Johann Hari: The real scandal is how we treat the old

Click to follow

So Ruth Kelly has hit her Paedogeddon, the moment when Britain's paediatrician-bashing hysteria consumes even the cleverest of cabinet ministers. In Brass Eye, Chris Morris imagined a Britain where paedophiles disguise themselves as schools to lure children, and where real celebrities - step forward, Dr Fox - explain that paedophiles have more genetically in common with crabs than with other humans.

Welcome to Morris-Land. In the midst of a howling mob, nobody cares to notice that the Department for Education made a string of perfectly sensible decisions. Look at the man who has been touted as "the most disturbing case". William Gibson had a relationship with a 15-year-old pupil, and later married her and settled down to start a family. A bit scummy and scuzzy? Yes. Does it mean he is a recidivist paedophile? Of course not. I would happily see my nephews taught by him. Almost all the "scandalous" decisions made by ministers are similarly sane.

But at the same time, a string of real scandals - at the opposite end of the age range - has erupted, and there have been no cries for an investigation and no ministers hounded in the street. Help the Aged has discovered that one fifth of the residents of old people's homes are suffering from malnutrition after being given sub-standard meals. (Jamie Oliver, where are you now?). At the same time, the journal Age and Ageing reveals that 26,000 of the old people rebelling against the misery of our care homes are being drugged into submission with "chemical coshes" - anti-psychotic or sedative drugs they neither need nor want. Many will be drugged until they conveniently die.

What does it say about us that we have showered indignation and rage onto a tiny risk directed at children in around 10 schools, but can barely muster an indignant cough when it comes to real and crippling abuse directed at old people?

These twin crises cut straight to the neuroses of our culture. We have become hysterical about paedophiles because we have become an increasingly paedophilic culture. The cause has actually been a positive event: our children enjoy far better nutrition than any other generation in history, so they are going through puberty much younger - read a Louisa May Alcott novel and you realise that as recently as the 19th century, her Little Women began menstruating at 16.

This shift has disturbed the naive Victorian picture of childhood, since our children are - physically and literally - no longer the same as theirs. The response has been panic: hunt the villain Out There to hide our own confusion.

The mass blanking of the old is a response to another huge shift. As a nation, we are getting older. We are all heading to the Cuckoo's Nest care homes - so we have gone into mass denial, jabbing our faces with poison to wipe away wrinkles, and turning to plastic surgery on an unprecedented scale. It is a stabbing irony that as we become an elderly country we ignore the elderly with ever-greater ferocity: if you don't look at the Ghost of Christmas Future, maybe it will never come.

So while Ruth Kelly is flayed for nothing, does anybody ever know who the cabinet minister responsible for old people's homes is? After ringing around six senior Westminster hacks, we finally figured out it is probably John Prescott. But what does it matter? We're all too busy queuing for a facelift or hounding imaginary paedophiles.

The comic fawning over 'Dave'

One of the funniest things about the resistible rise of ex-corporate spin doctor David Cameron has been the transformation of supposedly cynical Tory hacks into dreamy teens. For the past decade, the British right has presented itself as the tireless opponent of spin and lies, but where are they now there is a Tory leader - seen here with Peter Ainsworth, his environment spokesman, at a meeting on climate change - absurdly spinning himself as a green while demanding a massive road-building programme? Why, they are lauding him as a "uniquely honest", quasi-Messianic force.

The most hilarious example is Peter Oborne, who wrote a book called The Art of Political Lying which claimed to be a cross-party exposé - but actually asserted that Margaret Thatcher told no lies between 1982 and 1986. Today, he welcomes Cameron as "a hero" and his vacuities as "genius". The cynicism of the likes of Oborne stands exposed as a partisan pose all along - not a genuine disposition, but a dishonest attempt to discredit any movement even a notch to the left of the Tory party.

* At last, it's over. For years, I have had a row with people who believe George Galloway is truly, madly, deeply opposed to Saddam Hussein and to dictatorships across the world.

But on Celebrity Big Brother, he was asked by cat-owner Rula Lenska, "Was he [Saddam] hated by the ordinary [Iraqi] people?" He replied: "Not at all; not at all... He was hated by political opponents as he suppressed all opposition political forces, but he wasn't hated by the ordinary Iraqi - no, not at all."

Recent polls show that 97 per cent of Iraqis hate Saddam - 97 per cent. There is still a long, legitimate argument to be had about the war - but the argument about George Galloway and his apologism for a fascist dictator is finally finished.