‘Paedophile scares are always driven by the elite’
As the Jersey children’s home ‘bone’ turns out to be a piece of coconut, Richard Webster tells spiked the case reveals much about moral panics.
The ‘skull fragment’ that was unearthed by police investigating allegations of child abuse at a former children’s home in Jersey caused an international media storm.
The police discovered the fragment at the Haut de la Garenne home on 23 February and swiftly called a press conference to unveil their shock finding to the world. The media went wild. The respectable UK Guardian feverishly reported that ‘half a dozen bodies’ might be found at the former home, and quoted the chief investigating officer as saying: ‘There could be six or more. It could be higher than that.’ (1) The normally sedate BBC got even more excited, casting off its post-Hutton caution about careless reporting to declare that the small fragment of bone – which at this stage was undated, and not even scientifically proven to be from a human being – was actually a ‘child’s body’. ‘Child’s body found at care home’, said a stark staringly inaccurate headline on the BBC News site (2).
Now, it seems, we finally have the truth about this ‘human bone’, which was cited as evidence that a vicious and murderous paedophile ring may have operated at the Jersey children’s home in the 1980s and that Jersey itself is a ‘strange’ place full of ‘dark secrets’ (3). The truth is this: it is not a human bone at all. It is, according to Tom Higham and his team of scientists at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, probably a piece of wood or a coconut shell. Higham’s team spent weeks examining the fragment, which is about the size of a 50 pence piece, with the most sophisticated equipment available – and yesterday, journalist David Rose reported their doubt that it is a piece of bone in the Mail on Sunday. Dr Roger Jacobi, a palaeontologist and leading bone expert, agrees with the Oxford team. ‘I believe it is a piece of coconut shell, such as you might come across on a beach’, he says. ‘It isn’t like any piece of bone I’ve ever seen. It’s light and porous. It certainly has none of the structures you would find in a human skull.’ (4)
‘Yes, even I am surprised by this outcome’, says Richard Webster, the writer who has asked awkward questions about the Jersey investigation since the ‘bone’ was unearthed in February. ‘The fact that it might be a piece of coconut shell seems suitably absurd’, he tells me. ‘There is some sort of satirical element here.’ Webster, who spent 10 years investigating the 1990s panic about a paedophile ring in North Wales for his Orwell Prize-nominated book The Secret of Bryn Estyn, first started looking into the Jersey home story because, he says, there was ‘something fishy’ about the fact that the carbon-dating results were not being released. ‘The police and others kept citing the views of the on-site archaeologists’, he says, ‘but that wasn’t the point. What did the carbon-daters think? Where were their findings?’ It now turns out that the police received the carbon-dating results on 8 April, more than a month ago, including an email message that said: ‘This one ain’t bone.’ And yet last Tuesday – 13 May – the chief investigating officer stood in the former Jersey home and said the following: ‘It is a fragment of a human body… we don’t know how, when or where that person died.’ (5)
Webster’s writings on the Jersey investigation, including his essay for spiked published on 28 April (6), prompted the much-needed critical questioning of the increasingly hysterical investigation, at a time when the vast bulk of the British media was either slavishly reporting what the Jersey cops said in their press conferences or, worse, embellishing the police’s alleged findings with their own scary, Mystic Meg-style views on what ‘MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED’ at the home. Webster was the first writer looking into the Jersey affair to speak with Tom Higham, the Oxford-based carbon-dater, and shortly after Webster’s essay was published, on his own website and later on spiked, Dr Higham formally wrote to the chief investigating officer in Jersey to express his disquiet that the fragment was still publicly being referred to as a ‘skull fragment’. David Rose, the Mail on Sunday journalist who made the coconut shell revelation yesterday, was following up on Webster’s essay. ‘I am pleased that questions are finally being asked – and that some answers are forthcoming’, says Webster.
Webster is not arguing that there was no abuse at Haut de la Garenne; indeed, the Jersey police say that ‘new revelations’ about further bone fragments will be made this week. On the contrary, one of Webster’s key concerns is that chasing potentially baseless stories about paedophile rings can distract from the need for cool-headed investigations into abuse that may have occurred, and even nurture a climate in which people who were abused are more likely to be disbelieved. The problem, he says, is that the Jersey investigation had taken on ‘the characteristics of a witch hunt’. ‘The media, in particular, have been uncritical and unquestioning. This happens when the media take part in a “moral crusade”. When the media move in a pack across a field, you don’t tweezers to pick up the evidence they leave in their wake – you need a shovel and a wheelbarrow.’ While the media, including the respectable broadsheet world as well as the paedo-obsessed sections of the tabloids, talked about ‘children’s bodies’, ‘six more dead’ and so on, it was left largely to two writers – Webster and Diane Simon of the Jersey Evening Post – to do some poking around on the Jersey skull story (7).
Webster points out that, even following yesterday’s revelations that the ‘bone’ is probably a piece of wood or coconut, there is still misinformation flying around. Some media outlets faithfully report a new, back-covering press release from the clearly embarrassed Jersey police. The release says: ‘Police were told that in the opinion of the laboratory staff, the item was not bone but wood or a seed. However, this was qualified by the statement that if it was bone it was very old bone. By this time, anyway, the item had been eliminated from the inquiry because of the confirmation of the archaeological context in which it had been found. An announcement was made to this effect and as a result it was decided to take it no further.’ (8) Leaving aside the fact that many of the police’s claims about the ‘archaeological context’ and how it may have damaged the collagen in the bone were themselves questionable – as Webster revealed in his essay on spiked – it is also not the case that the police made an ‘announcement’ about the ‘bone’ having been ‘eliminated from the inquiry’.
‘The new press release, following the coconut revelation, has a great deal in common with other statements made by the Jersey police’, says Webster: ‘It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.’ In truth, the press release issued by the police on 8 April – the day they received email reports of the carbon-dating test results, including the message ‘This one ain’t bone’ – still continually referred to the item as a bone and, worse, went out of its way to say that it had been placed in the location of the former children’s home ‘no earlier than the 1920s’ and ‘it could well have found its way there more recently than that’ (italics added). Not surprisingly, the media took the police’s cue and continued to run with the ‘skull story’. An online Daily Mail headline on the afternoon of 8 April said: ‘Child skull found at Jersey care home “WAS put there while building was a children’s home”, forensic tests confirm’ (9). Webster tells me that this was a ‘startling turnaround of the message’ on the day when the police heard from the experts that ‘this one ain’t bone’. As a result of the lead investigators being less than frank about the facts, and the media looking to satisfy their lust for shock-horror stories rather than ask some probing questions, the Jersey bone story dragged on long after it should have been buried.
Webster thinks the police kept the bone story alive because they instinctively knew that the bone helped to keep the inquiry in the public eye and in receipt of public funds. Yet while he has been stingingly critical of the Jersey cops, he recognises that there is a far bigger picture here. ‘There also has to be an appetite for this kind of moral panic and witch hunt, and today there is no doubt that such an appetite exists’, he says. In our era of fear and obsession with child abuse – when everyone from government officials to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) tells us that child abusers lurk on street corners and in a great number of family homes too – the paedophile has come to replace the devil in contemporary secular society, reckons Webster. ‘In the past, the Church used graphic, sometimes pornographic images of the devil as an enemy against which everyone could unite, and as a way of quelling dissent. Today we have lost the devil. The devil disappeared from public culture in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and what replaces it? At the moment, child abusers are the new devil we all can rail against.’ That is why, he says, paedophile panics often come across like ‘religious crusades’, where those who ask critical questions about the facts can be denounced as ‘unbelievers’ and ‘deniers’.
Most strikingly, the Jersey bone episode reveals an essential truth about paedophile panics: they come from above rather than below. In recent years, it has become fashionable in intelligent, liberal circles to fret about the ‘anti-paedophile lynch mob’, who, triggered by a News of the World headline, might go out and burn down people’s homes or beat individuals to a pulp. In truth, it takes people with clout to trigger a moral panic – and in the case of the dark, secretive, murderous Jersey home scare, the panic was triggered by top policemen and the metropolitan, latte-drinking media elite in London. As Webster wrote in The Secret of Bryn Estyn: ‘Of all the misconceptions about historical witch hunts, perhaps the most important is the notion that they were driven forward by the common people – that they were based on the untutored instincts of the mob. This is the very opposite of the truth.’ And so it remains today.
‘Jersey shows that it is not ordinary people who start this off’, he tells me. ‘Witch hunts don’t happen without an educated elite behind them. In the past, bishops and priests let panics loose. Today it is the police, social workers and broadsheet journalists.’
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. Richard Webster is the author of The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt (2005). The long-delayed paperback of this book, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing, will be published later this year. Visit Webster’s website here, and to be kept updated on his writings on the Haut de la Garenne inquiry and other issues, email him at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘updates’.
Richard Webster revealed the truth about the Jersey skull. Earlier, he said the scandal around Bryn Estyn, the former children’s home in North Wales, was a modern witch hunt. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick felt we have an unhealthy obsession with abuse. Or read more at spiked issue Risk.
(1) Six more bodies feared buried in Jersey home, Guardian, 25 February 2008
(2) Child’s body found at care home, BBC News, 23 February 2008
(3) REVEALED: the truth about the Jersey skull, Richard Webster, spiked, 28 April 2008
(4) Haut de la Garenne fragment is ‘a piece of coconut’, Richard Webster’s blog, 18 May 2008
(5) ‘Human bone’ at centre of Jersey children’s home inquiry is actually a piece of wood or coconut shell, David Rose, Mail on Sunday, 18 May 2008
(6) REVEALED: the truth about the Jersey skull, Richard Webster, spiked, 28 April 2008
(7) REVEALED: the truth about the Jersey skull, Richard Webster, spiked, 28 April 2008
(8) Bone found in Jersey abuse probe ‘almost certainly wood’, Observer, 18 May 2008
(9) Child skull found at Jersey care home “WAS put there while building was a children’s home”, forensic tests confirm, Daily Mail, 8 April 2008
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.