WHEN a television presenter chooses to champion the public’s right to know on a live show, let us be very careful the stunt is not simply masking a popular witch hunt, writes Stephen McGinty
I have only had the pleasure of one conversation with Phillip Schofield and it was many years ago. As the television presenter was a keen scuba diver and had been afforded the privilege of swimming with the sand tiger sharks at Deep Sea World in North Queensferry, he had agreed to discuss his experiences to promote the Scottish tourist attraction. He was polite, affable and at no point did he brandish a card in my face and demand I comment on alleged paedophiles. Today there are many in political and media circles who would very much like to take Mr Schofield back to North Queensferry, smear him with the contents of a bucket of bloody chum then feed him to his former bathing companions.
The fact is Mr Schofield made a dreadful mistake, but he may, accidentally, have done the public a service by committing an error that helps to put the brakes on what appears to be a potential witch hunt. But let’s start with this seasoned presenter’s decision to go online, write down a bunch of names swirling around the internet and then demand to know, on live television, what the Prime Minister thought of these alleged paedophiles. In one way, it is almost understandable. For most of the week Mr Schofield has to deal with the mixed variety of ingredients that comes with day-time television, such as bakery sequences, interviewing the reincarnated spirit of Cleopatra and, as he did recently, the man with the world’s largest penis. So, when the opportunity comes along to lightly grill the Prime Minister, who appears to prefer this Monty Python version of the Spanish Inquisition, all prodding with soft cushions, over the red hot poker of Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight’s Torquemada, Mr Schofield steals himself to ask the questions the public really want to know.
And here it is necessary to take a short side-step and examine whether the public really was aware of these names or had a genuine interest in who they were. On this point, I would have to say yes, based on the fact that in two recent conversations with friends and family members, both wanted to know if I knew the identity of the Tory politician alleged to be a paedophile. At the time I didn’t and so fell a little further in their estimation and was clearly a journalist with his finger on the pulse – of a corpse. However they were only demonstrating the natural curiosity of those proffered then denied information.
When the BBC’s Newsnight ran a report last week in which a contributor alleged that he had been abused by a senior Conservative politician, they triggered an appetite in the public for the answer? Who was this man? The same thing occurred during the controversy over the use of superinjunctions by television presenters, footballers and actors to prevent the disclosure of their extra-marital affairs. The public became aware that there were unnamed individuals and sought to root out their identity online. The problem was that, as well as revealing the names of those who had taken out superinjuctions, the internet, unrestrained by the necessity for factual accuracy, also listed a number of examples of celebrities taking out superinjunctions that later proved to be false.
It is also the case that the public wants the story of a ring of Conservative paedophiles, protected by their party and the government, to be true. For some it is, to use a dangerous term once employed by the dubious end of journalistic practice, “too good to check”. They do not wish to be disappointed. And the fact is that the Jimmy Savile affair, which has triggered this whole matter, has skewered our sense of natural justice to the point where allegations are now being treated in people’s minds as cold facts. I do not speak to defend Savile, for it is clear, from the mountain of evidence, and accusations, that have already come out that, on the balance of probability, he was a predatory, serial sex abuser of young girls and possibly boys. Yet for the sake of our judicial system and, for every one of us, it is important to remember that, in the eyes of the law, everyone else mentioned in relation to these cases remains innocent until proven guilty. Even Gary Glitter.
The public’s natural suspicion of a cover-up and that politicians look after their own has certainly not been assuaged by the MPs expenses scandal and the conduct of South Yorkshire Police during the Hillsborough disaster, especially as a memo to Margaret Thatcher made clear at the time that the police were lying but the establishment turned a blind eye. However I still have faith in the judge-led inquiry, (I’m thinking more of Lord Cullen, than Lord Hutton) as a means of getting to the facts.
By brandishing those names at the Prime Minister, Phillip Schofield was not engaging in journalistic inquiry but advocating the rule of the mob. He was elevating rumour, coating it in a sheen of respectability and ensuring that it was disseminated to the widest possible audience. I do not think, for a second, he deliberately allowed the names to be filmed. This was an unfortunate case of a tilt of the wrist and the wrong camera angle, but, given that just such an error cost a senior police officer in the Met his job and has been used by ministers to organise deniable leaks, you would assume that the programme’s producer would have ensured that ITV is not landed with a costly libel suit. Hours after the incident Schofield released a statement in which he said that he had not been accusing anyone of anything and “it’s essential that it is understood that I would never be part of any kind of witch-hunt.” Well, sadly, he was and it remains to be seen if Lord McAlpine, the Scots peer understood to have been named on the list, and, most importantly, his lawyers, agree.
Yesterday Lord McAlpine took the brave but wise step of releasing a lengthy statement in which he accepted that his name was circulating on the internet and had been alluded to by both newspaper and television news stories, but that all allegations were “wholly false and seriously defamatory”. The statement followed a report in the Guardian which seemed to strike down Newsnight’s initial story and pointed out that Steve Messham, his accuser, had previously said that his abuser was now dead. It appears to have been a case of mistaken identity and it is a credit to Lord McAlpine that his statement deals sensitively with Mr Messham who endured a horrific childhood of abuse at the Bryn Estyn children’s home in North Wales.
It should not be required to be said that the sexual abuse of a child or young person is a horrific crime, one that it has taken society too long to recognise and adequately tackle. Almost every institution including the Catholic Church, the NHS, Social Work, public and private schools etc has witnessed cases under their watch and care, and today, guidelines and procedures are more robust, but still it will go on, which is why the manner in which the Savile case and all its various tendrils are handled is of the greatest possible importance.
By reporting accusations as fact, which then later turn out to be false or mistaken, there is the potential for the public to turn, ever so slightly, against genuine victims, and for that cloud of doubt to grow a little larger. And it should be remembered that anyone falsely accused of such a heinous crime is also a victim. Let us not forget that in Scotland, 21 years ago, the papers and television news were dominated by reports of a secret coven practising the ritual and satanic sexual abuse of children on the island of south Ronaldsay in the Orkneys.
The lead social worker in the case had been involved the previous year in a case in Rochdale where 20 children were removed from their homes by social workers alleging “satanic ritual abuse”. In both cases, the allegations of satanic abuse were found to be false and the children, eventually, returned home.
I’m not suggesting that in the case of Jimmy Savile or at the children’s homes in north Wales sexual abuse did not take place, but what I am saying is that we have to be conscious that some accusations can and will be false, and that is why the most appropriate place for all allegations to be examined is in an actual court and not on the digital pews of public opinion. Or, for that matter, the cushioned sofa of a television studio.