Harriet Harman: More manufactured hysteria
As the Daily Mail smears Labour MPs for links to paedophiles - Paul Demarty wonders whether it doth protest too much
Bad news, everyone: the Labour Party is riddled with paedophiles!
Such is the implied message of the latest fatuous moral crusade of the Daily Mail, at any rate. The February 19 issue of the notorious rightwing rag branded Harriet Harman, Patricia Hewitt and Jack Dromey “apologists for paedophiles”; day after day, the paper has ratcheted up the pressure on the three.
All this has to do with their common history in what was the National Campaign for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. In the 1970s, it admitted as an official affiliate the Paedophile Information Exchange (Pie), a group campaigning for the removal of restrictions on sexual relationships between adults and children. At the time, Harman, Dromey and Hewitt all worked, at various levels of seniority, for the NCCL - Harman as a legal advisor, Dromey on the executive committee, and Hewitt as general secretary. Pie was not excluded from the NCCL until 1983, amid arrests and press outcry.
This is all rather tenuous stuff. It is not even particularly new stuff, either. The latest Private Eye1 gives a rundown of the story’s history, first raised by Martin Beckford in The Daily Telegraph in 2009, again by the same writer in 2012 after the Jimmy Savile scandal, and then repeatedly by various Mail columnists and others until last December, when the Mail’s Guy Adams published a double-page spread. Most of the material in the recent farrago has been recycled and extended from things already known.
The Eye’s explanation for the sudden burst of energy on this story is amusing: “‘Paul Dacre [the Mail’s editor - PD] came back from holiday,’ an executive explains. When the editor returns to work he always wants a new ‘Mail campaign’ … his fancy turned to paedophiles. And so a 30-year-old story was once more ‘revealed’.”
Of course, it is probably more than just a whim. The Pie story has dragged on over the Labour Party’s special conference, another opportunity for Ed Miliband to show how friendly and ‘modern’ he is. We cannot but remember the last bizarre witch-hunt directed at senior Labour people by the Mail, when it went after Miliband’s father for ‘hating Britain’ - timed almost perfectly to coincide with a populist turn at Labour conference.
The response has been varied. Patricia Hewitt ultimately had to apologise - having been NCCL general secretary for the wrong nine years, she had no choice but to carry the can for Pie’s affiliation. Dromey’s response has been to assert, angrily, that he took on Pie at the NCCL’s 1976 conference, and was even denounced in a Pie leaflet for his stance on paedophile rights.2
Harman, for her part, decided to counter-attack, tweeting a picture from the Mail’s website of 12-year-old Courtney Stodden posing coquettishly in a bikini.3 It was an approach taken up by left-Labour columnist Owen Jones, who promptly started a petition entitled “Stop the Daily Mail sexualising children”.4 “The Daily Mail and MailOnline have a sinister track record of presenting underage girls in a deeply inappropriate and sexualised manner,” it reads. “This has to stop, and the Daily Mail should show contrition by making a generous contribution to the NSPCC, and should meet with children’s charities to discuss changing editorial guidelines.”
Exactly what he - or the 35,000-odd people who have signed up - expect from this initiative is hard to tell. On a ruthlessly practical level, we must object that nobody does the Mail like the Mail. It refused, point blank, to apologise or admit any malice in its hatchet job on Ralph Miliband; the silence over the dubious content of MailOnline will be more than obscured by its ongoing witch-hunt against the three Labour figures.
The vast majority of those in the mood for a nonce-bashing crusade are on the Mail’s side; such people may, not unreasonably, object to Jones and company that there is a difference between explicitly seeking to normalise sexual relations between adults and young children, and merely putting a photograph on the internet. On top of that, the petition is somehow more apolitical than the Mail story, which claims that the errant behaviour of the three MPs are linked to their historical loony-leftism. Jones has absolutely nothing to say about the smut on the Mail’s website, except that it is “sinister”.
There is a more fundamental reason why such a response is misguided, which may be elucidated in the light of Pie’s own story. It was one of many such groups to emerge on the fringes of the gay liberation movement (GLM) in its most dizzyingly radical years, along with Paedophile Action for Liberation (Pal) and, in the United States, the North American Man-Boy Love Association (Nambla).
Many commentators have presented such organisations as having - in the words of Spare Rib alumnus Eileen Fairweather - “cynically positioned themselves under the sheltering banner of gay rights.”5 In truth, if there were such motives at work, it must be written up as a very bad move - a better ‘shelter’ would have been to hide under a rock, rather than engage in public propaganda to - shall we say - some unsympathetic audiences.
It is more likely that they were sincere, and it is hardly surprising. Gay sex had been formally decriminalised in 1967, albeit under laughably restricted circumstances - it was only legal for two (and not more!) men to have sex in a private residence (not a hotel - and, best of all, not if anyone else was present, even in another room). The GLM was engaged in a fight against legally and politically entrenched sexual bigotry, and - along with its broad social allies in parts of the far left, women’s movement and so on - slaying a lot of sacred cows.
One issue was the age of consent; the Sexual Offences Act set it at 21 for gay men, five years higher than for heterosexual couples. Equalisation of the age was an obvious front on which to attack, since the justification for the difference was necessarily based on lurid prejudice about the moral degeneracy of gays. At the same time, radicalised youth began to object to interference in their sexual lives by their stuck-up parents’ generation; so the issue of age-of-consent laws was thrown into fierce argument.
This is the situation into which Pie, Pal and the like were born; a radical questioning of the basis on which sexual relations had been regulated thus far. The various forces, indeed, overlapped. Pal was a split from the South London Gay Liberation Front. The 68ers, meanwhile, flirted with sexual taboos themselves. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most prominent figure of the 1968 Paris student rebellion, wrote in the 1970s of working with pre-schoolers:
“My constant flirt with all the children soon took on erotic characteristics. I could really feel how from the age of five the small girls had already learned to make passes at me … Several times a few children opened the flies of my trousers and started to stroke me … When they insisted, I then stroked them.”6
Pie eventually achieved the notoriety it sought, with severe consequences for it. By the 1980s, the law was taking a serious interest in the activities of its leading members, as well as the informal contact network it operated, which - despite ostensibly being aimed at linking people up for mutual support - frequently was employed for members’ extra-curricular activities. A major scandal erupted in 1981, when Sir Peter Hayman - a former MI6 operative, Canadian high commissioner and Pie sympathiser - was mysteriously not prosecuted when a package of child pornography was traced back to him. After further arrests and convictions, Pie was wound up in 1985.
Pie claimed that paedophiles, like women and gay men, were victims of patriarchal oppression. Many, although always a minority, on the 1970s new left agreed; the Spartacist League continues to defend Nambla, which itself is all but defunct, and similar organisations.
In reality, however, the issues are vastly different. The lion’s share of intergenerational sex is between children and their parents, most commonly fathers and daughters - thus, it is an expression of the very essence of patriarchy. We have also, in recent years, heard mortifying (but, alas, unsurprising) accounts of systematic sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic church - part of a broader pattern of such activity among ‘traditional’ adult authority figures. In no meaningful sense can even formally consensual sex in such circumstances be considered consensual in substance.
This - rather than its smutty website - is the basis of the Mail’s hypocrisy. This foul paper is - among other sins - the bastion of good old-fashioned ‘family values’. It gives voice to the prejudices of the petty bourgeois family man (and his dutiful, homely wife), and litters its pages with fatuous scare stories about the ‘dangers’ awaiting young people in the wider world. It has campaigned against the HPV vaccine on the basis that it, apparently, encourages teenage girls to have sex by making it seem ‘safer’ - yes, cervical cancer is apparently a necessary deterrent to stop your baby girl from becoming a shameless trollop.
Tighten the apron strings, says the Mail every day - don’t let those kids out of your sight! As for the authoritarian institutions where most of the rest of child abuse and exploitative sexual relationships take place - well, the power imbalance will never be big enough for the Mail. Never mind Pie and its equivalents: it is precisely the Mail’s moralism, its libidinised fear of the present, that most accurately reflects the mindset of those who use children for their own sexual ends.
1. Private Eye March 7.
6. Quoted in S Žižek Revolution at the gates London 2002, p218.