Witch Trials in the Internet Age.

by padraigcolman

Colman's Column3

This article was published in Ceylon Today on Wednesday February 12 2014.

The Court of Public Opinion


George Eliot wrote in Daniel Deronda, “Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it. It proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker.” There is, as I write, a great deal of online smoke about Woody Allen. I am not going to add to it by offering my opinion about the rights and wrongs of Mr Allen’s behaviour. I do want to discuss the implications of the kind of speculation that is rampant.

The Golden Globes honoured the director with a lifetime achievement award and he received an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay for his latest film, Blue Jasmine. Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter has published an open letter accusing Allen of sexually molesting her when she was seven years old. This has brought out the bloggers who feel compelled to tell us what they think of Allen’s films as well as his personal character. Others have called for him to be shunned by the public and Hollywood. The BBC published an article full of speculation and opinion, which caused some commenters to remind them of the BBC’s own poor performance in the Jimmy Savile case.

Aaron Bady wrote on The New Inquiry: “To be blunt: I think Woody Allen probably did it, though, of course, I could be wrong. But it’s okay if I’m wrong. For two reasons. First, because my opinion is not attached to a juridical apparatus—because I have not been empowered by jails and electric chairs and states of exception to destroy people’s lives—it isn’t necessary for me to err heavily on the side of ‘we need to be really f***ing sure that the accused did it.’“ Power without responsibility? Facebook commenters approvingly cited Bady’s article.

In 1993, there were charges of child abuse at the Shieldfield Nursery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England against two qualified nursery nurses, Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed. Mr Justice Holland found the evidence too weak to put before a jury. Fragmentary remarks made by children led to the allegations. When the children said something that could be construed as evidence of sexual abuse, they were praised; when they said that nobody had hurt them, or proclaimed the innocence either of Reed or of Lillie, they were disbelieved.

Not-guilty verdicts caused  a riot in the courtroom, with cries from the parents of “Hang them!” The Sun asked its “readers”: Do you know where perverts Lillie and Reed are now? Phone us on  0161 935 5315 or 0171 782 4105. Don’t worry about the cost  – we will call you straight back.

Newcastle City Council set up an “Independent Review Team”. The IRT report claimed that, whatever the findings of the court and the views of Mr Justice Holland, Lillie and Reed “had abused their charges at Shieldfield nursery sexually, physically and emotionally; used them to make pornography; and were part of a paedophile ring”. Two people found not guilty in a British court of law became fugitives, living in fear of the lynch mob.

When Lillie and Reed sued Newcastle city council for libel, Mr Justice Eady said that the four members of the review team were malicious in the promulgation of their report. “They included in their report a number of fundamental claims which they must have known to be untrue and which cannot be explained on the basis of incompetence or mere carelessness”. Mr Justice Eady awarded Lillie and Reed damages of GBP200,000 each, the highest award within his power.


Beatrix Campbell OBE wrote a book about the Lillie and Reed case. She also wrote about the Cleveland case. Geoffrey Wyatt and Marietta Higgs were barred from further child protection work, after their flawed tests (which in themselves constitute sexual assault) suggested an epidemic of child sexual abuse in Cleveland. Much distress was caused to parents and children because of their work. Campbell’s defence of Higgs and Wyatt, published in 1988, became a key text in child protection courses.

The British Association of Social Workers accepted as fact that there was a problem of  persistent ritual abuse of children occurring in a satanic framework. BASW gave a positive review to Beatrix Campbell’s Dispatches programme   on satanic abuse in Nottingham, (aired on Channel 4 on October 3rd 1990).  In the opinion of the Nottingham Joint Enquiry Team, the social workers investigating the case had actually engendered allegations of satanic abuse, though children had ostensibly made them independently.  The Team found that “evidence, for want of a better term, was ‘created’. This is to say that you start with nothing except your own beliefs and end up with the story that you expected and wanted to hear before you started”.

Rather than providing a convincing case that satanic ritual abuse exists, Campbell instead argued that stranger things do happen, so why should we not believe this incredible phenomenon also? “After all, people pray in front of grown men wearing frocks, and presumably to find both peace and power, they consume, metaphorically, the body of a man. So is it so difficult to believe that inversions of that established religion are to be found at large?”

Campbell asked, “why did the inquiry need to believe that there is no satanic sub-culture of sacrifice and sexual abuse? That the children must be wrong?” “The secularism of our society is infused by ambiguous tendencies toward transcendental powers which ought to help us think afresh.” By this, she means that even rational cynics read their horoscopes, all towns have New Age shops, and any record shop will have pseudo-satanic heavy metal. It seems a big leap from this to breeding babies for human sacrifice or cannibalism.

About Cleveland, she wrote: “For the police there is a particular problem; as a praetorian guard of masculinity, sexual abuse faces them with an accusation against their own gender. Police and judicial mastery over evidence has for over a century enabled them to banish the sexual experiences of women and children. Was that mastery threatened in Cleveland?”

Many of those giving their two cents about the Allen case talk about views being distorted by the prism of gender. One says: “Mr. Justice Eady is characterized as the ‘voice of reason’ simply because he interpreted the law in a way that supports your bias”. The commenter is disdainful of the idea that “everything can be proved or disproved by empirical evidence”. This echoes Campbell’s persistent shoehorning of real life into her own particular feminist and Marxist ideology, ignoring empirical evidence. “Ritual abuse challenges the residual wish to believe that sexual abuse is like rape used to be (before the women’s liberation movement told it like it was) – an excess of desire, and impetuous combustion, rather than strategic sexual subordination.” Her polemic is based on “might-be” and “what if?” and “why not?” rather than proven fact in the real world.

Something comes up repeatedly in comment threads about the allegations against Woody Allen. People recount their own experiences of being abused as children as if this gives them a right to see Allen punished. Bady writes: “We are in the midst of an ongoing, quiet epidemic of sexual violence, now as always. We are not in the midst of an epidemic of false rape charges, and that fact is important here.” Well, no, it is not important here. What is important is the facts of the particular case. Much of the discussion of this subject puts the cart before the horse. Arguments impose the general on the particular by brute force. The phrase “the tip of the iceberg” is often used.

Some commenters have invoked the “court of public opinion”. Eighty-one –year-old William Roache, who has been playing Ken Barlow in the British tele-drama Coronation Street since 1960, was found not guilty on February 6 2014. Five women had claimed he assaulted them when they were aged 16 or under between 1965 and 1971. As a member of the court of public opinion, I do not much like William Roache, his life-style, religious beliefs or political views.  That is irrelevant when a real court of law dismisses two counts of rape and four indecent assaults. The “court of public opinion” could be the “feeding frenzy of the tabloid press” referred to by the late Patrick Cosgrove QC,  Lillie and Reed’s defence barrister. Rebekah Brookes has been on trial for phone hacking. When she was editor of The Sun and the News of the World, she ran a campaign against paedophiles. In the mass hysteria generated among her readers, a mob attacked the house of a paediatrician. In many cases, the “court of public opinion” is Rupert Murdoch. The law may be an ass but Mr Justice Eady was the voice of reason.