A view of D wing from the exercise yard at Wandsworth Prison. It has a capacity of 1456 prisoners. P{ic by Andrew Aitchison www.prisonimage.org

A view of D wing from the exercise yard at Wandsworth Prison. It has a capacity of 1456 prisoners. Pic by Andrew Aitchison (www.prisonimage.org)

I admit that I thought ‘moral panic’ was pushing it a bit, when I was asked to write a foreword for the first issue of  Proof magazine (Justice in a time of Moral Panic) brought together by the excellent (and indeed prize-winning) Justice Gap. 

  • This is the introduction to Proof magazine, issue 1 – out January 18, but available for order now – see HERE  

But as I sit down at the laptop, Radio 4 announces that the police are standing outside Ted Heath’s home and appealing for victims of the former prime minister’s sex crimes to come forward.  Salem, it seems, has come to Salisbury.  Only this time, the witch-hunt isn’t for the culprits – the search is for victims of crimes which haven’t yet even been alleged.

I worked at the BBC in the 70’s and knew Ted Heath – two facts which I’m almost afraid to admit, fearing that this double indictment may provoke the Yewtree 6 am knock at the door.  I also knew Cyril Smith, Jeremy Thorpe and Greville Janner. And if you pushed me for an answer I’d say (in no particular order) ‘definitely’, ‘probably’ ‘almost certainly’ and ‘you must be mad’.

Not all the essays in the collection concern child sex abuse; there is an analysis of the night-sweat of other social panics, such as our jihadist terrors, and the demonization of the underclass ‘scum’ – as well as the lunatic logic that to lock up every imagined rapist in Britain we’d have to triple the prison estate. It’s all of a piece with talk of the migrant ‘swarms’, the locust hordes massing at Calais – that, too, seems an aspect of a society in danger of losing its tolerance, fairness and sense of proportion.

But it’s child sex abuse which, as most contributors maintain, has provoked the principal panic.


From Proof magazine, issue 1

Panic is a collective lurch to irrational behaviour, or in the words of one of the contributors to this timely collection something ‘unfounded in fact and motored by irrational fears’. Child sex abuse is a fact, and a fact which has been – through indifference or active suppression – too often ignored; the argument is made more than once in this collection that it’s time to redress the balance, and that to dismiss real social ills as a moral panic has become a substitute for reasoned argument.

But there’s no contradiction in acknowledging the scale of child sex abuse – and also being concerned that the criminal justice system has over-corrected itself to the point where justice itself is compromised. Savile – and the name runs through this collection like a stain – personifies both strands of the argument.   He woke us up to that fatal 70’s collision between celebrity and permissiveness, seen through the nervous prism of the present day (was anyone at the time that fussed about those teenage groupies scrummaging for a place on the pop groups’ tour buses?).  He showed the vulnerability of the disadvantaged – terribly made manifest in Rochdale and Oxford. He flaunted the degree to which how power creates immunity – and that was as true in Leeds, and those cosy chats between Savile and the local coppers, as it probably was (albeit more discreetly) with the well-connected regulars at Dolphin Square and the authorities.

But Savile also created the panic. You need to put a face to a fear to turn it into a terror. Previous panics – like the Hebridean cults of satanic abuse – were always a bit flaky, because we couldn’t put a face to them; but now, with Savile, we had a face, and a face we all knew, to bring our terrors to life.   Savile had been in our front rooms.

We had trusted him with our children. Worse, he was dead, he had escaped justice, he was now a ghost come to haunt us, leaving only his grandiose and shattered gravestone behind him, like some cackling, demonic Ozymandias.


From Proof magazine, issue 1

So, police forces who had just begun to recognise the risks of ‘trawling’ for victims, now openly solicit for victims of crimes which may never have been committed; complainants, scandalously dismissed in the past, are now given a 180-degree guarantee that they ‘will be believed’. As for the courts, stand by for some weathercock justice as the judiciary sway in the gale of public anxiety; fifteen years ago Lord Woolf gave a careful warning that ‘child sex cases presented the greatest danger of miscarriages of justice’; yet today we are dragging an elderly and demented politician through a charade of a so-called ‘trial of the facts’ – an emergency forensic device normally reserved for those who, while unfit to plead, represent a danger to society.

With more trials to come, and Justice Lowell Goddard’s marathon inquiry gearing up, we are in for years of painful and untested victim testimony.   The inevitable repetition will not, I guess, stoke the panic; rather, it will lead to the dull ache of recognition that there is, there was, and there has always been the sexual abuse of the vulnerable, whether it is to be found in celebrity circles, posh schools, or organised from the taxi ranks of British provincial cities.  And everyone – police, social services, the courts – should be better at doing their jobs.

Meanwhile, with a new zealotry in the police, the decimation of defence funding, anxious juries and judges not immune to public sentiment – can it be right to respond to the failures of the past by diluting the standards by which we test the truth?

That really would be something to panic about.
A version of this article appeared on the Justice Gap on December 17.

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Profile photo of David Jessel About David Jessel
David Jessel is a broadcaster, investigative journalist (Rough Justice and Trial and Error), campaigner and former commissioner at the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

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