Someone, somewhere right now will be writing a thesis, dissertation or journal paper about the very modern moral panic playing out across the UK media.
What began as a story about allegations of sexual abuse by TV and radio celebrity Jimmy Savile turned into a story about that story being covered up, into how the abuse could take place (at the BBC too, in the 1970s, but also in hospitals and schools), then into wider allegations of a paedophile ring involving politicians.
In the rush to find new angles on the Savile story, a story about sexual abuse and abuse of power was quickly reformed to fit a more familiar narrative about paedophilia. Other celebrity names were mentioned. Institutions were scrutinised. Old inquiries were seen in a new light; new inquiries were announced. Journalists were eager to find their own ‘sex abuse story’; politicians were eager to be seen to be acting.
But this moral panic took place in a different world to the previous panics about paedophiles. It took place with internet speed.
And yesterday, the media began to eat itself.
When daytime TV presenter Philip Schofield brandished a list of names in front of David Cameron, he was confronting the prime minister with the information reality that existed for many viewers. In doing so, however, he broke the illusion that the media is somehow separate from that information reality. And it provided the moral panic with a new direction.
That new direction was about an internet ‘witch hunt‘. About a ‘Cyberspace democracy‘ (yes, it really is 1993) of online rumour and the “values of the internet”, as one Radio 4 presenter called them. “The mob,” apparently, was in danger of taking over.
But if this was a mob then their pitchforks had been manufactured on Fleet Street; their torches lit with petrol-soaked newspaper.
If this was a Frankenstein’s monster, Frankenstein himself was here presenting a paper on “Why monsters are bad things and you need more scientists like me to stop it happening again.” Or “The values of the laboratory”.
This is not to blame the media for reflecting society or providing a forum for its members – that is part of their job. That is what Philip Schofield was actually trying to do, however badly. But to pretend that the media is somehow not part of the circus is disingenuous. The mob is us.
Meanwhile, hundreds of phonecalls to the police and to abuse helplines need following up, questions remain unanswered, and the circus is leaving town.