Reviews: appearing and non- appearing
MY BOOK, 'THE SECRET OF BRYN ESTYN: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt' was published earlier this year. I have collected here some of the articles about reviews which I posted on my home page during the year. As I write this note in November 2005, four positive reviews which were written for national newspapers or periodicals have yet to appear and three of them at least seem unlikely ever to appear.
For brief extracts from some of the reviews which did appear, click here.
'This is an extraordinary book ... a major achievement.'
Tuesday 8 March 2005
REVIEW COPIES OF The Secret of Bryn Estyn went out to newspapers with notices making it clear that the book was embargoed until its publication on 19 March. The literary editor of the Evening Standard, however, was having none of this and managed to publish a review of the seven-hundred page book on Monday 7 March, twelve days in advance of the book's publication day.
The reviewer in this case was Professor Jean La Fontaine, the anthropologist who, in 1994, compiled The Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse, the government report on claims of satanic or ritual child abuse. Extracts from this review, which appeared under the rather curious headline 'Staking all on hearsay', are given below:
This an extraordinary book . . . Webster aims to dismantle a myth, the myth of 'organised abuse' in residential care. He has admirably succeeded in what the . . . police . . . and two successive tribunals failed to do: discover what really happened. Moreover he engages the reader so closely that the verdict in the libel case won by a senior police officer against the newspapers that labelled him a paedophile comes as a relief, while the shock of the convictions is as great..
Given the mountain of documentation and the multiplicity of organisations involved, it was no simple task to present such a gripping and coherent account.
But this is more than a depiction of the train of consequences set in motion by individuals. Webster has two further concerns: that the innocent should be set free and that this should not happen again. He argues cogently that the former rules that prevented the use of multiple allegations as corroboration need to be reinstated and that, in consequence, the method of "trawling" for more allegations against an accused should stop. . . .
The bulk of the book is concerned with how it happened, which establishes the sequence of events and the role of individuals but does not really explain them. In his last three chapters Webster addresses the question why. He blames the notion of evil conspiracy that has been shown to be deeply embedded in Christian culture and which also underlies the satanism scare that overlapped with the events in North Wales, their secular counterpart . . . the book is a major achievement.'
Tuesday 8 March 2005
'... courageous ... fearless ... so
closely and cogently argued that it demands attention'
Friday 18 March 2005
NEEDLES COULD BE FOUND in haystacks more easily than a book review in the Times Educational Supplement. It's not that the review (TES 18.3.2005) is difficult to spot when you get to the right section. It's the fact that half a dozen supplements (including three different JOBS supplements) have to be discarded before you get to the one which, presumably as a weary teacher's abbreviation of 'Thank God it's Friday', is alled simply (or exultantly) Friday.
But an author can hardly complain since it's 'Book of the week', and the review appears under a half-page colour photograph of Bryn Estyn in all its mock-Gothic splendour. It's even introduced by a 'strap' saying that the reviewer, Gerald Haigh, was 'riveted'. The gist of his conclusion is given in the headline to this story - though that omits the way in which he has, understandably enough (and perhaps for legal reasons) hedged his bets. It's an interesting and thoughtful review. Only the opening paragraphs are published on the TES website. The entire review can be read by clicking here.
Friday 18 March 2005
'Compelling ... fascinating ... The gulf between the official version of events and the version uncovered by Webster's investigation is so wide as to be incredible.'
Friday 25 March 2005; revised 26 March + stop press
ONE OF THE MOST curious aspects of the response to the The Secret of Bryn Estyn is the strange silence with which the book has been greeted by the Welsh media. There is one seemingly obvious explanation for this. For several weeks now a far more important story has, quite understandably, been taking up practically every available column-inch and a good deal of air-time on both radio and TV.
But now that the rugby is over, the silence continues. Is there simply a reluctance on the part of Welsh journalists to re-examine one of the most fascinating aspects of the principality's recent past? Or might there conceivably be other forces at work? Watch this space for further news about this most intriguing of mysteries.
Of course it may simply be that the Welsh media are waiting for more reviews of the book to appear first. If so they may have to wait a little longer. These things take time and it will probably be a few weeks before all the reviews appear.
Jennie Bristow at Spiked, however, has been quicker off the mark. She has written a long and extremely interesting review of the book, part of which I have quoted in the headline above. I'm glad that she has chosen to focus on the gulf between the official version of events and that uncovered by my investigation. As I was writing the book it was precisely this aspect of it which struck me again and again.. The manner in which journalists, lawyers, social workers and politicians jointly constructed a version of 'reality' which was almost a complete inversion of what had in fact happened, but which was nevertheless endued with the solidity of 'truth', never ceased to amaze me.
When Bristow herself says that she found the size of the gulf between the two versions 'incredible', she evidently means this quite literally. 'By page 581,' she writes, ' when the appendices start, you are left not really knowing what to believe.' This, I think, is an an unusual response. It has certainly not been expressed by any other reader, including Jean La Fontaine, who reviewed the book in the Evening Standard and reached a quite different conclusion (see below). It seems to indicate a residual trust in 'official versions' of reality which would surprise some observers and which the evidence simply does not warrant.
Apart from this, however, it does seem to me that Bristow gets very close to the spirit of the book. Jean La Fontaine, in her review, made the suggestion that I place the responsibility for the wrongful imprisonment of 'a large number of almost certainly innocent people' mainly on the shoulders of two individuals who were there at the start of the North Wales story and 'the related efforts ... of the broadsheet press led by the Independent'. But that it is not what I was intending to do. Bristow offers a different view:
Occasionally, our society does worry that it is in the grip of a 'paedophile panic', and points to illiterate mobs on housing estates running intimidation campaigns against the local paediatrician. The Secret of Bryn Estyn reminds us that the real danger comes, not from the passionate mob, but from the higher echelons of the British state. However the North Wales children's home scandal started, in the end the protagonists were politicians, the police, and the law courts.
In the name of protecting children and punishing perverts, the state was able to embark on a crusade to cleanse society of an unspeakable evil, overturning core principles of truth and justice as it went, regardless of the wider damage this could cause to care workers around the country and those who had grown up in children's homes. And now, it takes a book like Webster's to force us to think what has become the unthinkable: that not every residential care worker is a paedophile just waiting to get caught.
These paragraphs put one of the key arguments of the book very powerfully. For this reason alone I am enormously grateful to Jennie Bristow. To read her review in its entirety, click here.
The great advantage of Bristow's perspective is that she stresses what is all too easily forgotten: that you cannot conduct a witch-hunt of the kind described in my book without the help of a whole system of law enforcement and without the active participation of police officers, judges and politicians. To blame two individuals for the fact that entire police forces have adopted the dangerous technique of trawling, and that all too many judges are quite prepared to lock up individuals on the basis of no evidence at all other than a series of trawled complaints, all of which are false, would be not be just.
Yet, for all their power, Bristow's closing paragraphs raise problems. By using one of the most treacherous of all abstractions - 'the state' - she risks obscuring once again the true nexus of causality. In reality there is no such thing as 'the state'; the state takes no initiatives, it makes no decisions and it enacts no laws. Nor does it embark on crusades to cleanse the world of evil. For, if a non-Marxist may be permitted to cite the words of Marx, as he rejected the kind of historical analysis which constantly invokes abstractions and impersonal forces, 'it is men who make history'. Or rather, as Marx would have said, if his grasp of history had been more profound than it was, 'it is men and women who make history'.
The advantage of systematically eschewing abstractions such as 'the state' and 'the judiciary' is that we are then forced to talk of 'police officers', 'politicians' and 'judges' who are not abstract entities but flesh-and-blood human beings, susceptible to the same passions and prejudices which move other human beings and vulnerable to the same kinds of influence. Laying the blame for a particular historical witch-hunt either on lone individuals or on 'the state' actually obscures the true chain of causality rather than revealing it.
All that having been said it should be added that just as, in reality, there is no such thing as 'the state' so there is, in reality, no such thing as an 'individual', impermeable to social and cultural influence. As John Donne put it, 'No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main ... ' The very fact that Donne had to write these words, and that we seem to need so frequently to invoke them, perhaps indicates how powerful and insidious the concept of the 'individual'
has become. This concept too is an abstraction, and one which is perhaps even more treacherous than 'the state'. In the end it is because the self is inexorably social and political that what might be called a 'statist' analysis of human conduct tends almost always to be more interesting than an analysis which privileges the 'individual'. It is for this reason that I like Jennie Bristow's review so much. My gratitude may be qualified but it remains gratitude for all that.
□ Lest it be thought that the Independent remains locked into the 'paedophile panic mentality' which it did so much to foster in the years between 1991 and the publication of the Waterhouse report in 2000, it is refreshing to be able to report that this is not the case. Not, at least, so far as one recent front-page article is concerned. To read the disturbing story of how one innocent man was mistaken for a paedophile and then battered to death, click here. The major shortcoming of the piece is the seemingly short memory of the journalist who wrote it. In his anxiety to blame right-wing anti-immigration policies for the murder, he seems not to grasp that the ill-directed moral violence which led to it is but a brutal, physical expression of the same kind of indiscriminate moral violence in which the Independent itself invested heavily throughout the 1990s. For the national crusade against care workers in which the Independent played a crucial role was conducted not against paedophiles but against those who were merely suspected of being so. In many cases the victims of this crusade were just as innocent as 40-year-old Paul Cooper who was battered to death in his Manchester flat last week.
No sooner have I commented here on the silence of the Welsh press than the silence is miraculously broken. I don't think there is any causal relationship between these events but it is the case that The Secret of Bryn Estyn was reviewed today in the Western Mail (the only national newspaper for Wales) where it was described, by literary editor Dean Powell, as 'totally compelling ... fascinating, disturbing'. More gratitude is clearly in order.
The silence elsewhere, however, remains complete. Keep watching this space.
For details of the book, click here.
Friday 25 March 2005; revised 26 March + stop press
What is the the first question a book reviewer asks?
Wednesday 30 March 2005 / 4 April
ACCORDING TO DAVID SEXTON, the literary editor of the Evening Standard, reviewers always have one question at the point of accepting a commission:
'How long is it?'
They are not hoping, as buyers of mass-market fiction usually are, that it's a really good substantial read. They are praying that the book is not too long.
Reviewing books is not a particularly well-paid form of journalism and it takes time. A book of any more ambition than a thriller can't be read for review at a rate of more than 40, or at most 60, pages an hour. Some books are only 120-pages long and can comfortably be digested in a couple of hours. Others, though, are 400, or 600 pages, or, in some dreadful instances, even more, and they can easily take days to get through.
The reviewer's fee, however, usually remains the same. So, shocking as it may seem, the truth is that some reviewers skip some books. And there are a few who skip through all the books.
Had I read these words before sending all 750 pages of The Secret of Bryn Estyn to the typesetters I don't imagine they would have made much difference. But if I'd had foreknowledge of John Williams's review in the Mail on Sunday I might at least have paused to consider.
It's true that, as Jennie Bristow pointed out recently, you only have to get to page 571 before the appendices start. But that is a lot more than a chunk out of a reviewer's afternoon. And, having read very carefully what Williams had to say, I can't help wondering whether he didn't succumb to the temptation to skip a little. Or a lot.
By saying this I'm not trying to be unkind to John Williams, an ex-punk-rocker and journalist who writes noir novels about lowlife in Butetown - an area around Cardiff docks. I'm trying to find the most charitable explanation of how he came to pen the closing paragraphs of a review which, until then, had been merely dull:
What Webster's ... book reminds us is that while sexual abuse does indeed go on in some of our children's homes it is entirely unhelpful for the Press to conjure the spectre of organised rings of paedophiles preying upon our children. It leads to a climate of suspicion and fear in which men are increasingly nervous about working with children in any capacity at all.
And that, given the ever-worsening performance of boys in schools who now have fewer and fewer role models to follow, is the real tragedy of the Bryn Estyn affair.
To say that these words miss the point of the book by a mile would be to engage in understatement. The distance should really be computed in light years. For you would have to live on an entirely different planet from our own to read the book right through and come to this conclusion. Jennie Bristow (see below) was in no doubt about the real tragedy described in the book:
In the name of protecting children and punishing perverts, the state was able to embark on a crusade to cleanse society of an unspeakable evil, overturning core principles of truth and justice as it went, regardless of the wider damage this could cause to care workers around the country and those who had grown up in children's homes.
Since the last part of the book described this 'crusade' in detail, documented the manner in which thousands of care workers have been accused as a result of police trawling operations, and related how one innocent care worker had been driven to commit suicide on the eve of being sentenced, it is difficult to understand how any conscientious reviewer could have come to the conclusion John Williams did.
But what also intrigues me is the fact that his closing words could be written at all. For you do not (or at least you should not) need to read the book in order to understand that being falsely accused of child sexual abuse is one of the most terrible fates that can befall anyone - and that anyone is potentially a victim of such false accusations.
John Williams's seeming inability to recognise this puts me in mind of some words which I quoted in the closing pages of my first book, A Brief History of Blasphemy. The words were written, ironically, by Ian Jack, who, as the editor of the Independent on Sunday in 1991, plays a significant role in The Secret of Bryn Estyn. On 15 April 1990, Jack wrote an article on conditions in British prisons. The article, which was published under the headline 'Living in Filth', opened with the following paragraph::
Of all the failures of modern Britain, perhaps the greatest is the failure of our imagination, of our ability to think ourselves into the lives of others. It might be called - though the term now seems sentimental - a rift in our common humanity.
It is a failure of the imagination, a tragic and terrible failure, which produces the kind of response we find in Williams's review. What makes this failure so interesting is that, as a novelist, Williams has actually made a profession out of imagining himself into the lives of other people. How can it be that somebody who earns their living from their unusual imaginative powers can exhibit such a failure of the imagination?
Wednesday 30 March 2005/4 April
On literary editors and the contagious cautiousness of libel lawyers
Monday 4 April 2005
IT IS ONE THING to write a book which, because of its contents, has to be read carefully by lawyers before publication. But it is quite another to find that that the reviews written of this book have to be pored over by m'learned friends at what seems like even greater length. Although it might seem that the silence of the reviewers this weekend indicates that literary editors have simply decided to ignore The Secret of Bryn Estyn (which is the ordinary fate of most books) this is not in fact the case. To my knowledge there are at least three reviews commissioned by national newspapers or magazines which are currently in the hands of lawyers.
The problem with this is that libel lawyers, particularly when they are not well briefed, can be absurdly over-cautious. The great danger then is that literary editors may contract the contagion of such caution and take the easy way out by simply declining to publish the review at all. In one case at least I am beginning to wonder whether this has not already happened.
It is no great secret that I decided to publish The Secret of Bryn Estyn under my own imprint for legal reasons and that one of these was in order to avoid the excessive caution likely to be shown by a mainstream publisher's lawyers. It is something of an irony that the book now seems to have fallen victim to just such caution
Even if all three reviews were to be spiked, however, it would not engender despair in this particular author's breast. The important thing so far as I was concerned was to get one of the most extraordinary stories there has ever been into the public domain.
It took almost three years before my last book, The Great Children's Home Panic, gave rise, in November 2000, to a BBC Panorama documentary. That book was not reviewed at all and the programme came to be made entirely because of a word-of-mouth recommendation. This time I hope it won't take quite as long to get the story out. And indeed it would be wrong to understate the significance of the publicity which the book has already received. Many mainstream publishers would consider full-page reviews in the Evening Standard, the Mail on Sunday and the TES as major coups in themselves. One reason why I am inclined to do the same is that those reviews have already led to two very interesting inquiries. The short term future of the book is, largely because of the excessive caution of newspaper editors and lawyers, uncertain. But the inquiries I have already received augur extremely well for the book's long-term future. For this reason, though the reviewers may seem to have fallen silent, I remain quietly optimistic.
Monday 4 April 2005
'[It] has altered my perceptions. I was
awed by the sustained level force of the argument -
and I enjoyed it.'
Sunday 1 May 2005
NO, THE QUOTATION which appears above does not indicate that the cautiousness of the lawyers has been overcome. A month on from my last report, at least three reviews of the book remain stuck in the pipeline because of legal nervousness. They have now been held over for so long there seems little prospect of them appearing at all. But I'm glad to say that not everybody has been struck dumb by the libel laws. The reviewers may be largely silent but my readers, thankfully, aren't. Some have taken the trouble to write in with their responses. Here is a selection from the messages I have received:
'I have completed reading your brilliant book and am going to read it again . . . It’s an astonishing book.' S
'I am only up to page 318 but your book is incredible and so well researched.' K
'I have just finished reading it. Absolutely superb, I shall now read it again. What a masterly job you have done!' E
'Having read the whole story through I can only marvel at your sure-footedness! . . . Thinking about the whole narrative, I suppose that the part I found most shocking of all was not the role played by X, nor by the police; not even the role of the wretchedly self-seeking Y. The real villain of the piece as I saw it was Waterhouse … Waterhouse's intervention in Jennings' cross-examination of Waite was chilling in its absolute determination to prevent the truth from coming out in the courtroom, despite the whole judicial process having been set up supposedly 'to uncover the truth' . The whole episode could have come straight out of a Stalinist show trial of the 40s and 50s.' R
'I do hope someone has the courage to run reviews. Have you had any personal threats? I thought it was an impressive and scholarly book, very badly needed. I literally felt ill on reading about some of the outcomes.' Professor X
'T has got hold of the book before me and is well into it. He says it’s gripping and frightening and obviously courageous. Will read it ASAP myself! Good luck.' A
'Thought I'd let you know that I was not really looking forward to reading 700 odd "dry, dusty" pages. But last night I couldn't put the book down till 2.30am and was again reading it at 6am!! Riveting stuff.' R
'The book is excellent! I must say I had assumed it would be very informative but rather like a text book. Not at all. I found it compelling reading and difficult to put down. Well done and thank you.' J
'This is a book that MUST be read and I would hope that it will feature in libraries and discussions in the National Police College, Bramshill, Police Training Centres, universities, law schools, Houses of Parliament, social services departments etc etc. . . . . I feel that in writing this book you have performed a valuable public service. I wish it booming sales.' R
'Your book has altered my perceptions. I was awed by the sustained level force of
your argument - and I enjoyed it . . . It’s a great book' B
Meanwhile there have been some other extremely interesting and positive developments which suggest, as previously intimated, that the book may have a rather more significant future than the current dearth of reviews might suggest. Details will probably be a long time (ie some months) in coming, but watch this space.
It should not be thought, however, that no reviews have appeared at all. The Catholic Herald recently ran a thoughtful and appreciative review by Simon Caldwell, and FACTION, the magazine of FACT, published a long review by Tania Hunter which included the following:
'His account of the ‘story of a story’ is based on meticulous and painstaking research, and at the end of this book there remain few of the dark corners and uncertainties that surround other child abuse scandals. In the manner of an epidemiologist who tracks back to find the cause and progress of a disease, Webster has returned to the story’s small beginnings to discover how such a powerful narrative came into being. He is a gifted writer, and his account of this real-life story leaves the reader as eager to turn each page as in any work of detective fiction.
. . . Perhaps Webster’s greatest strength lies in his own refusal to demonise an enemy and his understanding that if we are to have any hope of moderating the destructive power of today’s child protection movement, we need to accept that its fears and beliefs are deeply embedded in all of us.'
For the full text of Tania Hunter's review in PDF format click here.
Sunday 1 May 2005
Updates - Lazaro and Private Eye
Sunday 1 May 2005
NO TIME TO comment at length on these two distinct but related developments but attentive readers of the national press may have noticed that the GMC has finally got around to considering the case against Camille de San Lazaro, the paediatrician whose medical misjudgments lay at the heart of the Shieldfield Newcastle nursery nurses' libel trial. For some recent coverage, click here and here . For general background to the case, which came about because of the investigation which Bob Woffinden and I carried out some years ago, click here and and follow the links.
For a detailed exposition of what the case against Lazaro ought to be, click here for the piece I wrote about Lazaro and the GMC two years ago - which is even more relevant today than it was then.
Meanwhile attentive readers of Private Eye may have noticed something quite unprecedented. On the back page of its current issue, the Eye has, after almost fifteen years, finally got round to running a story which is (mildly) critical of police trawling. Whether this development is related to the fact that, in an act of unprecedented publishing largesse, I recently sent to assorted Eye personnel no fewer than three review copies of my book, has not been recorded. I think we should be told. It must also be said, however, that the development is a most welcome one.
To place all this in perspective read a piece from the archives: Sacrosanct allegations, a former police officer and Private Eye.
Sunday 1 May 2005
Private Eye and the trauma of trawling
Saturday 14 May 2005
TWO WEEKS AGO I noted that Private Eye had, for the first time in fifteen years, printed an article which was (mildly) critical of police trawling. Far more remarkable, however, is the fact that, in its latest issue, the magazine has chosen to print three letters about police trawling, all of which are critical of the police and one of which is also severely critical of Private Eye and the role it played in the North Wales story. All credit to the editor for choosing to publish a letter which directly criticises not only the magazine itself but one of his own pronouncements. The three letters, which were published under the heading 'The trauma of trawling', are reproduced below:
I read with interest the article entitled 'Trawling For The Truth'. I would agree that not all former care workers and teachers accused are innocent and it is clear that former residents were abused as can be seen from the many guilty pleas.
However there is little doubt in my mind that the justice system is unable to discern between those genuinely guilty and those who are innocent. Clearly there must be reasonable doubt when retired teachers in their sixties without any previous convictions are suddenly arrested and charged with these heinous crimes. The juries are not truly representative of the public as two thirds of the middle classes avoid their responsibilities, this situation is now being altered. Hysteria over child abuse fuelled by the tabloid press and a growing compensation culture also have their part to play.
I am a retired teacher as is my twin brother. My brother taught for over 25 years retiring early( due to ill health) with an unblemished teaching record. In 1998 he was accused of abuse said to have occurred over twenty years before. All who accused him had long criminal records, one had already shown an interest in compensation. Only one complainant went to the police after publicity about care home cases, the rest were trawled. There were no school records or social services records available. Faced with multiple accusations the jury convicted.
We are faced with the task of trying to find evidence to prove that these alleged offences did not happen ! So far this has cost the family over six thousand pounds. We are totally disillusioned with a justice system that pays more attention to gaining convictions that it does to find the truth.
E. V. Argyle , Droitwich Spa, Worcs
Having just read your report of the appeal findings re: care home case 29/04/05, I would like to praise you on your balanced article.
I am writing from personal experience of a very similar occurrence from the former approved school where I taught for 15 years. This centred around false allegations being made against three former staff, some dating back 30 years. Staff rotas then were a crucial element in proving their innocence. Staff rotas were not used by the police to discredit the ludicrous claims of former pupils, but enough evidence was put together by former staff to prove that the allegations were false. Former pupils were 'trawled' by police and the quality of police investigations was extremely poor.
Operation Goldfinch commenced in 1996; 83 institutions were investigated by S. Wales police; 578 former pupils (adults by then) made 1, 613 allegations against 581 former members of staff; 315 staff were arrested. There were 13 guilty verdicts, two not guilty verdicts, five trials pending at time of release of these figures by ACPO and 22 dismissed by CPS, which leaves 273 unaccounted for from staff who were arrested.
How many lives ruined, how many families devastated, how many innocent men in prison?
How many caring professional people with their careers in tatters?
The real victims are the many innocents still in prisons, and the ones who have served their sentences and are STILL trying to clear their names.
Dear Private Eye
I'm glad to see you recognise the injustice of Operation Goldfinch. Perhaps now the Editor would be willing to retract his claim, made on BBC Question Time, that Derek Brushett, an exemplary headteacher and later inspector of social services in Wales, was a paedophile who was part of a 'cover-up' of the alleged widespread goings on in North Wales children's homes. This claim was made on the publication of the Waterhouse report in 2000.
Mr Brushett was a victim of Operation Goldfinch brought about by the prior chain of events supported by Private Eye. These were aided by the misjudged enthusiasm of Paul Foot, whose weather eye deserted him in this quest, and he became the victim of the glancing shots of opportunists, unwittingly assisting in the proliferation of widespread injustice as exposed by Richard Webster in his withering analysis in The Secret of Bryn Estyn.
By any reasonable standards of investigation, Derek Brushett, along with many others, is innocent. He is currently serving a 12 year sentence for his endeavours in improving the lot of the disadvantaged - something which he ironically and characteristically continues to do in his lot as a prisoner, while his family and friends suffer their loss with the quiet dignity of faith in the eventual triumph of truth and justice.
At the time of the publication of Waterhouse, the Editor was not to know of the gross deceit this furnished. Now the truth has emerged, it is to be hoped that he will turn his attention to righting the many wrongs, including his own.
Saturday 14 May 2005
Saturday 25 June 2005
WHAT SHOULD an author with a website do when a highly critical review of his book appears? One possible tactic is to ignore it. This was (originally at least) the tactic favoured by Steven Pinker in relation to critical reviews of his book, The Blank Slate. However, since I criticised Pinker for doing this at the time, it would be unseemly to do the same thing myself. In fact I'm not even tempted to do so since the review which appeared in last week's Community Care ought to be widely read as an indication of the level of debate and critical analysis which now prevails inside contemporary social work. The review is written by Anthony Douglas. Formerly director of social services for Suffolk (and before that a deputy director at Hackney), Douglas is now the chief executive of CAFCASS, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. Quite how a busy person like Douglas found time to read and inwardly digest a 700-page book, and then distil a considered critique into the space of just 200 words is a mystery to which I do not profess to know the answer. Those who wish to contemplate this mystery further should click here in order to read the full review.
Saturday 25 June 2005
Christian Wolmar and The Oldie
Saturday 30 July / Monday 1 August 2005
AFTER A LONG DELAY The Oldie, under the editorship of Richard Ingrams, has at last published, in its August edition, a review of The Secret of Bryn Estyn. This review, while it contains some critical comments, is generally favourable. It says this, for example:
It is unarguable that Webster has a powerful case. The book will make uncomfortable reading for all those involved in investigating these cases, from police and lawyers to journalists and judges. Webster’s forensic skill … could well have been used by all of them, too.
In the past Christian Wolmar, who is the author of Forgotten Children: The Secret Abuse Scandal in Children's Homes, has been critical of my views, sometimes severely so. That he should have come close to reversing his earlier estimate of the claims I have made about false allegations is a most welcome development. I am grateful to him for what he has now written.
So far as his criticisms are concerned, he is quite right to note that I fail to give a detailed account of the offences which were committed at Bryn Estyn by Stephen Norris. But I would plead that the problem here was one one of narrative structure. To have gone into detail here, I felt, would have held up for too long the story I was seeking to relate - which was already quite convoluted enough. It is partly because I was aware of the resulting omission that I later did go into some detail about the case of Alan Langshaw - who pleaded guilty to offences committed at another home.
Wolmar goes on to say that 'he [Webster] glosses over the sheer horror endured by victims of child abuse'. I don't think 'gloss over' is the right term here, but it is certainly true that I focus on the false allegations rather than the true ones. This is because, if you try to face up to the sheer vastness of the problem posed by police trawling operations and the false allegations they have generated, the genuine misery of those who really were victims of abuse tends to be eclipsed. That is one of the reasons why false allegations are so dangerous and so destructive. As I write towards the end of my book:
One of the factors, however, which makes this modern witch-hunt uniquely terrible is that it has claimed, and continues to claim, two sets of victims. For it is not only those who are falsely accused who suffer anguish and misery. Among the other victims are all those who genuinely have been abused.
Because of the huge number of false allegations which have been ade in the last thirty years, the veracity of almost all allegations of abuse may begin to be called into question. As a result many people who have made truthful complaints of having been abused in children’s homes, of rape, or of incest, may find that they are disbelieved or may fear that they might be. They may feel in consequence that they have been robbed of their own integrity and their own history. That too is a tragedy and we should not underestimate the distress which such disbelief can cause.
For the full text of Christian Wolmar's review (which was originally destined to appear in May) click here.
Saturday 30 July / Monday 1 August 2005
‘Unbalanced and misleading’
28 October 2005
'BACK FOM THE BREAK' turned out to be an unfortunate title for the last story posted on this website, since it actually marked the beginning of an even longer break. I can only apologise to my faithful readers - if indeed there are now any left.
In mitigation I must plead a mysterious viral illness which struck me down during the latter part of August, though, since it lasted only a few weeks, this falls rather short of an adequate excuse.
What further delayed the updating of this page is the fact that around the same time ACAL, the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, published on their website a review of The Secret of Bryn Estyn by solicitor Richard Scorer, who concluded that my book was 'unbalanced and misleading'.
It was not the hostile nature of this review that occasioned the delay but the fact that it evidently required a detailed reply - one which would necessarily run to several thousand words. Somehow there just never seemed time to compose this and it is for this reason that this page has lain fallow for so long. However, the rebuttal is now in place and from now on I will attempt to update this page more regularly.
To read my reply to Richard Scorer's review, click here. A link to his review will be found at the foot of the article.
28 October 2005
An anthropological perspective
13 November 2005
I AM PLEASED that the Times Literary Supplement, after a long delay, has eventually reviewed my book. The review is written by Professor Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago who has in the past spent a considerable time in Britain researching into contemporary witchcraft. Her review is a positive one as the following extracts illustrate:
The Secret of Bryn Estyn by Richard Webster is an exhaustive account of the accusations against social workers in Britain in the 1980s – and a damning portrait of the way innocent men were rounded up, convicted and jailed in a society historically known for its sense of fairness and justice. The book raises profound questions about how it is possible for sensible people to come to believe unsubstantiated claims that condemn innocent people to terrible ordeals. Historians and anthropologists know that such moral blindness has occurred elsewhere, or at other times. But this is a book that makes you realize that it could happen to you . . . .
Witches do not exist, but paedophiles do, and Webster acknowledges that the manhunt turned up some convictions he believes to be justified. But this does not justify the persecution of innocent men. We should remember that those who acted to end the early-modern witch craze did so not because they did not believe in witches, but because the risk of innocent conviction was so high. Increase Mather, for example, was a well-respected minister and father to one of those who led the hunt in the Salem witch craze. The Devil was very real for him. Yet after nineteen people had been deliberately killed for supernatural malice, he stood up with other influential ministers and said that it was better for ten suspected witches to escape than for one innocent person to be condemned. This is a judicial principle we must not forget in contemporary cases of sexual abuse accusation. And Richard Webster’s meticulous and admirable book provides a powerful argument for it.
This of course is all very well and no author can fail to be grateful that the TLS has elected to devote more than a page to a review of his work when it contains comments such as these.
Yet attentive readers who are familiar with the book may already have noticed that the passages quoted above contain at least two oddities. The first is Professor Luhrmann's suggestion that the witch hunt I document took place in the 1980s. This suggestion, which she repeats later on in her review, is incorrect. It was in the 1990s that it began to develop and, of course, it continues today.
The second oddity is the fact that she should write 'Witches do not exist but paedophiles do'. I say this because in my book I quote a journalist who writes almmost exactly these words: 'Witches do not exist but paedophiles most disturbingly do'. I then go on to point out that this is a historical solecism:
To say this, however, is to misunderstand the nature of witch-hunts. Historically, witches did exist. There was never any doubt about the reality of those who, throughout the early Middle Ages, practised ritual magic or attempted to work supernatural harm. What turned mild anxieties about practitioners of magic into the great European witch-hunt was the gradual emergence of a demonological fantasy. Under the influence of this fantasy, ecclesiastical zealots saw witches not as the real and relatively harmless human beings they were, but as members of an imaginary world-wide conspiracy – an evil and highly organised cult, whose supremely powerful members flew through the air to gatherings where they worshipped their master, Satan (page 537).
Whether Professor Luhrmann agrees with this or not is not really the point. The point is that she seems not to be be aware that the formulation she uses is one I have specifically rejected. I shan't say anything more about this here but her review perplexes me simply because the book she reviews does not seem to bear that much resemblance to the one I actually wrote. It seems for this reason to demand a response. Watch this space.
13 November 2005
© Richard Webster, 2005