Is Tom Watson in danger of fuelling a new paedophile panic?

There is a difference between listening sympathetically to the stories of people who say that they have been abused and uncritically believing every assertion that is made, says Nelson Jones.

It is in the nature of moral panics that they begin with genuine, shocking but relatively exceptional crimes and scandals. Because the revelation is striking or indicative, because it hits the nerve of a zeitgeist, it creates an appetite for more. And there may well be more, because even things that are rare are generally not unique. But as the revelations continue, the net begins to be cast much wider and the evidential bar is lowered. 

Positive feedback occurs: the mere making of a claim becomes self-sustaining. It's not long before it becomes difficult, professionally and politically, to raise legitimate doubts and questions about the reality and extent of the problem. Because the subject of moral panics are necessarily emotive, whether they involve the abuse of the vulnerable or questions of national security. Sceptics will be made to feel that they are complacent; that they don't care about the victims; even that they themselves are part of the conspiracy or the cover-up. In our own age, for good reasons, nothing is more emotive than paedophilia.

Yet when (on the face of it) extraordinary claims are being made - for example, the claim that the entire British establishment has been infiltrated by a network of elite paedophiles - what is needed above all is circumspection. Serious allegations must, of course, be investigated seriously.  But there is a difference between listening sympathetically to the stories of people who say that they have been abused and uncritically believing every assertion that is made. It may seem to be a fine line but it is important to maintain it. 

Unfortunately, the media always seek sensation and the loudest voices are usually the most incautious. Another recurrent feature of moral panics, from mass witchhunts in 16th century Europe to the McCarthyite purges of 1950s America and beyond, is the activity of highly motivated individuals, fired by a genuine sense of moral indignation whose crusade against wrongdoing easily tips over into credulity. Often they will occupy a position of public prominence that itself lends credence to their assertions. In the process the difference between truth and fantasy can become fatally blurred.

I don't doubt that the Labour MP Tom Watson was wholly sincere when he stood up at Prime Minister's Questions on 24 October and claimed to be in possession of "clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to parliament and No 10".  The issue he raised was a specific and important one, even if the evidence he adduced was somewhat tenuous.  He referred to the presence, in an old police evidence file, of a claim by an alleged member of a "widespread paedophile ring" that he had "links to a senior aide of a former prime minister."  In a nation already knocked sideways by the revelations about Jimmy Savile, even the hint of such a network was explosive, as Watson must have known it would be. It was inevitable that there would be fevered speculation, much of it online, as to the identity of the alleged Tory paedophile: speculation that Watson did nothing to discourage when he made clear on his blog that the man concerned was not the late Peter Morrison, as many had guessed, and implied that the guilty man was still alive.

The firestorm that Watson ignited reached its culmination yesterday morning when ITV's Phillip Schofield presented David Cameron, live on air, with a list of names who were the subject of internet speculation. Schofield's action was widely condemned as irresponsible, as indeed it was, but without Watson's repeated interventions to raise the temperature it's unlikely that things would have gone quite so far. Without Watson, indeed, it's unlikely that Newsnight would have led last Friday with claims by a Bryn Estyn abuse victim that one of his abusers was a senior Tory politician, who for legal reasons wasn't named.  These claims have now finally been subject to a much-needed scrutiny by the Guardian, which identified the man in question as former Conservative treasurer Lord McAlpine, albeit in the context of (quite convincingly, in my view) demolishing the case against him.

The Guardian suggests that McAlpine was probably the victim of mistaken identity, the true abuser being a member of his family who is now deceased.  Indeed, the paper notes that McAlpine was "exonerated by the 1997 Waterhouse inquiry of any involvement in the abuse of children in the north Wales homes." That inquiry is now itself the subject of a new inquiry announced by Theresa May earlier this week, but the truth of the matter may have been in the public domain all along.  In October 1997, Nick Davies wrote a comprehensive report for the Guardian into claims of cover-up in relation to the Waterhouse inquiry, noting in particular the alleged involvement of a senior Conservative. Davies calls the abuser "Mr B" and the victim, who has since waived anonymity as Steve Messham, as "Leon". 

According to Davies, Mr B was "a rich and powerful man who had used ["Leon"] for sex on three occasions.  Mr B's surname "happened to match that of one of Mrs Thatcher’s most prominent supporters."  However, Davies notes, the witness "said that he thought Mr B was dead, whereas Mrs Thatcher’s supporter is still alive and prominent." 

This morning's Guardian offers further strong circumstantial evidence that the claims about Lord McAlpine are false. McAlpine himself has now made a public statement.

While Tom Watson had not mentioned the Bryn Estyn scandal directly, neither has he dispelled any suggestions that the Newsnight allegations and his "powerful paedophile network linked to No 10" were connected.  Rather, he has continued to join the dots. In a blog post on November 3, he told of how since his intervention in the Commons he had been contacted by many members of the public with claims and "suspicions" that "go way beyond the claims made on Newsnight". Some had "named powerful people – some of them household names – who abused children with impunity."  They include "a former cabinet minister who regularly abused young boys".  Some of his correspondents, he wrote,  "have raised mysterious early deaths, disappeared children, suspicious fires, intimidation and threats. It's bewildering".

Actually, it's far from bewildering.  It was only to be expected. 

I'm not sure how far Tom Watson is aware of it, but the "alternative" part of the internet has been buzzing for weeks with the most bizarre conspiracy theories involving highly-placed paedophiles.  It would be surprising if he had not been contacted by whole swathes of the sort of people who usually haunt websites dedicated to exposing the Bilderberg Group and the New World Order, and among whom he has rapidly become a hero.  Among such types, the notion of an elite paedophile network has long been curiously central. 

Reading Watson's words, though, you can't help but wonder just how far down the rabbit hole he has fallen himself.  Even while admitting "how insane this all appears," he refers darkly to "warnings from people who should know that my personal safety is imperilled if I dig any deeper".  He mentions keeping "a detailed log of all the allegations should anything happen".  While he stresses that investigation is a matter for the police, he promises that he will continue to expose "this extreme case of organised abuse in the highest places." He seems almost to have become a character in his own novel.

This forms the background to Watson's second Commons intervention, on Tuesday this week, when he suggested that May's announced inquiries, restricted as they were to cases for which there was some actual evidence, represented "the basic building block of a cover-up" and "a dereliction of the Home Secretary's duty". Watson seems to be demanding a virtually unlimited inquiry into establishment paedophile networks that he has already decided must exist, and into a shadowy establishment cover-up that he is also presupposing.  He had already issued an open letter to David Cameron, in which he vaunted his "experience of uncovering massive establishment conspiracies" and condemned "decorous caution" as "the friend of the paedophile". He came close to suggesting that Cameron himself might have reason to be part of a cover-up: "Narrowing the inquiry equals hiding the truth. That is the reality and it is not what you want."

This is the language of the witch-hunter, the conspiracy-theorist, or the architect of a moral panic down the ages.  Is it really the language of a serious politician?

Tom Watson MP. Photo: Getty Images
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Relive your worst experiences for $15 an hour: how confessional journalism exploits women writers

The women’s website Bustle asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle; it puts a low-market value on their most intimate truths.

Let me tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me, the most terrible thing I’ve ever done. Let me tell you everything there is to know about me, all the buried markers of self that live under my skin. OK not that one, and I’ll keep that one too. I have to have something left over, after all. Even so, I’ve written about being the May Queen at school, and the time I got flashed in an underpass; about having depression as a teenager, and the unplanned pregnancy that became my son.

Actually, I’ve written about that last one twice: my first successful pitch for a comment piece was a response to anti-abortion comments by the then-influential semi-thinker Phillip Blond. It was a kind of pitch I now refer to now as the “what I think about X as a Y”: what I think about abortion as a woman who had and chose to continue an unplanned pregnancy. Experience is capital, and in 2009, I used it to buy my way into writing.

It’s a standard route for women writers, but not usually as formalised as it is at women’s website Bustle, which (as Gawker reported last week) asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle: “I see a therapist”, “I’ve had group sex (more than three)”, “I used to have a Fitbit but I don’t now”.

Every bit of what you are, granulated and packaged for easy dispersal through a range of stories. It’s an editorial approach that gives rise to a weird, impersonally-personal tone. “Five Reasons I’m Grateful For My Parents’ Divorce”, chirrups a listicle; “that’s why I tried anal sex in the first place”, trills a gif-heavy piece about the benefits of bumming.

That’s just the shallow end of the confessional genre. The ideal online women’s interest story combines a huge, life-changing disclosure with an empowering message. Like this, from xoJane: “I'm Finally Revealing My Name and Face As the Duke Porn Star” (the last line of that one is: “My name is Belle Knox, and I wear my Scarlet Letter with pride”). Or this, from Jezebel: “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad” (which concludes like this: “And to the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault”).

It’s tempting to think of this blend of prurience and uplift as a peculiar product of the internet, but it’s been a staple of women’s publishing forever: the covers of women’s magazines are full of lines like “Raped for 50p and a biscuit!” and “The groom who went ZOOM!” about a jilted bride, exactly as they were when I used to sneak them from my aunt’s magazine rack to read them as a child. The difference is that, in the trashy weeklies, there’s no pretence that trauma is the overture for a career. You get paid for your story, and someone else writes it up. The end.

At Bustle, the rate apparently runs to $90 for a six-hour shift. That feels like a low market value to put on your most intimate truths, especially when the follow-up success you’re investing in might never materialise. The author of the father-daughter incest story for Jezebel told a Slate writer that, despite the huge web traffic her confessional received, her subsequent pitches were ignored. Her journalistic career currently begins and ends with her very grimmest experience.

“Everything is copy” is the Nora Ephron line. But when she said it, she didn’t intend the disclosure economy we live in now. For Ephron, “everything is copy” meant claiming control: “When you slip on the banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke.”

Does the aspiring writer plucked from an editor’s checklist to retail her own Worst Thing Ever get to call the banana skin her own?

The Bustle checklist suggests not. “Don’t put anything on here you don’t want to write about,” it stresses, before adding, “that said, you can always say ‘no’ . . . You might be too busy when an editor approaches you about possibly writing an identity post, or simply not interested, and that’s okay! We won’t be mad!”

Ticking the box basically puts you in a position of assumed consent, but which hopeful young woman would dare to set her boundaries too close when an editor tells her this could be good for her career? (Yes, I know this sounds a bit like a story of sexual harassment. Funny, that.)

So many confessionalist pieces of writing tell stories about women having their limits overridden. Rape and coercion. Abuse and assault. Being talked over and ignored. But the logic of the perpetual confession journalism machine is the same: everything about a woman should be available to use, nothing a woman has to say is valid without a personal claim to authority, repackage their guts as shiny sausages and call it an “identity piece”.

Women writers shouldn’t be waiting for permission to say no. We need to tell our stories on our own terms, and we need to set better terms than $15 an hour and the hope of some exposure. The worst thing that ever happened to me? It’s mine. I’m keeping it.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.