You know when a scandal has made it to the news big league when it gets the “gate” tag, like Watergate. Well, the last ten days or so in the UK have given us Paedogate, in which the rabid right wing Daily Mail launched a sustained campaign to expose left wing support for the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) when I was its Chair back in the 1970s.
The aim was clearly to embarrass and undermine three leading figures in the Labour party. It worked. Initially dismissed as old hat because the story had been around for years as vague internet gossip, the Mail’s detailed trawl through publicly accessible archives and their own newspaper cuttings library paid off. At last, the rest of the national media finally sat up and paid attention in a big way. The Labour trio who were under fire, thanks to their work for the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL), to which PIE was affiliated, were forced to respond publicly. Harriet Harman, now Deputy Leader of the Labour party, angrily denounced the Mail. She had been an NCCL legal officer. Patricia Hewitt, a former cabinet minister in Tony Blair’s government, had a tougher hand to play because she had been NCCL’s General Secretary and had been closely associated with the organisation’s own very radical policy on the age of consent. She was forced into an apology in which she disowned this policy and also wrote:
“As general secretary then, I take responsibility for the mistakes we made. I got it wrong on PIE and I apologise for having done so. I should have urged the executive committee to take stronger measures to protect NCCL’s integrity from the activities of PIE members and sympathisers and I deeply regret not having done so. In particular…Tom O’Carroll should never have been allowed to join the gay rights sub-committee.”
This did not stop The Sun from running a devastating front page the next day:
What struck me as most interesting, though, was how the other member of the trio reacted. This was Jack Dromey MP, formerly Treasurer of the Labour party and now a Labour shadow minister. He is also Harriet Harman’s husband. He chaired the NCCL for a while during a decade on its executive committee in the 1970s. After I spoke on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said:
“It is no surprise that a convicted paedophile, the like of whom I took action against during my time in the NCCL, should choose to smear me.”
Smear him? Moi? I was doing my best to exonerate him and the other two, not smear them. I was clearly reported on the BBC as saying none of the trio supported PIE or paedophilia. I have been a Labour voter all my adult life, albeit with little enthusiasm in its recent, increasingly authoritarian, years. I had no wish whatever to back the Mail’s savage attack agenda, which really has been a smear campaign.
But Dromey insisted no one would believe a “convicted paedophile” like me.
He was wrong. The words were hardly out of Dromey’s mouth when Melanie Phillips, famous as a fiercely conservative commentator on all things moral, appeared as a panellist on BBC 1’s Question Time political TV show. She said:
“The Paedophile Information Exchange gentleman, Mr O’Carroll, has said, perfectly correctly, the problem was not that Harriet Harman supported paedophilia or PIE… the problem was that it was mixed up with the whole gay rights agenda.”
I did not see any “problem” and her use of the word “gentleman” was no doubt intended as ironic. Nevertheless, at least she very sensibly preferred to take my word over that of a politician desperate to wriggle his way out of a tight spot. Indeed, what thinking person wouldn’t, especially those who know that many of my misfortunes, and PIE’s, can be attributed to an abundance of openness and honesty, not a lack of it. PIE never sailed under a false flag: paedophile was in our name, hence giving an unmissable clue to what we were about. Even the judge, when I was tried for conspiracy to corrupt public morals, told the jury “You may feel Mr O’Carroll has come remarkably clean in his evidence, if that is the phrase for a trial such as this.”
I dwell on Dromey’s attack on my integrity not out of personal pique but because it highlights the reflexive assumption of so many people that being minor-attracted means you must be morally deficient in every conceivable way. Question Time provided another striking example of this when Conservative defence minister Anna Soubry said:
“The other thing we now know about paedophiles is how wickedly cunning they are…I don’t like to stereotype but I think we can with paedophiles. The things they do are bad and evil enough in themselves but their wickedness and cunning, the way that they will inveigle their way into the affections of a child or a mother…”
Note that emotive word “inveigle”. Whereas ordinary, decent, folk become friends and win each other’s affections in a presumptively benign way, the paedophile is assumed to be devious and manipulative, with almost superhuman powers of deception – powers hard to reconcile with the claims of researchers who seek to dehumanise us in the opposite direction, writing us off as mentally deficient, with low IQs, implying we are subhuman.
This “inveigling” allegation, or something very like it, was also used in the context of PIE’s relationship with NCCL. PIE did not merely affiliate with the civil liberties body, oh no. We were said to have “infiltrated” it, as though by stealth, and as though we could not possibly be entitled to take part in the democratic process like any other properly constituted democratic body, which we were, putting forward our policies in proposals presented to government, lobbying members of parliament and so forth. We were even bad-mouthed for having tried to forge alliances with other radical groups, as if this were not part and parcel of ordinary political life. It was implied, indeed asserted openly, that we were so “vile” (definitely the adjective of the moment) we should not have been allowed to take part in this process.
This orgy of shunning and anathematising has had its opponents though. Brendan O’Neill, in Spiked, came up with a classic defence of civil liberties, backing the stance NCCL took all those years ago in allowing PIE to affiliate. He wrote:
“If civil liberties organisations won’t defend the freedoms of speech and association of unpopular groups, then what is the point of them? Respectable groups don’t find their freedoms curtailed. The Women’s Institute is not prevented from publishing its ideas; Labour Party members aren’t arrested for what they write in private letters. It is only the moral outliers of a society who have their right to propagate their beliefs hammered by the authorities, whether it’s gay pornographers, the hard left, Nazis or self-confessed paedophiles. It is the freedom of speech of these deeply unpopular causes that true civil libertarians must defend, firstly because we recognise that freedom of speech means nothing unless it extends to everyone; and secondly because if we allow the state to define a certain outlook as so foul that it ‘corrupts public morals’ and thus must be extinguished, then we set a very dangerous precedent that might one day reach to us and call into question the acceptability of the views we hold, too.”
Germaine Greer, the now venerable and ancient pioneer of Second Wave feminism in the 1970s, was also strikingly forthright in her support for NCCL on Any Questions?, BBC Radio 4’s equivalent of TV’s Question Time. She defended Harriet Harman and said the press appeared to have forgotten what a civil liberties organisation actually does. She defended PIE’s right to put itself forward just like other groups. Revisiting her own stance in the 1970s, she pointed out that the age of consent issue was not just about paedophiles but about young people’s right to a sexual life, which was why she and others had supported changing the law. Remarkably, others on the panel also defended the NCCL and a straw poll of the studio audience (at the Bath Literature Festival, so perhaps a more sophisticated bunch than your average) revealed nearly unanimous support for Harriet Harman. They thought she should not be obliged to apologise for NCCL’s relationship with PIE.
After the best part of a fortnight in which imprecations such as vile, perverted, depraved, disgusting, etc., have been spat out endlessly over the airwaves against me and other former PIE members with perhaps even more venomous, in-your-face force than comes across in print, I hope I will be forgiven the indulgence of quoting a rare comment that perhaps can be seen as putting me in a slightly better light. It was in a local paper near the Open University, where I was a press officer until 1978 when I was sacked after my role in PIE had become a high-profile embarrassment. The Milton Keynes Citizen quoted a former colleague of mine at the university as saying, “Tom O’Carroll was a bit of a charmer. He was a handsome man and an eloquent talker. I can see how people may have been hooked in to support his cause.”
I’d love to know who that was so I could give them a hug! But, of course, being charming etc. is all part of how demonically cunning we are, isn’t it?!
Finally, it might be an idea to give links to some of the stories that were either particularly effective in giving Paedogate momentum, or strikingly bizarre, or even in a few cases informative and insightful. See below. The links are roughly in chronological order, earliest first.