Sunday 4 November 2012

Thoughts on the Media and Child Abuse

Some thoughts:

1. The Jimmy Savile revelations, have raised serious questions about the BBC and the complicity of its management, and how Savile gamed the child care system to allow him to abuse in hospitals and children's homes with impunity. This in and of itself is as damaging to the establishment as it is appalling to everyone else. But, unfortunately, as awful as the Savile case is, there could be more. A great deal more.

2. Tom Watson's recent comments during Prime Minister's Questions, and yesterday's blog post point to the alleged involvement of powerful Conservative politicians in the notorious abuse case at the Bryn Estyn care home for children. As Friday's Newsnight indicated, the mid-90s inquiry into the abuse that took place between 1974 and 1990 left a lot to be desired.

3. The men associated with the above case have not been named by any mainstream media outlet. However, all it takes is a search engine and five minutes to find the alleged abusers at the centre of the accusations. As if there was any doubt, it shows once again that diffusion of information over the internet cannot by stymied by legal threats and high-powered lawyers. However, widespread naming of names in association with the terrible crimes committed at Bryn Estyn could make subsequent charges and trials more difficult. Like anyone else, the alleged abusers are innocent until proven otherwise.

4. The press response to this has the classic hallmarks of a feeding frenzy. At first the red tops outdid each other in reporting the depravity Savile's abuse may or may not have sunk to, then it moved to other celebrities. Gary Glitter and Freddie Starr have been interviewed in connection to alleged abuse and assaults that took place in the 70s. Dead celebs John Peel and Leonard Rossiter have been named in relation to separate cases. All of which has been covered with barely-concealed glee.

5. The reporting of the scandals are inseparable from the political economy of the press. Newspapers are, for a variety of reasons, in long-term decline. They are not only locked in competition with each other for a declining market, a number of titles are fighting a fierce circulation battle in cyberspace. The qualities - The Telegraph, The Indy, and The Graun - have capitalised on the blogging revolution and are competing by offering wider spectrums of opinion and commentary while retaining the fidelity of their brand.

6. Mail Online is a different kettle of fish. It has successfully forged the most successful news website in the world out of deeply reactionary politics, 'Hitler was my dad'-style stories, and celebrity reportage. There is no gutter the site won't lie in for an audience boost. We've seen previously how The Mail markets bigotry to drive traffic from the supportive and the outraged in equal measure. It has also hit new lows by sexualising a non-story about 14 year old celebrity sibling, Ellie Fanning. This is not the first time The Mail has reported on pubescent girls in this way, but each fall out means a nice spike in their audience figures. The greater the backlash, the more revenue the website reaps. The Mail therefore has a fundamental commercial interest in outraging public opinion, while hypocritically posing as its most strident voice of decency.

7. Papers need to sell. Websites need audiences. They are not prepared to incur the prohibitive costs associated with naming powerful alleged abusers, from the standpoint of likely civil action and prejudicing the possibility of criminal trials. But reporting on the crimes in a round about way allows them to have their salacious cake and eat it.

8. The effect of these reports of celebrity abuse has stunned a bewildered public. Savile was a much-loved star officially sanctioned and feted by the establishment at all levels. His actions put question marks over the judgement of BBC management, politicians and royalty. If there is full disclosure in the media about the Bryn Estyn case, a 'difficulty' could become a crisis of establishment legitimation, regardless of whether the allegations are accepted as true by a court or not.

9. The public response has been inchoate and atomised. It is very much at odds with a similar child sex abuse scandal that took place in Belgium in the mid-90s. Marc Dutroux was a paedophile and serial killer who kidnapped, abused and murdered several girls. When justice finally caught up with Dutroux it quickly became apparent that the authorities had several opportunities to stop him but thanks to incompetence, institutional inertia, and Dutroux's alleged establishment links his crimes went unchecked. This provoked a furious groundswell of action that coalesced into the White Movement, and culminated in a Brussels march of over 300,000. Its political impact was profound and transformed the way police and the courts treated child sex crimes. In contrast, the press here have assumed (usurped?) the people's voice. Mainstream politics has, collectively, agreed that reform of the legal system must take place. But because the abuse scandal is a media spectacle, it is at the same time something removed from everyday experience. The remaining monuments to Savile's persona have been removed, and those that remain have been attacked. But apart from individual actions like this, there has been no collective public response. It is being sold to us and we are invited to respond to it as an audience.

10. A spectre is haunting the establishment, the spectre of paedophilia. The money to be made will ensure it won't be exorcised any time soon.

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