Guest post: Panic in a crisis

Word "panic" on a red background next to a watch

By Clare McFeely

A critique of BBC Panorama’s reporting of the Jimmy Savile case recently appeared as part of the moral panic seminar series. This project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and is hosting events across a number of UK academic institutions. The Savile post is problematic beyond its inappropriate title: “Lunatics taking over asylums”. Its author relates falling journalistic standards to creation of a modern moral panic, but the actual target of its ire appears to be something else altogether.

Media coverage of Jimmy Savile and other high-profile men accused of historical abuse has uncovered a profound resistance to the notion of the well-documented prevalence of child sexual abuse. Throughout the critique of journalistic standards the post insinuates that false allegations of abuse are an everyday occurrence, that statutory agencies respond immediately and fully to disclosures of abuse, and that believing disclosures is “a bad thing”. So far, a typical reactive rant, but the author of this post is a lecturer in social work who is responsible for preparing social workers for practice, writing for a publication funded by an august funding council.

The main thrust of the post is that the 30 minute programme presented previously known facts as new evidence thus exaggerating the extent of Savile’s perpetration of abuse and fuelling the moral panic. “Giving Victims a Voice” (2013) reports the findings of police officers experienced in investigation of paedophile and serious crimes. In their, I would suggest expert, view they found the evidence painted “a compelling picture” of widespread sexual abuse. So compelling, they were convinced that those who came forward to accuse Savile were “victims” rather than “complainants”. No exaggeration required.

In addition to querying the evidence, the post questioned the reliability of programme contributors. This included survivors of abuse and the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), an organisation well placed to contribute to the debate. The programme introduction stated that it would explore Savile’s use of power to provide protection for his actions and unsupervised access to potential victims. To illustrate this they interviewed former employees of Broadmoor who commented on the institutional culture, barriers to disclosure of abuse and the power and freedom Savile had there. The post, apparently missing the point about power and vulnerability suggests that as the interviewees had not witnessed sexual “impropriety”, they were irrelevant.

The post states that lawyers are often the first port of call for victims of historic abuse, implying that victims construct allegations for financial gain and that delayed disclosure should arouse suspicion. This unfounded observation is surprising as the first survivor interviewed in the programme had disclosed to his parents and school at the time and in adulthood to police when they contacted him during their investigations. The wider evidence suggests that many victims of historic abuse disclose soon after the event to carers, parents, health workers and police who clearly did not “just accept every account, no matter how implausible, without question”, but instead blocked further disclosure and exposure of the perpetrator.

In highlighting insufficient journalistic evidence, this academic post omitted to provide evidence for their own comments or to reference the wider social and research context; that sexual abuse of children does happen, that it is not always disclosed immediately (or ever) and that disclosures not taken seriously, or fear that they may not, silences victims.

The Savile case has generated speculation, headlines and discussion in a society that is increasingly confronting sexual violence. Early evidence from support services suggests that this has enabled some disclosures. Rather than create a panic, I wonder if this case has simply struck a chord with a society that is affected by this issue, and is increasingly knowledgeable about, and prepared to discuss, sexual abuse. Rather than inflating and conflating issues perhaps we are becoming aware of the extent of abuse and understanding the nature of perpetration of sexual violence.

If anything, the failing of reports of Savile’s alleged abuse are guilty of revisiting “stranger danger”, a single monster lurking outside our homes and communities. Recognition that the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence are already known to their victims would have made the media’s reports more accurate, but that story may not have sold so well.

Following the “related” links from the post suggests a focus on minimising the extent and consequences of abuse in our society. Given the nature of twitter and blogs it’s not clear how supportive of this thinking the University of Edinburgh’s Social Work Department is, but the posts do share disbelief in the prevalence of sexual violence and attempt to deflect attention from perpetrators to victims.

It is important to state that disclosure is rarely an easy process. Evidence does not support the notion that false accusations are common. Statutory services have a duty to respond to disclosures of abuse and to ensure that responses are evidence based. Much work has been (and continues to be) done to improve the response to people who have experienced sexual violence in childhood and in adulthood, and third sector agencies have used the evidence they gather from those who have experienced abuse to provide advice and direction in this work. In Scotland, the majority of practitioners want to listen to victims and support them to address the consequences of abuse. I suspect that this post and any positive response to it will be cited as further evidence of the “panic”. Go ahead, panic.

Clare McFeely is a researcher and lecturer with a specialist interest in Gender Based Violence. This post represents the view of the author and does not reflect the view or opinions of any institution with which they are affiliated

The image above is called "Panic" and is by litherland. It is used by permission, under the terms of a Creative Commons license.

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