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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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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