Friday, August 05, 2011

Cultural historian Richard Webster dies

I was sorry to read of the recent death of the cultural historian Richard Webster, who was the subject of a belated Guardian obituary a few days ago.

Although he wrote on a range of subjects, from Freud to the Salman Rushdie affair, he was best known in recent years for his work exposing injustices suffered by residential care workers arising from the 'trawling' methods used by the police when investigating cases of historic child abuse.

While Webster was very clear that abuse can and did happen ('some of those who are now in prison are there for no other reason than that they are guilty of the crimes alleged against them'), he argued in his compelling and thoroughly-researched book The secret of Bryn Estyn that there many innocent people had ended up accused and convicted, as a result of (in the words of the Guardian obituary) 'public hysteria, fuelled by credulous journalists and ratified through inefficient police investigative techniques'.

This was a brave stance to take, and one that was predictably often misrepresented by those he criticised. He was clear that the basis for paedophile (and other) panics was not the anger of the mob. Instead he argued that:

'Witch hunts don’t happen without an educated elite behind them. In the past, bishops and priests let panics loose. Today it is the police, social workers and broadsheet journalists.'

He used the phrase 'witch hunts' not as lazy journalese but as one who had studied the read phenomenon of medieval witch hunts.

Although an atheist himself, he believed that a modern, secular, rationalist society, confident that it had left religious superstition behind, was actually more rather than less susceptible to such collective fantasies than were those of previous eras:

The widespread belief that, belonging as we do to a rational scientific age, we are no longer vulnerable to such fantasies, is itself one of the most dangerous of all our delusions.

In many ways this was the unifying theme in his diverse body of work. His website, which collects the eclectic range of essays he wrote, remains available for the time being.

See also this review of The secret of Bryn Estyn by Edinburgh University academic Mark Smith, which is published on my father's Good Enough Caring website.

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