Last Wednesday, the media decried an alleged plot by fathers' rights extremists to kidnap Prime Minister Tony Blair's 5-year-old son Leo. Subsequent reports have skidded from outrage to skepticism, from the death of an organization to the birth of a movie deal.
What actually happened and what does it mean to the fathers' rights movement?
On Wednesday, the front page of the UK newspaper The Sun announced 'Plot to kidnap Leo Blair. Cops foil Fathers 4 Justice extremists'.
The F4J group is infamous around the world for pranks that involve flamboyant costumes and for making security police look like idiots. For example, last September an F4J member dressed as Batman breached security at Buckingham Palace to unfurl a banner from one of its balconies.
His protest, along with other F4J stunts, was intended to publicize the need of estranged and responsible fathers to have equitable access to their children. Indeed, one of F4J's stated "campaign objectives" is to "establish a legal presumption to contact" for all parents.
Skepticism quickly surrounded the Sun's report of a kidnapping plot.
The Guardian, a competing newspaper, called it "self-evident tripe" and wondered why, if the report were true, no arrests had occurred. The Telegraph asked why police were "blathering" to the Sun "when all [other] stories about the security of the Prime Minister and his family are rightly blanketed in official secrecy?"
Conspiracy theories have floated. For example, the report was payback by a humiliated police force, members of whom had infiltrated F4J and pushed for violence. Or, the story was politically planted on the same day that Blair's Government declared a radical new plan to rein in "absentee fathers who fail to pay for their children's upkeep."
The government proposes to turn that debt collection over to private companies from its much-criticized and disliked Child Support Agency.
On the other hand, some have suggested that the Sun's editor and staunch feminist Rebekah Wade might just be getting back at men's rights activists who crowed when she was arrested for assaulting her husband.
Whatever motives may lurk in the shadows, one thing is clear. The alleged kidnapping plot itself seems to have consisted of vague pub chatter that was reported to or overheard by authorities. The police later said they did not take the 'plot' seriously because they did believe F4J could pull it off.
Nevertheless, F4J's founder Matt O'Connor disbanded the UK group within hours of the Sun's report. O'Connor told Channel 4 News that the group could not continue due to negative publicity from the incident. (The Dutch branch has suspended operations but it is not clear how other branches will ultimately respond.)
O'Connor also claimed that voices of rage had started to dominate and destroy the fathers' rights campaign in England. He told the Times that "extremists" had wanted to "take out" opponents by running them over with cars and "about three months ago there was a serious threat to firebomb a Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) office."
He spoke of a father who threatened to commit suicide in front of Tony Blair.
One meaning is as a cautionary tale against using violence as a strategy for social reform.
Unless revealed as a set-up, the alleged kidnapping plot discredits the UK group and validates the worst predictions of its enemies. The plot justifies repressive measures of control: for example, the private and more efficient collection of the child support debts that F4J believes are unjust unless coupled with reasonable child visitation.
Indeed, the very spectre of violence may have erased much of the progress achieved by earlier non-violent activism.
Perhaps this is why O'Connor admitted to Channel 4 that F4J had been a failure and told the BBC, "I am very angry and upset that this organization has been undermined by the very people it is supposed to serve." The people to whom he is referring are presumably the estranged fathers who choose violence as a strategy.
Meanwhile, an added twist has heightened skepticism about F4J, the alleged kidnapping plot, and O'Connor himself.
The London News announced last Friday that Disney-owned Miramax has bought the story rights to a proposed F4J movie that O'Connor says "will be tragedy but…very funny." The script will end with the demise of F4J. The deal has reportedly been in the works for at least two years. O'Connor is also working on an autobiography.
And, so, one last conspiracy theory arises. Was the kidnapping plot and media-soaked collapse of F4J just another flamboyant stunt to promote a movie and a book?
I doubt the truth will ever be known. Even the comparatively easy-to-verify reality of the 'kidnapping plot' is unlikely to emerge since no one seems interested in an investigation.
If an investigation does occur, the victim it will reveal is probably the man-on-the-street. He is the average and responsible father who is estranged from his children. He gets up every day with a hole in his heart and tries to summon enough stamina to plead one more time with the family court or a government bureaucrat to see his son or daughter. This man needs compassion, solid arguments, publicity and justice…not violence.
It is this man that violence as a strategy damages the most.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.