The Savile (no one seems to call him Jimmy anymore) program has now been nominated in two Royal Television Society Award categories . Current Affairs - Home and Scoop of the Year. Mark Williams Thomas (MWT) tweeted this and I was prompted to respond, somewhat flippantly on reflection, that it would feel ‘grubby’ to win an award on the back of child abuse.
I then found myself in debate (not with MWT) regarding my comment and it was suggested that I was focusing on the child abuse and not the ‘tireless work’ MWT had done to expose it. Further more I was tainting MWT achievement by suggesting he was in ‘cahoots with the abuse’.
My position was that exposing child abuse to the general public by means of TV documentary is not necessary and that there other ways to deal with child sexual abuse. This other way I refer to is alerting the appropriate authorities and allowing due process. This argument was countered by the fact, and it is a fact, that this route had not been successful and thus allowed Savile et al to abuse for 30 years.
I am not seeking to attack MWT or the work he does. I am seeking to understand my reaction to the program and the subsequent award nomination. I would also very much like to encourage the views of others, both on my reaction and their views in general. If you are reading this please comment, I enjoy the debate and am eager to learn from the views of others.
Following the Savile show I believe child sexual abuse has become a cause célèbre. I do not believe that was the intent of the show and I do believe the original show was a serious piece of journalism… but much of what has followed is not.
For weeks following the show it was impossible to watch any news bulletin without viewing images of Savile leering at children. Other celebrities and high profile figures such as politicians have also been implicated and of course the BBC. The ‘story’ had all the ingredients for a media feeding frenzy and the media did not disappoint. Amongst all of that there were of course the victims of Savile, who had found a voice and were finally being listened to.
The relationship between the media and agencies involved in child sexual abuse is frequently an uneasy one. The Savile exposé has caused me to reflect on this unease and I can see that MWT’s hard work has reaped very tangible results. However, I struggle with the way this was achieved i.e releasing the findings to the general public thereby forcing the hand of agencies who hither to appeared to ignore the allegations. This ‘dropping a bombshell’ method is effective and I assume the argument is that the ends justify the means. But I am left asking before dropping the bombshell what did MWT and his team try first to address the serious issues they uncovered? The answer I came up (and I stand to be corrected) is not much. After all, their job is to make a TV documentary, and in this case although the documentary was about past events it was clearly seeking to influence future ones. MWT was not getting paid to expose child abuse, he was paid to produce a documentary. I want to reiterate that I am not attacking MWT, I believe he is an expert in his field and has produced some fine work. This is about my reaction to his work and the questions it has raised for me about the role of the media in delicate issues such as child sexual abuse.
In writing this I come to the conclusion that the central question for me is;
What are the ‘ends’ that were achieved and do they justify the means?
Apparently since the Savile exposé so many people have now come forward to report child abuse that it has led to the Norfolk Police Commissioner commenting that council tax will have to rise to deal with soaring demand. That is a claim which I find astonishing and tend to agree with MTW’s view that it actually illustrates a problem with cuts to Police funding, not with his program.
Nevertheless it does prove that the documentary has empowered many victims to speak up and report abuse. The fact that the Police are inundated illustrates that the voices of the abused are being heard. But I believe it these voices are reduced to a whisper by the loudest voices, which are those who seek to apportion blame for what has happened, in the name of understanding and preventing such events occurring again.
Clearly there is important work to be done in this area, but if the loud voices win the day and significant Police resources are focused in this area what becomes of the majority of victims of child sexual abuse who are not abused by celebrities, but by parents, relatives and family friends? As the NSPCC point out "The majority of perpetrators sexually assault children known to them, with about 80% of offences taking place in the home of either the offender or the victim." Does the current media obsession with celebrity abusers directly caused by the Savile exposé help parents protect their children and children protect themselves? I would say that it does not. In fact I would go so far as to say it is in danger of taking us back to the days of ‘stranger danger’ and the vision of the ‘dirty old man’ lurking by the playground.
This brings me to the conclusion that Mark Thomas Williams’ work has been a benefit to historical victims of child sexual abuse and for that we should applaud him. However, the by-product of the documentary has been a refocusing of the public and certain professions, awareness of child abuse, away from the most likely offenders and towards stranger (celebrity) danger.
I am struggling to see where this is helping current or future victims who statistically will not be abused by a stranger or celebrity, but by a person they know. This, I believe, is an unintended consequence of the massive media interest in Jimmy Savile and Operations Yewtree and Fernbridge.
And to my initial gut reaction of saying that getting an award on the back of child abuse was ‘grubby’. It was a flippant comment, but on reflection I stand by it. I would say that I think MWT’s intentions were honest enough; he wanted to expose a highly regarded celebrity as the man he really was and provide a voice for his victims. But this was only ever achievable via a TV show and it was always going to be headline grabbing and salacious, in short it was entertainment. And now it is it being nominated for awards I wonder if any of Savile’s victims get to go the award ceremony?