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Salem Comes to Portsmouth

The lynch mob will be with us until the Government soothes public legitimate fears

Mary Riddell

The Observer, Sunday 13 August 2000 by Mary Riddell

Not before time, the Government tackles the prime destroyer of peace in the community. The chainsaws are out for leylandii hedging. No issue more preoccupies his correspondents, says Michael Meacher, whose Ministerial postbag is fat with letters recording 'thousands of ruined lives, legal battles and violence'. One presumes that few of these are post-marked Portsmouth, where the bricks, petrol bombs and screams of loathing unleashed by neighbours take precedence over horticultural hell.

And what is the Government going to do about that as the Paulsgrove estate subsides into uneasy truce? Mums set aside the disco Lycra essential for telegenic promotion of hanging and castration. Children abandon the 'Kill The Paedophile' placards adorned with smiley faces. So far, the countrywide scoreline in the game of hunt the pervert is two suicides, one injured policeman, various burned and smashed homes and an own goal by the judge who gave a suspended sentence to a sex offender on the grounds that he had suffered enough after being named by the News of the World . Then there is the collateral damage - the innocents hounded from their homes, the paedophiles driven underground, the children initiated into a creed of hatred.

As marches were suspended, the move began, in bien pensant circles, to explain away the Paulsgrove mob as a shell-suited, tattooed, hamburger-munching sorority whose neighbour-bashing is rooted in a low-life culture barely explicable to genteel folk who restrict their raw emotions to squeaks of leylandii rage. That comfortingly snobbish explanation will not quite do. Nor is there much use in trawling the history of lynch mobs from the Kishinev pogrom to the Ku Klux Klan for further guidance. While Portsmouth 2000 eerily evokes Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, recent precedents are more relevant.

The dress rehearsal for last week's events was staged in April 1998, when the child killer, Sydney Cooke, was released from prison. Petrol bombs were hurled at the police station where he was believed to be sheltering. Dozens of officers were injured and probation officers warned that paedophiles would be driven underground as vigilantes clamoured for the sex offenders register, then newly introduced, to be made public.

If the Home Office heeded this preview, they gave little indication. On the day that the News of the World launched its perilous 'name and shame' campaign, Paul Boateng expressed the sort of mild thumbs-down more appropriate to a member of a sampling panel assessing rival brands of teabag. His belated announcement, after the newspaper backed off , that there would be no open register only inflamed the hysteria that child-abuse scares inevitably foster.

Track back to the late Eighties and early Nineties. In Middlesbrough, social services seized 121 children after Dr Marietta Higgs and her colleague, Dr Geoffrey Wyatt, mistakenly claimed to have uncovered an epidemic of sexual abuse. In Rochdale and Orkney, families were broken up by social workers gripped by the voguish (and wholly misplaced) terror of satanic abuse. The upshot, beyond the millions expended on public inquiries, was unquantifiable damage to children and all-round vilification of the vigilantes - interfering and authoritarian zealots in white coats and cable-knit cardigans. So much for the current theory that child-abuse cultism is the sole province of the oikish lower classes.

But why the new witchhunt? The direct catalysts, of course, were the murder of Sarah Payne, whose parents plead now for an end to violence, and the News of the World . Behind that lies a political climate overtly or subvertly conducive to DIY justice. William Hague is explicit in his desire to lock up all asylum-seekers and to champion those who shoot fleeing teenage burglars. The Jack Straw mood music has naturally been more mellifluous. He wishes, as he repeated last week, for 'victims to feel that they are at the heart of the criminal justice system'. In recent months, Straw's initiatives have been sugared to appeal to those on the receiving end of crime. Curbing trial by jury will, to take one example, offer quicker justice and thus be a boon to victims. But skewing an impartial system away from defendants' rights is perilous. However subtle Straw's signals, they risk playing to a public appetite for victim-driven law, dictated by the grief of the bereaved. Any foot-dragging, and the clamour kicks in.

If Home Office Ministers had been wiser, they would have pre-empted the incorrect notion that Britain is a perverts' playground. There may be an argument for tougher sentencing. There is certainly a need for more information on how paedophiles are treated and supervised. There is a case for splitting the sex offenders register so that child rapists are not listed alongside teenage boys who have had consensual sex with 15-year-old girlfriends. Even so, the register works better than in many countries. Most child abuse takes place at home, even, possibly, in the moral temples of the Paulsgrove estate. Risk, though it may be better managed, cannot be abolished. But that is not what the Home Office dares say, nor what the public wants to hear.

The mood is for justice or for vengeance. We shall see shortly how the two conflate. Today, in some unnamed secure unit, Jon Venables, the older of the two Bulger killers, reaches his eighteenth birthday. Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, had hoped by now to have set a final tariff for Venables and Robert Thompson, who will be 18 in ten days' time. Woolf, who also favours victims' involvement - not, he says, as auxiliary prosecutors but in order to build public confidence in the criminal justice system - has now been held up twice because James Bulger's parents have not yet filed their submissions. It was reported last week that he would reach his decision by the end of August. In fact, it is unlikely to be delivered before Octo ber. The rival positions, however, seem clear. Denise Fergus, James's mother, believes, understandably, that 'the boys are evil and deserve to spend time in a proper jail'. Woolf, conversely, is thought to favour a 10-year term, expiring in 2003 and no move to an adult prison. The public verdict is not yet readable, but the history of the Bulger killers has no track record of inspiring clemency.

Last October, Sir David Ramsbotham, the chief inspector of prisons, told me that he believed Thompson and Venables should be freed as soon as possible after their eighteenth birthdays 'in order to give them some chance of making a life'. In so exceeding his remit on a matter he deemed a 'question for society', Ramsbotham no doubt expected a rap over the knuckles and perhaps even the public apology he was required to make. Instead, he faced not only removal but the abolition of his job. Last week, official plans were published to merge the probation and the prisons watchdogs, thus absolving Jack Straw of further embarrassment from any stroppy chief inspector complaining of vile and inhumane conditions in British prisons.

Ramsbotham's point, on the Bulger killers, was that it would be folly to place two boys - apparently rehabilitated and well-educated - back into such a system. 'I would not wish them to go to some of the places I have seen,' he said. We shall find out shortly whether the public is so merciful. We shall see also whether the spectre of Paulsgrove - the bloodlust, the hatred, the horrible scenes of toddlers with coffin-shaped posters inscribed 'Get In or Get Out' - has changed anything in the national psyche.

If there is widespread acceptance of Lord Woolf's expected verdict, then perhaps some corner has been turned. The revulsion at the spectacle of rioters baying for punishment and revenge offers hope that may be so. Still, it would be over-optimistic to assume that the 'deep and darkling forces' that brought Salem to Portsmouth were merely a rogue expression of social discontent.

Behind the leylandii hedges of Middle England, many deplore the Paulsgrove padeophile-bashers while tapping into their professed anxieties. If the Government cannot now calm reasonable fears, then it will face the upsurge of the brutish and the irrational.