Whispering game By Brendan ONeill BBC 2006The paediatrician confused with a paedophile has become a cautionary taleagainst hysteria over sex offenders. But the details have become confused,even down to whether it was a male or female doctor. What reallyhappened?Whenever the debate about sex offenders rears its ugly head, we arereminded of this incident and its cruel irony: how protesters targeted apaediatrician (a doctor who cares for children) because his or her job titlesounded vaguely like paedophile (a sexual deviant attracted to children).Last month, when education secretary Ruth Kelly was under pressure toreveal how many individuals on the Sex Offenders Register work in ourschools, various newspapers revisited the paediatrician/paedophile story.A columnist for the Independent criticised the tabloid attacks on Kelly,warning that we might once again end up with a "howling mob" consumed bya "paediatrician-bashing hysteria".The Glasgow Herald lamented the current "hysteria over alleged sexoffenders", and reminded us of the "illiterate lynch mob" that attacked thehome of a paediatrician the last time there was such hysteria.
Who, what, where?The paediatrician incident is mentioned endlessly, but rarely examined in detail.Commentators refer to it all of the time but dont explain where and when it tookplace, and what exactly happened.It was part of a wave of incidents sparked by Sarah Paynes murder. There was indeedan incident, in 2000, involving a paediatrician who was mistakenly labelled a"paedo", but there is little evidence that it involved any kind of hysterical mob. Infact, it was a relatively minor incident, which has been exaggerated and distorted inthe re-telling - and turned into a symbol of mass hysteria among the tabloid-readingsections of the population.If you search the web or back issues of newspapers to discover the truth of thepaediatrician-bashing incident, expect to be confused. Some reports say a malepaediatrician was attacked, others that it was a female paediatrician. There areclashing reports of where the incident took place. Some say it was in southWales, others that it was in Portsmouth. In an article in 2001, the Daily Mail asked:"Who can forget the targeting of an innocent childrens doctor in Portsmouth by apopulace too ignorant and enraged to recognise the difference between paedophileand paediatrician?"An online magazine, The Register, also says that it was in Portsmouth that "dictionary-starved and enraged mobs attacked a paediatrician". Yet on a discussion board of awebsite that focuses on strange events, one contributor says the incident took place inLondon.
Lynch MobThere are conflicting reports as to what happened. A 2001 Guardian articlesays a female paediatrician was "hounded" from her home by her own"neighbours, who confused paediatrician with paedophile.” Some reportssay the outside of the paediatricians home was daubed with "paedo", otherssay the paediatrician woke one morning to find "the term paedo spray-painted all over her walls" - which suggests breaking and entering as well asvandalism. According to some accounts she was asleep in the house whilethe mob vandalised it; according to others she only discovered the vandalismupon returning from work. Some say it was far more serious than justoffensive graffiti.In 2003, a Northern Irish newspaper recalled the time that "Portsmouthbecame famous when paedophile-hunting locals chased a paediatrician downthe street" (theres that mention of Portsmouth again). This account suggeststhe paediatrician may have been in real physical danger. A studentnewspaper at the University of Essex described how "a group of people inPortsmouth... burned down a paediatricians office in righteous anger.” Onone online discussion board it said that "a howling mob stoned [thepaediatricians] house and firebombed it". In the mainstreammedia, meanwhile, there are clashing reports over whether the paediatricianwas attacked, hounded, chased or abused, but they all agree that it was an"hysterical mob" that did it.
Police talkJust what is the truth? In August 2000, a female paediatrician consultant called Yvette Cloete wasindeed labelled a "paedo" after a campaign by the News of the World to name and shame paedophilesin the community. The incident took place in Newport, Gwent, not in Portsmouth (where there hadbeen anti-paedophile protests after eight-year-old Sarah Payne was murdered) or London.Dr Cloete returned from work at the Royal Gwent Hospital to find "paedo" spray-painted on her frontdoor. Local police believe the graffiti was written by someone who confused her job title with the wordpaedophile. It was no doubt a very distressing incident for Ms Cloete, who decided to move homeshortly afterwards. But there is no evidence that a mob was involved or of any threats or incidents ofphysical pressure or violence. "Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?" says Chief InspectorAndrew Adams, of Gwent Police, who was the liaison officer in charge when news of this incident brokesix years ago. He remembers very well that stressful night, when he gave 18 live interviews to variousmedia outlets. "There was no big mob," he says. "Nothing like that happened. I know because I wasthere and I was involved. The lady was not in her home when it happened. She came home from workto see her door daubed with anti-paedophile graffiti. "When we heard about it we set about dispellingthe rumours that she or anyone else in that house was a paedophile. We explained to the localcommunity the difference between paediatrician and paedophile."Who did the graffiti? Mr Adams says he still isnt sure. "We think it was youngsters, probably someonein the 12 to 17 age bracket.” And the community was outraged by the incident and "supportive of thewoman involved", he says.Nevertheless, the story has taken on a life of its own, transformed into a dire warning about hystericalmobs who threaten the fabric of our nation. The irony is that some in the media, in challenging thescaremongering over sex offenders, indulge in some scaremongering of their own. They raise fearsabout violent tabloid-reading protesters who will attack, hound and destroy a paediatrician - whichseem to be just as unfounded as the fears about thousands of paedophiles stalking the land.