The murder of an innocent man in Bristol illustrates how gossip and innuendo can have catastrophic results

The following story from the Daily Telegraph might just slip under the radar, but requires to be read. It concerns the brutal killing of an innocent man on a Bristol council estate, falsely accused of paedophilia. As one resident comments: “Whoever started those rumours now has to live with that. He wasn’t a paedophile and he’s now dead. That’s a hell of a conscience to have.”

This illustrates all too graphically the way gossip and innuendo can lead to catastrophic results. It also illustrates something else: the hysteria that surrounds accusations of paedophilia, and how such accusations can be completely groundless.

There are historic parallels, of course. We are now told that in the Middle Ages countless innocent old women were hounded to their deaths by mobs convinced they were witches. That is probabaly not true. But the hysteria surrounding paedophilia today cannot be so easily dismissed.

There is also this story in the Guardian, that also serves to give us pause. A former BBC driver, associated with the Jimmy Savile enquiry, has been found dead at home the day his trial for child abuse was about to begin. Given the atmosphere surrounding these types of charge, it is hardly suprising that someone might have committed suicide rather than face trial.

Of course, here we have a problem. Child abuse is not a crime like any other. It is not in the same category as fraud; it is not even in the same category as other sexual offences committed against adults. It is in a uniquely awful category all of its own. (The medieval world, incidentally, would have said the same of witchcraft.) But we need to keep a sense of perspective, which is not the same as condoning child abuse or in any way trying to diminish the severity of the crime. Indeed, the worse the crime, the more careful we need to be in our administration of justice. We cannot allow our emotions to run away with us.

Just as the Bristol murder recalls an earlier and less enlightened age, another spectre from the past has also arisen to haunt us, and this is the idea of child abduction by gypsies. The little girl Maria, the so called ‘blonde angel’ found with the Romany family in Greece, was not, as it turned out, either non-Romany or abducted. What fuelled this story was the ridiculous and inherently racist idea that Romany people cannot have blonde children, and that the Roma are natural child abductors. Really, it would have made Dr Goebbels proud. And this idea of Romany child abduction is also present in various other stories to do with missing children.

If I were a Romany I would be deeply upset by these insinuations. Whatever happened to that much vaunted British sense of fair play? It doesn’t seem to be much in evidence these days, especially when it comes to make serious accusations of this nature.