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 periiodicals have yet to appear and three of them at least seem unlikely ever to appear.
Tuesday 8 March 2005
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.'
'Courageous ... fearless ... so closely and cogently argued that it demands attention'
Friday 18 March 2005
Friday 18 March 2005
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.
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.
□ 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.
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday 30 March 2005/4 April
Monday 4 April
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.
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.
Monday 4 April 2005
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:
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:
. . . 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 click here.
Updates - Lazaro and Private Eye
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
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:
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.
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
Dear Private Eye
Saturday 14 May 2005
Christian Wolmar and The Oldie
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:
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
© Richard Webster, 2005