The sexual abuse of children is wrong. It has always been wrong. It’s why the grown-ups involved do their upmost to ensure it’s kept a secret and journalists aim to expose it.
But today, with the whole sorry saga of the BBC, Savile and an appallingly shoddy piece of editorial judgement, we have managed to conflate the vile practices of men who have sex with children with the debate about the sanctity of an institution that royally messed up.
And the victims in all of this are not the highly rewarded – even in unemployment – BBC executives nor the reputation of an entertainment icon whose salacious wrongdoings deserved to be exposed before now, not even the peer whose name was besmirched, but the children of the past and of the present whose cries for help may now never be heard.
“Buggery, rape, bestiality, violent assaults and torture,” is how Labour MP Ann Clwyd summed up a report into the abuse at children’s homes in north Wales during the 1970s and ‘80s. This included the so-called care home where Steven Messham was sent at the age of 13. By the time Messham fled ‘care’, he says he had been raped and abused by more than 50 men.
It’s an appalling tale of state dereliction of duty and of lives, quite literally, destroyed – some of Messham’s peers have since killed themselves and others have spiralled into a life of drugs and drink – but thanks to the BBC, we now have David Mellor, a former government minister, describing Messham as a “weirdo” and the columnist, David Aaronovitch, calling his account ‘shaky’ and making the unnecessary point that some people do lie about being abused. With that kind of disconnection between reality and thought, heaven help all the kids who suffer at the hands of abusers who tell them they will never be believed.
I’m not naive. I know not all claims of abuse are true or, more importantly, can be proved. And as a social affairs correspondent, I was party to the national hysteria that swept through social work departments the length and breadth of Britain in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as the new phenomenon of so-called ‘ritual child sexual abuse’ was uncovered, so I know the harm that that kind of unbridled feverishness can cause.
But then and now, I never doubted that men, for that is who are the predominant abusers, do what they need to do to frighten children into silence. I never actually believed in the lurid tales of sacrifice, of eating aborted foetuses or in real-life ghosts and ghouls engaged in foul acts of sexual debauchery, otherwise I too would have followed up and named the very prominent politician who I was frequently told was one such abuser.
But what I did believe was that many of the adults I spoke to had been horrifically abused as children and been muted by fear then and, with the passage of time, made unreliable as witnesses when later called to account.
During the course of those investigations, I remember a paedophile telling me how he abused deaf children who had learning difficulties. Those vulnerable youngsters were his ideal prey; they could neither hear, nor speak, nor run away and their screams were never heard, not even by each other.
Child abuse is evil and yet we still doubt its scale, never mind its existence and every time there is a flawed exposé, like the one Newsnight aired, child protection takes a step backwards.
And that is the real tragedy. For even now in the face of mounting evidence against Savile, commentators talk about witch-hunts and hold up the cases of Cleveland, Nottingham, Rochdale and Orkney as evidence of when things go wrong.
But there’s a dangerous flip-side to all those celebrated cases; that in all the excitement of the aftermath of a moral panic, the authorities charged with protecting our children can become overly cautious.
And I know this because I was intimately involved with the Orkney case. I was involved with the families before their children were removed. I knew the original family where abuse had been proven and the abuser imprisoned and it was me the families phoned on the morning of the dawn raids, looking for help. It was also me that they wrongly named in court and were later forced to recant as someone they claimed had worked with social workers to investigate them.
In the fevered atmosphere of child abuse claims, sense can go out the window. Lies get repeated and facts get forgotten. Journalists become self-appointed adjudicators of whether abuse happened or not.
And in the midst of hysteria, people forget the rules. This may explain why the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme failed to carry out some fairly fundamental editorial checks before broadcasting a deeply unsound piece of journalism that, frankly, should have been left on the editor’s floor.
The departure of George Entwistle as DG of the BBC has stolen all the headlines but it shouldn’t hide the deeper question in this sorry affair, will children be more at risk now because of his inaction?
By its very nature, child abuse is a desperately difficult crime to prove. But in the rush to criticise journalists – and in this case, they deserve to be damned – we should not ignore the fact that abuse did happen and sometimes the unbelievable must be believed regardless of the reaction it provokes.