It’s not Harman and co. the media should be after but Roy Jenkins, the former Home Secretary, who cunningly escaped justice by dying over a decade ago.

Unlike Jimmy Savile whose “victims” (alleged victims, actually, despite increasingly injudicious assertions to the contrary by people who ought to know better, including the politically ambitious former DPP Sir Keir Starmer) numbered only in the hundreds, Jenkins was responsible for policies that affected millions, ushering in the “permissive society” of the 1970s that was responsible for all manner of evils if you believe the likes of Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens – and many presumably do, judging by the sustained ferocity of the campaign against the radicalism of those times in sister paper the Daily Mail this past week.

The “evils” for which Jenkins – possibly the greatest reforming Home Secretary ever – was personally responsible included a stupendous swathe of landmark measures: abolition of the death penalty, liberalisation of the abortion law, the end of theatre censorship, introduction of a defence of literary merit into the law on obscene publications, decriminalization of homosexuality between consenting adult males. Jenkins saw the permissive society as a civilized society. Unlike today’s authoritarian Labour hierarchy who seem happy only when they are banning something, Jenkins was a socialist who believed in freedom. In terms of the French revolutionary slogan, he took liberty as seriously as equality – a rare combination given that these ideals are often seen as in tension with each other.

Jenkins also set the tone at the Home Office for a generation. In 1979, three years after his departure to become President of the European Commission, his former department of state published Sexual Offences, Consent and Sentencing (Home Office Research Study No. 54). It took the recognition of “under-age” consent seriously, using the term “partners” rather than “victims”.

Also – and this will raise eyebrows but I said it way back in 1980 in my book Paedophilia the Radical Case – we had it on reliable authority that Jenkins personally read PIE’s evidence to the Home Office Criminal Law Revision Committee on the age of consent and that our proposals for law reform caught his imagination. He is said to have been impressed but was of the opinion that politically “it hasn’t a hope in hell”.

Jenkins had himself been politically able to encourage thinking that was only marginally less radical than ours, though, thanks to intellectual developments in the previous decades, including the great surveys by Alfred Kinsey which had demonstrated that children can and do behave sexually, including experiencing sexual orgasm from infancy onwards. And, as Jon Henley pointed out in the Guardian in 2001, French thinkers had helped set the pace too:

Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and the… French health and education ministers Bernard Kouchner and Jack Lang were among the signatories of petitions in the 1970s calling for paedophilia to be decriminalised, it emerged….

A number of extraordinary documents have surfaced – in the wake of accusations of possible child sex abuse against the former student revolutionary Danny Cohn-Bendit that are forcing France’s intellectuals to confront the values of the May 1968 revolution and its aftermath, a period that witnessed probably the biggest change in sexual behaviour in recorded history.

The petitions were issued after a 1977 trial that saw three men jailed for non-violent sex offences against children aged 12 and 13.

“Three years in prison for caresses and kisses: enough is enough,” one petition, signed by Mr Kouchner and Mr Lang, said. “French law recognises in 12- and 13-year-olds a capacity for discernment that it can judge and punish,” said a second petition signed by Sartre and De Beauvoir, along with fellow intellectuals Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida; a leading child psychologist, Franoise Dolto; and writers Philippe Sollers, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Louis Aragon. “But it rejects such a capacity when the child’s emotional and sexual life is concerned. It should acknowledge the right of children and adolescents to have relations with whomever they choose.”

By the early 1970s the gay liberation movement was in full swing in the UK and campaigning organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front, and even the more conservative Campaign for Homosexual Equality, did not in those days entirely set their face against paedophilia. It was a time for debate, in which many felt that the now vilified Paedophile Information Exchange was in the vanguard of change because its policies promised to set children free as well as the adults attracted to them.

It was into these heady circumstances, which now seem so distant and exotic, that Mesdames Hewitt and Harman leapt when they decided to join the then very trendy National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL). I believe they thought the job would make a promising platform from which to launch careers as Labour party politicians. I say this with the benefit of hindsight, knowing now what I did not know at the time, namely that they would both become cabinet ministers in Labour governments. Harriet Harman is now Deputy Leader of the Labour party and her husband, trade unionist Jack Dromey, who also served with the NCCL in the 1970s, became Labour’s Treasurer.

For a week or so now this trio has been under immense, sustained, pressure from the Daily Mail and other media to explain why they worked with an organisation that had its own radical policy on sexual law reform, including lowering the age of consent to 14 (or 10, “provided it is demonstrated that consent was clearly given by the child”) and why they allowed the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), castigated by the media as a “vile”, “perverted”, etc. organisation of “predatory paedophiles” to remain affiliated to the NCCL.

The truth of the matter is that none of these three was at all enthusiastic about PIE’s involvement. I know because I was a regular participant in meetings of the NCCL’s gay rights sub-committee in the late 1970s, representing PIE. None of the trio ever attended a meeting of that committee during the sessions I attended and I have no direct evidence of what they thought about PIE. The talk reaching me at the time, though, suggested that they were hostile to PIE, not supportive. To that extent, current Labour leader Ed Miliband is right to support his deputy, as he has done, against any suggestion that she (or indeed the other two) ever actively worked to promote “paedophile rights”.

Not that PIE itself campaigned for any “right” of paedophiles to have sex with children, as the media love to insinuate. Our aim was sexual self-determination for all, regardless of age. The realisation of this aim would merely have legalised adult-child sexual acts in the event of a child being a willing partner.

Of course, I would greatly prefer Miliband to be boldly radical, like Roy Jenkins, but that is a hopeless proposition in the current climate of opinion. It seems to me that in the very different atmosphere of the 1970s Hewitt, Harman and Dromey made a very different calculation. While they did not like PIE and did nothing to support our objectives, they were afraid of appearing insufficiently “right on”; consequently they were nothing like as strenuous and public in their efforts to distance themselves from PIE as they are now claiming. Dromey, in particular, is quoted in the Mail as saying “During my time on the NCCL executive, I was at the forefront of repeated public condemnations of PIE and their despicable views.” That’s news to me, and the Mail said it was unable to locate any such public statements. Maybe by “public” he meant imprecations muttered to cronies at his local pub. I do not know what they did behind the scenes to combat the prevailing radical mood but I do know that they allowed me – or permitted NCCL to allow me – to continue attending the gay rights sub-committee during their watch. My presence was never challenged. I always felt welcome. Eventually, I resigned as Chair of PIE when I was facing a charge of conspiracy to corrupt public morals. That was the logical time to end my attendance at NCCL meetings.

I am scribbling this at midnight because my entire day has been taken up with variously fending off and succumbing to approaches by the media – the Mail (again), the Sun, ITN, BBC (three or four different people throughout the day), the Guardian. Have I missed anyone? Probably, it’s been frenetic. Most of them seemed interested in absolutely nothing beyond the role played by the Labour trio in relation to PIE in the 1970s. The wider context appeared to concern them not one jot.

I should just mention Andrew Gilligan’s piece for the Daily Telegraph a few days ago though, as this was a bit different (“The ‘right’ to sleep with children was one ‘civil liberty’ that NCCL supported”, 21 Feb.). Remember Gilligan? He’s the guy who used to work for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme who famously made a broadcast in May 2003 in which he claimed that the British Government had “sexed up” a report in order to exaggerate the WMD capabilities of Saddam Hussein. He resigned from the BBC in 2004, in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry, after Lord Hutton questioned the reliability of his evidence. In the view of many (including me) he has since been vindicated.

Not that I’m enthusiastic about his report on PIE, for which he trawled through Paedophilia the Radical Case in order to rip my words out of context in a highly unsympathetic way. It was an interesting piece, though, not least for this claim:

PIE’s members, mostly educated and middle-class, were good at finding “progressive” academics – some useful idiots, others rather more sinister – to fight their cause.

I emailed him today (sorry, yesterday, as I’m now well past midnight) to ask which of these academics he regards as idiots and which as sinister – and why. No response yet, but he’s known to be nocturnal so he might fire off a reply about 3am!