Sacrosanct accusations
, a former police officer and
Private Eye

April 2003; revised 2 May 2003

THERE SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN little Shieldfield news of late and a date has still to be fixed for the full General Medical Council inquiry into the role played in the Newcastle nursery nurse scandal by paediatrician Camille san Lazaro. Perhaps because of this seeming Shieldfield drought, my eye was caught today by an item featured in Arts and Letters Daily A reference to the 'bad clown' who 'molested children' sounded as though it might lead to a new story about Shieldfield, whose mythology featured just such a character.

In the event, however, the article in question turned out to be by Dorothy Rabinowitz, the American journalist who did for falsely accused day care assistant Kelly Michaels what Bob Woffinden and I set out to to do for Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie in Britain.

Rabinowitz calls her article 'The Sacrosanct accusation'. She is, I believe, absolutely right to do so, for it has long intrigued me that allegations of sexual abuse appear to be surrounded in our own society by the aura of sacredness which, centuries ago, was once used to safeguard the authority of scripture. It follows that those who question sexual allegations, even in the most serious and moderate manner, tend sometimes to be treated as heretics and blasphemers.

This being the case, satirist Chris Morris should have known better than to have made his deliberately outrageous Brass Eye TV programme about paedophilia in which he set out to mock such sanctities almost gratuitously. His programme, like many deliberate acts of blasphemy, was in practice profoundly counter-productive and served to add rigidity to the very sanctimonious attitudes it was seeking to undermine. The reactions to the programme were nevertheless extremely telling, revealing as they did such a strong sense of violated holiness. 

Dorthothy Rabinowitz's own reflections on the aura of sacredness which has come to surround allegations of child sexual abuse are also worthy of note. In an annexe to this piece I will attempt to log any online reviews of her new book which appear.

Meanwhile I hope I may be forgiven for pointing out that the supposedly irreverent magazine Private Eye has in the past been sanctimoniously blind in at least one eye about the matter of child sexual abuse. The blind eye in question is the one which it has repeatedly turned to the dangers of police trawling operations conducted in relation to children's homes

Of course it is the case that there have been a number of quite genuine cases where vulnerable young people have been sexually abused by the very adults who have been charged with the responsibility for caring for them. That is a tragedy whose reality must never again be denied or obscured. But the people who are now helping to obscure it are the very people who tend towards the view that we should accept as true almost every allegation made by former residents of care homes.

Those who adopt this approach are just as much 'in denial' as those (and there are many of them) who refuse to face up to the reality of child sexual abuse itself. For anyone who accepts all or most allegations uncritically is in denial about the fact that human beings have a tendency to lie and to fabricate. Some will do this consciously and deliberately for money, others do it because they are deeply damaged and are deluded by phantoms from an imagined past which they mistake for memories.

In some cases these two motives can be mixed together so that an untrue allegation which is originally made consciously for financial gain gradually mutates. As troubled and formerly powerless young men and women find their own lives transformed by a false complaint they have made, this complaint may itself become an essential and vital part of their identity. A scenario they have invented can thus gradually come to be perceived as psychologically powerful and real, and can be converted into a 'memory' which is 'recalled' and related to others with the utmost sincerity 

When vulnerable people who have strong financial and psychological motives to confabulate stories of horrific abuse are implicitly encouraged to do so by probation officers, social workers and police officers, the consequences are very serious indeed.

Ultimately, as has been pointed out so many times already, the real victims of such wholesale exercises in 'guided' fabrication are those who genuinely were sexually abused when they were children. For whenever any society encourages and tolerates a flood of false allegations, it is inevitable not only that large numbers of innocent people will be wrongly accused, but also that genuine victims will suffer as a result. Those adults who really have been sexually abused as children may very well find themselves ignored or disbelieved.

In a vicious psychological circle, the attitude of denial which stops people from acknowledging the reality of false allegations and the immense damage that they do, can actually lead us back, with irresistible force, towards the very form of denial which discounts the reality of child sexual abuse itself.

That is precisely the danger which faces us now. It it is a danger we can only deal with if we are prepared to accept the extent to which false allegations have been allowed to corrupt not only child protection agencies but also our entire system of  law enforcement.

The Home Office, as we now know (see below, 'A good day to bury bad news?), is not prepared to face up to what is happening. The Government evidently shares that reluctance. In this respect it is perhaps worth recalling that when Claire Curtis-Thomas MP was initially considering whether to to take up the cause of one of her constituents, whose supporters claimed he was the innocent victim of a police trawling operation, she was told not to. A constituency adviser told her in the strongest possible terms that she should not touch this particular cause since to do so would be political and electoral suicide. Claire Curtis-Thomas, of course, declined to take this advice. She subsequently played a vital role in bringing about the Home Affairs Committee inquiry. The constituent whose cause she took up, Basil Williams-Rigby, has since had his conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal.

We should be under no illusions, however, that the Home Office and the Government will fail to take account of the very factors which led Curtis-Thomas's political adviser to warn her off the cause. They will, in particular, be aware that there is something which might be called the 'anti-paedophile vote', and they will almost certainly consider the possible electoral consequences of adopting policies which might be portrayed (wrongly) as being 'soft on paedophiles'. If they conclude that losing some of the anti-paedophile vote might mean losing power, the fact that innocent people may continue to be sent to prison if they refrain from taking action is likely to count for very little in their calculations. Retaining power sometimes does mean keeping innocent people in prison; in certain circumstances this may be as true of democracies as it is of dictatorships.

For all these reasons it seems quite likely that, in relation to this issue at least, the present government will have no hesitation, if necessary, in sacrificing whatever shreds of integrity it may still have in order to preserve the status quo. Indeed, it seems entirely possible that it will act without conscience or compunction in order to conceal or ignore the scale of the systematic injustices which have been perpetrated both by police forces and by the courts in the name of child protection. It may very well not do this actively by sins of commission, so much as passively by sins of omission. 

If this happens (and to some extent it has happened already because of the intellectual dishonesty of the Government response to the Home Affairs Committee), it should not entirely surprise us. It is, after all, part of our very democratic tradition that we have trained ourselves to be suspicious of governments and of those who exercise power. We expect our politicians, or some of them at least, to be corrupt and dishonest. If we are realistic we expect that government ministers, and even, perhaps, some prime-ministers, may, in certain circumstances, be willing to mislead and deceive in the interests of maintaining their own power and that of the government to which they belong.

This is one of the reasons why we have an independent judiciary. In relation to the issue of false allegations in particular, the extent to which the nominal independence of the judiciary can be retained in practice and not sacrificed to government legislation, will be of crucial importance. But since miscarriages of justice cannot be cancelled retrospectively, we can say with confidence that the role played by the Court of Appeal in the years to come will be a vital one. Governments may well prefer to keep innocent people in prison for their own electoral benefit. But appeal court judges will continue to have the power to release them.

Whatever may be true in theory, however, in practice even appeal court judges are susceptible to political influence and to the pressure of public opinion. It is partly for this reason that the safeguards of democracy include not only an independent judiciary but also a free and independent press.

One of the reasons that we value the freedom of the press so deeply  is that journalists are always able, in theory at least, to put awkward questions to politicians and, where necessary, to hold entire governments to account. Since there is always a danger that a press which remains free in principle can be compromised by its relationship to the government or to the establishment, we sometimes accord particular value to publications which are marked by their independence and irreverence. We tend to take the view that real freedom of the press depends on remaining free from the pressures exercised by political affiliations, or multi-millionaire proprietors, or both.

Of all the publications in Britain which can lay a claim to such independence and which we rely on to speak out fearlessly where others remain silent, there is perhaps none which enjoys higher general regard, or exercises more invisible influence, than Private Eye.   

It is therefore particularly disturbing and significant that Private Eye should, for so many years, have been one of the prime upholders of the very mythology which has undergirded police trawling operations and permitted them to flourish in the manner that they have.

It is because Private Eye, on the basis of little or no reliable evidence, took up very early a credulous position on the allegations of abuse which were made in North Wales (and in relation to Bryn Estyn in particular), that it has in practice been obliged to remain blind to the dangers of police trawling ever since.

So assiduously has the magazine cultivated such blindness in the last ten years that I once had occasion to write the editor a letter which was intended for publication. The letter concerned Private Eye's extraordinarily uncritical coverage of the North Wales Tribunal and a reference it made to the libel action which had been brought against it some years earlier by retired police superintendent Gordon Anglesea. Anglesea rightly won his action in December 1994. When news of that judgment (and the huge bill for costs) came through, the magazine actually did something which it had never done before. It cancelled its Christmas party.

True to form Private Eye declined to publish my letter, citing legal reasons which it deemed to be 'obvious' but which, if they had any real existence at all, could easily have been overcome. I did receive a handwritten reply from Ian Hislop, however, so I suppose I ought to be grateful for that.

Those who wish to read the criticism of Private Eye which Private Eye declined to publish may do so by clicking here.

Credit should always be given where credit is due, however, and it would be wrong not to recall that when Mr Justice Eady handed down his judgment in the Shieldfield libel case last year, Private Eye marked the occasion by making the vindication of Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie its lead news story.

I notice that today's Private Eye (no. 1079) carries another excellent Shieldfield story about the different sense of honour shown by Who wants to be a millionaire contestant Tecwen Whittock and the chairman of the Shieldfield inquiry, Professor Richard Barker. To read the story, click here.

With the appearance of this story it has to be said that, in spite of what has happened in the past, the auguries for the future are good. Or at least a little better. Perhaps it will not be too long before this immensely powerful and allegedly fearless publication opens its other eye, and sees the dangers of police trawling operations which the government and the Home Office would like to keep hidden.

30 April 2003; revised 2 May 2003, 18.45 

Richard Webster, 2003


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