The row over BBC’s Newsnight coverage of sexual abuse accusations is threatening to cloud a serious discussion about and why such abuse happens. In a feat of journalism remarkable even for a BBC flagship programme, it has gone within the space of a year from not covering an investigation into claims of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile to now alleging sexual abuse against a man, former Tory minister Lord McAlpine, who it now admits is the victim of ‘mistaken identity’.
The mistake has led to Newsnight and the BBC apologising unreservedly, although not quickly enough to avert legal action from the tax exile peer who comes from the wealthy McAlpine construction family. The ongoing crisis in the BBC is, naturally, the BBC’s and the rest of the mainstream media’s major obsession. But the real questions about sexual abuse raised in recent weeks have not been answered, nor have measures been put in place which will seriously begin to change things.
It should be clear enough by now that child sexual abuse is not accidental. It is the product of a society where sexuality is both repressed and exploited, and where the hierarchical structures of the family ensure that children are vulnerable to attack from their elders. Power in the family rests with adults, and we expect adults to love and care for their children and to protect them from harm. But that trust is all too often betrayed. Child abuse is heavily concentrated in the family, with most victims being abused by relatives or close friends. The truth is that many children in this situation do not tell other adults about their abuse. Sometimes they fear to do so. Some of Jimmy Savile’s victims talk of him threatening that they will not be believed; but often children draw that conclusion without being overtly threatened.
Often they will internalise the hurt and fear and confusion that they feel, only speaking about it or even remembering it many years later. The numbers coming forward in recent cases when there is publicity demonstrate how difficult it is to come to terms with. No doubt in such circumstances mistakes can be made (although in this case the mistakes were journalistic, not those of the victim, who has been treated badly by the BBC). It may be that there are malicious accusations as well. But the reality is that most cases of child abuse are not dealt with and go unpunished.
It should also be clear enough now that child sexual abuse is not confined to individuals. It is located at the heart of some institutions of the state and society which are supposed to care for, protect or set examples to others, but which allow these things to happen. Savile carried out some of his abuse in NHS hospitals and Broadmoor, where he was allowed access because of his charity activities. Children’s care homes have been at the centre of a number of past and present scandals: Kincora in Northern Ireland, Haut de la Garenne in Jersey, Bryn Estyn in North Wales and Duncroft in Staines.
Three of these have already been subject to inquiries into the allegations, with less than satisfactory results. Most recently the Rochdale case illustrated that these were not confined to the past but continue to happen.
Those who need to answer questions are at the very top of British society. This elite now has a crisis at its heart which is comparable to the child abuse scandals in the Catholic church in Ireland. Whether politicians, police, BBC executives, judges, administrators and other establishment figures were directly involved in cover ups is only part of the question here. It seems clear at the BBC, for example, that people ignored, looked the other way and sometimes made excuses for Savile and other abusers. (An article in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagan suggests that these included much loved children’s radio presenter Uncle Mac).
The rich and powerful were protected because they were regarded as important to the BBC (too big to fail, as we might say today). Savile made friends with royalty, supposedly advising Prince Charles on his first marriage. He was given a knighthood, even though those awarding it must have been aware of at least rumours about him. His charity work was regarded as a passport to anywhere. Michael Rosen commented recently that the BBC vetted everyone who worked for them and that he was regarded as too left wing. It is surely not credible that Savile and the others accused of abuse were never subject to such vetting.
Those children in care, on the other hand, were written off: often with their own serious problems, sometimes with criminal records, they were regarded as fair game for the abusers. There is a great deal of talk about ‘predatory paedophiles’: the truth is no one knows the extent to which they exist. But if you were a predatory paedophile, you would regard the children in these homes as an easy target.
There are no doubt many reforms which could be put in place to give children more rights and protection. We could start by developing a culture of believing them and of not assuming those in authority are telling the truth. And any decent society would not rely on the gruesome council ‘care’ which passes for home life.
Perhaps one of the most dangerous arguments circulating at the moment is that the Savile and care home abuse cases are a thing of the past, the product of a newly sexualised culture which we are now all familiar with. But awareness of sexuality does not mean dealing with it properly. It certainly does not mean that young people are more able to deal with abuse now than then. It is about power and control, and nothing has changed in that respect.
In one way, things are much worse than in the 60s and 70s. Cuts and austerity mean that care homes are privatised and subject to cost cutting which involves moving vulnerable young people miles away from what is familiar to them, to poor areas such as Rochdale which become the centre of ever greater social problems. The attacks on the poorest will do nothing to eradicate child abuse, and may make it more likely to happen.
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