Stories about child pornography are increasing. But is the crime more common, or its detection more effective? How do police catch paedophiles and what toll does it take on officers?

In the first of a two-part series, Owen Amos finds out

JOHN Marshall, 58, an ex-soldier from Norman Road, Richmond. Steven Moore, 43, a hod-carrier from Samuel Street, Stockton.

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David and Allan Crisp, both 52, from Phillips Avenue, Middlesbrough. William Beamson 57, of Grange Road, Hartlepool. Colin Welburn, 49, of Ronaldshay Terrace, Marske. All North- East men. All sentenced in the past six months for child pornography offences. This list is by no means exhaustive.

The stories are becoming more common.

Type child pornography into The Northern Echos 1990 electronic archive and there were 12 articles.

In 1995, there were 13. In the first third of 2008, there have already been 34.

And its not just humble hod-carriers. Who, buying My Gang, thought Gary Glitter was a paedophile?

Who, watching The Thick Of It, thought Chris Langham downloaded child pornography?

Who, entering Barnard Castles All Things Books, thought the owner, Phillip John George Webb, was distributing it?

(The term child pornography, incidentally, is rejected by many online watchdogs for legitimising the activity. They prefer child sex abuse images.) So are there more paedophiles?

Or are the police better at catching them?

A bit of both, probably, says DI Geoff Smith, Durham Polices head of economic crime. We seize around 80 to 100 bundles a year to examine, around 20 per cent more than three years ago. But one of those bundles could contain three or four computers C there could be two laptops, six pen drives, hundreds of DVDs. Whereas before there might be 100 pictures, now there are three, four, five thousand on each drive.

The driver is technology. Twenty years ago, paedophiles needed knowledge. They needed contacts and meeting places and stamped addressed envelopes.

Now, anyone with a phone line and computer has access to vast amounts of child pornography.

Ten years ago, you had child pornography on wet film photos and people would distribute them by meeting up, says DI Smith. The growth in the internet, from 2000 to 2004, allowed the images to be exchanged far more widely.

So where are these images made? Is child pornography made in the North-East?

Certainly, says a spokeswoman for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), the UK centre for eradicating child abuse images.

Child sex abuse is far more prevalent than we think and would like to admit. If you produce child abuse images, you have to have access to children.

Children are being abused in their homes and often by people they know C often by adults in a position of trust. The NSPCC statistics back that up.

Unfortunately, they do. In total, 16 per cent of children under 16 C thats one in six C experience sexual abuse during childhood. If its filmed, its child pornography.

The Internet Watch Foundation found 80 per cent of child pornography victims are female and 91 per cent appear under 12. Of those, ten per cent appear under two, with 33 per cent between three and six. In total, the percentage of level four and five cases C the most severe C increased from seven per cent in 2003 to 29 per cent in 2006.

How is this murky, secret world of child pornography investigated?

How are offenders C from Chris Langham to Gary Glitter to Phillip Webb C brought to justice?

Most seizures start from a tipoff C usually from a partner, someone with access to the offenders computer, or another offender.

Credit card traces are not the powerful tool they were. People are wary of putting credit card details on the internet now, says DI Smith. Originally they thought If the sites not overtly named, Im all right. Now they are more wary. People share pictures, peer to peer, like they share music. Having said that, computers give you a sense of anonymity C but they are not as anonymous as people think they are.

Authorities are now receiving more tip-offs online.

From April 2007 to April 2008, for example, CEOP received 5,812 reports C a 76 per cent increase on 2006/2007. In 2006 C the last year for which figures are available C the IWF processed 31,776 reports, a 34 per cent increase on 2005.

Unfortunately, finding the sites is easy. Any mug who knows his way round Google can do it. Taking them down is harder, as most hosts C the companies that provide web space C are outside UK jurisdiction.

Taking them down depends on which country the site is hosted in and what protocols are in place with that country, says DI Smith. Some are in Kazakhstan, Afghanistan. Its possible to track where they are being hosted, but thats just part of it.

Barely any child pornography websites are hosted in the UK. The IWF says in 2007 there were 2,755 child pornography websites, of which 2,204 were commercial websites. Of those, 55 per cent were hosted in the US, 28 per cent in Russia, eight per cent Europe and seven per cent in Asia.

The war on child pornography, DI Smith says, is not the same as the war on drugs C users are pursued as vigorously as providers. But when those computers are seized, someone has to check them.

And that isnt easy.

WE do have technology which can identify most images, says DI Smith. Quite often its the same images we have seen before. The software can also categorise the images.

But the officer in the case might have to look at image if the software cant process them.

Its just one of the many nasty parts of police work that, unfortunately, someone has to do C whether thats going through scenes of crime or death messages. Its just a horrible thing someone has to do. Its not something that the average person wants to do or has to do, but thats the job.

Were one of the smaller forces C I dread to think what other forces deal with. Remember also, its not just us that has to go through them C theres the judge, barristers. Some of the images are disturbing.

Just grotesque.

ö Tomorrow: inside a paedophiles mind.