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Analysing Aaronovitch: has the scourge of ‘conspiracists’ become one himself?

David Aaronovitch claims ‘unbelievable’ notions about child abuse that ‘bewitched’ professionals decades ago are echoed in the VIP historic abuse cases. Where is his evidence? Part One.

Newspaper front pages on Rolf Harris's arrest Credit: Raver Mikey/Flickr

This is the first part of a two-part article. Read part two

Suddenly the calumny about VIP historic sexual abuse has attracted new suspects: satanism, repressed memory, recovered memory, false memories, false accusations, dissociated identity disorder and children’s suggestibility. Society, we are warned, has swung from denial to credulity, to belief in the unbelievable. 

The Times columnist David Aaronovitch calls up, as a caution, another era:  ‘unbelievable’ ideas actually ‘bewitched professionals’ and rendered them ‘spellbound’, he warns, in two broadcasts launching a summer season of Analysis on BBC Radio 4: Ritual Sexual Abuse: The Anatomy of A Panic.

David Aaronovitch is the scourge of conspiracy theories, a common sense man, a guardian of reason against nutters, credulous media and irrational women. His critique of conspiracism,Voodoo Histories valorises an ‘intuitive sense of  likelihood and unlikelihood’; he adopts Lewis Namier’s notion of  ‘historical sense’, that is: ‘an intuitive understanding of how things do not happen.’ 

Aaronovitch is a herald of reason as masculine intuition. Seized by his intuition of impossibility, he advances what the journalist Tim Tate suggests is another conspiracy theory. 'Historical sense' is not necessarily self-aware, and intuitions about how things don't  happen is not a good guide to how and when they do. Intuition has never helped society confront its open secrets about sexual tyranny.

Aaronovitch’s two broadcasts fizz with excitement and grandiosity, and with what Australian criminologist Michael Salter in his book, Organised Sexual Abuse, describes as "the pleasures of disbelief."  "Scorn and contempt" shower this kind of scepticism, writes Salter. That doesn’t save it from floating unidentified flying panics: "vectors of memory contagion" spread the usual suspects: hysteria, fantasy and confabulation, ideology and careerists.

Dr Clare Birchall, of Kings College, London, has studied conspiracy theory and common sense in her book Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossipshe suggests that conspiracy theory itself is more than merely scepticism, it is a "knowledge-producing discourse": distrustful of official accounts, it attempts to explain events  as "the result of a group of people working in secret for a nefarious end." Critics of ‘conspiracism', she suggests, are frequently unaware of their own positionality, prejudices and blind spots.

No one, in politics or in science, writes innocently from nowhere. I have written about child abuse often for over 25 years. I’m a rather traditional reporter, I seek all sides, lay my hands on whoever will talk to me, and I do research on the ‘who, what, where, when and why’. This isn’t piety, just ordinary professionalism. It doesn’t always protect you -- I’ve been sued by people associated with the false memory movement. 

What I don't do, automatically and always, is support the accused or accuser. (When I rang up and asked Panorama’s reporter John Sweeney whether he’d read the judge’s rulings in his campaign supporting parents accused of hurting their babies, he said he had not: "I take my line from the parents".)

I’ve also not written about many stories, either because I couldn’t be satisfied that I had access to enough material, or because I just didn’t believe it. 

Like Aaronovitch, I am positioned. He is, of course, entitled to say whatever he wants. But when we journalists venture into great debates and scientific battlefields where the stakes are high, not only for the mental health of those making allegations of abuse, but also the livelihoods of those tasked by the health service  police and local authorities to work with them, shouldn’t we try to follow the evidence and give the adversaries airtime?

I was asked to contribute to Aaronovitch’s programme and after questions about what I would be participating in, declined. Why? Because its thin line needed a bit of balance. I wasn’t minded to oblige. This was his thing, his argument, not mine. I would have been prepared for an open debate with Aaronovitch. I still am. But this seemed like Aaronovitch airing old stuff he’s been hoarding.

Aaronovitch imagines himself as an authority, self-evidently sensible and  rigorous -- all the things that conspiracy theorists aren’t: the nefariat rely on rumour and superstition. 

We can "spot parallels" , he says, between current VIP historic abuse cases and an ideological contagion about sexual abuse, and organised and occult abuse, that circulated between the US and the UK at the end of the 1980s and "bewitched professionals". Aaronovitch offers no evidence. But he doesn’t need to. That’s the beauty of conspiracy theories. He doesn’t alight on the criminal convictions or the voluminous contemporary debates and scholarship about abuse, memory, evidence.

Aaronovitch’s focus is ritual abuse. He begins his Analysis programmes with a recent case in Hampstead: parents claimed their children had been abused by satanists operating just about everywhere. I and other journalists and politicians were pestered on social media to intervene. I had to tell people to go away. 

I don’t automatically get involved in any child abuse story, neither ritual abuse or anything else. I get involved with stories where I have access to evidence, to both sides if there is a debate, and if it is something about which I have some knowledge or interest. 

Aaronovitch imputes something eerie about Hampstead, "No one in the mainstream media was biting." said Aaaronovitch. But a forensic blogger reports, "none but those involved in the hoax was biting, not the police, not social workers…’ and insofar as anyone in the alternative media took it up it was mostly to ‘expose it for what it was…" That’s because they reckoned someone would use it just the way Aaronovitch did.  

What on earth does Hampstead have to do with anything?  Why Hampstead but not the half dozen recent convictions of men and women in ‘satanic’ abuse cases? Is it because he wants to prove, yet again, that it doesn’t exist?  Is it because his audience would be expected to recoil from the term? Whatever his motive, he establishes no connection between his narrative and the current VIP and historic abuse cases.

So let’s consider his argument:

Ritual abuse

At the end of the 1980s "unbelievable" theories that had been accorded respectability within professional and clinical circles wafted across the Atlantic, "the occult flame was kept alight beyond the shores of America," he told listeners; then professionals (doing what they do) read books and went to conferences. Ideas were planted in "surprisingly fertile soil," in that ‘hothouse for new intellectual plants’ none other than "the professional conference."  

They were possessed. They saw the movie Sybil, they read Michelle Remembers. Who knows, like millions of others, they might have seen Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist. 

We don’t know which, if any, of these professionals were possessed by these texts. Nor does Aaronovitch. But that doesn’t matter. I know many practitioners, from police officers to foster carers, doctors and social workers  involved in many of the celebrated and contested child abuse cases of the past quarter century, including those singled out by Aaronovitch, and I’m not aware that any had any of this stuff in their heads. I’ve consulted other journalists, and they’re not either.

Isn’t reading books and going to conferences part of what professionals and experts do? Learn? Share ideas? Aaronovitch traduces normal and necessary activities as sinister. One of Aaronovitch’s witnesses, the journalist Rosie Waterhouse, mapped "the progress of an idea": UK and US professionals, especially Californians, were  crossing the Atlantic and conferring; her nugget: "the conference circuit."

After a conference at Reading in 1989, she said, the witch hunt broke out in Britain. Waterhouse is wrong. 

There was indeed a cultural revolution during the 1980s: it was not triggered by trans-Atlantic folly but the bodies of children. For a dozen years, Britain had been scalded by about 30 deaths of children due to abuse, and by the evidence of official inquiries. Unnoticed in life, in death they became household names. The pivotal cases for social work in the 1980s were Tyra Henry, Kimberley Carlisle and Jasmine Beckford. These children’s fate alerted health and welfare professionals to what became known as ‘child abuse’.  There was public and professional outrage, workers were castigated for a perceived failure to intervene and -- most specifically with Jasmine Beckford in 1985 -- to heed the child and what she might have to say about her family life. In the mid-80s sexual abuse emerged as a category of concern. 

In the second half of the decade, local authority staff had an unequivocal statutory duty to investigate when they had ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a child was being abused. The law states -- then and now -- not that they ‘may’ but that they ‘shall’ intervene. It was and is their statutory duty.

That, not Californian phantoms, was the context in which professionals were mandated to act.   

Awareness of woman abuse was going through a similar radicalisation in the 1970s, feminist activism generated Rape Crisis Centres (clients frequently reporting childhood rape) and national consciousness was stung in 1982 by Roger Graef’s pioneering fly-on-the-wall documentary showing Thames Valley police bully a woman reporting rape. In 1983 the Home Office introduced new guidelines on sexual crimes. In 1984 the Metropolitan police introduced a pilot scheme on joint working between police and social workers. It was rolled out nationwide. Specialist teams of social workers and police were launched in 1987. As important as anything else was the launch of Childline in 1986. It was a national telephone listening service, and on its first day it received tens of thousands of calls from children.   

The mid-80s, then, was the time when British institutions were forced to pay attention to the oppression of children in a new way. Priests and pagans, teachers, pop stars politicians and parents were sexually abusing children then as now, and weren’t properly investigated. 

However, what provoked controversy and crisis then was not only what we were learning about childhood adversity, but whether the professions, particularly the police, and our political culture could stand it, respond appropriately, and withstand the inevitable reaction.

There was no great wave of state piracy, social workers kidnapping kids. Despite the new knowledge and the legal duties of professionals, there was resistance to evidence that became entrenched. The implications were woeful. According to Susan Creighton, an expert on recorded abuse, statistics on the numbers of children registered as being at risk of harm (including sexual abuse) rose most significantly between 1985 and 1986, reaching a peak of 0.65 children per 1000 in 1987, and declining thereafter.

Though changes in registration criteria after 1990 make direct comparisons difficult, sexual abuse registrations fell dramatically up to 2002, and settled at a relatively low level between 2002 and 2014. There was no panic or hysteria, no wave of children being removed either rightly or wrongly from their parents.

Read on to part two


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