Two considerable injustices were undone this week. The first was the reinstatement of Sir Roger Scruton to the government’s ‘Building better, building beautiful’ commission. The second was the prosecution of Carl Beech for fraud and perverting the course of justice. The cases may be very far apart in their details, but their origins lie in precisely the same contemporary malady.
Scruton was sacked from his unpaid position in April. The root cause was a doctored and false interview carried out by George Eaton. The New Statesman subsequently apologised for misleading its readers. But what was most shocking was not that one left-wing hack doctored his quotes, nor that by publishing them on Twitter Eaton temporarily managed to ‘scalp’ (as another journalist excitedly put it) one of the most distinguished thinkers of the age. The most shocking thing was that government ministers, Conservative MPs and others so unthinkingly jumped on the bandwagon. The Conservative Housing Secretary James Brokenshire sacked Scruton within hours. Other Tory MPs, former ministers and party figures (including George Osborne and Daniel Finkelstein) called for Scruton’s sacking. Not one first requested to see the quotes or a transcript of the interview, let alone asked Scruton for his version of events.
Had they done so — as this magazine did — they would have realised that the media and politicians had not merely been lied to by a dishonest journalist, but had effectively conceded to rule by online mob.
For that is what causes storms like this. Every day without fail a Twitter mob gets going against someone. Any remaining grown-ups in the land ought to be able to view these 24 hours of hate in the round. For instance they might decide to work out which claims are true and which are not. They might even try to work out the difference between the real world, the online world and the realm of total fantasy.
But an inability to make such calls isn’t only a problem for Conservatives. In recent years Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has gone so far off the normal left-wing reservation that its deputy leader, Tom Watson, is now routinely portrayed as its voice of moderation. But it is only five years since (as I wrote here at the time) Watson was busily auditioning for the role of witchfinder general. Back then a single disturbed man (then known as ‘Nick’, but who we now know to be Carl Beech) had claimed that a cabal of paedophiles had been operating in Westminster. Specifically, he claimed that a number of living and dead MPs and peers had been in the habit of congregating to rape and murder children. However low one’s view of our politicians might be, such claims ought to have been viewed with at least a degree of scepticism.
Not by Tom Watson, who used parliamentary privilege to give oxygen to Beech’s lies, and extend them even further. In the House of Commons Watson demanded that MI5 and MI6 release their files to reveal what they knew about this murderous paedophile ring. Various newspapers treated Watson as though his mob-whipping was not just legitimate but brave. Anyone who expressed scepticism was given the raised eyebrow and warned of guilt-by-association.
Watson for a time succeeded in directing the mob, but now — with his single source discredited and awaiting sentence — he still refuses to offer any but the mealiest nods towards reality. He has been gracious enough to acknowledge that he understands the former Conservative MP Harvey Proctor (one of Beech and Watson’s victims) might be ‘hurt and angry’. It is worth noting that the accusations caused 72-year-old Proctor to lose his job and house, leaving him living for a time in a friend’s shed. But Watson is a canny one, and went on to add that he hoped Beech’s conviction wouldn’t prevent other ‘survivors of child sexual abuse coming forward’ to police in the future.
As it happens, it is the response of the Metropolitan Police — under the disgraced yet Lords-elevated Bernard Hogan-Howe — that is most telling. For just as the stampede against Scruton ended up revealing the shallowness and frit-ness of the entire ‘conservative’ establishment, so Beech’s claims ended up revealing the same institutional traits in the Met. As the claims ramped up, the then commissioner could have stood above the crowd. Instead he announced a police inquiry into whether MPs had been murdering children. That inquiry cost £2 million, did some grandstanding and found nothing.
The arrival of a new prime minister and cabinet should provide an opportunity to reflect, if for no other reason than the fact a society cannot run like this. It cannot run if it allows anyone and everyone — distinguished or not — to be picked up, thrown around and ‘cancelled’ at the whim of mobs. It cannot operate if it pays more attention to Twitter than facts. Most of all, it cannot operate if it punishes people for being right while rewarding (or at least failing to punish) people for being wrong.
Scruton’s re-appointment this week to his government position fully vindicates the philosopher. Yet the journalist who lied about him and the people who joined the stampede against him have paid a negligible price for their actions. To date nobody has paid any political price for perpetuating the lies of Carl Beech. Not one politician. Not one paper. And certainly not one person who whipped this lurid story along online.
If we are to survive the social media age, it will not be enough to undo occasional lies. It will be necessary to develop the kind of civic fortitude and wisdom which was achievable before the online era, and should be achievable throughout it as well.