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TV review: Accused: The Hampstead paedophile hoax and The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok

22 March 2024

Rob Parfitt/Channel 4

“Anna”, played by Kathryn McGarr, one of the four mothers in Accused: The Hampstead paedophile hoax (Channel 4, Monday of last week)

“Anna”, played by Kathryn McGarr, one of the four mothers in Accused: The Hampstead paedophile hoax (Channel 4, Monday of last week)

IT IS all a matter of faith. Accused: The Hampstead paedophile hoax (Channel 4, Monday of last week) was a chilling account of lies, hatred, false accusation, and obsession — all the more disturbing because it played out in the most apparently comfortable setting: well-heeled, socially aware, and concerned families all linked to a popular C of E primary school.

In 2015, two pupils alleged that their father ran a satanic paedophile ring based at school and church, encompassing sexual abuse, kidnapping, and ritual murder of babies. Police investigated and found no basis whatsoever for any of the claims; subsequently, a family court took the children away from their mother and her new boyfriend. Once separated from the couple, the children recanted all their accusations and stated that they had been forced to make them by the boyfriend.

But, by then, social media had taken over the narrative: self-appointed “truth-seekers” chose to believe the original accusations, and subjected school, church, and four families, in particular, to a barrage of abusive phone calls, death threats, and physical intimidation. Their lives were overshadowed by constant fear and anxiety: would their blameless children be kidnapped to save them from imagined peril? The four families fought back, amassing so much evidence that, eventually, the police overcame their reluctance and launched prosecutions. One particularly obsessive troll was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment.

The depths of evil whipped up by what I call anti-social media can hardly be over-estimated. Moral panic trumps rationality; self-righteous hatred is far more attractive than reasonable logic; conspiracy theories are far sexier than trusting any institution. Meanwhile, innocent lives are ruined and destroyed. Online trolls refuse all responsibility for their posts’ consequences, claiming simply that they were asking questions, thinking aloud, pointing out possible theories, championing the innocent.

Closely related ground was covered in The Idaho Murders: Trial by TikTok (BBC3, Wednesday of last week). The 2022 knifing to death of four students in the most peaceful university town imaginable launched an avalanche of online speculation, unfounded accusations, and harassment. We met some of the leading online “detectives” — attention-seeking, sad, damaged, and deluded, but highly dangerous.

Such trolls are desperate to believe in satanic paedophiles, in worldwide evil conspiracies. Hard evidence undermining their theories merely proves that the conspiracies are even more thoroughgoing than they imagined. They simply know that they are right.

Such blind belief in toxic nonsense is a wake-up call: those of us who live by faith must constantly check our beliefs against shared reality and common sense. It is sickening proof of the Chestertonian adage: when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.

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