Richard Webster

The making of a modern European witch hunt (full screen version of Part One with links

A construção de uma caça às bruxas moderna

David Kelly:the rise of a conspiracy theory, REVISED EDITION,
23 October 20

'We have not a shred of evidence . . . '
'Something evil had happened . . . I had to go on.' - Jersey in the Sunday papers
No murders at Haut de la Garenne: Journalism, Jersey and the idea of evil
Flat Earth News and the Jersey child abuse scandal, Part 2
The Jersey skull fragment, the police, and the facts which turned out not to be true
Flat Earth News and the Jersey child abuse scandal, Part 1 news & views blog
Norman Cohn 1915-2007

W T Stead resource site
John Gray on secular fundamentalism: The atheist delusion
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To view the trailers section, click here
Rediscovering the unconscious
The legacy of Freud
Freud, Charcot and hysteria: lost in the labyrinth
Freud, Satan and the serpent
Hysteria, medicine and misdiagnosis
Freud's false memories
The bewildered visionary
Flirting with Freud
Taming the beast
Letting the Cartesian cat out
Freud and the Judaeo-Christian tradition: Frederick Crews and Richard Webster

Melvyn Bragg, hysteria and the indubitable flatness of the earth
E.P. Thompson and the Althusserian locusts: an exercise in practical criticism
Marx and anti-semitism (extract from E.P. Thompson essay above)
Structuralist theology
Lacan goes to the opera
Levi-Strauss's theology
The cult of Lacan
New ends for old: Frank Kermode's 'The Sense of an Ending'
'The thought-fox' and the poetry of Ted Hughes
The diminutive insect: Gulliver's Travels and original sin
The poverty of literary theory
Salman Rushdie: imaginary homelands
Orwell and the shooting-stick: sex, sadism and biography
A brief history of blasphemy
Liberalism's holy war
Reconsidering the Rushdie affair
The politics of the body
Was Hitler a racist?
The dark mirror of Islam
Israel, Palestine and the tiger of terrorism: Islamic anti-semitism and history
The Guardian, Fayed and the cash for questions affair
The Danish cartoons affair and free speech
You can talk: The Satanic Verses, free speech and Puritanism
Life in the death camp: Auschwitz memoirs
Our common inhumanity: anti-semitism and history
Policing racism in Britain
History and hatred: the role of collective fantasies in history
Of rats and men: drug-dealers, anti-semitism and propaganda
Of love, war and obscenity: a perspective on the fall of Bagdhad
Regardless of all consequences: Abu Ghraib and images of abuse
Legacy of hatred: Iraq and the Arab world
Looking back on Iraq
Faking jubilation in Baghdad?
God, physics and Darwin: why scientists aren't sceptical
Science and the soul
The two cultures revisited
The Darwin legend: review of Adrian Desmond and James Moore's 'Darwin'
Steven Pinker and original sin
Steven Pinker and the limitations of Darwinian theory
Turning over a new blank slate
The nature and nurture of reviews
Care goes on trial
Trawling for crimes: the Danesford two and the case of Terry Hoskin
What the BBC did not tell us
How the police trawl the innocent
New Statesman exchange on 'How the police trawl the innocent': Nick Davies, Christian Wolmar, Richard Webster.
Do you care to go to jail?
End this cruel injustice
The new injustices
Trawling goes on trial
Trawling nets the innocent
God, sex and greed: a new secularist witch-hunt?
The Christmas spirit in Ireland
States of Fear, the Redress Board and Ireland's folly
The Mary Bowman case: recovered memory appeal halted
Satanic abuse and McMartin: a global village rumour
Crusade or witchhunt: the case of Frank Beck
Capturing the Friedmans: art, truth and marketing
The origins and erosion of the modern similar fact principle
Advertising in prison
The prison governor, the notice and the question of compensation
Confessions of a forensic psychologist
Home affairs committee report 2002
Police abandon massive trawling operation
A good day to bury bad news?
Jubilation in court as care workers freed
Appeal Court recognises the dangers of police trawling
The Today programme revisited
One law for the famous: Neil and Christine Hamilton
Anonymity for child abuse suspects?
Compensation culture: a moderate proposal
Trawling: better news from the house
A Portuguese Kincora
FACT: the origins of a campaign
Going to jail with a clear conscience by BOB WOFFINDEN
Private Eye and the trauma of trawling
Cleared: the story of Shieldfield
How our demons fuel witch-hunts
Why Professor Barker must go
Shieldfield doctor faces GMC hearing
Shieldfield news and links
Shieldfield: the response of ACAL
Shieldfield: how did it happen
Shieldfield: the latest news
GMC and Lazaro: the toothless watchdog bites again
The Cosgrove letter
The evidence of Professor Barker
The question of malice

Introduction: the story
of the story
The newspaper:
Chapter One
States of Fear, the Redress Board and Ireland's folly
Reviews:appearing and non-appearing
Tania Hunter's FACTION
w, FACT, pdf
Unbalanced and misleading': Richard Scorer on The Secret of Bryn Estyn
Mark Smith reviews The Secret of Bryn Estyn in Child Abuse Review pdf
Readers write
Waterhouse - a betrayal of trust: a critique of the Tribunal in twenty parts (long document, expanded Nov 2005)
Waterhouse: the anniversary of an injustice (2003)
Waterhouse says he was right about North Wales
Waterhouse: a fight against injustice by MICHAEL BARNES
Sacrosanct allegations, a former police officer and Private Eye

They said it was fiction: 'Care' and the true story behind a BBC abuse drama'

File on 4: North Wales and the easy journalism of child abuse
Hutton: when the lights came on
The death of a scientist: David Kelly, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell's war
The Hutton inquiry and Kelly
Televising Hutton
Hutton and the mirror of dishonesty
Hutton and Lazaro
The tiger of terrorism
and the tyranny of print


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Very sadly, Richard died in June 2011, after suffering heart failure during the night. He was at home in Oxford. His death has been an immense loss to all of us who knew him.

Obituaries have been published by the Guardian and the Telegraph:

His friends would like to ensure that he is properly remembered, and hope that his work that has not yet seen the light of day will now do so.This will take some time to accomplish, so please bear with us.We will provide fresh information as soon as plans have been finalised.

The site will continue to be available. Please check back for further updates. In the meantime, if there are specific queries, please contact:  [email protected]


RICHARD WEBSTER was born in 1950 and studied English literature at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of A Brief History of Blasphemy: Liberalism, Censorship and 'The Satanic Verses', 1990; Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis, 1995; Freud (Great Philosophers), 2003; and The Great Children's Home Panic, 1998. His most recent book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt (2005), was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. 

A Brief History of Blasphemy: Liberalism, Censorship and 'The Satanic Verses'
Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis
The Great Children's Home Panic
Freud (Great Philosophers) The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt
For more about a book please click on a jacket

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Index to links in the left hand margin. To return click the back button

What is

IT HAS OFTEN SEEMED to me that anthropology, like charity, ought to begin at home a great deal more frequently than it does. For although anthropologists have produced hundreds of books about exotic or non-western cultures, and the meaning of their customs and cosmologies, the world-view of our own culture remains in many respects mysterious.

There is a saying which might be applied to this predicament. ‘We do not know much about who discovered the ocean’, it runs, ‘but we can be pretty sure it wasn’t a fish’. These words remind us that any habitual environment tends to escape both attention and analysis. What familiarity ultimately breeds is not so much contempt as invisibility.

The saying is, I believe, a profound one. Nowhere more so than when it is applied to the perspective we have on our own history. For one of the most interesting features of the western rationalist culture which we now inhabit is that very few of those who are given to celebrating reason and science most unreservedly would be able to give a reasoned account of the origins of modern secular rationalism We believe in reason, it sometimes seems, with a fervour which is itself profoundly irrational.

This website is an attempt to explore such fervour and to inquire into what the basis of our faith in reason, science and modern secular liberalism, actually is. It is also, as can be seen from the list on the left, an anthology of some of my own reviews, essays and articles. Since, with very few exceptions, these deal with aspects of the same problem, they are not in fact the disparate assortment they might appear to be.

For at the heart of almost everything I have written over the last twenty years or so is the view that, in our modern, proudly rationalist attempts to break the links which tie us to our superstitious, essentially religious past, we have become profoundly muddled about our own cultural history.

In one respect our modern cultural predicament has been most succinctly and poignantly expressed by the novelist John Updike: ‘Alas we have become, in our Protestantism, more virtuous than the myths which taught us virtue; we judge them barbaric.’ Updike wrote these words in his introduction to a book about Satan and the role played by the Devil in the Christian imagination.

A preoccupation with the works of the devil and the manner in which he has supposedly infiltrated the ordinary institutions of our world remained a staple part of the orthodox Christian imagination for most of the last two thousand years. In all its most significant manifestations up to the time of the Reformation, the Christian church never ceased to imagine the culmination of history as an apocalyptic battle in which Satan and the powers of darkness were finally defeated and the pure reign of God was established for all eternity.

Such fantasies no longer play a significant part in most forms of Christian piety. We tend to explain the ‘disappearance’ of the devil from our contemporary world-view by invoking the triumph of rationalism. Yet this represents a fundamental misunderstanding both of our cultural history and of our cultural psychology. The main objection to it is that it fails to take account of the fact that the Judaeo-Christian tradition is itself one of the principal sources of modern rationalism. The dream according to which human irrationality is finally defeated and replaced by the reign of reason has always been at the heart of Christian apocalyptic fantasies. It was Christianity which fostered the view that human irrationality and human viciousness, though part of our ‘fallen’ nature, were not part of our essential spiritual and rational identity. In the eternity of God’s kingdom which was to be established at the end of history, they would be banished for ever. It is religion, in other words, which has encouraged us to believe in an unrealistic version of human nature according to which all human unreason (traditionally personified as ‘the Beast’, the ‘Whore of Babylon’, or ‘Satan’) can be bound for a thousand years (the ‘millennium’) or somehow permanently excised from human nature. ‘Rationalism’ is, in this sense, the greatest of all the irrational delusions which has been promoted by our religious tradition.

The muddle we have managed to get ourselves into by our failure to recognise this does not only have intellectual consequences, it is also potentially (and, indeed, actually) dangerous.

The essays and reviews which are collected here are an attempt to examine some of those intellectual consequences and to point to some of the dangers.

Those who wish to explore further the point of view which I have briefly outlined here may do so either by reading the introduction, The legacy of Freud, or the longish essay about the religious origins of modern secularism which I have called The body politic and the politics of the body. Alternatively they may browse through the trailers or read any one of the essays, reviews and extracts which are indexed on the left-hand side of this page.

It might well be thought that the section of the index which is headed ‘false allegations’ and which lists a number of articles dealing with a contemporary witch-hunt, stands outside the view of cultural history I have advanced in other sections. In fact, however, this is not the case.

The most fervent modern advocates of reason and of science have often suggested or implied that we are no longer generally susceptible to dangerous delusions such as gripped the minds of learned men in the great European witch-hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is, I believe, but another example of the dangers of rationalism. For if we accept and allow ourselves to be guided by a view of cultural history which denies the very possibility of a witch-hunt taking place in our midst, we have created the ideal conditions for one to take place in front of our eyes without our even noticing what is happening.

My own investigation into police ‘trawling operations’, which occupied me for a number of years, was not, in one sense at least, a diversion from the theory of cultural history which is worked out in other parts of this website. It was an attempt to apply that theory in practice.

On a general note I should point out that, although most of the pieces which are collected here have been published previously, a significant number, including some of the more substantial essays, appear for the first time. In a number of cases, book reviews and articles appear here in a fuller version than when they were first published, as I have taken the opportunity to restore passages which were excised for reasons of space.

Some of these reviews and articles first appeared in the Guardian, the Observer, the Times Literary Supplement or the New Statesman. Other reviews were originally published in The Tablet. Since The Tablet is a Catholic periodical, some readers may conclude, as the authors of a biography of Darwin which I reviewed critically there once did, that I am a Catholic. The correct conclusion would be that The Tablet is a broad-minded publication which does not concern itself unduly with its contributors’ religious faith – or, in my case, the absence of it.

Oxford, June 2002; revised 2008             Printable version

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© Richard Webster, 2002/8