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Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Secrecy ultimately hurts more people when wild speculation fills the void

Yes, I'm a bit of a conspiracy nut - not that I believe the vast majority of the theories I read online (he says, trying to convince you there's an ounce of sanity between my ears).

But I'm fascinated at the point at which truth and speculation intersect.  How rumours spread outside of "trusted" channels such as official findings and reports from respected news sources.

So I find myself drawn in by pages and pages of conspiracy nonsense, perhaps kidding myself that I'm conducting informal research into online truth, rumour and influence.

As in previous furores, whenever there's a lack of official information, rumour and speculation fill the void.

And, with most people now able to connect via the internet, the massive void hanging under today's current child sex scandal is adequately filled to overflowing with rumour and speculation.

I'd love to talk you through what's actually out there being discussed in certain hotspots of internet gossip, but for legal reasons I can't go into details, nor link to my sources.

Maybe this is a good thing, you say.  The last thing an upstanding high profile member of society needs hanging over their heads is a hat labelled paedophile.

But the point I'm trying to make is that so many names are popping up I refuse to believe that anything more than idle speculation is behind the vast majority of these rumours.

Yet the rumours bubbling under the surface don't really matter much.  Websites hoarding speculative accusations are rarely frequented by anyone outside a small group I'll charitably call enthusiasts.

Until that is someone makes a credible accusation that is reported in a respected newspaper or even in the House of Commons itself.

When any such accusation fails to name names, for legal reasons we see as obvious today, whole sections of the public start mining for details.

It's just human nature, we want to know more.

We rush to our favourite search engine(s) and attempt to join the dots.

And now we have a serious problem because the missing piece of the jigsaw we find might actually be from another puzzle.  Or, as is often the case, be a complete fabrication 

We know from official or reliable sources there's a puzzle and it's easy to kid ourselves that the piece we found actually fits.

But it doesn't, and we get back on with our lives believing an innocent person is in fact a paedophile.

It gets worse.  Many of these hotbeds of conspiracy extrapolate from facts, adding an air of credibility to names otherwise plucked out of the air.  And no, I'm not talking about any particular rumour currently doing the rounds.

Take for example the 1997 Waterhouse Tribunal into what can only be described as a child abuse ring operating in North Wales.  The chair of the tribunal took the brave step of holding the tribunal in open court, but granted blanket anonymity to any abuser named as part of the inquiry.

A wide-ranging injunction prevented members of the media present at the inquiry from ever naming alleged abusers in the press.

Respected Guardian journalist Nick Davies wrote about this at the time, giving a clue as to the stature of some of those named in court.  It appears as though some very well-connected powerful people were implicated.

The Waterhouse Tribunal now sits at the heart of many conspiracies. Forum commentators variously describe the anonymity injunction as "blanket immunity" but I've seen no evidence to back up the immunity claim.  And they name names.  And link this scandal with every other scandal from the last 50 years including the death of Diana and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

It's therefore reasonable to suspect a newcomer to such a forum would start to check some facts; maybe dig out a clipping from the Guardian corroborating 50% of the theory... And then, perhaps, simply accept the remainder as likely, however unlikely it might actually be.

The net result is that today the internet is awash with high profile names from politics allegedly linked to this one child sex scandal - and this, sadly, is just one of several.

In parallel, bloggers are naming another politician allegedly linked to a separate allegation.

So when Labour MP Tom Watson stands up in Parliament today and asks a question to the Prime Minister about an alleged paedophile ring linked to Number 10 I hate to think what conclusions the average inquisitive Joe will come to.

(Update: according to the Guardian's Michael White it was the late Peter Morrison)
(Update 2: according to Tom Watson himself it wasn't Peter Morrison - as if to demonstrate my point about speculation!)

We have not one vacuum but a whole galaxy where rumours are gravitating towards small grains of truth and multiplying into something not even vaguely resembling anything that could possibly be fact.

Secrecy caused by people not wanting to get sued coupling with official secrecy for other reasons over many events over recent history colliding with cover-ups, known and suspected, to create a cloud of suspicion big enough to rain on half of the globe.

Secrecy designed to prevent innocent people being erroneously smeared has itself lead to perhaps many more innocent people being erroneously smeared.

And no, politicians, the answer lies not in libel threats, injunctions and yet more secrecy.  It lies in less secrecy.

It lies in allowing allegations to be aired in a responsible manner where sufficient evidence exists because the majority of the public can actually be trusted to accept an allegation reported as unsubstantiated is just that, but the alternative - to send people into the vacuum to find their own missing pieces - is actually far worse.



  1. Well I believe more of the conspiracy theories than you and I don't think I'm a nut.

    There is clearly a lot of shocking abuse being hidden by a wall of secrecy by very powerful individuals, so I would simply say secrecy causes paedophilia. And NONE of this will come out until the abusers are dead, I guarantee you that. Too many have too much to protect.

  2. Spot on, it's too easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. Though bet Tom Watson's question today came at an uncomfortable time for a certain Cabinet Minister whose name is doing the rounds in relation to something unrelated to Tom's question.

    I have another worry, there's so much speculation out there it detracts from the truth and the guilty may never get investigated because there are too many names out there.

  3. This makes interesting reading in light of subsequent stories. While I agree in principle with your proposition that less secrecy would mean fewer conspiracy theories, I wonder how much that would actually work *if people still felt that something was being hidden from them* ? While the domain of "known unknowns" is more or less finite, the domain of "unknown unknowns" is infinite.

    1. Thanks, Mat. Of course no-one really knows. There is a small minority who will, as you say, never be satisfied.

      The question is whether we try and stamp out that undercurrent or ignore it.

      I believe that undercurrent, typically conspiracy theorists, can be left to their own devices.

      What they have to say is only relevant in tipping-point type events like what happened with McAlpine. Really the tipping point was the BBC adding credence to conspiracy in the report they published.

      I don't claim that there is an ideal way forward, just that there is often hidden danger in trying to protect an innocent person by not disclosing accusations in the first place.

      Far better to examine in public court and disprove at the time. As I blogged more recently there is in this unique case there appears to have been a whole series of errors, the BBC's being just the latest (and, whilst serious, arguably the least serious, although I doubt Lord McAlpine will see it that way).


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