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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 February 2006, 12:25 GMT
Whispering game
By Brendan O'Neill

The paediatrician confused with a paedophile has become a cautionary tale against hysteria over sex offenders. But the details have become confused, even down to whether it was a male or female doctor. What really happened?

Whenever the debate about sex offenders rears its ugly head, we are reminded of this incident and its cruel irony: how protesters targeted a paediatrician (a doctor who cares for children) because his or her job title sounded vaguely like paedophile (a sexual deviant attracted to children).

Last month, when education secretary Ruth Kelly was under pressure to reveal how many individuals on the Sex Offenders Register work in our schools, various newspapers revisited the paediatrician/paedophile story.

A columnist for the Independent criticised the tabloid attacks on Kelly, warning that we might once again end up with a "howling mob" consumed by a "paediatrician-bashing hysteria".

The Glasgow Herald lamented the current "hysteria over alleged sex offenders", and reminded us of the "illiterate lynch mob" that attacked the home of a paediatrician the last time there was such hysteria.

Who what where

The paediatrician incident is mentioned endlessly, but rarely examined in detail. Commentators refer to it all of the time but don't explain where and when it took place, and what exactly happened.

Sarah, who died in July 2000
It was part of a wave of incidents sparked by Sarah Payne's murder
There was indeed an incident, in 2000, involving a paediatrician who was mistakenly labelled a "paedo", but there is little evidence that it involved any kind of hysterical mob.

In fact, it was a relatively minor incident, which has been exaggerated and distorted in the re-telling - and turned into a symbol of mass hysteria among the tabloid-reading sections of the population.

If you search the web or back issues of newspapers to discover the truth of the paediatrician-bashing incident, expect to be confused. Some reports say a male paediatrician was attacked, others that it was a female paediatrician.

There are clashing reports of where the incident took place. Some say it was in south Wales, others that it was in Portsmouth. In an article in 2001, the Daily Mail 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?"

An online magazine, The Register, also says that it was in Portsmouth that "dictionary-starved and enraged mobs attacked a paediatrician".

Yet on a discussion board of a website that focuses on strange events, one contributor says the incident took place in London.

Lynch mob

There are conflicting reports as to what happened. A 2001 Guardian article says a female paediatrician was "hounded" from her home by her own "neighbours, who confused 'paediatrician' with 'paedophile'."

Anti-paedophile protest in Portsmouth
Message on a balcony
Some reports say the outside of the paediatrician's home was daubed with "paedo", others say the paediatrician woke one morning to find "the term 'paedo' spray-painted all over her walls" - which suggests breaking and entering as well as vandalism.

According to some accounts she was asleep in the house while the mob vandalised it; according to others she only discovered the vandalism upon returning from work. Some say it was far more serious than just offensive graffiti.

In 2003, a Northern Irish newspaper recalled the time that "Portsmouth became famous when paedophile-hunting locals chased a paediatrician down the street" (there's that mention of Portsmouth again). This account suggests the paediatrician may have been in real physical danger.

A student newspaper at the University of Essex described how "a group of people in Portsmouth... burned down a paediatrician's office in righteous anger."

On one online discussion board it said that "a howling mob stoned [the paediatrician's] house and firebombed it".

In the mainstream media, meanwhile, there are clashing reports over whether the paediatrician was attacked, hounded, chased or abused, but they all agree that it was an "hysterical mob" that did it.

Police talk

Just what is the truth? In August 2000, a female paediatrician consultant called Yvette Cloete was indeed labelled a "paedo" after a campaign by the News of the World to name and shame paedophiles in the community.

The incident took place in Newport, Gwent, not in Portsmouth (where there had been anti-paedophile protests after eight-year-old Sarah Payne was murdered) or London.

It looks as though it was just a question of confusing the job title for something else - I suppose I'm really a victim of ignorance
Yvette Cloete, speaking in 2000
Dr Cloete returned from work at the Royal Gwent Hospital to find "paedo" spray-painted on her front door. Local police believe the graffiti was written by someone who confused her job title with the word paedophile.

It was no doubt a very distressing incident for Ms Cloete, who decided to move home shortly afterwards. But there is no evidence that a mob was involved or of any threats or incidents of physical pressure or violence.

"Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?" says Chief Inspector Andrew Adams, of Gwent Police, who was the liaison officer in charge when news of this incident broke six years ago. He remembers very well that stressful night, when he gave 18 live interviews to various media outlets.

"There was no big mob," he says. "Nothing like that happened. I know because I was there and I was involved. The lady was not in her home when it happened. She came home from work to see her door daubed with anti-paedophile graffiti.

"When we heard about it we set about dispelling the rumours that she or anyone else in that house was a paedophile. We explained to the local community the difference between paediatrician and paedophile."

Who did the graffiti? Mr Adams says he still isn't sure. "We think it was youngsters, probably someone in the 12 to 17 age bracket."

And the community was outraged by the incident and "supportive of the woman involved", he says.

Nevertheless, the story has taken on a life of its own, transformed into a dire warning about hysterical mobs who threaten the fabric of our nation.

The irony is that some in the media, in challenging the scaremongering over sex offenders, indulge in some scaremongering of their own. They raise fears about violent tabloid-reading protesters who will attack, hound and destroy a paediatrician - which seem to be just as unfounded as the fears about thousands of paedophiles stalking the land.


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