How the hysteria erupted
THE PAULSGROVE estate in Portsmouth has been at the centre of the furore around sexual abuse of children over the last fortnight. Five families have been driven off the estate after demonstrators falsely accused them of being paedophiles. Others have been targeted, had windows broken and cars burnt. PAUL McGARR visited the estate to find out what happened, and why.
Descriptions of the Paulsgrove estate as a ghetto separate from "normal society" are simply false. It is like countless other ordinary working class areas across Britain. People live normal lives, go to work, and struggle to cope with the pressures of life.
It is one of the poorest areas of Portsmouth, though it is not a well of grinding poverty. It has the city's highest unemployment rate, with an official figure of around 11 percent. It is also cut off from the rest of the city by its location, and is hemmed in by roads.
The atmosphere of fear on the estate was tangible last week. Young children stood at the estate entrance with placards aimed at "them"-paedophiles. There were broken windows in several of the homes targeted by the demonstrations of recent weeks.
Banners and posters against paedophiles were strung across several streets. That atmosphere means that few people were prepared to be identified openly against the protests. But speaking to people soon gives a clear idea of what happened and why.
Respected figures in the area describe how people on the estate feel the council, politicians and officials are out of touch and don't take the concerns and needs of local people seriously. How that climate erupted into the violent protests is also clear. So too is the fact that the press and politicians who have since condemned the protests share the blame for stoking them up.
Last month's abduction and murder of Sarah Payne took place not far from Portsmouth.
The News of the World began its "naming and shaming" campaign in the wake of her murder, smothering any rational debate under a climate of fear. Then on Friday 28 July the local paper, the News, ran a front page story about a 12 year old girl being snatched by a man in a van on the Paulsgrove estate. It said she was dumped, without any obvious physical or sexual abuse, a few miles away and was safely reunited with her family.
The very next day the News commented on the general campaign by the News of the World and ran a front page banner headline, "No Mercy For Paedophiles". Local politicians weighed in. Labour MP Syd Rapson said, "I don't think paedophiles ever get cured."
The following morning the News of the World named a 53 year old man living on Paulsgrove. It claimed he had received a nine-year jail sentence for 140 cases of sexual abuse of children. That was the spark for the violent protests.
Most opposed protests
MOST PEOPLE on the estate were certainly worried at the News of the World story and agreed it was a problem having the man living on the estate. But most did not agree with, and were not involved in, the witch-hunt that followed. A group of no more than 100 adults took part with a larger group of children. Whatever the history of the man named by the News of the World, he was under supervision and had lived for two years on the estate without the slightest allegation or hint of any threat of reoffending.
A woman who lived in the same block said, "We didn't know he was one of these people. He has a really nice personality. He was really kind." There are people on the estate who, while agreeing that people with a record of child abuse need careful supervision, worry that an attitude that says they can never be rehabilitated is dangerous.
However, protests quickly drove the man off the estate. That was only the start of what soon became a witch-hunt aimed at a wide range of targets. A series of other alleged paedophiles were targeted with little or no evidence. Parents behind the protests encouraged children to parade the streets calling for "perverts" to be hung or castrated.
It is hardly surprising that some of those children then began labelling anyone they saw as a bit weird or who had clashed with them as "one of them", a "paed". Some adults did the same. The result was an atmosphere where anyone could become a target if they did not fit with what those behind the protests saw as normal.
The local paper wrote last week, "Almost any lone man was a suspect and potentially a victim. Children randomly shout out, 'Is he one?' " One man told those organising the protests, "I have always been a bit worried about the man two doors up. He lives alone and always talks about how much he loves his mother. I think he could be one of them."
The protesters talked about a "list of power" with some 20 people on the estate on, who they claimed they had evidence of child abuse against. No one on the estate has seen any such list or information. I was also told by very well informed people that the allegation of being "one of them" was used by some to settle old grudges with people who had crossed them in the past.
One protest leader told journalists on Monday of this week that some people were on the list purely out of vindictiveness. Several people against whom there is not the slightest evidence of any mistreatment of children were targeted. This fuelled a growing resentment against the protesters amongst most people on the estate.
Well informed people said there was a possibility of that feeling leading to counter-protests if the demonstrations had continued. The tragedy of Paulsgrove is that the reactionary protests of recent weeks do nothing to address or encourage rational debate on the issues surrounding child safety.
And the press and politicians who have condemned the protests bear much of the responsibility for fuelling the atmosphere in which they erupted.
THIS ABUSE IS NOT NEWS
SEVERAL children have been seriously injured, and one killed, in the last few weeks in the Portsmouth area. This has nothing to do with paedophiles.
- 22 July: a nine year old girl is injured and hospitalised after being hit by a car while walking to school.
- 27 July: a 15 year old is seriously injured by a car while riding his bike.
- 5 August: a nine year old girl is hospitalised after being run down by a car.
There has been a child murder in the area too. The local paper reported on 2 August that a four year old boy was murdered and his young sister seriously injured.
The attack took place in the children's own home and police are not looking for any "stranger" in connection with the tragedy.
THERE IS a place in the Portsmouth area where young people have faced years of abuse. An official investigation was launched this month into the Portland Young Offenders Institution.
Four officers at the institution were suspended on 5 August amid allegations of 20 years of mental and physical abuse of inmates as young as 15. The Howard League prison reform organisation says there has been "an atmosphere of intimidation and violence at the prison. Boys have complained they were beaten, kicked and punched."