LAST week, as the names of so-called Tory paedophiles were being tossed about like tasty tidbits by the gossip-hungry Twitterati, it felt like someone had unhooked a trapdoor and dropped us back into the craziest days of the late 80s/early 90s.
Does no-one remember the moral panic that surrounded child abuse back then, and the Alice Through The Looking Glass world it led us into? Hysteria whipped its way through Cleveland, Nottingham, Rochdale and Orkney, leaving a trail of innocent victims in its wake. The allegations grew wilder and wilder – we heard of men dressed in black robes, altars and human sacrifices. Yet even as hundreds of children were being removed from their homes, few felt brave enough to voice their doubts; not until a succession of reports blamed a combination of fundamentalist Christians and overzealous paediatricians for fostering a climate in which the concept of Satanic ritual child abuse was accepted as fact, although not one single case was ever substantiated.
What happened last week was slightly different and its genesis can be more readily explained. There is no doubt hundreds of children were abused over almost two decades in children’s homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd, and particularly in the Bryn Estyn home in Wrexham. The Waterhouse Inquiry in 2000 spelled out quite clearly the staggering scale of the crimes committed there by members of staff, some of whom were later jailed for their offences.
Given the furore surrounding the Savile scandal, it is unsurprising that the inquiry’s decision not to publish the names of alleged perpetrators, some of whom are said to be prominent members of the establishment, should have taken on the air of a cover-up and that the programme which had so conspicuously failed to expose the former DJ should seize upon this as a potential source of expiation.
But the feeding frenzy that took hold after Newsnight claimed an unnamed Tory aide from the Thatcher era had been part of a wider paedophile ring recreated the febrile conditions of the 1980s, so that every accusation, every half-heard name, every piece of wild conjecture was treated as an unassailable truth. It ended where moral panics always end: with the reputation of an innocent man [Lord McAlpine] in tatters, the victims re-traumatised and the rest of us surveying the wreckage and wondering how we could have let it all happen again.
Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to the destructive potential of child abuse hysteria; 18 years ago I was in Newcastle Crown Court when the case against nursery nurses Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed, accused of abusing children in their care, was thrown out because the alleged victims, then aged around three, were deemed too young to be cross-examined. I remember the screams of “hang them” from the parents who, influenced by a previous high-profile abuse case, truly believed their babies had been harmed. No-one – not the police officers, nor the parents’ lawyers, nor the reporters – really stopped to consider the pair might be innocent. Though Reed and Lillie had not been convicted of any crime, they were dismissed from their jobs and hounded out of the area. I too had left Newcastle by the time the city council published a report in which it underlined its belief in the pair’s guilt, and I had children of my own when they were awarded £200,000 each for defamation motivated by “malice”.
I learned many things from that experience: one was that child abuse cases have a habit of taking on their own momentum, particularly if they are endorsed by campaigners with preconceived ideas or their own vested interests. Another was that, although cover-ups do take place, there are sometimes good reasons for accusations to be dropped.
But what is clear is that last week, as everyone vied to out the paedos, all judgment went out of the window. So eager was Newsnight to broadcast its scoop, it apparently didn’t even bother to show victim Steve Messham a photograph of McAlpine to check he wasn’t accusing the wrong man.
I think it’s the disingenuity of those involved that disgusts me most; the pretence that everyone – from Newsnight to presenter Phillip Schofield, who passed a list of names gleaned from Twitter to David Cameron on air – was interested in securing justice for the victims. What they were really slavering over was the prospect of a juicy story, a bit of kudos and a Tory scalp. And at the eye of the storm was Tom Watson, the MP who – oh the irony – led the campaign against press excesses, yet was only too happy to encourage the kind of lynch mob mentality the News of the World excelled in.
In the end, Lord McAlpine was so beset by innuendo he was forced to issue a statement which revealed what anyone at any stage could checked; that he had never [as had been suggested] owned a Rolls-Royce or a Harrods card, and had visited Wrexham only once in his life. But Messham, who has suffered mental health problems as a result of the abuse, was damaged too; his wounds were re-opened and he found himself publicly humiliated as a consequence of his mistake.
So what should we take from this debacle? I hope it leads to recognition that, although alleged victims of child abuse should always be listened to, their testimony should be tested against established fact; and that there’s a difference between investigative journalism and throwing mud at people in the hope that some of it will stick.
Most of all, though, I hope it doesn’t lead to the quiet shelving of the new inquiry. There are still many unanswered questions about the Clwyd children’s home scandal. It would be good if they could be examined rigorously and dispassionately, far away from the highly charged atmosphere of the media.