The Big Issue, 12 November 2012

Ten years ago, when the News of the World was naming and shaming paedophiles, the chattering classes went mad.

They accused the paedo-hating red-top of unleashing “lynch mob law”. No one benefits, they said, from the primitive public ridicule of allegedly evil men or from the promotion of the fear-laden idea that child-snatchers lurk everywhere.

Yet now, the same chattering classes are whipping up an anti-paedo frenzy that makes the News of the World’s campaign look reasoned in comparison.

In the wake of revelations about Jimmy Savile, broadsheet commentators and serious TV shows are stoking a mad panic about paedophiles that could have devastating consequences for social solidarity and trust in 21st century Britain.

Just like the News of the World, they’re threatening to “name and shame” alleged paedos: Newsnight caused a frisson of excitable rumour-mongering in the Twittersphere when it said it would reveal the identity of a “high-ranking Tory” who was part of a paedophile ring.

This erudite form of naming and shaming is if anything more backward than what the News of the World got up to: at least that paper confined itself to naming convicted child abusers; today’s right-on paedo-fearers clamour for the naming of people who have never been found guilty of a crime.

Also like the News of the World, the new chattering army against evil paedos paints a picture of Britain being overrun by warped men.

So the Guardian, longstanding critic of the News of the World’s campaign, describes Savile as “the devil” and says there are other “blood-curdling child-catchers” around the UK, who are more beastly than any of the creatures dreamt up by “even the most gifted weavers of children’s nightmares”. Or in the words of the super-respectable Sue Berelowitz, deputy children’s commissioner for England and Wales, “There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited”.

Today’s posh paedo-hunters spread fear, giving rise to feverish discussions about how we might keep our kids safe from “blood-curdling” beasts and unleashing medieval-style panic.

Where the News of the World’s campaign led to council-estate protests, with suspected paedos chased out of their homes, the Savile panic has led to the graffiting of Savile’s former home; the desecration and then removal of his gravestone; and the demand by a councillor in Scarborough that his body be exhumed, after the family of a child buried nearby complained.

What next - perhaps Savile’s cadaver should be put on trial, as the corpse of Pope Formosus was in the year 897?

With each passing day, the Savile panic becomes more and more like a medieval passion play, featuring demonic figures we can collectively fear and hate. And this Middle Ages mentality is being ignited, not by a dumbed-down tabloid, but by an educated elite.

Of course, the BBC has questions to answer about Savile and others. And if any living person who committed abuse is brought to book, that would be a good thing.

But it seems clear that the Savile panic has spun dangerously and disproportionately out of control, threatening to intensify a climate of mistrust that already hangs over modern Britain like a cloud.

Think about what this panic will do to children. The role of adults is to allay children’s fears, assure them that monsters don’t actually exist and that they should enjoy their childhoods, fear-free and carefree.

Yet now, through the Savile panic, we communicate the message that there really are “blood-curdling child-catchers” out there, that there isn’t a “town, village or hamlet” that doesn’t contain dangerous pervs.

Adult society has morphed into a relentless spewer of Grimm-style terror stories, which will make our children unnecessarily cautious, more likely to be cooped up and cotton-woolled than they are already.

Think about what this panic will do to intergenerational relations, to trust and solidarity between adults and young people.

The spread of suspicion from Savile to everyone he ever worked with or was friends with sends the message that all adults are potential perverts.

We already have a situation in Britain where adults feel insecure about helping distressed children for fear they’ll be suspected of ulterior motives; where teachers feel uncomfortable putting a plaster on a hurt child’s knee in case someone gets the wrong idea; where everyone who works with a child has to submit to a criminal records check first, to prove they aren’t a pervert. The current paedo panic, with its blanket of suspicion, will further dent trust between old and young, which is so essential to the proper functioning of society.

And think about the impact this panic will have on trust in institutions and politics. Faith in institutions is already at an all-time low; it’s likely to sink further following increasingly hysterical claims about “paedophile rings” lurking in the rotten hearts of the Beeb and Parliament.

The message of the Savile panic is: trust nobody. Don’t trust DJs, politicians, BBC people, caring men, tactile teachers - any of them could be a pervert.

We’re ending up with scared children, timid adults and isolated institutions - what a high price to pay just so the chattering classes can have some fun posturing against paedos.

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