine the worst happening.
It’s impossible to dismiss Hunter’s commitment to his mission, or even his methods – the police, after all, employ similar tactics, when they can marshall the resources – but Stinson’s attempts to shed light on this issue have taken him to a very dark place, and for an uncomfortable hour, we were obliged to share it with him.