Some time ago when Britain was again gripped in an uproar about paedophile rings, both real and imaginary, I was told the sort of yarn which prompted that bloke on day-time sofa TV yesterday to hand David Cameron a list of "top Tory" suspects at the heart of the British establishment. The PM responded by warning against witch hunts. He was right to do so.
The equally improbable story I had been told was that another high-flying Tory, in the running for the party's nomination at a forthcoming byelection, had stayed the weekend with the local constituency chairman (as they did in grander times) and interfered with his children. Oh yes, and he won the nomination too – ended up a senior minister.
Well, you can believe that if you want to. I didn't, it was – and is – inherently improbable. The rumour had a short shelf life, though it still occasionally makes its way to the front of the shelf – as apparently did rumours about Lord McAlpine's alleged involvement in Bryn Estyn care home scandal, a story convincingly demolished by the Guardian on Friday morning.
I'd never heard the story about McAlpine, whom I know slightly, before the news desk told me about it this week. "That can't be right," I replied, "he's had at least two wives, I've met both of them and they didn't look at if they were going through the motions."
No indeed. McAlpine, given a peerage by Margaret Thatcher for his urbane talent as a fundraiser, is a colourful character, a man of many interests – politics, collecting art, currently gardening in the far south of Italy where he and his wife run what is said to be a small but smart hotel. Inasmuch as one can ever judge these things he didn't remotely seem the type for predatory escapades in children's homes.
I can't put my hand on my heart and say the same with absolute confidence about Mr X, the would-be MP who was supposed to have won the Tory nomination after molesting his host's children. But that may just be prejudice. I didn't much care for him either as a politician or an individual. Nor did my source, the late Alan Clark, whose predatory inclinations towards women were as well known as his "Mr Toad" fondness for cars. I liked Clark more than I approved of him. As so often, I just didn't believe his story.
But the point of the story is that we are in danger of over-reacting to a scandal in the way human societies often do when they realised they've missed something serious that had been staring them in the face. Not just Jimmy Savile but phone hacking (how DID the tabloids get some of the stuff any other way?), greedy and abusive investment bankers (if it looks too good to be true, it usually is), greedy and graceless pop stars or footballers, overpaid public sector managers, ridiculously easy credit.
When the balloon bursts and we ask each other "why did no one stop it?" there's a tendency to over-compensate in the other direction, for example in over-regulating the wretched banks so that they cease to be able to do the jobs they were meant to do: to take in savings safely and lend them out again for useful purposes.
So it is with child abuse. Clearly some dreadful things have been done and sometimes covered up, easier in the "good old days" than now. But we'd best be on guard against lurching in the opposite direction – pointing a finger (or worse) at the wrong person because they have the same name (McAlpine?) as an offender or even a similar name. Wasn't a paediatrician attacked in mistake for a paedophile during a News of the World scare – or is that just an urban myth?
Some twit on Twitter yesterday praised sofa TV's Phillip Schofield – the bloke who handed Cameron the ("whoops, the camera may have picked out some names") list of top Tory suspects and said he'd "outdone the rest of you political journos". OK, if you say so and good luck.
But Twitter is a perfect medium for rumour-peddling and scare-mongering. People have gone to jail for it, required to compensate a rape victim they named only the other day. I inadvertently did a disservice myself last week when I presumed – wrongly – to know which senior Thatcherite Tory Labour's Tom Watson was referring to during PMQs. I was wrong, not about the MP I named, the late Peter Morrison, but in my assumption that Watson had him in mind. He doesn't.
We'll see in due course whether or not Watson's evidence has any substance, but until the police can be shown to be falling down on the job – it happens, especially so where vulnerable sex victims are involved – the matter is in their court now and those of assorted inquiries. Investigations good, witch hunts bad. It's failure of proper investigative process that leads to scare-mongering, so the authorities should get it right. They do more often than not.
Meanwhile I can't emphasise too much that new social media is no better, no worse, than the average gossip around the office coffee machine for sorting out truth from fiction where other people's private lives are concerned. Ignorance, misunderstanding, jealousy, malice, they stir the pot – and they're often wrong, more often than not, I'd say, but I have a trusting nature.
As so often, the gossip-peddling Daily Mail illustrates the dangers perfectly on Friday under a headline – mercifully it's only on page 43 but also online – "I'm far too boring to have an affair". The story beneath explains how a harassed NHS manager in Norfolk felt the need to explain to his 4,000 staff that he was staying two nights a week in a hotel on business, after rumours that he was carrying on with a colleague.
It's none of my business and I'm happy to take his word for it, poor sod. On the slender evidence of a Daily Mail article, you may think otherwise. Fine, if it makes you happy. But remember, the Stasi and its army of small-minded informers are on your side, though I don't think Alan Clark would care one way or the other.