erudite lynch mob
The hysteria over Savile reminds us that it isn’t tabloids that drive paedophile panics - it’s the great and the good.
Over the past decade, blame for the paedophile panic has been laid at the feet of red-top tabloids and their gruff, ill-educated readers. Academics, politicians and respectable commentators condemned low-rent newspapers, especially the late News of the World, for spreading fear about predatory paedophiles, for depicting Britain as being in the grip of swivel-eyed child-catchers, and for giving rise to ‘lynch mobs’ that hounded suspected paedos out of their homes in Portsmouth and other parts of Britain. The paedophile panic - that Victorian-style belief that perverted Fagins were lurking in every community and institution across the land, waiting to pounce on our kids - was put down to the existential fears, and corresponding bloodlust, of the little people.
Yet today, the hysteria over Jimmy Savile and his alleged ‘reign of terror as a predatory paedophile’ is being driven, not by a tabloid-reading lynch mob, but by an educated, erudite one. The Savile panic, the idea that this sad BBC dj’s isolated and opportunistic sordid sex acts spoke to a widespread culture of child abuse across the UK, is being spearheaded by feminists, Labour politicians, by the kind of respectable commentators who would never have blackened their fingers with the ink of the paedo-hating News of the World. Today, it isn’t a tabloid that is ratcheting up fears of predatory paedophiles and provoking people to attack Savile’s gravestone and grafitti his one-time home with the words ‘rapist’ and ‘paedophile’ - it is the chattering classes, the educated elite, broadsheet newspapers, which, echoing yesteryear’s Penny Dreadfuls, describe Savile as the ‘devil’, a ‘blood-curdling child catcher’, whose story is ‘darker than even the bleakest, most pessimistic minds could have imagined’.
The cultural elite’s embrace of the very language and tactics that it condemned in the News of the World - its ‘naming and shaming’ of potential paedos at the BBC; its use of words like ‘devil’; its claim that Savile’s perversions are only ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of sexual depravity in modern Britain - speaks to more than simply double standards, to more than a hypocritical belief that it is bad for red-tops to scaremonger about child-warpers but okay for the broadsheets to do so. More than that, it represents a reclaiming of the paedophile panic, the return of that most destructive of panics to its original creators. For it was not tabloids that invented the modern moral panic about predatory paedos; it was the respectable elites; and now, via Savile, via their promotion of the idea that every institution and community has a sick Savile of its own lurking in the background, they’re claiming it back.
The depiction of the paedophile panic as the work of malevolent tabloids and their easily freaked-out readers was always highly inaccurate. What it overlooked is that for many years before the late 1990s and early 2000s - when the News of the World’s ‘name and shame’ campaign came to prominence and caused great controversy - numerous charities, experts and politicians had been promoting the harebrained idea that Britain was overrun by predatory abusers, even by baby-sacrificing Satanists. The News of the World’s anti-paedo campaign did not occur in a vacuum; rather, it was the logical conclusion to more than a decade’s worth of fearmongering by the cultural elite over an alleged ‘epidemic’ of child abuse and the existence of ‘networks’ of paedophiles in family homes and institutions across the UK.
From the 1980s onwards, child abuse was rarely out of the headlines. The respectable sections of society became unhealthily obsessed with it, seeing it everywhere. In 1986, the founding of Esther Rantzen’s ChildLine - a helpline that would allow Britain’s apparently beleaguered and threatened children to seek assistance from faceless but trustworthy adults - spoke to the then growing belief that children were no longer safe in their own homes or communities. The respectable paedophile panic of the 1980s reached a terrifying denouement with the Satanic Ritual Abuse scandal. Across Britain, most devastatingly in Cleveland in 1987, when more than 100 children were taken into care, effectively kidnapped by the state after social workers said they had been abused in sex rings, well-educated, ostensibly liberal campaigners promoted the idea that hooded Satanists and other sickos were ritualistically raping kids.
This panic was not the work of salacious tabloids but of left-leaning social workers, left-wing magazines like Marxism Today and the New Statesman, and charities like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The NSPCC declared in 1989 that it was increasingly concerned about ‘ritualistic abuse involving children’, which was inevitably reported in the press as ‘the ritualistic abuse of youngsters in occult ceremonies’ (1). According to one account, such ritualistic ceremonies involved ‘adults carrying candles, wearing robes and masks… children being defecated on, forced to eat body wastes, locked in cages and boxes, or sexually abused on crosses… drinking blood; sacrificing animals; torturing, killing and consuming babies’ (2).
Such Medieval claims about widespread witchery in modern Britain were enthusiastically reported, not in tabloid newspapers, but in the respectable publications of the liberal set. So in Marxism Today, the late monthly publication of the Communist Party of Great Britain, widely read by Britain’s leftish elites, one contributor suggested that across the UK adults in thrall to Satan were ‘organising rituals to penetrate any available orifice in troops of little children; to cut open rabbits or cats or people and drink their blood; to shit on silver trays and make the children eat it…’ (3). Meanwhile, the New Statesman’s favourable coverage of this demented panic was summed up in headlines such as ‘Satanic claims vindicated’ and ‘Vortex of evil’, over articles claiming there were ‘Satanic cults’ of abuse in Britain.
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None of this was true, of course. Official inquiries found no evidence of cults of hooded weirdos raping and shitting on children. Rather, this panic was the product of quite respectable people’s caliginous and perverted imaginations. Its consequences, however, were devastating - in Cleveland, in Orkney, in Nottingham, where, on the say-so of Satanism-obsessed ‘experts’, adults were falsely accused of the most depraved sexual acts imaginable and their children were forcibly removed and put in homes or foster care.
It is important to note that this mad panic never went away; it was never killed off. Rather, in the early to mid-1990s, when it became abundantly clear that the NSPCC’s and everyone else’s claims about ritualistic abuse were hysterical nonsense, these campaign groups simply toned down their language and carried on the child-abuse panic in a different form. So the NSPCC stopped talking about ‘ritualistic abuse’ and instead started promoting the idea that children across Britain were regularly being fondled or battered in their own bedrooms, usually by their dads. The impulse behind the 1980s Satanic Ritual Abuse panic - that is, a powerfully elitist belief that parents cannot be trusted and that children everywhere are under threat from ‘predators’ - staggered on in the campaigning of various groups in the 1990s, though they watered down the hysteria a little bit. And it was this - this respectable talk of Satanists, this claim that warped men stalk every community, this liberal-elite fascination with abuse and with modern-day child-catchers - which informed and inflamed the News of the World’s ‘name and shame’ campaign of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The modern-day paedophile panic does not have its origins in tabloid culture; rather, it was born of the collapse of the left, the rise of a narrowly and virulently anti-family feminism, and a general and fast-growing climate of suspicion and mistrust that took hold in the 1980s. It was these phenomena which allowed respectable campaigners and commentators to look upon working-class communities, from which they felt increasingly alienated, as covens of shit-eating witches and deviants, and which encouraged them to call for new laws and regulations to govern the interaction of adults with children and the goings-on in family homes. Fundamentally, the paedophile panic speaks to a profound, longstanding process of institutional decay, a rise of social and institutional mistrust, and a climate of contempt for the masses, where, in essence, The Paedophile becomes a metaphor for society’s inability to trust everyday adults and its fear and loathing of ordinary people (potential paedos) and the family home (potential abuse factories).
Now, after the News of the World blip, if you like, the paedophile panic is back in the hands of those who created it. Indeed, the Savile panic is starting eerily to echo the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of the 1980s. Not only are we told that Savile oversaw a ‘reign of terror’ and was ‘one of the most prolific sex offenders [we have] ever come across’ (in the words of the NSPCC) - we are also informed that he probably ‘molested the dead’, that he was a ‘necro-paedo’, and even that some hospitals consciously ‘left him alone in morgues to get on with it’ (that is, rape dead children) in return for all his charity work. How long before we’re told he ate babies, drank rabbit blood, defacated on ‘troops of little children’? The Savile panic reminds us that the cultural elite’s hysteria about devils and witches and children being ‘sexually exploited’ in every ‘town, village or hamlet’ never went away; it was just in hiding for a bit. It’s back now, and it’s as ugly and potentially destructive as it ever was.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
(1) Quoted in Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England, JS La Fontaine, Cambridge University Press, 1998. See also, The Devil’s Party: A Brief History of Satanic Abuse, Brian Stableford, Wildside Press, 2009
(2) The Dilemma of Ritual Abuse: Cautions and Guides for Therapists, George A Fraser (ed.), American Psychiatric Press, 1997
(3) ‘Seen but not heard’, Marxism Today, November 1990