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Lunatics taking over asylums

June 6, 2014

When I was growing up and becoming interested in social issues, Panorama was the pinnacle of serious television journalism. That historical impression has stayed with me, so when I noticed that this Monday’s edition was devoted to the Jimmy Savile case, I made a point of watching it. It had been trailed as detailing further details of Savile’s alleged abuse, down to the fact that his youngest victim was said to be only two years old. I assumed that the programme must have had evidence to substantiate such a serious and specific claim; not a bit of it. When, after half an hour, the programme came to an abrupt halt, it had produced not one shred of evidence. All it did offer was a re-hash of claims advanced by particular organisations and individuals. Claims-making around issues that assume a moralising dimension are central to the genesis of a panic.

So, who are the particular claims-makers in the Savile case? Interestingly, the claims-maker in chief did not feature in the Monday’s Panorama. He is Mark Williams Thomas (MA) who, according to his website is a TV Presenter, Criminologist & Child Protection Expert, ‘a former police detective who has far-reaching experience of working at the centre of high profile investigations’. What galls me personally, as one of the first cohorts of social workers to undertake post -qualifying training in child protection in the early 1990s, is his claim to be a child protection expert. I wonder what is meant by child protection expert when Mark Williams Thomas describes himself as such?

Williams Thomas does seem to have had some success as a TV presenter. He worked on a documentary about Savile for the BBC’s Newsnight programme, which didn’t see the light of day. ITV subsequently ran it as Exposure: The other side of Jimmy Savile. Thus, began the moral panic. Its decision not to run the Savile expose led to the BBC being slated for seeking to cover up Savile’s behaviours whilst in their employ; in fact, they had pulled the Newsnight programme for the good, but increasingly quaint, reason that it didn’t confirm to what once were thought of as journalistic standards of evidence. One might assume that Monday’s Panorama was calculated to counteract the previous bad publicity that had been focused on the BBC for its alleged cover-up. If that was the intention, it really should have drawn upon a more convincing supporting cast to advance its claims.

Leading the way was Liz Dux of the multi-national law firm Slater and Gordon. Talking of those now claiming to have been abused by Savile in various BBC studios she claimed, not a little melodramatically, that “They went there for the experience of their lives and they came away scarred for life”. I have wondered for a good while now why litigation lawyers seem to be the first port of call for those who claim to have suffered historical abuse? Maybe I just have a suspicious mind and am heartlessly dismissive of the accounts of those who claim to have been abused by dead or ageing celebrities? I’m not, but nor do I think that we can just accept every account, no matter how implausible, without question.

Next up was another child protection expert. Well, he must be a child protection expert because he is Director of Child Protection Advice and Support for the NSPCC and co-author of the Giving Victims a Voice Report. Again, it’s not clear beyond his title what Peter Watt’s child protection experience or expertise is. The passing reference to Savile having abused a two year old was accompanied by an insert at the bottom of the screen saying that the source for this claim was the NSPCC; no evidence was provided.

The supporting cast on the programme consisted of a psychiatrist who had worked at Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital but patently saw nothing to suggest that she was aware of any sexual impropriety on Savile’s part; a couple of former psychiatric nurses who were understandably bemused that Savile appeared to have been given a troubleshooting role at the hospital by the former Tory Home Secretary, Edwina Currie. From their perspective, a lunatic had been given the keys to the asylum. Another former psychiatric nurse who had not even worked at the hospital but claimed that former patients there had disclosed of abuse to her and that she had passed these disclosures onto the police. That the police and the Chief Executive of the hospital denied any knowledge of her claims only served to reinforce the assumption that a cover-up had taken place.

If the programme had any strengths, it wasn’t in providing any new information about Jimmy Savile but in offering some telling insights into the workings of the political establishment. It seems at least plausible that Margaret Thatcher and Edwina Currie may have thought they could buy some ‘street cred’ through socialising with Savile, as though he were a strange but harmless and ultimately deferential representative of the lower orders.

But the real tragedy of the programme was what it said about journalistic standards on a flagship BBC programme. When serious claims about an individual, especially perhaps one that is dead and cannot defend himself, are made without a shred of evidence; when the claims of moral entrepreneurs with obvious financial and professional stakes in perpetuating their particular version of reality are accepted without demur; when child protection is degraded to become a battle among corporate charities for funds and when it is open to anyone to call themselves a child protection expert, then the lunatics really have taken over the establishment. This tweet says it all …

Mark Smith, 6th June 2014





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