‘Facts abused by hysterical hacks’ shocker

childandadultOver the past week, with a short-lived foster care controversy and the return of the Leveson Inquiry to the headlines, we’ve had a welcome breather from child abuse hysteria. Don’t fret. It hasn’t gone far. Just as the allegations featured in that Newsnight documentary followed on seamlessly from the sordid Savile affair, there will be more to come. Part of the trouble with this sort of thing is that nobody seems to stop long enough to ask any questions.

As was evident from the feeding frenzy of uninformed commentators circling around the unreliable (and as it turned out unfounded) allegations involving a former Tory minister and a north Wales children’s home. Far from seeking to calm things down – until the studiously bland and otherwise inoffensive Phillip Schofield waded in with his list, that is – the government found itself caught up in this very elite paedophile panic. As The Guardian said at the time, nobody quite seemed to know why a review of the original Waterhouse inquiry into alleged abuse in the 1970s and 80s was even necessary:

 Up to five different inquiries are under way, or imminent, looking into various aspects of child abuse. But ministers feel they must be seen to be taking the allegations seriously, especially since the government has condemned the BBC over the Jimmy Savile allegations.

Child abuse hysterics have fuelled the speculation, demanded a bigger Leveson-like Inquiry (please no!) and insisted on the necessity of a dedicated national anti-paedophile team. As if they haven’t done enough damage already. Suzanne Moore like the professionally paranoid Tom Watson MP – for whom apparently ‘decorous caution is the friend of the paedophile’ – has claimed that she too is party to ‘dark and disturbing information’ emanating from alleged victims. (She doesn’t say ‘alleged’ by the way. They must be believed.) That ‘[s]ome of them are confused about whether they really have been abused’ doesn’t seem to make any difference. But this is no witch hunt. Oh no. That would be distastefully tabloid. Moore, like all child abuse hysterics,  just wants to ‘bring it back to the victims’.

But those hiding behind the ‘victims’ deserve to be exposed as much as their alleged victimisers. Owen Jones, in perhaps the most hysterical piece of all, argues that those defending the minister (wrongly accused of being a paedophile remember) are ‘undermining victims’. So when former minister David Mellor came to the defence of his former colleague there was outrage. Conservative MP Tim Loughton and others blamed him for discouraging other victims from coming forward. Mellor is not everybody’s cup of tea, granted, and calling the mistaken accuser a ‘weirdo’ was ill-advised. But surely it is the irresponsible rumour-mongers like Moore, Watson and Jones – not Mellor – that we should be getting angry at?

Abusing Trust With Dodgy Child Abuse Statistics

First published in Huffington Post

Can everyone please calm down about child abuse?‘ pleaded Claire Fox, of the Institute of Ideas, in one of the few sane and sober commentaries I’d read on the subject. If only those foolish enough to spread suspicion and rumour on the back of the perverse dynamics of the Savile hysteria had heeded these wise words.

Fox wrote the piece following an appearance on Newsnight that, she said, prompted a “minor Twitchunt”. Ironically enough sounding not disimilar to that which was to nearly sink said BBC flagship only days later as it embarked on its own rumour-mongering tarted up as investigative journalism.

In a misguided effort to undo the criticisms of what, in retrospect, might be regarded as an admirably cautious editorial decision not to run the Savile documentary; it took the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ approach instead. And in so doing it indulged in the kind of thing that supposedly respectable media organisations have, post-Leveson, been accusing the gutter press of.

As Fox had warned against they opted “to treat rumour as fact”. Not unlike those other investigations not worthy of the name: notorious social services departments pursued imagined and (as it turned out) imaginary episodes of child abuse in the 1980s. Children were taken from their families on the grounds of scarily-wacky social work theories about Satanic Abuse or, as Fox puts it, because of the ridiculous conviction that ‘all victims must be believed’.

Having written my own piece for The Huffington Post UK disputing the much-repeated statistic that 1 in 4 children are abused, this social work favourite was cited in response. We don’t believe your statistics I was told. They ‘minimise’ abuse. Children don’t lie, apparently. And if they do lie, according to the bizarre and twisted logic of abuse hysteria, its because they are hiding something. Probably abuse.

That these sorts of ideas ‘inform’ the decision making of a profession whose reputation rises and falls on the perceived wisdom of its interventions into children’s and families lives is scandalous. Or at least it would be if we weren’t so obsessed with (actually rare) child abuse. As I explained in my blog, only 0.4% of children are even deemed to be at risk of any kind of abuse – mostly neglect and emotional abuse, and a few cases of physical abuse.

This is in contrast with the exaggerated claims of rampant abuse being made in the context of a controversy about alleged incidences of sexual abuse. The inference at least is clear. As I stated at the time, the category of sexual abuse wasn’t even listed in my Department for Education statistical source such was its rarity. However, on reading a recent publication by the Parliamentary Education Committee, I am now able to put a figure on this latter category too.

There were 2,370 children thought to be at risk of sexual abuse in 2011. The mid-2010 estimate of the population of 0-17 year olds is 11,045,400. This means that the authorities suspected that 0.02% of children in England were at risk of sexual abuse last year. And this is post-Victoria Climbie when social workers are more suspicious than ever and under pressure to discover more cases of potential abuse than they were before. Another reason, incidentally, to be weary of a dynamic that creates anxieties in professionals too as the ‘something must be done’ brigade, also cited by Fox, gets louder and louder.

As she argues, organising society around a “heightened sense of child protection” is costly in every sense of the word; both for the already stretched social care system and in terms of societal trust. But this doesn’t seem to stop those with the lowest view of their fellow human beings insisting that whatever the figures say, we don’t know what’s going on ‘behind closed doors’. Indeed we don’t, but since when did that become an argument for suspecting the very worst? We have every reason to believe the opposite.

By massively overstating the problem of child abuse they are already undermining our relationships with each other and with the institutions in which we might once have invested our trust. The irony being that the likely consequence of the anxieties promoted by those fuelling the Savile affair is a less safe environment for all of our children. One in which adults (and children alike) are less likely to seek the help of strangers; and are far less minded to intervene if they see a child in distress or danger, for fear of being suspected of something untoward. Such is the legacy of child abuse hysteria.

One in Four? Tip of the iceberg

First published in Huffington Post

It’s the favoured statistic of fear-mongers everywhere. 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year. 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence at some point in their life. In the United States, according to one campaign group, 1 in 4 college women have survived rape or attempted rape. According to another group, 1 in 4 people in Ireland experience sexual abuse. And in the UK too. As the aptly-named One in Four UK has it: ‘Research has consistently shown that one in four children will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18’.

Research? I objected this weekend to an item in which a necessarily hysterical spokesperson for the child protection lobby repeated this ‘research’ in the context of the ongoing Savile witch-hunt. The implication being not only that abuse is very prevalent but that it is of the vile predatory paedophile kind. Of course, as I hope most of us realise, neither of these things are true. The after-the-fact pursuit of Savile, an allegedly despicable pervert who after his death looks every bit the dirty old man, has only confirmed the no less perverse dynamics brought into being by child abuse hysteria. Still one Twitter-follower objected – and maybe not all that unreasonably given the disorienting climate of suspicion – ‘if you know the real figure (as you clearly think you do), now would be a good time to share it’. Which I did. You see while I would prefer to trust that most of us don’t suspect our friends and family of abusing their kids, there comes a time when you have to counter a bad stat with one that has some substance to it.

So here goes. At the end of March 2011, the latest period for which the Department for Education collects statistics, there were 42,700 children in England subject to a child protection plan. That is 42,700 children out of a mid-2010 total estimated at 11,045,400 0-17 year olds. If you do the maths that comes to 0.38658%. You may have noticed that this is rather less than 1 in 4. But what does being subject to a child protection plan, or what used to be called being on the child protection register, actually mean? It means that local authorities are sufficiently concerned that a child may be at risk of neglect or abuse that a social worker and various other professionals are investigating the case to decide what, if any, action to take. And what is meant by abuse? In most cases (42.5%) there is a strong suspicion of child neglect rather than abuse per se; most other cases being one’s of suspected emotional abuse (27.3%) or physical abuse (13%). The DfE Statistical Release doesn’t even mention sexual abuse as a category. Such is its rarity.

Just to be clear. Far from confirming the much-cited 1 in 4 rate of child abuse, the DfE figures show that less than half a percent of children in England are even suspected of being subject to neglect or emotional or physical abuse. And there is an even smaller chance that they are suspected of being sexually abused. No doubt child abuse campaigners will argue that this is just the tip of the iceberg. They always do. Or maybe, like the campaigners against domestic abuse, they will claim that the definition of abuse isn’t wide enough. As I might have said to my Twitter-critic even when you do have the evidence with which to rubbish the dodgy stats produced by those who have already made up their twisted minds; it won’t convince them. The cultural imagination that produces the kind of Savile-related hysteria we have been witness to over recent days and weeks is deeply ingrained. Having the facts on your side is only one part of the battle. The other is to ask why influential sections of society find it so easy to believe 1 in 4 of our children are being abused in the first place?

Where Are The Grown-ups?

First published in Huffington Post

Maybe its because I’ve hit 40 that I’ve developed this ‘what is the world coming to?’ response to much of what I hear in the news. You know the feeling? Its similar to the one when you don’t recognise any of the celebs on the front of Hello! magazine any more; or when you really can’t tell one boy band from another, and are genuinely shocked by the goings-on on Geordie Shore. But maybe its not me, its you. Or them?

It all started with the relentlessly destructive dynamic of the past few weeks’ Jimmy Savile hysteria. The abuse done to our sense of normality, to our ability to get a bit of perspective on things. The BBC apparently admitting all without quite knowing what it was accused of. Then there was the news that the European Court of Human Rights may force us to give prisoners the vote. Some supposedly liberal types thought this a wonderful idea. Not for democracy but for the rehabilitation of prisoners! And the interrogation of Emma Harrison, former chair of the much-maligned A4E, by Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News has been doing the rounds on YouTube. The interviewer’s Paxman-like demolition of this former beneficiary of the payment-by-results Work Programme has been much applauded. The Programme itself came out of it relatively unscathed, despite the revelation that millions of public money was spent on getting less than 4 of 100 long-term unemployed into work.

These three stories may sound like they have nothing to do with each other. But they are of a kind in as far as each features the increasingly shaky relationship some of us seem to have with what it means to be an adult. So what really bothered me about Harrison was not her past at A4E but how she played the victim in that interview. She accused Guru-Murthy of bullying her. What irked most about those ‘liberal’ campaigners for prisoner votes is that they were unable to tell the difference between free citizens having the right to exercise that freedom at the polls, and the unfreedom implied by the imprisonment of those who fail to live up to society’s agreed minimum standards. With Savile it was less his alleged abuse of children, than the failure of his detractors to even entertain the notion that allegations against a dead man recollected by adults who were children at the time, do not imply that the BBC, and society at large, is really a giant paedophile ring.

The trawling of 70s and 80s childhoods and the corridors of the BBC for dark tales of unimaginable deeds; the turning of democracy, and the hard won right to vote, into a not very promising therapy for convicts; the appeal to one’s own vulnerability when cornered by a journalist and asked to account for one’s actions; are each testament to the fact that increasingly acting like a grown-up and demanding to be treated as such, has gone out of fashion. We are actively diminished by each of these events, as capable, autonomous adults, deserving of each other’s respect. Trusting that we are not a society of abusers and victims, not turning one bad case into the proverbial and all too chilling ‘tip of the iceberg’; and having self-respect enough not to feel bullied when somebody says something we don’t like, are the sorts of qualities every wannabe grown-up should aspire to. If we don’t rediscover what it means to be a grown-up pretty soon I fear things could really get out of hand. Oh, they already have.