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Child abuse, the BBC and the hierarchy of truths

2012 November 16

Can you rearrange the following sentences into a well-known political narrative?

  • It is wrong to haul young boys from their children’s home dormitory at night and brutally rape them.
  • It is wrong to coerce, cajole or pressurise underage teenage girls – even apparently willing doting fans – into performing sexual acts.
  • It is wrong to turn a blind eye to sexual abuse by a fellow BBC employee.
  • It is wrong to make accusations of child abuse against a senior Tory politician without checking that the accuser has identified the right man.
  • It is wrong to suppress allegations of sexual abuse by a tv presenter because that would scupper Christmas tribute programmes to the same man.
  • It is wrong to fail to read The Guardian every morning and key an eye on Twitter when you are the head of a news organisation.
  • It is wrong to allow someone to save face by saying they have resigned when you have actually told them they will be sacked if they don’t go quietly – and by offering them a pay-off equal to what they would have got had they been dismissed.

Ok. It was a trick question. This is not about narrative. We all know the Jimmy Savile/ top Tory paedophile (or not, as it turns out) story. But the Second Vatican Council, in very different circumstances, came up with the idea of the “hierarchy of truths” which applies here.

Statements or stances can be true without having equal validity or importance. One truth can conflict with another – or at any rate elbow others aside. Sociologists have another way of describing this: moral panic. That is what has gripped the chattering classes now over child abuse and the BBC in a political debate which has developed an irrational sense of proportion.

A top priority must be the care of those who were abused as children and whose lives have been psychologically blighted as a result. It is now clear that misplaced shame and the suspicion that they would not be believed have sentenced them to decades of suppurating silence. A tabloid editor, asked why his paper had not exposed Savile years ago, said his accusers were teenage girls from an approved school who would not have been believed. That is still a problem. Only recently police in Rochdale said that sexually-groomed underage girls would not to be credible witnesses.

But the opposite danger, accepting such allegations uncritically, has been made clear by Angus Stickler, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporter who accepted accusations against Lord McAlpine without even showing the accuser a photograph to confirm the identity of the man who abused him. Crusading journalists who short-cut facts to get to a self-evident “truth” constitute a different kind of danger to society. Reporters who go hunting for modern-day witches risk getting more than their fingers burned.

In particular we must not make the mistake, like generals always fighting the last war, of guarding against only the last set of errors. If Newsnight was perhaps initially too cautious about the Savile story, the solution was clearly not to become sloppy or reckless with the next child abuse allegation.

The history of British moral panics – from mods and rockers to punks, or satanic abuse in Orkney to dangerous dogs – shows an unpleasant tendency to scapegoat individuals as society fails to accept responsibility for its wider failures and problems. The modern mob mentality manifest on Twitter now feeds the frenzy.

George Entwistle has gone from the BBC, with the threat of more heads to roll. There is a real danger that we will end up with a weakened BBC with hundreds of abused children no nearer to receiving justice. That is the mirror opposite if what we need.

The Church Times

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