Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Hysteria leads to more secrets

I've been listening to the Today programme this morning, which is once again dominated by the child abuse issue and the search for Geoffrey Dickens' lost dossier of child abusers in high places.  And one man's name kept popping into my mind: Noel Pemberton Billing.

Billing was a pioneer aviator who became the independent MP for Hertford during the First World War.  He was an arch-conspiracist, an anti-semite and the publisher of a magazine called Imperialist.  In 1918, he published an article by Harold Sherwood Spencer claiming that 47,000 members of the establishment were involved in a homosexual ring, and being blackmailed by German agents to "propagate evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia".

Needless to say, the press talked of nothing else.  It was powerful innuendo, and there was much discussion about those young people and children who had been abused who never recovered.  It was widely believed - well, there was some evidence at least: many members of the establishment were gay, after all.

Billing's main targets were Margot Asquith, and beyond her the wider Liberal Party, and anyone with any Jewish affiliations.

The whole affair ended up in court, where Billing represented himself in an action for libel brought by the actress Maud Allen, bringing the infamous Lord Alfred Douglas into the witness box on his side.  He won.

At the heart of his allegations was a similar missing dossier, called the Black Book of Berlin.  The whole affair was designed to undermine the Liberal establishment in Westminster.

I have been reminded of this listening to the BBC in the last few days. This is not because I’m somehow equating homosexuality with paedophilia. But there are still parallels between the two affairs, and one of them is the way that public hysteria gets in the way of the truth.

What worries me is not that the truth must somehow be hidden about these things, but because the main cheerleaders for hysteria and innuendo are now the Church and the BBC – the main offenders in abuse cover-up.

When the guilty start trying to spread blame, then the innocent start getting hurt.  You know there is a hint of this when people who have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of – who took decisions for what seemed like good reasons some decades ago – start getting the full spotlight of investigation raking over their actions.  And when there is just a hint of the House Un-childfriendly Activities Committee which will “leave no stone unturned” (are you now, or have you ever been, a file destroyer?).

The terrible irony about these moments is that those who pull the strings don't suffer, any more than the guilty do. It is the people who get caught in the middle.

Jonathan Calder’s excellent blog last week linked to a story about the satanic abuse panic of 1990.  Satanic abuse, as we discovered later, was not actually happening. It was a fantasy imagined by a combination of fundamentalist Christians and child abuse campaigners, and was a direct result of a joint conference they held immediately before the allegations began to surface.

It now appears that children who were seized by the police – at dead of night, I seem to remember – and taken from loving parents, were placed in care in the Knowl children's home, where real abuse was taking place.  That is what happens when panic takes charge.

In short, I agree with Simon Jenkins this morning:

"We deal with sex crimes by licensing anonymous accusers and staging celebrity show trials, with lawyers in gladiatorial legal combat before juries. From the attendant publicity, no reputation survives. It is judicial barbarism.  The drift of the May inquiries will divert attention from child abusers and their victims to the institutions among which they lived and worked. This can only diffuse guilt to a wider constituency, ultimately reducing it to that old cliche, 'society as a whole'."

We certainly need the truth.  There does need to be an end to the automatic establishment cover-up of these things.  But we have to be calm and measured about it.  Hysteria leads to more secrets.  When the innocent start feeling afraid, things get hidden all over again.

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