28 Jun 2014
June 28, 2014

An abusive anti-abuse lobby


As a second (the first is in bold), and I think probably final, update to the post below, it’s worth flagging this morning’s development in the CSA/Exaronews story about child abuse and parliament. The story’s on the front page of every Sunday paper today (6 July), although in each case the handle is the investigation of an alleged offence which seems to have nothing to do with child abuse and involves two people of the opposite sex. Nevertheless, of course Twitter today has plenty of people posting pictures of past cabinet ministers who are sometimes rumoured to have been gay and labelling them as peodophiles or abusers. See what’s going on? It’s hardly subtle or surprising, right? Some politicians are coming dangerously close to giving licence to nutters to revisit the days (i.e. when Elm House was operating) when gay people and paedophiles were regarded as all part of the same nexus. On #marrshow this morning, the Education Secretary and the Shadow Education Secretary, both clever and decent people, were asked whether the government should order a full public inquiry into the specific claims made around the Elm Road guest house and similar cases. The Education Secretary said “no”. He made it clear that it’s a matter for the police and there’s a current inquiry in place. He didn’t add, but made it easy to read between the lines, that social media vigliantes, encouraged by politicians, are likely to damage legal processes, misdirect resources, do serious harm to innocent people and to repurpose for a new era the terrible unreconstructed attitudes towards gay people we hoped we’d seen the back of. The Shadow Secretary, on the other hand, was much more ambiguous. He conflated Savile (nothing to do with the CSA campaign) with Elm House and called loosely for some kind of ‘overarching inquiry’ (meaning what?) at a time when there’s actually a police inquiry going on into very serious suspected offences. On the same show, Helena Kennedy sensibly pointed out that parliament’s likely to have as many, or few, abusers as everywhere else and where people have broken the law it should of course be investigated by the cops.

The issue has clearly become party political. Labour should be very wary of segueing into support for a populist ‘get the pedos/politicians/cops’ campaign as part of its long election campaign. Some of the Labour folk involved, including the Shadow secretary of state, are good people but very inexperienced politicians. The values implied by encouraging nutters to regard all possibly gay politicians in the past as likely abusers would really make a Labour win next year not worth the candle.

Over the few days since I wrote the post below, it seems that MPs have begun to withdraw their support from the exploitative and irresponsible Exaronews campaign around alleged child sex abuse. Today (2 Jul) campaigners are tweeting the numbers of MPs and peers allegedly involved at one site of alleged abuse. Names of alleged ‘abusers’ have already been circulated by the campaign. MPs and peers have signed up for the best of motives but, in many cases, without looking carefully at the detail and nature of the campaign. Some campaigners are suggesting on Twitter that the post below is ‘to blame’ for the withdrawal of support. More likely, MPs and Peers have seen an individual ‘named’ in the House of Commons today, thereby encouraging people to put other ‘names’ on the internet. 

A couple of weeks ago, MPs started getting aggressive demands – not requests – to sign up to a campaign for a very specific inquiry into historical abuse in a small number of child care homes. The campaign extends from work done by an ‘investigative’ website called ‘Exaronews’, of which more shortly. The cross-party ‘Child Sex Abuse (CSA)’ campaign is being led in parliament by some seasoned campaigners. I looked carefully at what the campaigners want, though, and  found I couldn’t agree with them.

I’m not especially concerned about the cost of public inquiries per se – expense is sometimes used by governments as an excuse to avoid ticklish subjects. It’s much more important, it seems to me, to consider whether a campaign on such an important issue could actually undermine its own apparent aims by demanding premature action, or by having its terms drawn up too restrictively — or even too widely. In the first place, it’s clear the CSA campaign risks undermining the Crown Prosecution Service’s consideration of an important police report presently before it. In the second, the campaign has clearly been overtaken by Savile events and its terms of reference are now seriously out of date. A inquiry under these terms would miss the huge implications for swathes of the UK establishment of the Savile case, and concentrate instead upon on a number of junior care home officials. It would focus its efforts upon historical rumours about ‘senior politicians’ and exclude the many victims of Savile who were adults.

Notably, campaigners have for the last couple of days been flagging up the recent Savile reports as vindicating their campaign – when actually the Savile reports undermine their campaign, which makes no reference whatever to Savile and the larger issues implied by that terrible case. See how Andy Burnham’s statement about Savile is blatantly misrepresented by Exaronews as it conflates support for its campaign with calls for an inquiry into Savile.

Ironically, too, the campaign is routinely abusive. I’ve been told on Twitter that if I don’t support the campaign, then I’m in favour of a cover up of child-rape. Why would any genuine ‘anti-abuse’ campaigner say that to an MP – or to anyone else – whose support they’re trying to elicit?  When I tweeted a few straightforward questions about, for example, inquiry scope, I was told that I ‘must have something to hide’. But even more worrying is that there’s a really sickening “get the pedos/cops/polticians” feel about it all (indeed, one of the supporting accounts on Twitter is actually entitled ‘pedogate’) – it looks like a campaign designed to catch public attention for its own sake rather than a genuine effort to get at important truths. Worst of all, perhaps, is that campaign supporters have been routinely publishing the names of alleged serving ‘paedophile-politicians’. Have they literally learned nothing at all from the terrible MacAlpine case? First, they could wreck the lives of innocent people. Second, they could destroy the case very recently put by the police to the CPS. What sort of campaign actually risks destroying a case which is aimed at achieving exactly what they’re campaigning about?

Well, actually, I have experience of one of those.

Two years ago I sat on the joint Commons and Lords inquiry into privacy and injunctions. It was a good effort by a decent, and pretty well-qualified, group of folk to address some of the issues raised by the practice of wealthy people seeking injunctions to prevent the media from reporting on issues that affected them (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not). I was on the committee as someone who’d spent a lot of time trying to understand the ways in which social media and public policy affect each other. It was clear that social media was overwhelming judges’ ability to keep aspects of court cases ‘secret’ while they proceeded through the judicial process. We took evidence from an inexperienced MP who had ‘named’ a man in parliament, claiming the man had sexually abused his child. In naming the man, of course, he’d publicly identified the child. It was the most terrible abuse of parliamentary privilege (itself a very important means of standing up to powerful interests) we on the committee could imagine. What’s more, the ‘named’ man turned out to be entirely innocent – the victim of a campaign of abuse and other behaviour that eventually saw the primary perpetrator jailed.

The same MP is one of the main protagonists in CSA’s  ‘get the pedo/cops/politicians’ campaign. That’s a very bad sign.

So what’s behind this campaign, which threatens to both overwhelm legal inquiries into the very abuse they speak of and distort any future inquiry into Savile into the bargain?

The harsh reality is that the campaign’s true function is to serve as a cause celebre for a desperate website. Exaronews  claims to be all about championing free access to information. In fact, it was created as a subscription-only service aimed at businesses; only a few months ago its owner, a newly-retired figure from this successful fund management company, decided it couldn’t pay its way. So it became a schlock merchant – ‘Exaro led the way into a high-profile investigation into paedophiles’, runs the advertising blurb.

The business model is to recruit retired and freelance journalists to write stories from a very low-cost base. Initially the idea was to run high-minded stories and sell them as business intelligence (you what?) but now it’s just schlock stuff – ‘pedos’ and dodgy arab princes who, gasp, get some personal benefit from state contracts – actually, cancel that, Exaro only has one story. And what are they doing with it in their desperation? Recruiting politicians to a ‘pedo’ bandwagon.  Of course, some politicians will sign anything just before an election – and ‘get the pedos’ always has a vote or two in it. In turn, those politicians will help recruit fanatics who will happily abuse others online, because it makes them feel like they’re on the moral high ground. Cynically, Exaro has been belatedly asking campaigners not to post or tweet names of alleged ‘politician paedophiles’  –  having first left it long enough to ensure the names are all over the internet via those very campaigners.

Critically, in all of this, Exaronews is answerable to no standards body. It affects a lofty perspective and criticises fully regulated media outlets while running the cheapest and most misleading, the most terribly misdirected and abusive, of campaigns — for no other purpose that its operators’ own aggrandisement.

I sincerely hope that the government will, as Andy Burnham asks, hold an inquiry into how it is that Broadmoor, the Leeds Royal and other establishments are able to wash their hands of the whole affair by simply referring to ‘history’ and ‘one bad egg’.  Savile’s likely last known offence took place in 2009. The question is, if managerial and inspectorial systems in the 1990s were this ineffective and easy to hoodwink, then how can we have any confidence in current procedures and in what we’re told by senior officials today?

As a side-issue, I hope the Exaronews website, absurdly self-aggrandising and dangerous to the public interest as it is, makes a quiet exit as soon as possible.