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Panicking over the past

February 11, 2013

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about in the present, the Jimmy Savile affair opens up the whole of recent history as a site for us to panic over. On the surface, it is difficult to argue with the way in which the so-called ‘Savile affair’ has been represented: a celebrity, exposed as an utterly reprehensible character, uses his status to sexually abuse weak and vulnerable children; those children, now adults, buoyed by the publicity of knowing that others were similarly mistreated, pluck up the courage to tell their stories; they seek redress through concepts of ‘justice’ and ‘closure’; the agents of the state, who failed to recognize or heed their plight at the time, indulge in some ritual breast-beating and promise to do things better this time round.

What right-minded person would want to stand in the way of ‘victims’’ ‘rights’ for ‘justice’ and ‘closure’? These are powerful constructs. To question them renders one somehow not right-minded, a denier of victims’ experiences and, by extension, their wider identities. Yet, if we are truly interested in a notion of justice that goes beyond retribution and if we contemplate in any depth what the implications might be for those who are caught on this confessional tide of recounting past abuse, then we need to ask questions of the way in which this story has unfolded. This has not been a chance or neutral process; once broken, such stories are stoked by various ‘claims makers’ to promote their own professional interests and to impose their own narrow moral views upon society. When subject matter becomes moralized in such a way, then other features of moral panics (such as disproportionality and illiberal policy responses) follow closely behind.

In what follows, I present some caveats about casting a retrospective gaze over past abuse. The subject matter is not just the Savile case but also my own field of interest, residential child care. Over the course of the 1990s, more than 8000 former care workers across England and Wales became caught up in allegations of abusing children in their care, the deeply disproportionate scale of which activity constitutes what Webster (2005) has described as ‘a witch-hunt of frightening proportions’. This is a largely unexplored episode in social work’s recent history, obscured behind the raft of official inquiries and culminating in the Waterhouse Report (2000), all of which pronounce, piously and censoriously, how awful child abuse is and how we cannot allow it to happen again, in much the same way that the Yewtree Inquiry recently pronounced on Savile.

On the back of the Savile case, the UK Government has picked up on demands to revisit Waterhouse, on the assumption that it failed to get to the bottom of child abuse in North Wales.  The irony of this is that Waterhouse has already been forensically and authoritatively deconstructed in Richard Webster’s book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn (2005). The ‘secret’ uncovered by Webster is not that Waterhouse failed to root out high profile abusers with links to the higher echelons of power but that there was no evidence that those links existed. Furthermore, there was found to be no widespread or systemic abuse at Bryn Estyn or any of the other homes investigated. The trouble is that few have read Webster; still fewer have managed to refute his central claims. But the lack of evidence to support received views of historical child abuse seem unlikely to stem the tide of demands for further inquiry. As Radstone notes:

‘Certain stories have a peculiar tendency to be believed, reshaped, and passed on because they appeal to strong feelings in the human psyche – they push our buttons. Such a story is said to take on a life of its own. In other words, certain stories have a high cultural fitness which is largely independent of the truth of their content. Our current social commentary is shaped by virtual emotions arising out of manufactured victimhood’ (2005:142).

Stories involving children and sex are up there at the top of the list of those that push our buttons. The very idea of children and sex seems to appeal to a deep-seated human need to reclaim and safeguard a state of childhood innocence (Gittins, 1998). It is also linked to an equally primitive tendency to perceive them as being prey to ‘evil’ threats (Frankfurter, 2006).  The insinuation of such perceived threats into the body politic and the strong deterrence of those who might question their nature or scale, create the conditions through which irrational beliefs and actions may take hold.

Such irrational beliefs are not entirely without foundation; there is generally something at the root of all moral panics. There seems little doubt that, for example, Savile engaged in behaviours that can only be thought of as vile. There is no doubt that some children were abused in residential child care as they were/are in any setting where they come into contact with adults. It is not the fact but the scale of such abuse that is open to question. And it is the disproportionality in responses that takes responses to such matters into the realm of moral panic. The reality is that we do not know the scale of Savile’s abuse, nor do we know the scale of abuse in residential child care. In fact, official sources on abuse in care offer very little insight as to its scale. Scottish responses emanate from two petitions to the Scottish Parliament. One of these petitions contained only one signatory, the other, four (Scottish Parliament 2002, 2005). In a similar vein, the children’s advocacy group Who Cares? (Scotland) had to close down a helpline established to advise victims of historical abuse after it received only one telephone call in a three-month period (Scottish Executive 2005). In the absence of hard data, we revert to the tip of the iceberg principle, assuming that most abuse remains uncovered. This, of course, supports a particular argument for resources to be provided to ‘uncover’ abuse that we suspect must be out there but have no way of quantifying.

The search for evil

One of the fascinating aspects of the way that society responds to issues of historical abuse is that, at their root, is an idea of evil. The focus of this quest to identify and root out evil has shifted from its personification in religious discourse in the Devil to more secular arenas. In its pursuit of evil, the State can become more oppressive than any religious regime, its adherents sustained by what Webster (2005) calls a pornography of righteousness every bit as strident and dangerous as erstwhile religious zeal. In a secularised discourse, there is perhaps no more potent replacement for ‘the Devil’ than the brutes accused of abusing those they were supposed to care for or a celebrity using that status to exploit sick and vulnerable children. Frankfurter (2006) argues that, as a wider social phenomenon, historical abuse is mythical, less a crime than a state of mind. The identification of historical abuse as evil, he claims, amounts to ‘intellectual laziness, shutting off inquiry and the proper search for context’ (2006: 11-12). Young (2009), picking up on the process of deviancy amplification noted in earlier ‘moral panics’ (see Cohen, 1972) claims that responses to evil ‘sometimes expressed in terms of demonization, sometimes with humanitarian undertones …. (are) grossly disproportionate to the event’ (2009: 13). Frankfurter goes further. He cautions that ‘the real atrocities of history seem to take place not in the perverse ceremonies of some evil cult but in the course of purging such cults from the world. Real evil happens when people speak of evil’ (2006: 12).


So, what might some of the consequences of speaking of evil be? These, I suggest, might be framed within an ever-greater illiberalism in society. This is maintained through particular rhetorical devices such as a claim to be on the side of the victim. Again, this, on the surface, is something that is difficult to argue against. However, the term ‘victim’ is not neutral. Rather, the exploitation and ownership of victimhood is central to current narratives about crime (Butler and Drakeford 2008). Its exploitation in this context is not therapeutic, but is illiberal and oppressive. Conflating the therapeutic with the evidential in the way that reports such as Yewtree do ‘allows child protection ideologies ‘to penetrate where orthodox policing can no longer go’ (Wrennel, 2011).

One particular consequence of the way that this story has unfolded is the erosion of the time-honoured legal safeguard of the presumption of innocence. Whatever one thinks of Jimmy Savile, he is due the same legal protection as anyone else i.e. he is innocent until proven otherwise in a properly constituted Court of Law.

We ought as a society to be very worried when the Metropolitan Police, ACPOS, CEOP, the Crown Prosecution Service and the NSPCC come together in the Yewtree Inquiry to make common cause to effectively pronounce a dead man guilty in the absence of any due process.

We also need to consider what the motives of these actors might be. Large children’s charities such as the NSPCC have a financial interest in stoking up claims and incidences of abuse. Emotional appeals bring in the cash. As for the police, it is interesting to note that, at a time when crime rates are showing a significant fall, they, aided and abetted by politicians, need to draw more and more behaviours into the criminal realm. In that sense, the past has become one massive crime scene.

Bringing things back to social work and a more individual level, there are hundreds of casualties of dominant understandings and responses to historical abuse, not least those falsely accused or convicted and their families. One has to ask, too, whether residential child care is a better or safer place as a result of the scrutiny it has been placed under. David Webb (2009) offers an insightful retrospective suggesting that it has lost any of the sense of moral purpose that once motivated workers.  The onslaught of privatisation, de-regulation (yet at the same time hyper-regulation) and the various scandals indicative of a failure to care that continue to emerge might suggest that we have not moved on.

So, what might be some lessons for social work in all of this? Firstly, it would do well to adopt a critical stance on this as on any other issue, rather than mimicking the assumptions and the language of the police (Garrett, 2004). Secondly, and to conclude on one of the key messages from the moral panic literature; there is a danger in taking some issues too seriously then we fail to take some issues seriously enough. The major issues that ought to be concerning a profession that is ostensibly interested in social change is the poverty and inequality that exists in society and is about to be intensified in the latest welfare reforms. This is the major threat to children in the current climate.

A fuller discussion of residential child care and moral panics is set out in an article written with colleagues, Viv Cree and Gary Clapton.

‘Time to be heard: Interrogating the Scottish Government’s response to historical child abuse’, Scottish Affairs (2012).


Butler, I and Drakeford, M., 2008. Booing or cheering? Ambiguity in the construction of victimhood in the case of Maria Colwell. Crime Media Culture, 4 (3), pp. 367-385

Frankfurter, D, (2006) Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History. New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Gittins, D. (1997) The Child in Question, Basingstoke: MacMillan

Hacking, I. (1991) The Making and Molding of Child Abuse. Critical Inquiry vol 17 (2): 253-288.

Scottish Parliament (2005) Public Petitions Committee Petition PE888, 27 September.

Scottish Executive (2005) Letter from Peter Peacock, Minister for Children and Young People to Michael McMahon MSP, 25th Aug 2005.

Waterhouse, R. (2000) Lost in Care. London: The Stationery Office.

Webster, R. (2005) The Secret of Bryn Estyn. Oxford: Orwell Press

Woodiwiss, J. (2009) Contesting Stories of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

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