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Column
28 October 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Why do we believe these anti-human horror stories?
From Lozells to New Orleans, unsubstantiated rumours of rape, murder and depravity are now being spread as hard fact.


Why do we seem so ready to believe the worst of others these days?

The police have blamed the rioting in Lozells in Birmingham, England, on the spread of 'rumour, myth and speculation' about the alleged gang rape of a teenage black girl by Asian men in a local shop. It was certainly striking to see such an established black newspaper as The Voice carry the front page headline GANG OF 19 RAPE TEEN as a statement of fact, without any of the usual qualifying quotation marks. Yet neither victim nor witnesses have emerged, and it now seems certain that no such attack occurred.

The Lozells case is no one-off. It fits into a pattern of recent horror stories about murder, rape and human depravity that have been widely reported and believed, only to turn out to be either untrue or grossly exaggerated. And while the police and mainstream media might now be looking down their noses at those in Lozells and in the black community media who spread and swallowed the rape rumour, the authorities in Britain and abroad have often been to the fore in broadcasting similar fantasy atrocity stories.

It might be useful to remind ourselves of a few of this year's horror-stories-that-weren't, starting with the most recent from New Orleans.

Rape and child murder in New Orleans

In early September, media reports of the natural disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina were soon being spiced with graphic accounts of man-made horrors inside the Superdome and convention centre, where thousands of evacuees from the city were sheltering.

The world media quoted one woman's claim that 'There is rapes going on here. Women cannot go to the bathroom without men. They are raping them and slitting their throats', and another's account of finding the body of a 14-year-old girl whom she said had been 'raped for four hours until she was dead. Another child, a seven-year-old boy, was found raped and murdered in the kitchen freezer last night'. The BBC News website reported how a National Guardsman at the Superdome had 'confirmed the brutal reality of life after Katrina: "We found a young girl raped and killed in the bathroom. Then the crowd got the man and they beat him to death."'

The mayor of New Orleans went on national television to tell Oprah Winfrey that people had been 'in the frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people'. New Orleans police chief Edwin P Compass III described tourists being preyed upon by criminals at the convention centre: 'They are beating, they are raping them in the streets.'

Yet as the waters subsided, 'the reality of life after Katrina' appeared rather different. Crimes were committed in New Orleans and conditions inside the shelters had been unbearably grim. But police chief Compass now changed his tune about what had happened inside the Superdome and the convention centre, announcing that, 'We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault'. Soon afterwards, he resigned. It turned out that, during the six days when the Superdome was used as a shelter, the head of the city police force's sex crimes unit had lived inside with his men. They 'chased down' every alleged incident, made two arrests for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the rest had not happened.

The American media has now launched its own inquest into how it managed wrongly to convict impoverished black evacuees of mass rape and murder. One senior New Orleans police officer says 'It's urban legend. You put 25,000 people under one roof, with no running water, no electricity and no information, stories get told'. True, but that doesn't explain why these stories were immediately reported everywhere as good coin. Or why they seem to have been re-told by senior officials.

Jack-rolling in Northampton

August brought reports of an organised gang of African rapists terrorising the English town of Northampton. Police said that the gang of 'tall, black men with South African accents' had raped three women and attempted to abduct two others. They issued identikit pictures of four suspects and plastered Northampton with 'FEMALES BE ALERT' posters warning women not to talk to strangers. News outlets speculated that the gang rapes 'may mark the arrival in Britain of a notorious South African violent crime known as jack rolling'. The Detective Chief Inspector in charge of the case suggested he would be contacting police in South Africa. The South African Department of Foreign Affairs even issued a statement condemning the rapists and pledging to track them down if they fled to South Africa. Nobody seemed to doubt that the sexual violence of the townships had come to a quiet town in middle England.

Then, after an eight-week investigation involving more than 50 officers and three arrests (all of whom were released without charge), Northampton police announced that they were now satisfied that the 'gang of predatory men' did not exist. At least two of the reported attacks - a rape and an attempted abduction - had not happened. Police had taken informal action against a 15-year-old girl for wasting police time, and the Crown Prosecution Service was considering charging an 18-year-old woman over false allegations of abduction and rape. 'SA rapists were only imagined' concluded one African newspaper.

Lynching in Yorkshire

In June, a front-page headline screamed 'Kids Lynch Boy Aged 5'. Another described it as 'So Nearly Another Jamie Bulger - Horror as Boy, 5, is Dragged into Woods By Children and Hanged'. Police in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, announced that they had arrested five children on suspicion of abducting a young lad from his garden and hanging him from a tree, and were pressing for charges of attempted murder.

As the fog of gossip and contradictory evidence from children thinned, however, it became clearer that there had been no 'lynching'. There were not five children involved, but one 12-year-old girl. The boy had not been dragged to the woods or hanged from a tree, but had followed the girl there, who had tied him to a tree with a piece of wire around the neck to stop him trailing her.

The boy suffered a nasty ordeal, but comparisons with the murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys were badly misplaced; the five-year old's bruises and burn marks were not considered serious enough to warrant a stay in hospital, and he was back home with his mother before his father got to the hospital to see him. The 12-year-old girl was eventually convicted, not of attempted murder but of assault causing actual bodily harm, and of attempting to pervert the course of justice by blaming other children for what she had done, but the court ruled that she should not be detained.

Even when the case finally finished in October, however, many reports still talked about a hanging. Other journalists took a more sober view. In the very week that the 'lynching' story broke, Danny Lockwood of local paper The Press pointed out that the way the police had leapt to accuse the children of attempted murder, at a time when they had little idea what had happened, had 'brought the world's media tumbling into town like some camera-driven whirlwind…. [I]t was those two little words - attempted murder - that sparked the press stampede.'

Child rape in Essex

Back in March, the shocking headlines were about 'Child raped by intruder in own bedroom', and 'Sleepover girl raped'. A girl described only as being between five and 10 years old had been attacked in her own bed in Essex. Police released a sketch and startlingly detailed description of the black rapist, and launched a major investigation involving up to 40 officers. Every report seemed to take its cue from a Chief Inspector's comment that 'It is every parent's worst nightmare'. As with most nightmares, however, some of it did not seem to ring true. How, for instance, had the attacker got into and out of a house where the girl's mother and five other children were sleeping, without any signs of forced entry?

In May came another shocking headline: 'Girl made up rape claim, say police.' Essex police said that the girl had admitted inventing the rape. They conceded that they had simply taken the allegation of rape at face value, and much of the media seemed to follow that lead. Social services were left to investigate suggestions that the child had made up the story after witnessing sexual activity at home 'on more than one occasion'. Nobody seemed to ask whether the police and the media might have witnessed enough over the years to raise doubts about the story in the first place.

Predatory paedophiles in the tsunami zone

In the aftermath of the tsunami that struck southern Asia on Boxing Day 2004, the worst horror stories at the start of the New Year were about human depravity. Under headlines such as 'Predators threat to orphans' and 'Perverts on prowl', the international media reported allegations that paedophiles were abducting orphaned or lost children in the tsunami zone.

Particular attention focused on one 12-year-old Swedish boy who was reported to have been taken from a hospital in Thailand by 'a moustachioed European man wearing a red shirt'. After a two-day international panic, it became clear that the missing boy had never been admitted to the hospital, far less abducted from it. The suspected paedophile turned out to be a good Samaritan from Germany, who had helped to reunite three European children with their parents. Other stories of child abduction were revealed as groundless rumours or malicious inventions.

Yet these horror stories had been assiduously spread by leading international agencies. UNICEF's director of child protection in Indonesia felt no need to wait for any evidence before announcing to the media that 'I'm sure it is happening. It's a perfect opportunity for these guys to move in'. The director of UNICEF speculated groundlessly about 'whether these children are frankly turned into child slaves, or abused and exploited...put to work - domestic labour, sex trade, a whole series of potential abuses', sounding more like somebody's perverse fantasy than a factual account. As I wrote at the time, 'Child abduction stories have long been the stuff of urban legend, and such rumours spread like wildfire via the Internet' (see Child abductions and urban legends, by Mick Hume). Yet this time, on the basis of those unsubstantiated rumours, the authorities seemed keen to turn a human crisis into a moral melodrama.

Why do so many questionable horror stories now seem to be taken at face value? No doubt there are specific reasons in each case. In Lozells, for example, as Josie Appleton reports elsewhere on spiked, the way that inter-communal tensions have been shaped by the identity politics of multiculturalism made both sides prone to believing the worst of the other (see What's behind the battle of Lozells?, by Josie Appleton). And there has been a lot of discussion about how the politics of race in America helped to shape perceptions of events in New Orleans.

More importantly, however, there are also patterns that are common to all of these stories. In particular, it is clear that the media and the authorities will often give credence to the wildest allegations these days, allowing rumours to obtain the stamp of authority. Even in Lozells, where the police and the council are now complaining about the way that local radio stations and black websites and newspapers helped to spread the gang-rape rumour, the authorities themselves were at pains to demonstrate that they were taking the unsubstantiated atrocity tale seriously at the time.

There has always been a rush to get a dramatic story into print or on air, of course, and that pressure has been intensified by today's culture of 'rolling news'. But we also seem to be witnessing something new. Many reports now come close to abandoning the goal of objectivity even as an ideal. There is an increasingly prevalent trend for treating eye-witness accounts as sacrosanct, alongside the rise of the 'citizen reporter' - firstly on the internet but increasingly in the mainstream media - who treats instant rumour as truth and any official denial as a cover-up. The results should remind us all that there is no substitute for hard facts and sound arguments.

But it is not enough to blame 'the meedjah'. Those reporting the news as it happens are often faced with a difficult job of getting the balance right. That job has been further complicated by the willingness of the authorities and the police to leap to the most terrible conclusions. It seems as if the worst thing that the unpopular authorities can imagine today is to be charged with not caring about victims. There is a nervousness that they might be accused of not doing enough, or of covering something up, which can make PR-obsessed officials and policemen rush to treat horror stories as facts to be disseminated as fast and loudly as possible rather than rumours to be soberly assessed. The new sexual offences laws, which have broadened the definition of a crime such as rape and given added authority to the voice of alleged victims, have pushed the police further in this direction.

Important as they are, however, none of these factors can fully explain the wider willingness to believe the worst, even after so many stories have been disproved. There must be something deeper about our culture that underpins attitudes towards these tales. There is a powerful climate of misanthropy abroad today, one which suggests that we should always believe the worst of our fellow citizens. People are more likely to mistrust one another in advance, especially where our children are concerned. We imagine predatory paedophiles and rapists on the prowl everywhere from Essex to Asia. Sex and intimate relationships seem to have been redefined as a dangerous arena full of date rapists and domestic abuse. The fearful old racial, ethnic and class stereotypes about 'them' have been joined in the public imagination by new monsters.

Above all, it must be these contemporary anti-human attitudes, endorsed from the top of society downwards, which make many seem willing to believe the worst. The dangerous assumption has taken hold, and not only among sensation-seeking reporters, that no horror story of human depravity can ever be bad enough. This is no way to conduct a rational discussion about humanity and the problems we face together. We are in danger of losing touch with the sound instinct which ought to tell us that some stories can just seem too bad to be true.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.


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