Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.
 
       
 

The vigilantism of the Little Bullingdons
The current ‘paedo hysteria’ is being fanned, not by low-rent tabloid papers, but by politicians, serious journalists and the Twitterati.

After the events of the past four weeks, it should be clear to everyone that the current campaign of scaremongering and demonology directed at paedophiles is an elite-inspired project. Contrary to the usual snobbish criticism which says that ‘tabloid journalism’ and its easily aroused, prejudicial readership are to blame for ‘paedo hysteria’, this witch-hunt is being led by highly respected members of the British media. The very same people who once derided the now defunct News of the World’s ‘naming and shaming’ of child abusers are now demonstrating that, given half an opportunity, they will stoop even lower than that old red-top paper did.

It should be noted that, despite the myth that the News of the World’s crude crusade was in a class of its own, by the end of its name and shame campaign, in the early to mid-2000s, the paper had managed to convert almost the entire media to its paedophile-obsessed outlook. As an important study of the News of the World’s campaign notes, what started as one newspaper’s obsession soon came to define the media agenda. Despite initial criticisms of the News of the World’s approach, the upmarket newspapers soon embraced the paedo-hunting worldview. As the study concluded, ‘It became a unanimous press view that immediate action was required on the paedophile threat’ (1).

The current name and shame campaign has, from the outset, been the cause celebre of ostensibly high-minded moral entrepreneurs. The outing of Jimmy Saville as a child abuser, followed by the finger-pointing at other alleged paedophiles, has been opportunistically embraced by a variety of people and groups inside the political and cultural establishment. Their main objective is to have a pop at their opponents. The BBC became an early target of the post-Savile hysteria, particularly among individuals and institutions that either resent the BBC’s influence or just want to settle old scores with it. Others criticised the National Health Service for allowing Savile on hospital premises. Rapidly, the scaremongering acquired a life of its own, as different moral entrepreneurs harnessed the anxiety over paedophiles to promote their own agendas. Eventually, Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East, trumped everyone with his fantasies about a Tory paedophile ring lurking in the shadowy wings of Westminster.

In a modern-day echo of the old McCarthyite approach, Watson hinted at a conspiracy based around Downing Street. He said, ‘What I am going to do personally is speak out on this extreme case of organised abuse in the highest places’. In melodramatic fashion, he hinted that these forces of malevolence posed a threat to his personal security. He claimed to have knowledge of ‘mysterious early deaths’, suspicious fires and other forms of intimidation designed to cover up the heinous crimes of the paedophile ring. He said the threats ‘spooked me so much [that] I’ve kept a detailed log of all allegations should anything happen’. Nevertheless, he vowed to stand up to the forces evil: ‘I’m not going to let this drop despite warnings that my personal safety is imperilled.’

Watson’s crusade was enthusiastically embraced by a new breed of gossip columnist masquerading as investigative journalists. Iain Overton, who, until his resignation yesterday, ran the misnamed Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) based at City University, took a lead in orchestrating a whispering campaign against Lord McAlpine, former treasurer in Thatcher’s Tory Party, who was falsely said to be a paedophile. The BIJ was responsible for the Newsnight report which cranked up the rumour mill about McAlpine, and according to news reports Overton was in a boastful mood the day before the report went out, hinting that Newsnight was about to claim the scalp of a leading Tory figure. Within hours of his claims, a frenzied Twitter campaign by vigilante journalists and their followers took off, leading to smears against McAlpine.

An inspection of these tweets reveals something striking: the light-hearted and cavalier manner with which today’s self-appointed witch-hunters deal with their prey. Overton could barely contain his childish delight, tweeting: ‘We’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile.’ His boast was widely circulated, and soon, other would-be demonologists were piling in to demonstrate that they, too, had inside knowledge about the ‘Tory pervert’.

They tweeted their innuendo with casual abandon. Sanctimonious as ever, George Monbiot of the Guardian tweeted, ‘I can confirm that Lord#McAlpine was Conservative Party treasurer when Mrs Thatcher was prime minister’. Other examples of Monbiot’s spiteful schoolboy humour included, ‘I looked up Lord#McAlpine on t’internet. It says the strangest things’, and ‘Historical fact of the week: Lord #McAlpine was a well-known treasurer of the Conservative Party during the Thatcher era’. Clearly Monbiot was delighted by his clever way with words.

The aim of the News of the World was to name and shame. The aim of Monbiot was to shame without explicitly naming. Sally Bercow, who makes a living playing the role of the angry and rebellious spouse of the Speaker of the House of Commons, tweeted: ‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*.’ Soon, the herd-like instincts of the establishment acquired such momentum that even the usually innocuous and apolitical Phillip Schofield, presenter of ITV’s This Morning, felt called upon to perform the role of a self-righteous crusader and publicly present prime minister David Cameron with a fantasy list of paedophiles.

When they eventually apologised for their false allegations of paedophilia, the moral crusaders justified their behaviour on the grounds that they got caught up in an atmosphere of frenzy. Monbiot apologised for contributing to what he called a ‘febrile’ atmosphere; Bercow said she was ‘VERY sorry for inadvertently fanning flames’. However, it is important to note that if there was a febrile mood, it was mainly confined to a very narrow stratum of people. Despite the relentless press publicity given to the sordid details about Jimmy Savile’s life, the broader British public has not got caught up in a state of anxiety and panic. This was very much a tendentious, top-down moral crusade. Fed by journalistic rumours and a lively conspiratorial imagination, this was the week-long cause celebre of a morally dissolute section of Britain’s cultural elite.

Many of the chaps and chapettes involved in the recent witch-hunt are the kind of people who feel offended by that famous photo of young Tory toffs hanging out in Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club. Which is why it is so ironic that Overton decided to launch his campaign of gossip over post-debate drinks at the Oxford Union on 1 November. He had just held forth in an Oxford Union debate on the motion ‘This House believes that British politics is in the pocket of the media’, and although he is an old Cambridge chap, Overton, in his black tie, clearly felt equally at home at the Oxford Union. He is, after all, what we might call a ‘Little Bullingdon’: a member of a new establishment club which defines itself mainly through drawing a moral contrast with the bad old days of the traditional establishment.

Next time when you hear one of these Little Bullingdons denounce the tabloid press for shamelessly exploiting popular prejudice, just remember who was responsible for the promotion of the latest round of scaremongering about paedophilia.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Chas Critter. ‘Media, Government and Moral Panic: the politics of paedophilia in Britain 2000–1’,  Journalism Studies, Volume 3, No. 4, 2002, p130

First published by spiked, 13 November 2012