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Wednesday, October 14, 2015 

If Tom Watson should apologise, then so must plenty of others.

Tom Watson is a self-publicising tool, never happier than when he is at the very centre of attention.  Until that is he resigns in a huff, as he has done more than once previously.

The above could easily have been written before he had so much as voiced any sort of opinion on child sexual abuse.  More than anyone else Watson coat-tailed on the work of Nick Davies on phone hacking, and he did very well out of it.  Taking on Rupert Murdoch and News International was as righteous a cause as any, even if the motivation behind doing so was party political, having seen what the Sun did to Gordon Brown.  He also though has a habit of making an arse of himself, as he did when questioning James Murdoch, referring to him as a "mafia boss".  It took effort to make Murdoch junior look human, but Watson almost managed it, undermining at the same time his otherwise forensic attempts to get at the truth.

Having established himself as this crusader for the underdog, it's not surprising that he became the go to man for anyone who felt their problems had been ignored, their cause shat upon, their battle with the state and/or anyone else covered up.  Nor is it surprising that thanks to this new status and what must also be damn hard work, his efforts in encouraging victims of abuse to come forward have resulted in three convictions, and that's only so far.

You do then have to wonder if, more than anything, Watson's real failure is one of spreading himself too thinly, difficult as that is to imagine.  His doors have been so open that it reached the point where he either couldn't keep up, or he was so overwhelmed that he wasn't able to differentiate between all the accounts he kept on being given.  He might well have taken extra pleasure in how the claims he first raised at prime minister's questions of a Westminster paedophile ring mainly involved Conservative MPs of the Thatcher era, but he was also involved in the campaign to get the (Labour) Lord Janner to at least face a trial of the facts.

Watson is after all very far from the only person to have reported the claims of abuse victims as though they were incontrovertible.  Watson's main accuser since last week's Panorama, the Mail, has done a very abrupt about turn from revelling in the allegations being made to now declaring them without any hesitation a "witch-hunt".  The home secretary, Theresa May, apparently in reference to the claims being made by the likes of "Nick", said that "only the tip of the iceberg" of the extent of abuse had thus far come to light.  A very different attitude to the one of the prime minister, who on Monday invited Watson to "examine his conscience".  Simon Danczuk, who if anything has been even more vocal than Watson about cover-ups and was at the forefront of demanding that anyone with the slightest link to Leon Brittan be excluded from the overarching inquiry, now claims that he always felt Chris Fay, one of the key links between the actual accusers and the allegations about the Elm Guest House, was "wholly unbelievable and some sort of fantasist".  At the same time as Watson was penning his "close to evil" piece on Brittan, Danczuk was exclaiming on how he feared Brittan's death would mean an end to any answers on the whereabouts of the Dickens dossier.

The response to last Tuesday's Panorama has shown in microcosm everything wrong with the media, social media, the police and politics in their current state.  To start with, it should not take a taxpayer funded broadcaster to point out the gaping flaws in a police investigation so well resourced and funded.  Daniel Foggo's hour-long report was not sensational; it was even-handed, and did not reach conclusions.  They were left for the viewer to draw.  For the Metropolitan police to do their hardest to try and stop the programme from being shown, as they did, and to essentially criticise the BBC for doing their job for them was quite incredible.  The message from both the police (and Exaro News for that matter) was that only they were capable of investigating these cases, and for anyone else to do so would only confuse and potentially damage the chances of justice being done.

Second, where has the rest of the media been in all this?  They've known just as well as the BBC of the questions over "Nick's" credibility, and it's only been as the much-advertised Panorama approached that the likes of the Mail and Telegraph started to raise doubts also.  It's almost as though it needed one respected outlet to break the silence before anyone else would.  We know these are not new allegations; Chris Fay has been bandying his supposed list from the Elm Guest House around since the late 80s.  Nick's claim of a friend he could not so much as recall the second name of being run down by his abusers, fairly easy to check out, was left for the BBC to do.  Any fear of undermining the police investigation surely had to be measured against how in 9 months no one has been arrested despite the police declaring Nick's allegations to be "credible and true", and yet lives and reputations have been turned upside down regardless.

The fact is there has been much for some to gain from the misery of others.  I don't doubt Tom Watson started down this path with the very best of intentions; for him to use it as a reason for why he should be deputy Labour leader, as he did, and to respond to the demands for an apology by in turn asking for an apology for the previously ignored victims, as though he has been and still is their spokesman, is distasteful in the extreme.  It can be argued that by writing to the director of public prosecutions asking for a review of the decision not to charge Lord Brittan over rape allegations was overstepping the mark; presumably then the outrage that met the decision not to charge Lord Janner, from MPs and media alike, which resulted in the review that led to the upcoming trial of the facts should be judged similarly.  It's also now open season on Exaro News, which has managed to stay afloat almost solely through its claiming of exclusivity on those making the most lurid claims of abuse.  How very different from when the press and the BBC also worked through them to further publicise the allegations.

Panorama's case was that the police had gone from one extreme, from being too eager to dismiss and disbelieve, to being all too credulous, uncaring of the effect the raids, leaks and appeals for witnesses were having on those unable to clear their name.  Exactly the same could be said of the media, and indeed many on social media, all too willing to believe the worst and then claim the moral high ground.  Yes, the exposing of Savile has led to many being believed who previously weren't, of convictions of abusers thanks to other victims coming forward thanks to the publicity.  At the same time, others have been accused wrongly or acquitted in precisely the same fashion.  There is no easy balance.  For the Tories and the Mail to now attack Watson in such a hyperbolic way, partially in an effort to get Corbyn through his deputy, partially out of revenge for Watson's role in the Leveson inquiry and partially because they can, only lowers proceedings even further.  That Simon Danczuk and John Mann have been all but ignored despite playing a similar role speaks for itself.

The danger has always been that by focusing on the sensationalist, the lurid, which is subsequently disproved, you don't help survivors of abuse, you run the risk of once again returning to a situation where they are routinely belittled and ignored.  Esther Baker's allegations might also turn out to be unsubstantiated, but the Liberal Democrat MP would not have been able to dismiss them in the way he has today had it not been for the mistakes of so many.  It certainly isn't just Tom Watson who should be examining his conscience.

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