Scott Roberts assesses the controversy and fallout of last week’s warning made by David Cameron of a “witch-hunt”.
Last Thursday, David Cameron found himself at the centre of a media storm, the effects of which are still reverberating, after Phillip Schofield attempted to hand him a list of alleged paedophiles, during a live interview on ITV’s This Morning.
Understandably hesitant with inquires ongoing to say anything more on the subject than was absolutely necessary, and in such a legally hazardous area, the prime minister told the presenter: “I’ve heard all sorts of names bandied around and what then tends to happen is everyone sits around and speculates about people, some of whom are alive, some of whom are dead”.
He added: “I do think it’s very important that anyone who’s got any information about any paedophile, no matter how high up in the country or whether they are alive or dead, go to the police.”
Phillip Schofield then passed Mr Cameron a list of names he had gathered from the internet, saying: “You know the names on that piece of paper, will you be speaking to these people?”
The PM, who did not look at the list, replied: “There is a danger if we are not careful that this can turn into a sort of witch-hunt, particularly against people who are gay, and I’m worried about the sort of thing you are doing right now, taking a list of names off the internet.”
Stonewall’s Director of Public Affairs Ruth Hunt said: “Speculation about the identity of those involved in child abuse which erroneously conflates sexual orientation with paedophilia does nothing to support the victims of abuse and is unequivocally harmful to gay people”.
The prime minister’s comments initially drew dramatically opposing views.
Some were supportive; others, such as Peter Tatchell, were deeply critical.
Many could not understand why David Cameron mentioned “gay people” in the interview, when it had not been been raised by the presenter.
Yet, it was subsequently revealed the PM’s reference was based on his concern that wide-spread internet speculation about the sexuality of politicians was being used to drag names into the current abuse scandal.
It was a genuinely held private concern of the prime minister – but last Thursday, in the heat of Phillip Schofield’s legally reckless studio ambush, it became public knowledge.
As mentioned by Richard Smith in a comment piece for PinkNews.co.uk, David Cameron’s witch-hunt remarks became headline news.
I was also asked by several news outlets if I was aware of a witch-hunt against gay people – in light of the current abuse scandal.
In each example, I said that I had not seen any example of a witch-hunt against gay people being undertaken by the mainstream media.
So far the only non-heterosexual figure to have been named by mainstream media in the abuse scandal is Sir Peter Morrison – a dead former Conservative MP and aide to Margaret Thatcher.
To date, all of the other figures named in connection with criminal investigations by the mainstream media, have been heterosexuals linked to the world of light entertainment.
A witch-hunt against gay people may not have appeared to have started in the respected media – but a witch-hunt none-of-the-less has already claimed its first victim.
The events of the past few days involving Newsnight and Lord McAlpine, who was wrongly accused of child abuse by the BBC programme in a report broadcast on 2 November, illustrates the disastrous impact of false allegations.
That infamous tweet made by Iain Overton, just hours ahead of the broadcast, now the former head of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), which helped Newsnight produce the report, sparked off a media feeding frenzy that had the same mad energy of a witch-hunt.
No one comes out a winner. Lord McAlpine has received a full apology from the BBC and from the individual who made the allegations in the fated Newsnight broadcast.
Lord McAlpine may end up receiving substantial legal damages – but he will never be able to completely repair the damage that has been done to his reputation.
As his lawyer has conceded, it will be very difficult to ensure every defamatory allegation is ultimately removed from the vast array of blogs and websites that collectively acted as a giant echo chamber and helped ensure Lord McApline’s name would come to the forefront.
The reputation of the BBC has also taken an unprecedented battering – and more importantly – the current re-investigation into the North Wales child abuse scandal is likely to have been affected.
The damage to the corporation’s journalistic reputation and to Newsnight has also been substantial, the production of all current investigations and the future remit of the programme itself is now uncertain.