• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

The moral lynching of Barbara Hewson

Intolerance comes in many shapes and forms. Last week, following the publication of an article on spiked by Barbara Hewson, there was a surge in intolerance, reminding us that far too many people and institutions aim to silence voices that raise uncomfortable questions. In particular, the Hewson storm confirms that the prevailing consensus around the Jimmy Savile scandal and the numerous police investigations it has spawned is now beyond debate. Questions about what kind of behaviour constitutes child abuse; about how to respond to claims of abuse that allegedly occurred 50 or 60 years ago; about what the age of consent should be… apparently there can be no debate on these, and only the dominant official narrative may be voiced.

When Hewson called into question the legal and moral foundations of the police’s post-Savile Operation Yewtree, and the way in which it confuses a zealous crusade with due process, she immediately became the target of a witch hunt. The bigotry and visceral hatred directed towards her expose the raw fears, insecurities and passions that underpin so-called child protection policies in modern Britain – ‘so-called’ because, as I explain in my book Moral Crusades In An Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal, what really motors ‘child protection’ today is not a desire to take effective steps to secure children’s safety, but rather an explosion of moral confusion and disorientation among adult society.

Specifically, the non-stop post-Savile excavation of allegations of abuse from the 1960s and 70s confirms that modern British society can only handle the moral categories of good and evil – hence its thirst for grotesque moral dramas that pit the malevolent paedophile against the sacred victim of the child. The quasi-religious dogma that has turned the paedophile into the singular personification of evil gives rise to a political style and a rhetorical strategy more normally associated with intolerant bigoted movements.

So Hewson has casually been referred to as ‘vermin’, a ‘fucking animal’ who deserves to ‘rot in hell’, a ‘cretin’, a ‘scumbag’, a ‘paedophile sympathiser’, a ‘whore’, a ‘cunt’, a ‘paedo-loving slag’, and, of course, a ‘witch’. This speaks to a culture that incites people to exhibit the passionate outrage and hatred normally associated with a lynch mob. Apparently it is perfectly okay to hate Hewson – that is why the police, who are normally far too quick to investigate offensive remarks made on Twitter, are unlikely to take much interest in the mauling of Hewson. Likewise, commentators who usually rail against online commentary that devalues women may well decide that the epithets directed at Hewson are ‘understandable’.

The ideology of evil that pervades intergenerational anxieties today doesn’t only invite the promiscuous use of unrestrained and inflammatory rhetoric; it also implicitly sanctions threats against those who are seen as usurpers of the mainstream narrative. So Hewson, the paedo-loving slag, has been threatened with rape; others have tweeted about cutting her up and playing with her organ; she should have ‘her cunt kicked in’, said another. Other responses were more subtle, demanding that she shouldn’t ‘be allowed to live on this planet anymore’. ‘I can’t wait till you get what’s coming’, tweeted one holy crusader. A more delicate approach was taken by online petitioners who insisted that Hewson should not be permitted to work as a barrister anymore, because her comments represented ‘an insult to the integrity of our country’. This impulse to punish and hurt someone severely for expressing a view that contradicts mainstream opinion reveals how much tolerance has become a dirty word these days.

These spiteful sentiments expressed by people caught up in the culturally sanctioned frenzy around paedophilia point to a serious moral malaise in contemporary Britain. Today’s elevation of ‘child protection’ and demonisation of ‘the predator’ give people permission to express their anxieties through the fantasy of the omnipotent and omnipresent child molestor. This issue now unites the entire political spectrum, both polite and impolite society. So as well as being attacked by serious broadsheet commentators, Hewson was on the receiving end of a sermon from the Sun. ‘Ms Hewson, you should be ashamed’, said a Sun editorial.

Of course, the Sun and its former sister paper the News of The World have a formidable track record of whipping up hatred for those they brand with the word ‘shame’. In July 2000, the News of the World’s ‘name and shame’ campaign against alleged paedophiles preyed on the public’s anxieties. It provoked fearful parents to organise vigilante groups. In the end, the outbursts of vigilante violence discredited the campaign. But what that campaign showed is that evoking the threat posed by the paedophile can rapidly create the conditions for a frenzied witch-hunt.

The spirit of the Inquisition

Of course, in a free society everyone, even those attempting to fuel anxiety about the threats facing children, have the right to express their views. Those of us genuinely committed to freedom of speech have to live with the grim reality that dissident views may well be demonised for ‘legitimising paedophilia’, while the dissidents themselves are denounced as cunts or whores or witches. What is really disturbing about this kind of reaction is not the language of raw bigotry and hatred that is used, but rather the explicit attempt to stymie, even to end, the voicing of minority views. The response of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) to Hewson’s article is very revealing in this respect.

This is how the NSPCC works… The charity responded to Hewson’s article by firstly trying to force her to gag her views. In an email to Hewson, Matt Hopkinson, the NSPCC’s chief press officer, dispatched a missive instructing Hewson to ‘reconsider’ her article. ‘I strongly urge you to remove or reword your article’, he warned. At the same time, the NSPCC contacted Hewson’s associates in the legal chambers where she works, demanding that they disassociate themselves from her personal views. It was a form of moral blackmail of Hewson. The message was clear: if you refuse to toe our line, we will create problems for you in your place of work and in the public realm more broadly. In other words, if you don’t shut up, we will make sure that your daddy punishes you.

Readers may wish to pause for a moment and reflect on the implications of what happened last week. What we had was a press officer for a charity effectively threatening an individual for holding views on matters of public interest with which his charity disagrees. Apparently one view and one view alone is permitted on matters that the NSPCC takes an interest in. Ironically, one of the issues on which the NSPCC has made a name for itself in recent years is bullying; and yet the NSPCC’s press office seems to believe that bullying for a noble cause is okay, perhaps enjoying some kind of papal dispensation. A perusal of the NSPCC’s comments on Hewson shows that this lobby groups thinks of itself as the moral arbiter of everything to do with children. Anyone who dares ask, ‘But who made the NSPCC God?’, is likely to be at the receiving end of press release or at least a papal tweet.

Meanwhile, Mark William-Thomas, who describes himself as ‘child protection expert’ and who gained fame for his input to the reality television programme To Catch a Paedophile, tweeted: ‘I am quite astonished by the view held by Barbara Hewson. She makes statements that surely warrant some professional body intervention.’ This idea that people’s controversial views should be censored, or should at least be the target of some professional intervention, says more about the kind of people who describe themselves as ‘child protection experts’ than it does about Hewson or what she said. Such an idea is antithetical to the values and practices one associates with an open democratic society.

The NSPCC, the Sun and others are of course entirely within their rights to criticise Hewson’s article. They even have the right to use coarse language and derogatory terms to denounce her views. However, the attempt to silence or criminalise her views calls into question the most important of all of our freedoms: freedom of speech. In the words of the Irish Independent’s Eilis O’Hanlon, ‘the vehemence of the reaction against Hewson demonstrates that she was certainly right to compare the public mood around this issue to a witch-hunt, since it is in the nature of witch-hunts to… shout down opposition’.

The issue at stake is not just the right to voice an individual opinion, but also the right to criticise an official policy and doctrine and offer an alternative political perspective. Individuals who argue for abolishing income tax, or for the privatisation of the NHS, or for the legalisation of marijuana, may face criticism, but they are rarely asked to censor themselves or told that they must not express their views in public or on the internet. When it comes to child protection, however, and the police operation of mobilising historical allegations of abuse, apparently there is no room whatsoever for dissidence. The mere hint of deviation from the party line immediately leads to the accusation that one is aiding paedophiles or disrespecting or even injuring the alleged victims of abuse.

In the current climate, far too many sensible people are scared to raise concerns about the way in which the Yewtree police have turned their inquiry into an inquisition. As the Hewson scandal shows, even the simple suggestion that an allegation of abuse should not be automatically treated as evidence of a sex crime can invite extreme hostility and ferocious insults. In such a climate, people find it difficult to be critical and will often issue a swift apology for having made ‘insensitive comments’ about any aspect of Operation Yewtree. So when the entertainer Paul Daniels, writing on his personal blog, questioned the validity of some of the allegations made against Jimmy Savile, he was denounced as a ‘disgrace’ and accused of ‘belittling victims’; his blog post was later removed.

Today’s witch-hunters often make a conceptual jump from denouncing someone as ‘holding an incorrect view’ to pathologising them as sick, disordered, diseased. In frenzied moral crusades, the categories of evil and medical diagnoses of disease are frequently meshed together; that is why the term ‘sick’ can often be used against those who refuse to conform to the prevailing norms. Consider the following email, which was sent to Hewson’s associates in her chambers:

Subject: Views of Barbara Hewson.

I work in mental health within primary schools in a London borough. I deal with safeguarding and child protection matters on a daily basis. I’d like to express my anger and disbelief at the comments of Barbara Hewson. Her ideas are dangerous and reckless. She is urgently in need of training.

I trust that people who are closer to the relevant professional bodies will pick up the more specific issues that need addressing in her knowledge and practice.

My purpose is to stand up and be counted as a practitioner who will not let this level of ignorance pass unchallenged.’

Back in the days of the Cold War, dissidents who refused to repent or renounce their Communism-criticising views were sent to mental-health facilities. According to Soviet officials, only really sick people could hold such outrageous views. Thankfully, twenty-first-century Britain is more tolerant… apparently the sick Barbara Hewson is only ‘in need of training’ rather than full on re-education. But in this instance, what does training mean? Trained to behave and conform? Trained to internalise the official line? Trained in a manner not dissimilar to the way animals are trained – that is, to jump through hoops?

As is always the case with witch-hunts and inquisitions, Operation Yewtree and the numerous campaigns launched alongside it have acquired a powerful momentum of their own. The imperative of expanding the number of allegations of abuse is likely to keep this moral crusade busy for some time. The announcement last week that Yewtree police have set aside £240,000 to hire ex-officers as private detectors, in order to deal with the flood of Savile-related allegations, suggests that what began as a kind of reality-television policing exercise could well lead to the institutionalisation of the showtrial.

Anyone who is concerned with democratic freedom, due process and the wellbeing of our children needs to stand up and be counted. And anyone who is genuinely concerned about those individuals who were wronged by sexual predators in the past needs to understand that you cannot right a wrong by committing another wrong.

Frank Furedi’s new book, Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Contact me

If you want to get in touch or keep updated with my activities, either email me, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.