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?