For the last week or so, British Twitter-users have been re-tweeting a list of well-known Conservative Party politicians and activists, based on a rumour that they were members of a elite paedophile ring operating in the 1980s. Some users have made direct accusations, while others have merely posted the names with “nudge-nudge wink-wink” comments attached. Those indulging in this include members of the public, conspiracy theorists such as David Icke, and public figures who ought to have known better, such as Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons. The list yesterday jumped from the internet onto television, when an amiable light-entertainment presenter handed a copy of the names to the Prime Minister live, provoking a stern and irritated warning from Cameron about a “witchhunt”.
And now, the Guardian has published evidence that at least one person on the list is completely innocent, and the victim of mistaken identity. The obvious dangers of the current vigilante atmosphere have thus been amply demonstrated. George Monbiot has already issued a mea culpa.
It seems to me that a several factors have been in play, beyond the astonishing scale of abuse which Jimmy Savile managed to get away with.
First, public confidence in institutional authority has been severely battered in recent years: we’ve seen churchmen engaging in and covering over child abuse; politicians stealing from the public with each other’s connivance; a long history of highly politicized and inappropriate undercover operations by the police; and corrupt links between police and media. The whole system seems to be geared to the benefit of elite “insiders” rather than for society as a whole: it is therefore no longer fantastical to imagine people at the top operating brazenly outside the law.
A second factor is wish-fulfilment; I get the distasteful impression that some people would be bitterly disappointed to discover that particular individuals have not been sexually abusing children. Some of the names on the list are associated with a political strand – the Tory Right – which many people find personally obnoxious. I can see why it would be grimly satisfying to imagine such persons ruined and disgraced through the discovery that they have been involved in exceptionally foul and self-debasing crimes – but mature adults ought to be able to be self-critical of the temptation (from which I don’t claim to be completely immune) to assume that a nasty rumour must therefore be true, or that someone asserting something in good faith cannot possibly be mistaken.
A third issue, for me at least, is the way that UK libel law and measures such as “super-injunctions” have been allowed to suppress information in the public interest – again, for the near-exclusive benefit of the wealthy. Not only is this an affront to free speech; it muddies the water for anyone who has a genuine grievance. Consequently, when I read about a successful libel action, or see a grudging “correction” in the media, I do not tend to assume that the person who brought a complaint has been vindicated. I suspect that some of those re-tweeting the names think that what they’re doing amounts to a form of samizdat.
The Twitter outburst gained momentum from a BBC Newsnight report into abuse at a children’s home in north Wales last week; the public was led to believe that an individual would be named as an abuser, but this did not happen. However, a week or so before that, Tom Watson MP had raised the question of a “powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament”. Watson’s failure to be specific contributed to speculation – I myself assumed that he was perhaps referring to the north Wales case, when in fact he seems to have had other figures in mind.
I have no doubt that Watson spoke out in good faith, but the names on the Twitter list derive from a magazine dating from the early 1990s about which I am far less certain; I recall that at least one article indulged in crude racial stereotyping, and there seemed to be an unpleasant conflation of gay male sexuality with weird power games. I myself mentioned the magazine on Twitter when Watson made his statement; in hindsight, perhaps it would have been better not to have made even a passing reference to it.
It should be obvious that people waving around lists of names and news stories filled with innuendo is not the way to go about getting to the truth. I’m not dismissive of Watson’s general concern, but I fear he risks becoming another Geoffrey Dickens MP.
(see also this post by Heresy Corner)
(Last paragraphs amended)
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