There is a chilling scene in the BBC’s brilliant podcast A Very British Cult in which the show’s host finally comes face to face with Paul Waugh, leader of the eponymous cult. During the course of a walking interview across Holborn, Waugh shouts her down, yelling “you supported Jimmy Savile”.
Child abuse, and the failure to punish its perpetrators, leaves deep marks on our society – and fuels the political fringes. The BBC is often scorned because of its past failings over Savile, and Boris Johnson more than once deployed the Crown Prosecution Service’s failure to prosecute him as a rhetorical stick with which to beat Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions.
Labour has in turn provoked days of furore online with an advert singling out Rishi Sunak for an alleged failure to jail child abusers, but even this came on the back of Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman engaging in provocative rhetoric about Asian “grooming gangs” (despite most perpetrators of such crimes being white).
Child abuse is a real and persistent blight on our society, but it has also long been weaponised to fuel panics and to “other” out-groups. Perhaps the oldest defamation was when, in 11th century Norfolk, an ambitious clergyman used the murder of a young boy to suggest that local Jews were killing children for ritual purposes. This fabrication, which has become known as “blood libel”, has regularly resurfaced over the last 1,000 years during times of heightened anti-Semitism, and has led to very real horrors. But the tale has also modified, catching new audiences and causing new problems. In the 1980s that manifested as the “Satanic panic” – widespread reports that nurseries, schools and churches had secret rooms in which children were murdered and their blood consumed.
The modern variant is the increasingly amorphous online conspiracy grouping known as QAnon – named for “Q clearance”, a high-level security clearance in the US Department of Energy. The movement was born as a belief that Donald Trump was leading the resistance to a global Satanic cult led by Hillary Clinton.
In the seven years since it first emerged, the group’s beliefs have shifted and the movement has gone global – filtering through wellness influencers, talk radio hosts, far-right groups, parental Facebook groups and more. It has prompted more than one US shooting, has taken root in Australia, and its adherents were among those plotting a coup in Germany last year.
All of this is to say one simple thing: when politicians seek to make political hay with the issue of child abuse, they are messing with dark and uncontrollable forces, which motivate people to drastic action. The likelihood is not that they transfer votes towards Labour or the Conservatives, but instead drive some to the political fringes – or even towards violence.
Real child abuse needs to be addressed seriously – not to be treated as a political football. But the threat of imagined abuse can prove dangerous as well.
James Ball’s next book, “The Other Pandemic: How QAnon Contaminated the World”, is published by Bloomsbury in July.