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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Labour's purge: how it works, and what it means

The total number of people removed will be small - but the rancour will linger. 

Labour has just kicked off its first big wave of expulsions, purging many voters from the party’s leadership rolls. Twitter is ablaze with activists who believe they have been kicked out because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. There are, I'm told, more expulsions to come - what's going on?  Is Labour purging its rolls of Corbyn supporters?

The short answer is “No”.

If that opener feels familiar, it should: I wrote it last year, when the last set of purges kicked off, and may end up using it again next year. Labour has stringent rules about expressing support for other candidates and membership of other parties, which account for the bulk of the expulsions. It also has a code of conduct on abusive language which is also thinning the rolls, with supporters of both candidates being kicked off. 

Although the party is in significantly better financial shape than last year, it still is running a skeleton staff and is recovering from an expensive contest (in this case, to keep Britain in the European Union). The compliance unit itself remains small, so once again people from across the party staff have been dragooned in.

The process this year is pretty much the same: Labour party headquarters doesn’t have any bespoke software to match its voters against a long list of candidates in local elections, compiled last year and added to the list of candidates that stood against Labour in the 2016 local and devolved elections, plus a large backlog of complaints from activists.

It’s that backlog that is behind many of the highest-profile and most controversial examples. Last year, in one complaint that was not upheld, a local member was reported to the Compliance Unit for their failure to attend their local party’s annual barbecue. The mood in Labour, in the country and at Westminster, is significantly more bitter this summer than last and the complaints more personal. Ronnie Draper, Ronnie Draper, the general secretary of the Bfawu, the bakers’ union, one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters in the trade union movement, has been expelled, reported for tweets which included the use of the word “traitors” to refer to Labour opponents of Corbyn.  Jon Will Chambers, former bag carrier to Stella Creasy, and a vocal Corbyn critic on Twitter, has been kicked out for using a “Theresa May” twibbon to indicate his preference for May over Andrea Leadsom, in contravention of the party’s rules.

Both activities breach the letter of the party’s rules although you can (and people will) make good arguments against empowering other people to comb through the social media profiles of their opponents for reasons to dob them in.  (In both cases, I wouldn’t be shocked if both complaints were struck down on appeal)

I would be frankly astonished if Corbyn’s margin of victory – or defeat, as unlikely as that remains in my view – isn’t significantly bigger than the number of people who are barred from voting, which will include supporters of both candidates, as well as a number of duplicates (some people who paid £25 were in fact members before the freeze date, others are affliated trade unionists, and so on). 

What is unarguably more significant, as one party staffer reflected is, “the complaints are nastier now [than last year]”. More and more of the messages to compliance are firmly in what you might call “the barbecue category” – they are obviously groundless and based on personal animosity. That doesn’t feel like the basis of a party that is ready to unite at any level. Publicly and privately, most people are still talking down the chances of a split. It may prove impossible to avoid.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.