As Tory politician accused of child abuse is named online, is Twitter the home of justice or a baying mob?

Just a few years ago, guessing the name of the mysterious Tory politician at the heart of the Newsnight investigation into child abuse in Wales would have been something of a parlour game in political, media and social circles. A select few would have been necessarily “in the know”, and those in degrees of close proximity could become party to the fabled piece of information if they had the confidence of someone sufficiently loose tongued within the intelligentsia.

Online naming and shaming is becoming commonplace

But that is ancient history. The three-year investigation into abuse between 1997-2000 named a circle of high profile abusers, amongst them the man who we are now told was identifiable in photographs handed to the police. But the report’s conclusions were subject to an order preventing the disclosure of the names, and so the matter rested. Until now. What has changed is the Twitter factor.

The named individual was singled out in a Newsnight report which, ambitiously, was originally edited to name and identify the man who occupied a position in the Cabinet in the Thatcher era. Prior to broadcast, the individual invoked the suppression order, threatened to litigate if it was breached, and Newsnight complied. The law was invoked and functioned swiftly, smoothly and precisely as it was designed to.

Except it didn’t.

Even before the programme had aired, the name was out. Enough information, tweeted by those directly involved in the programme, had been circulated to make the climbdown public knowledge, and the suppressed name in the Waterhouse report, generally known to those affected, was posted, cascaded, and began to trend on Twitter.

It is not possible to know at this stage how many people are now party to the knowledge, but it is guaranteed to exceed the average Newsnight viewing figures, and will easily constitute a substantial chunk of the population. The story has divided the news reading public into online and offline, with the offline world gamely carrying on as if the Emperor is still wearing a full suit of clothes whilst the twitterati and the online community can see that he hasn’t a stitch on, and we know exactly what he has been up to.

Aside from bringing into question the efficacy of the law that is designed to protect individuals from gossip, allegations or smear, there is no doubt that naming the Tory minister in question has caused him real damage. The damage extends beyond the one man who was set to be identified in the broadcast. There are several others whose names were connected to the 1997-2000 investigation, names that have been bandied about casually and easily, in the debate that has developed since one brave lady went on the record about what Jimmy Savile had been up to.

The wheels of justice have belatedly begun to turn, so in due course criminal proceedings may follow, but astute observers of social media will know that the mainstream news outlets have consistently been lagging about three weeks behind the nucleus of Twitter chat. Beyond the nucleus of reliable information there trails a comet load of innuendo, guilt by association, gossip, slander and downright lies, and it takes the application of the strongest possible psychological filter to try to avoid absorbing it.

Some of the names being casually mentioned as abusers of the most horrific kind are of course nothing of the sort, and enjoy honourable careers within and beyond the fields they occupied at the time of the abuse. Some, for example, in media and highly visible consultancy, enjoying their own cosy autumnal, pre-pension second life, which the current miasma risks jeopardising in a very real sense. Careers and reputations now hang in the balance as long as the stench, imagined or otherwise, of abuse lingers around them. In many cases, the damage will be irreversible.

The legal process that is now underway may take years to complete. All the damage has been done swiftly and irrevocably since Friday evening, and cannot be undone nor reparation sought.

Aside from neatly bifurcating the delivery of news to those now in the know and those relying on TV and newspapers, the online naming and shaming is somewhat akin to mob rule. More charitably, it could be looked at as a true democratisation of justice. Those abused took their stories to the authorities and found them complicit. What use is the law if those at the heart of it are in on the crime, and connive to suppress it? Mob rule it may be, but in those circumstances, what choice does the victim have to secure the justice that has been denied?

Steve Messham, the victim who succeeded in obtaining the vile photograph of his own abuse at the hands of the named (and unnamed) Tory minister and personally took it to the police took to twitter this week. He has not been amongst those to name the name. But he has found a voice, support and a community, and has seen it deliver what the law failed to do. The Twitter gossip currently goes further, joining dots all the way to the very heart of our establishment, which will almost certainly unravel should all that is alleged prove to be true. We’ll find out in about three weeks, so stay tuned.

Thousands of years after the phrase was first coined, it may have taken the advent of twitter to render it reality: “Let justice be done, tho’ the heavens fall.”

Steven Raeburn is a social media trainer and editor of legal magazine The Firm

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