Press Column Saturday 19 August 2000

There is a peculiar horror when a cliché rises from the grave. "Witch-hunt" for instance, has been a term without any emotional force for as long as I can remember it. In Myles na Gopaleen’s Catechism of Cliché it would appear as "What is it that no one wants? A witch-hunt." It only otherwise appears as a symbol of the irrationality of our ancestors, now happily outgrown, or just another bizarre whinge from the Spartist lexicon. But in the Paulsgrove protestors, with their talk of "lists of power" we suddenly catch a glimpse of what made witch hunting a popular sport across half Europe. There is the sudden appearance of an ill-defined crime which is practised in secret, yet blights the life of all the neighbours. There is the sniffing out of evil-doers by the community, using magical talismans. Finally comes the cathartic expulsion of the evildoers —though that of course is not what the protesters really want. What they would really like, as their banners make clear, is the traditional culmination of these festivities: a public execution preceded, if possible, by torture.

The press in all this has been sharply divided on class lines. None are in favour, but most are afraid and ashamed. It’s notable that the only two papers singled out by Rebekah Wade for opposing the News of the World whole-heartedly and publicly are the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, which do not welcome among their readers anyone who is or has been a member of the working classes. I know the Independent has gone laddish in the last five years, but not as far as you might think: the leaders were once written by Cambridge graduates interested in cricket, now they are produced by Oxford men who go to football matches. I don’t mean to snark. If that is what it takes to condemn the News of the World , then it is a good thing. But the difficulty that Paulsgrove raises for all the papers is that it is an uncomfortable reminder of who little they can do on their own to stir up public opinion. All the News of the World did to provoke these riots was publish two weeks’ worth of campaigning. Most newspaper campaigns continue for years without even stirring their readers up to letter-writing. The fact that many readers might find it less effort to riot than to write letters is not, I think, very relevant here.

Even if you take into account the damage done over the preceding weeks by the saturation sentimental coverage of the Sarah Payne case, it is still obvious that the Paulsgrove rioters, though they may have been supplied with an excuse by the News of the World, were not witch-hunting because the newspaper had told them to. They were doing it because it came naturally. In all this, there was virtually no comment at all from any of the Churches. This is partly, perhaps, because they are associated in the public mind with paedophilia themselves, though of a curiously old-fashioned and innocent kind. Scoutmasters and choirboys belong more to seaside postcard humour than what we now call child abuse.

ON the other hand, this should only have encouraged news editors to shop for religious opinions. I saw only two: in Thursday’s Guardian, the Rev’d Gary Waddington the local rector, was quoted; and Richard Harries got something into the same paper. It is perhaps a marker of how much we take for granted that Christianity is a religion for nice people that the only moral analysis of the whole thing that I saw came from the dyspeptic atheist "Theodore Dalrymple" in the Sunday Telegraph. Admittedly, even Bill Beaver might blush to explain to bishops that the message of the day was "lynching people is wrong". But it is a missed, opportunity, I think, that no one managed to condemn the rioters in such a well-informed was as Dalrymple did. Perhaps doctors know more about the underlying horror of such places. Perhaps no priest could say, as Dalrymple did, that the morality of sink housing estates is exactly the same as that of a prison, so that loathing "paedophiles" is an expression of the universal human longing to find someone whose crimes and failures are viler than our own as it is a projection of guilt about the awful way children are treated by these self-righteous parents and step-parents.

The Times carried a number of letters more or less politely disagreeing with Dr George Carey’s attacks on education and therapy. Much the nicest came from Mrs Carol Carsley, of Beckenham: "Sir, today, about to drive over a narrow, single-lane bridge where the arrow flow-sign clearly indicated my right of way, a Volvo from the opposite direction drove on regardless. I was astounded to see that the driver was a nun.

"Since I am a psychotherapist, I conclude that this is an extension of the debate: God vs Therapy".

This provoked an even finer anti-nun story from a retired naval commander who had tried to get from Calais to Switzerland in the winter of 1946 : "With five seats booked on the overnight train from Calais we were escorted to our seats by a gold-braided Cooks rep. All the seats were correctly labelled with our names and all were occupied by nuns.

"In a drill movement worthy of the Chief Gunner's Mate to whom we had just said a relieved goodbye, the nuns folded their hands, lowered their heads and closed their eyes and that was that. Like Mrs Carsley we had no choice.

"It was the corridor for us and, although we kept a sharp lookout for any vacancy arising overnight in the natural order of things, all five managed to hold on for the full eight hours to Zurich.

"On arrival, as we staggered cold and stiff to our feet, the nuns emerged and favoured us with a sweet smile."

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