This week, Sabine McNeill was jailed for nine years for her part in a sustained hoax alleging Satanic ritual abuse among certain families in Hampstead, which involved relentless and vicious stalking and online harassment. McNeill was called “an online troll of the worst kind”. The judge called her allegations “scandalous” and said that McNeill was “an arrogant, malicious, evil and manipulative woman”.
Back in 2015, I wrote a number of articles about the extraordinary family court case engendered by McNeill’s evil myth-making about an alleged Satanic cannibal cult operating from a MacDonalds in Hampstead. I also gave a presentation to a conference organised by Goldsmiths, Searching for Satan: Miscarriages of memory, fractured families and Satanic panics. You can find links at the end of this piece.
The havoc which a bunch of internet nutters were able to wreak in the lives of ordinary law-abiding families is a depressing indication of the degree to which such poisonous frauds have been able to manipulate public bodies in the UK, perpetrating lifelong damage in some instances, and wasting huge amounts of scare public resources on their baleful fantasies. If they had been called out sooner, could they have obtained such traction, I wonder?
The case that ultimately led to McNeill’s well-deserved incarceration is Re: P & Q (Children: Care Proceedings: Fact-finding)  EWFC 26 (Fam), in which the High Court spent an astonishing eleven days examining her lurid claims as mediated via a crazy couple, who had systematically brain-washed two young children to repeat them.
As Mrs Justice Pauffley commented in the 2015 ruling:
There are many campaigning people, sadly, who derive satisfaction from spreading their own poisonous version of history irrespective of whether it is true or not.
Indeed, I found that even to voice an Article 10-protected opinion on this phenomenon was to open the flood-gates to persecution by extreme crankdom. I received a menacing anonymous letter to my chambers late in 2015 which claimed, inter alia:
Cult members work hard at trying to persuade the public that RSA [Ritual Satanic abuse] does not exist.
Your attitude towards this raises concern about your being a member.
Either research this and find out the “truth”, or be judged by your behavior by the awakened public as to your connection with this practice.
Note the use of scary quotes and American spelling.
I have experienced remorseless and relentless harassment ever since, both on- and off-line, by malicious nutcases professing to believe in Satanic ritual abuse, or to have been the victim of “ritual” abuse, as well as their lunatic supporters. Watch out, bitch! posted one tweeter. You and your paedo crew have it coming, said another. Sick woman needs putting down, wrote a third. And so on.
I am routinely – and falsely – dubbed a “paedo-apologist” by these frauds and fake campaigners, some of whom never got over the fact that I had two years previously appeared on Channel 4 News and said, “Satanic ritual abuse doesn’t exist: it’s like alien abduction”.
I am not, of course, the only person to be subjected to this sustained vilification as a punishment for exercising my fundamental right to express ideas and impart information: I know of a number of respected journalists and other professionals similarly targeted.
So, is free speech now a fiction in the UK?
At an electrifying talk at the Battle of Ideas in the Barbican last October, the novelist Lionel Shriver spoke of how easily writers lose control of their message in the febrile world of social media, which – in particular – cannot cope with any form of sarcasm, ridicule or mockery.
Shriver had been falsely dubbed a “white supremacist”, even though that is manifestly untrue, following a joke she had made at a publisher’s expense in a Spectator column. She explained that, as a writer, she does not like being told what words to use:
My occupation depends on my being able to use whatever words I want, and I hate the imposition of a very set vocabulary… I’m so sick of the word ‘privileged’, I can’t tell you.
And a lot of these words are used in a devious, Orwellian way: that word, normalise – ‘we mustn’t normalise this’ – well, that’s just a smokescreen for censorship, right, or for bossing people around. So, it may be technically legal for you to do something or say something, but ‘we shouldn’t allow you to do it anyway, because then we’ll normalise it’!
..and I hate all people sounding alike and using the same language and also, it’s a code, right? So you’re sending out a signal……‘I belong to a particular political set’. And that’s what those words are for, more than anything. And the other thing they’re for are to exercise power and therefore to say: ‘Right, you can’t say minorities anymore, you have to say people of colour’ – and it is truly astonishing, how quickly everyone gets with the programme. In fact, it’s creepy.
As Claire Fox, Director of the Academy of Ideas, commented, this baleful trend makes people conformist, but in bad faith. Shriver agreed:
…it’s one big arselick. It is. ‘Ooh, I’m really good. I’ve got with the programme. Yes, yes, I will!’. It’s a kind of hoop-jumping that is demanded of people. And it’s degrading. It’s humiliating….and no one ever, ever addresses this shift…it’s all subtext….it’s slavishly conformist and bending over backwards to please.
In the present climate, she noted, social media can take what you said and make it something else altogether, often by malicious misinterpretation, regardless of how well and carefully a writer has put together an article or an argument:
You didn’t say what you said: you said what they say you said. There’s a big difference…I think this is commonplace. ….it’s one big exercise in straw-manning.
..…at a certain point I start wondering: ‘Well, why do I bother, why don’t I just dash [an article] off, cos people read what they want to?’
As Fox noted, we’re not going to be able to say anything in this over-literal, robotic culture. “It has a kind of Soviet texture”, added Shriver: “are we ‘speaking well of the party’?”