How the mainstream media derailed addressing child abuse

The two recent child abuse scandals have both found themselves derailed by exactly the same method: a protracted session of the mainstream media navel-gazing and taking pops at one another. The Jimmy Savile case turned into a study of why Newsnight didn’t report on the story. Meanwhile, the re-examination of the North Wales abuse scandal turned into a study of why Newsnight did report on the story.

In the noise of the quarrelling over who should resign and why, and squabbles about the quality of journalism, the real story got lost.

Children were raped and abused. There were cover-ups and failures to fully investigate the systemic instances of abuse which occurred. People were denied justice for the horrific things that happened to them.

On 10th November, the Guardian ran nine separate stories and a liveblog about the crisis at the BBC; on the 11th eight stories on the front page alone. It’s a similar state of affairs in the other major news sources, except for the BBC, who are running with a third arrest in the Savile piece. Where mentioned within the BBC stories, the child abuse is thrown in as an afterthought.

There are many important questions remaining regarding the child abuse that happened, yet these questions are lost in the media circlejerk; the problem of which is perhaps exemplified by this Observer editorial which manages to make the issue about everything from journalistic standards to austerity, tacking child abuse on as an afterthought. These are questions which ought to form the crux of the issue, yet they are drowned out in favour of discussion of the internal politics at the BBC and who is reporting what best.

1) Who did abuse children? It seems certain now, that Lord McAlpine was not one of the men who raped Stephen Messham, the man who told his story on Newsnight. By focusing on who did not rape Messham–to the point where Messham himself, a survivor of rape and sexual abuse, was forced to apologise–the media have lost sight of the fact that these rapes happened and were perpetrated by some people. Who were they, and will they be brought to justice?

In a way, it’s not really the names of the abusers that matter. The answer may be neither high-profile nor particularly newsworthy, considering sexual abuse and rape are frighteningly common. However, as a matter of urgency, we should turn our focus on this: in the interest of justice, it matters not who did not abuse these people, but who did.

2) Why are there so many systematic failures to investigate abuse allegations? While there was some emphasis on the BBC’s failure to investigate–and perhaps cover up–the allegations against Jimmy Savile, little has been made of failures in other areas, particularly that of the police. The police failed to investigate allegations against Savile, yet are not facing a public investigation in the same vein as that for the BBC. Likewise, Lord McAlpine was misidentified due to a police officer erroneously telling a survivor that the man in a photograph he had positively identified as his abuser was McAlpine. How did this happen and will the police officer involved be held to account?

Likewise, criticisms of the Waterhouse inquiry into the North Wales abuse scandal still stand. That Lord McAlpine was not involved changes absolutely nothing about the fact that the inquiry failed to investigate the abuse that happened outside the homes. Why are we not talking about how these survivors of abuse have their hands tied in seeking justice due to a systematic failure to investigate what happened to them?

3) How can we create a climate where it is safer for survivors of abuse to come forward? In both the North Wales and Savile cases, the picture of what happened only came to light years later. We do not live in a world where it is safe for survivors to come forward. When a person in a position of power rapes and abuses, there will be an army of people willing to cover it up and cast an aura of disbelief on the survivor. Take a look at Stephen Messham being dragged through the mud for what happened to him.

Rape and abuse happen, and too often they happen in silence. These are not things which happened in the past, but continue to happen today.

There was a narrow window of opportunity for survivors of abuse in the past to come forward and tell their stories, which has been effectively closed by derailing what could be a discussion of the ugly realities of a culture which facilitates abuse into talk about the BBC. It makes it harder still for current survivors to come forward when they are effectively told this is secondary to a debate about journalistic standards.

Please let us not lose sight of the real issues, the crux of the matter. Let us not contribute further to the culture of silencing survivors. Let us keep what happened to these people at the front of our minds and challenge ourselves to ensure that this can never happen again rather than allowing ourselves the easy route of the well-rehearsed examination of media practice.

Rape and abuse happens. It happens a lot. How can we stop that?

6 thoughts on “How the mainstream media derailed addressing child abuse”

  1. Well said.

    There’s a well understood problem with boards of directors or governors. When it comes to decisions about, say, a bazillion pound contract, it gets waved through; yet if, say, the headed notepaper is to be changed, everyone wants to have a word in.

    Most of us don’t know enough about child abuse or rape to offer any useful comments, or suggest any useful action. But we can all easily see when a report has gone wrong and it’s easy to identify those responsible — even if we know nothing about the complexities behind the scenes, the reality of the whole. So, it’s much easier and more comfortable to concentrate on the things we (think we) know about, and think we can spout about, rather than face the unknowns, the things we don’t know about, the things that are too difficult, too dark to take on board.

    Around 90% of rapists and child abusers are know to their victims, as members of the family or as friends. The stereotype of the mad axeman rapist in a dark alley is, in the vast majority of cases, simply wrong. And I’d guess we all find it difficult to think that a real person, someone in our family or circle of friends could be a rapist or abuser. Such people aren’t supposed to be “real” people, they are supposed to be outsiders.

  2. Thanks for this – it needed saying.

    One thing that worries me is that, during interviews about this on the radio, I have heard people say that, rather than survivors of abuse carrying on the ‘witchhunt’, they should go to the police with ‘concrete evidence’, without having this questioned by the interviewer. It is obvious that the abuser will not have provided their victims with evidence – so how can anyone do this? Surely anyone who says ignorant and dangerous things like this needs to be challenged over such comments on the spot.

    And on one news report there was an interview with a middle aged, male survivor, who said that the important man who allegedly raped him told him he would kill him if he ever told. He had still not disclosed the man’s name – and that’s a long time to be scared – but there was no mention of support/protection being provided where necessary to help him bring his abuser to justice.

  3. The media rush to try to discredit Steven Messham is sickening and I’m glad you’ve blogged about this. Survivors need to be supported and believed.

    There’s one more thing, though: the equally unseemly rush to exonerate Lord McAlpine is premature. There are many things about Steven Messham’s ‘retraction’ that do not make sense and attributing ‘mistaken identity’ to a police error may be oversimplifying. We cannot know what pressure Mr Messham is under but he must know he is in danger. In fact, he is not the only victim to have named Lord McAlpine, as the Mirror has reported:

    So, there are at least two other victims who all named the same man. Did they all make the same ‘mistake’? If it was the police who wrongly suggested the name, how could that be? It seems the other two victims to have named McAlpine have since ‘disappeared’ or died in suspicious circumstances.

    The media spin seems to be that Lord McAlpine is being confused with his cousin, Jimmie McAlpine, who lived in the area and died in 1991, 6 years before the Waterhouse inquiry. If so, why was there a need to redact this name (of a dead man) from the inquiry? More to the point, why was the Jillings report pulped due to ‘concerns over libel’? Dead men do not sue, as far as I’m aware. Dead men also do not issue threats or cause victims to ‘disappear’. Also, why would the police refuse to follow up on an allegation against a dead man? Not like them to turn down an easy ‘collar’, is it? No need even for a trial, just ‘case solved’. Unless the man happens to be very powerful and isn’t dead.

    One further thought: Is there some kind of media McAlpine exclusion principle, whereby no two McAlpines are allowed to be in the same place and only one McAlpine is allowed to be a paedophile?

  4. Thank the Lord for insightful bloggers. It’s appalling what the mudstream media propaganda moguls are trying to do by focusing inward while at the same time, protecting the monsters with their blarney, vitriol and balderdash rhetoric.

    We need good folk like you to continue writing with vision, quality and constantly seeking for the truth and the real story. No spin involved with caring for our children and holding those accountable for abusing our cherished ones while morons stand idly by letting them get away with it.

    It disgusts me to the pit of my stomach what MSM are trying to do.

    All I can say is stay angry, girl!

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