A tale told too much – the paediatrician vigilantes

This piece appeared in Press Gazette magazine two years ago. We republish it here after the issue of a paediatrician wrongly being attacked in the wake of a 2000 News of the World campaign reared its head again at the Leveson Inquiry. As this piece reveals, a fairly minor graffiti incident became the source of a pervasive urban myth.

Ten years on it is time the strange tale of the paediatrician confused with a paedophile was finally put to bed, says Brendan O'Neill, who reported on the orginal story for the BBC

Ten years ago this month, persons unknown – probably teenage scallies, according to local police – daubed the word 'Paedo' on the home of a paediatrician in Gwent in south Wales.

They could never have known that their daft antics would become one of the most hotly discussed, frequently revisited, distorted and mythologised crimes of modern times.

It was 28 August in the year 2000. Yvette Cloete, a 30-year-old South African working as a trainee paediatrician in Gwent, returned home to find the word 'Paedo' painted on her front door.

She was upset, naturally. She informed the police and later decided to move, to try to find 'somewhere more upmarket to live", she told the BBC. She gave a couple of media interviews in which she presumed that the grafitti artists had confused the word 'paediatrician' with 'paedophile' and described herself as a 'victim of ignorance".

The local police never caught the culprits, but when I interviewed Gwent Chief Inspector Andrew Adams, who was central to the case, for the BBC in 2006, he told me 'youngsters'probably did it – 'someone in the 12-17 age bracket. There was no big mob", he said. And that was it.

'Stupid kids in Gwent do something stupid.' Unpleasant for Ms Cloete, undoubtedly, but a tiny crime in the scheme of things.

And yet over the past decade, what ought to have been a footnote in the history of Welsh misdemeanours has been turned into such a constant cultural reference point, has been injected with so much phoney meaning, that it has become distended beyond recognition. It has been transformed by opinion-formers into proof that some communities are so dumb, morally bereft and easily swayed by paedophile-baiting tabloids like the News of the World that they end up confusing a good woman who helps children with evil men who rape them.

The 10-year-old, thoughtless actions of one, two, maybe a handful of teens are unfairly used to indict entire swathes of Britain. As is frequently the case when relatively minor events are turned into massive morality tales, the facts of what happened 10 years ago are continually twisted. It's very rare to read an accurate account.

The Evening Standard in April this year, in a piece about the overblown paedophile panic, said: 'There has been a spate of attacks by dumb-headed vigilantes on paediatricians in the mistaken belief they are paedophiles.'mA spate? Melanie Phillips has made the same mistake. In a piece about anti-paedophile hysteria in the Daily Mail in December 2001, she asked: 'Who can forget the targeting of an innocent children's doctor in Portsmouth by a populace too ignorant and enraged to recognise the difference between paedophile and paediatrician?"

Well, it's hard to forget something that never happened. There was no attack on a paediatrician in Portsmouth. As is frequently the case when relatively minor events are turned into massive morality tales, the facts of what happened 10 years ago are continually twisted – in Gwent, people! – it was not carried out by the 'populace' but probably by a small group of teenagers.

Portsmouth pops up again and again in the harping back to the Great Paedo Graffiti Crime of feverish millennial Britain. In the Independent in 2002, filmmaker Roger Graef wrote of the 'Portsmouth estate'where a 'paediatrician [was] attacked by shouting crowds of mothers and children'– managing to get not only the place wrong, but also the details of what occurred in 2000: there were no 'shouting crowds' in Gwent, there was no 'attack', at least not against the person, and no mothers with their children were involved.

The reason Portsmouth is fingered as the place where people are so thick that they shout at/throw stones at/beat up paediatricians (take your pick from these fantasy scenarios) is because in the year 2000 there were some noisy anti-paedophile protests by mothers in Portsmouth, and these did coincide with a NoW campaign to have sex offenders 'named and shamed'. And in the caliginous commentariat imagination, these protests have become intertwined with a minor graffiti incident that occurred hundreds of miles away, giving rise to a totally made-up story about gangs of mums, kids and vigilantes, their fingers still stained with the ink of the News of the World, gathering with torches and twisted intentions outside the home of a paediatrician.

Even esteemed BBC world affairs editor John Simpson has fallen into the trap. 'What kind of newspaper is the News of the World encouraging people to go out on the streets and beat up paedophiles and then they end up beating up a paediatrician?' he asked in 2006.

In 2003, a newspaper in Northern Ireland said: 'Portsmouth became famous when paedophile-hunting locals chased a paediatrician down the street."

The Irish Independent has claimed that in the 'summer of 2001' (actually it was 2000) a 'couple of newspapers so fuelled the mob' (actually there was no mob in Gwent) 'that a paediatrician was burned out of her home in Gwent' (actually she wasn't).

The truth is that Ms Cloete was not even at home when the youngsters wrote that five-letter word on her door.

There is a censorious instinct at play here: what some observers are explicitly saying is that we can't have an open, potentially heated discussion about paedophilia, child-sex crimes, Jon Venables, Sarah's Law (which is back in the news), or anything else child-related and controversial, because some people might fly off the handle and burn down the house of the nearest paediatrician. But the anti-mob crusaders have simply replaced one prejudice with another – where some tabloid readers see paedophiles everywhere, some broadsheet readers see dictionary-deprived, flame-wielding, underclass lunatics everywhere. Both outlooks are based on prejudice rather than fact.

Ten years on, isn't it time we put the paedo-paediatrician morality tale to bed? 

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