Newsnight's two victims

Pity poor Steven Messham, horribly abused for years as a child at the notorious Bryn Estyn childrens' home in North Wales, horribly abused again over the past week at the hands of the media.

The Mail on Sunday was wrong yesterday to pursue him with unfeeling spite (though it was not wrong to point out the inconsistencies in his evidence; they matter, because truth and justice matter, especially where a crime as emotive as child abuse is concerned). It was disgraceful of David Mellor to brand him a "weirdo" on a politics TV show yesterday. But the Newsnight team who disinterred his ancient stories, forced him to relive his nightmares, showed his face and name on camera, failed to do the basic journalistic work of checking his story against the mountain of publicly-available information (or even to show him a photograph of his alleged abuser) and then abandoned him after the claims imploded, did him worse damage than either. They used him. He is as much the victim of the BBC's journalistic collapse as is Lord McAlpine.

As for the idea that concentrating on the crisis at the BBC distracts attention from the real and serious matter of child abuse: so, too, does sensationalism of the type exemplified by the Newsnight report. Seeking out highly-placed paedophile rings and top Tory abusers makes for good horror-show entertainment; but it bears very little relationship to the mundane reality of institutional abuse, such as was laid out in exhaustive detail by Mr Justice Waterhouse in his unfairly maligned report. It's well worth reading if you want the facts, rather than the fantasy, about Bryn Estyn. Far from being any sort of whitewash, it is detailed and damning about the failures of oversight and culture of neglect that allowed the terrible abuse there to continue and go unpunished for many years.

Pity, too, Lord McAlpine. As Boris Johnson rightly says, to accuse someone of being a paedophile "is to consign them to the lowest circle of hell – and while they are still alive." McAlpine has lived with this horrendous smear for years, at least since he was named by the defunct gossip magazine Scallywag around twenty years ago. (Scallywag, sued out of existence after it accused a blameless woman of having an affair with John Major, was the pre-internet equivalent of certain well-known websites.) The allegations, based (as the Guardian demonstrated convincingly on Friday) at best on a case of mistaken identity, have been disproved several times before. But they have never gone away. They have continued to circulate on the internet, besides being contained in David Icke's classic of conspiratorial literature, The Biggest Secret, which remains in print.

It was not new evidence that led to Newsnight disinterring this old, long discredited slur. Indeed, the BBC broadcast questionable claims about Bryn Estyn way back in 1999. Rather, it was the media and political feeding frenzy that, having sucked dry the malodorous corpse of Jimmy Savile was looking round for a new object of its righteous indignation. Tom Watson's histrionic claims in the House of Commons of a paedophile network at the heart of the Thatcher government gave permission (at the very least) for this new inquisition. Inspiration presumably came from the bowels of the Internet. Members of David Icke's Forum, for example, had been naming McAlpine and other alleged Tory paedophiles for weeks before Newsnight broke the story not-quite-naming him. So had various conspiracy-minded blogs. These people were crowing in vindication and expectation before the claims began to unravel, since when they have been bemoaning yet another establishment cover-up.

From David Icke to the right-on Twitter crowd falling gleefully on claims of Tory paedophile rings may not be such a long road. I'm struck, for example, by the tone of George Monbiot's abject apology to Lord McAlpine for having, perhaps libellously, named him on Twitter. Monbiot describes his tweet, as well he might, as "the worst mistake of my life."

The tweets I sent which hinted – as I assumed to be the case – that Lord McAlpine was the person the child abuse victim Steve Messham was talking about were so idiotic that, looking back on them today, I cannot believe that I wrote them.

So what possessed him? Why did he "assume it to be the case" that McAlpine was a paedophile, which was always a frankly preposterous notion?

I knew that Steve Messham had been treated appallingly, and I believed that the terrible things done to him had been compounded by a denial of recognition and a denial of the recourse to the law which was his due. When I saw his interview on Newsnight I was very upset. I trusted his account unquestioningly. I was horrified by what he said, and by the fact that the identity of the man he was talking about appeared to have been kept secret for so long.

Monbiot says that he allowed himself "to be carried away by a sense of moral outrage." But what he was actually carried away by was his own cognitive biases. I don't just mean that some people find the idea of a Tory paedophile ring at the heart of the Thatcher government plausible and even appealing. (Terrible crimes, yes, and one feels for the victims, but it just goes to show what those bastards were capable of.) It's also that people of Monbiot's predisposition (and Watson's) are drawn to the idea of establishment cover-ups, of rich and powerful manipulators denying justice to little people they have betrayed. Because Messham was an abuse victim (which no-one denies) Monbiot will believe "unquestioningly" anything he says; because McAlpine was a wealthy Thatcherite Monbiot will assume the worst of him, even that he raped children, without evidence.

Jimmy Savile exploited the "halo effect" he gained from being a popular entertainer and charity fundraiser to bat away the rumours about his abuse of under-age girls, rumours that we now know were well-founded. He also exploited the halo effect that surrounded the institutions which employed him and with which he was associated: the BBC, Stoke Mandeville hospital, the royal family and the Catholic Church (that last being especially ironic, or rather telling). But Lord McAlpine, and the other former politicians still being smeared all over the internet, have no such cover. Tories and Thatcherites don't get the benefit of the doubt. Not from the likes of George Monbiot, anyway.


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