IT IS not hard to see why “Paedogeddon” attracted more complaints than any British television programme to date. In this spoof documentary, broadcast by Channel 4 in 2001, a presenter reported that a paedophile had disguised himself as a school, activists belonging to “Milit-pede”, a militant pro-paedophile group, stormed the studio and gullible celebrities claimed that paedophiles shared more DNA with crabs than with other humans. It was over-the-top, in terrible taste and a vehicle for the attention-seeking programme-makers.
And yet it served a purpose. At the time, Britain was in a panic following the rape and murder of a schoolgirl. The News of the World, a now-defunct tabloid, had named dozens of alleged paedophiles. A mob in Portsmouth had pelted a block of flats with stones and set fire to a car outside. “Paedo” was daubed on a paediatrician’s house. “Paedogeddon” merely held up a fairground mirror to a society losing its grip. The popular response to the programme was disgusted (the “sickest TV show ever”, ran one headline), but it rather proved the programme-makers’ points. One newspaper ran an article harrumphing about it directly next to a revealing picture of a 15-year-old singer, captioned: “She’s a big girl now”.
That pattern—a blanket of shock and hypocrisy smothering the complicated realities and lessons of a child sex scandal—is back. The past three years have thrust into the limelight a wave of crimes (variously proven and alleged) by paedophiles in the 1970s and 1980s, many involving prominent figures in the media and politics. And once more it seems Britain has only two gears: myopia and hysteria.
The revelations and claims, it is true, are grotesquely awful. Many involve the rape of vulnerable children by powerful men. Jimmy Savile, a now-dead television personality, stalked hospital wards under philanthropic pretexts; nurses advised children to feign sleep during his visits. A group of politicians, including the late Cyril Smith, a gargantuan Liberal Party grandee, reportedly met at a flat in south London to abuse teenagers. On August 14th Lord Janner, a former Labour MP, is due to go before a court (after unsuccessful appeals citing his dementia) to face allegations that he abused youths in local-government care.
Many of these cases betoken a deferential past in which inconveniences were hushed up and rumours ignored. Dossiers were lost, police investigations halted, items of evidence confiscated and mislaid. Tim Fortescue, a Tory whip during the 1970s, boasted that he kept MPs in line by helping them quash “scandals involving small boys”. The whole saga paints a blood-chilling picture of cosy networks of cosseted chaps overlooking the crimes of other cosseted chaps, leaving small, terrified children unprotected and without redress.
That such stories are finally emerging is, of course, a credit to Britain’s more open, less pompous present. Yet today’s establishment has not covered itself in glory. In 2011 the BBC pulled an exposé of Savile’s crimes. A later inquiry found that, although there had been no cover-up, the corporation had mishandled the allegations and had gone ahead with a tribute to the entertainer despite internal concerns. Attempts to set up a public inquiry into child sex abuse became a farce; it took the Home Office almost a year, and two abortive appointments, to find a chairman not personally linked to figures of interest.
All of which has made the mood even more jittery. Months after the BBC’s aborted Savile report, “Newsnight”, the programme for which it had been slated, ran a sensationally trailed story accusing Lord McAlpine, a senior Tory, of being a paedophile—which then unravelled. Days afterwards Philip Schofield, a broadcaster on another network, ambushed David Cameron on live television with a list of allegedly child-abusing politicians that, he boasted, it had taken him three minutes to find on the internet. Leon Brittan, a Tory peer, went to his grave in January believing (incorrectly) that the police still wanted to prosecute him over a child rape allegation. This month seven police forces have announced—to lurid speculation in the newspapers—that they are investigating claims of child sex abuse by Ted Heath, a former prime minister who died a decade ago.
The first casualty
Enough. Britain is swaying from one extreme to another; turning an institutional blind-eye to such claims one minute, plunging into a moral panic the next and rarely alighting on the calm, considered, prosecutorial ground between the two. As the makers of “Paedogeddon” tried to say: hysteria can be as dangerous as complacency, throwing claims and counter-claims into an epistemological twilight in which the as-yet innocent are less distinctly innocent and the guilty, as a consequence, are less distinctly guilty.
Why? Hysteria makes it easier for the guilty to muddy the waters. It conflates victims with fantasists and frustrates the prosecution of genuine criminals. The public inquiry, finally launched last month under Lowell Goddard, a New Zealand judge, could last five years. In the current climate, and in an age of frenetic social media, it is hard to imagine it reaching its conclusion without partial details and innuendos leaking—which, when or if that happens, will undermine confidence in the inquiry’s conclusions and recommendations.
Those are sorely needed. Public institutions need advice and, in some cases, sanction. Past victims and the wrongly accused need the truth and redress. Future victims need to feel safe to come forward without public stigma or histrionics. And—it being increasingly acknowledged that adults attracted to children should self-report to authorities, so that they can be monitored and counselled—paedophiles need to be stopped before they offend. Breathless panic and finger-pointing is easy. But justice and prevention, surely, are worth the greater effort.
From the print edition: Britain