Richard Webster obituary

Writer who suggested hysteria lay behind some abuse scandals
Richard Webster obituary
Richard Webster strove for historical accuracy in his writing

Richard Webster, who has died suddenly of heart failure aged 60, was a cultural historian and campaigning author who carried out forensic work suggesting that certain abuse scares were unfounded. He may be best remembered for the book Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995), in which he asserted that Freud's "relentless and reductive scientism ... harnessed to his need for fame, led him deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of error". Richard's scepticism of Freud's seduction theory (that patients had been sexually traumatised in childhood) led him to believe that "recovered memories" could be implanted by psychotherapists or social workers and police officers.

In The Secret of Bryn Estyn (2005), Richard's compelling account of the lengthy investigations into suspected abuse in care homes in north Wales, he argued that abuse scandals could be phenomena conjured from an atmosphere of public hysteria, fuelled by credulous journalists and ratified through inefficient police investigative techniques. The real secret of Bryn Estyn, he concluded, was that there was no secret at all; it was just an ordinary community home where staff did their best to look after difficult adolescents.

His investigation of such cases was not a departure from his theory of cultural history, but an attempt to put that theory into practice. "If we allow ourselves to be guided by a view of cultural history which denies the very possibility of a witch-hunt taking place in our midst," he wrote, "we have created the ideal conditions for one to take place without our even noticing."

Richard was born in Newington, Kent, the son of a subpostmaster, and brought up in a strict Methodist family. His parents' work ethic meant he had much time to himself, leading to independence of thought and intellectual rebellion. He attended Sir Roger Manwood's school in Sandwich, Kent, and, in 1972, graduated in English and American studies from the University of East Anglia. He returned there briefly to teach during 1974-75 and to start a PhD, which he never completed. When his father became ill, he ran the family post office, which was by then in Cambridge. Richard married Bod in 1977, and together they set up the Orwell Bookshop in Southwold, Suffolk, which was extremely successful. They eventually sold it, as Richard's other interests demanded too much of his time.

The thornier the intellectual dispute, the more Richard rejoiced in the challenge. In the wake of the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, he produced A Brief History of Blasphemy (1990), in which he argued that "liberalism" is culturally determined and can be as illiberal and offensive as the behaviour – such as burning books – it condemns. Much praised at the time, the book was recently described by Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, as "immensely intelligent".

In the mid-1990s Richard and I wrote a lengthy article for the Guardian about police trawling operations among former residents of care homes, which, we argued, resulted in scores of miscarriages of justice. As a result, both of us, together with the journalist David Rose, were invited to give evidence to the home affairs select committee.

In 1999, Richard and I were alarmed by the case of two nursery nurses in Newcastle, Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie, who had been found not guilty of child abuse charges at trial, only for a social services inquiry to declare them guilty of all they had been acquitted of and much more besides. In fear for their lives, they went into hiding. We drove to Newcastle and knocked on doors until we found Reed's frightened family. Then, one afternoon, we met Dawn who, with tears down her face, told us her astonishing story.

With the assistance of Sir Geoffrey Bindman and then the barristers Adrienne Page QC and Adam Speker, we helped them to take an action for defamation against the report's authors, which led to a triumphant vindication at the Royal Courts of Justice. There could have been a book, but Dawn and Chris wanted their privacy restored, so Richard, whose moral integrity would brook no compromise, would not then countenance it.

When The Secret of Bryn Estyn came out, Tony Garnett, the producer of television dramas such as Cathy Come Home, bought the rights. "Richard wrote with grace and clarity," said Garnett, "and I wanted to put on screen this monumental work about these injustices." A three-hour drama was developed for Channel 4 but budget cuts scuppered the project.

Richard did not write for profit, but to set down a scrupulously accurate record. So, with the exception of the Freud book, he published his work through his own Orwell Press. He financed this through running a small postcard business and by renting out his Suffolk cottage. He made his writings available to all through his densely packed website.

I learned to think of him as Badger in The Wind in the Willows, dispensing wisdom from the middle of the Wild Wood or, in his case, Oxford, where he settled after the break-up of his marriage. With the Oxford canal at the bottom of his garden, regular canoeing excursions gave him enormous pleasure. Richard had a profound concern for the wellbeing of those around him. His generosity and big-heartedness were extraordinary. When he found money in a long-forgotten account, he gave it to a neighbour's children to alleviate their student debts.

A magnum opus, The Natural History of Human Beings, is unfinished. For much of this year he had been assisting Portuguese contacts to expose what he considered to be the most significant paedophile-ring scare in Europe. He had been due to publish a history of the affair, Casa Pia, in the week of his death.

He is survived by his sister, Sue.

Richard Webster, writer, born 17 December 1950; died 24 June 2011