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13 March 2024

Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax terrified me

Channel 4’s chilling account of a paedophile scare shows the very modern hell unleashed by online conspiracy theories.

By Rachel Cooke

Hampstead used to be a byword for the kind of novels in which people who’d been to Cambridge discussed Kant and their latest love affair while grinding single-origin coffee at a scrubbed-pine kitchen table (I exaggerate, but only slightly). Personally, I miss those books – where have they gone? – and not only for their own sake. More and more, they speak to me of safer times, by which I mean, in this instance, the difference between the momentary anxiety that might once have been stirred in such an affluent suburb by a green-inked poison pen letter, and the fear and loathing that comes courtesy of the near limitless opportunities for spite afforded by the internet.

I watched Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax – the craziest of titles, when you really think about it – knowing some of the story already. The tale it tells, which is definitely not like anything in Margaret Drabble, has been in the papers for years; in 2022, it was the subject of a podcast by Alexi Mostrous. But still, it terrified me. Thanks to social media, such Grand Guignol is only a couple of clicks away for all of us. In a culture in which feelings and beliefs increasingly take precedence over facts, the truth is so much melting pack ice: stand on it at your peril, and don’t expect anyone to rescue you when you fall into the freezing cold water.

In 2015, a video appeared on the internet in which two children described being abused by a satanic paedophile ring based at their primary school in Hampstead, north London. They had been coerced into making these claims by their mother, Ella Draper, who was involved in a custody dispute with their father, and her partner, Abraham Christie, a convicted criminal and conspiracy theorist. But even after they retracted the story – having been interviewed by specialist police officers – the rumours didn’t stop. Quite the reverse. The names and addresses of the accused parents and their children were already online. There was no way to end the hell that had been unleashed: to the death threats, the paedophile hunters on rescue missions, the furious crowds gathering in Hampstead at weekends.

This isn’t elegant film-making; the storytelling tips towards the sensational. But it is gripping. Emily Turner, its director, has bagged all the interviews: with four of the accused mothers (their words lip-synced by actors); with Rupert Wilson Quaintance, a conspiracy theorist who travelled from Virginia to “investigate” the satanists and later received a nine-month prison sentence for harassment; and, most chilling of all, with Sabine McNeill, the woman a judge described as “arrogant, malicious, evil and manipulative” as she handed her a nine-year sentence for harassment and breaching a restraining order. Draper and Christie, incidentally, fled the country; Draper’s children now live with their father.

You watch, and you listen, and it’s all scarcely believable – on paper, at least. How incredible that so many people were willing to believe Draper’s laughable claim that children were delivered to abusers via DHL; and how appalling that it was left largely to these four mothers to secure prosecutions, and by doing so to change case law. (In the face of the reluctance of the Crown Prosecution Service and a police force out of its depth, they gathered thousands of digital exhibits, and one infiltrated the conspiracy theorists’ online groups.) And yet, it all happened. This is where we are.

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Far worse, though, is watching Quaintance and McNeill (the latter left prison in 2022). Neither is repentant. McNeill still alludes to the guilt of these families, who she said drank babies’ blood for kicks, and it’s horrible to see. The wild, tinny conviction. The histrionic emotion. The sense that she’s now just another victim. “All I can do is suffer,” she says. “Suffer it like Jesus Christ did.” Turner repeats the facts: the children lied, there is no paedophile ring. But McNeill is unbowed, made of stone and hysteria. It’s impossible to debate belief, however mad, however screwed up. This horror show may well have happened in Hampstead, with its big houses, its wooded heath and its Labour politicians. But it also is the future in microcosm.

Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax 
Channel 4; available on catch-up

[See also: Mary & George Review – Improbable, overblown and rude]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul