By now, child abuse allegations against at least three high-ranking politicians are swarming across social media, smearing their subjects across continents from West to East. Such is the power of the internet when harnessed to the rule of a mob. I have no way of knowing whether or not the allegations are true or false; whether they began as brave exposure of deeply concealed fact, or opportunistic traducing of innocent men.
The shouts of ‘cover-up’ bring onlookers tumbling from their beds: the very suggestion that the ‘Establishment’ has conspired to conceal heinous crimes against children has led otherwise temperate commentators to bay for blood. Already this morning I have seen the torches of the righteous turned into dark alleyways, alleging the involvement of ‘freemasons’, ‘public schools’, ‘Tories’, and other bogeymen. Were they whipping up suspicion of ‘Jews’, ‘Communists’, or ‘Women’ then the crowd might more readily recognise the historic dangers of allowing a genuinely felt sense of outrage to become a tool for exploitation. After all, what exactly was behind Phillip Schofield’s stunt on camera yesterday? Genuine outrage or naked opportunism? What was behind the Prime Minister’s response? Concern for the principles of justice, or an intemperate link between homosexuality and paedophilia?
Mass hysteria does nothing for justice except to deny it to those who most deserve it. It seems sometimes that we have not moved too far from the seventeenth century; from the exploitation of child witnesses in the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, or the community hysterics that led to the deaths of the notorious Salem Witches in America.
While the Twitterati feast on the allegations currently being passed around like dancing girls at an orgy, it is worth remembering that crimes such as those alleged against the children in care in Wrexham are still happening today, and not all the perpetrators wear a blue rosette. In May this year, nine men were convicted for their part in running a child sexual exploitation ring in Rochdale that accessed some of the most vulnerable children in our society. Like so many abuse victims, the first child to make allegations was not believed. There is now an enquiry into that first, failed police investigation.
For these crimes to succeed, ordinary, good people must first look the other way, satisfy their own disquiet, quell their instincts, make snap judgements and most of all – fail to listen and fail to act. All of us -onlookers and commentators alike – are part of the society within which these criminals continue to operate, and avid participation in an internet witch hunt is no way to salve our consciences.
John Stuart Mill gave an opening address to the University of St Andrews in 1867 in which he said:
Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.
Shine torches in dark alleyways, yes, but better we should keep our lights firmly switched on in the first place.