No sooner does child abuse get aired than we are warned against witchhunts, obsession, and hysteria. Always. It is happening again; it is de rigueur.
Andrew O’Hagan’s ruminations in the London Review of Books on Jimmy Savile and the dark corners of light entertainment, offer a glimpse of the just how difficult it is for anyone to confront child abuse.
Check out Times columnist David Aaronovitch’s response to the Savile inquiry and the review of the North Wales children’s homes abuse scandal :
‘Don’t launch inquiries on the back of lurid claims’:
Gesturing towards new knowledge abuse, Aaronovitch then cautions:
But it seems we have had to pay an unnecessary price for our new understanding. In Cleveland in the late 1980s, alongside real abusers, completely innocent people were deprived of their children on the basis of the beliefs and a faulty diagnosis of a paediatrician and social worker. Not long afterwards there was panic on Orkney and in cities such as Rochdale and Nottingham, amid claims that there were networks of abusers using satanic rituals as a pretext for acts of abuse, including infanticide and cannibalism. Books were written, front pages were splashed, serious conferences convened, in which dark caverns and human sacrifice were earnestly discussed.The unattractive (because complicating) truth is that sometimes people do lie about being abused. When it all collapsed, as it had to…
It doesn’t matter that this stuff is punctuated by historical inaccuracies and a repetition of the mass hysteria/moral panic line. That never matters. What matters is what this kind of stuff is NOT interested in, and what it is NOT about.
Andrew O’Hagan threw no light on the questions thrown up by Jimmy Savile, perhaps because is not interested in child abuse, nor in how easy it is to get away with it. His rendition of Savile as a man ‘made to the public’s specifications, ’ ignores the other publics who have been challenging marauders like Savile.
British society is not homogenous, it is fissured by sexual abuse, how it happens, to whom, and how it comes to be known.Why did the BBC harbour Savile?
What was it about his horrible persona that the BBC wanted? Was his allure, precisely, misanthropy and misogyny? It was not the public, it was the BBC that made a public according to Savile’s specifications. The broadcasting media do not reflect public taste, they participate in the creation of it.
Crucially, his reputation and room for maneouvre were secured by both the BBC and the Big Society.
Savile traded on the NHS and schools’ dependence on charity. Without charity he would have been just another coarse, grotty DJ. Without the Big Society, he would not have been showered with virtue, blessed by popes and princes and politicians. Without the Big Society he would not have been given the keys to any hospital, school or prison.
Where would Savile have been without the counter-revolution from the late ’80s (apparently endorsed by Aaronivitch) against evidence of sexual crimes against children?
O’Hagan’s contempt for so-called political correctness, and the instant invocation of terms such as ‘moral panic’ and obsession’ whenever child abuse is aired, has licensed grumpy old and young men to grope whoever they like, to proclaim the right to be right-off and swank about it on telly.
Savile’s savvy access to almost anywhere warehousing vulnerable people, from children to patients and prisoners, is a model of grooming and stealthy exploitation. His reputation and the unsteady exposure of his abusiveness, exemplify the condition of knowing and not knowing that describes Britain’s befuddled ‘common sense’ about abuse. Enough people knew for it to have been an open secret.
Ever since sexual abuse was added to the inventory of statutory concerns about children in the 1980s, child protection has been a war zone. Actually, it is defeated.
For three decades child welfare institutions have been unable to withstand the overwhelming and outraged resistance from accused adults to civil libertarians.
Yet, still, there is a determination to tell the story. The ‘choke and sting of experience’ – the Indian anthropologist Veena Das’s poignant phrase – finds its way, somehow, into public knowledge.
It is routinely met by the smug sort of piety that, sadly, was aired again in O’Hagan’s piece:
Child abuse is now a national obsession,’ it produces ‘an unmistakable lack of proportion in the way we talk about the threat to children posed by adults ‘ and by ‘the hysteria, the prurience, the general shrieking that surrounds discussions of discussions of sexual conduct…
What does he make of the somewhat muted, hesistant, ashamed voices of Savile’s victims? Does ‘general shrieking’ describe the hundreds of people who say they were abused by Savile – witnesses spanning 50 years – who finally felt able to quietly share their story with the police/NSPCC?
And what of the dull, defensive response of the institutions?Does ‘shrieking’ and ‘obsession’ describe the dismal response of the criminal justice system to the majority of rapes and sexual assaults reported to the police – a scepticism, by the way, that is an embarrassment to the Metropolitan police, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service.
Where, exactly, in the company O’Hagan keeps, is all this hysteria and shrieking? Isn’t denial of child abuse the national obsession?
On 11 January 2013 the Metropolitan Police and the NSPCC published their report, Giving Victims a Voice, on the evidence of 450 people concerning Savile’s 50 year career as a prolific sexual predator.
(An earlier, shorter version of this appeared in a letter to the LRB).