National Portrait Gallery adds Dame Kelly Holmes to its contemporary idols

Dame Kelly joins the "heroes" in the NPG's range of celebrities.

A portrait of Dame Kelly Holmes is the latest addition to the National Portrait Gallery as part of the BP Portrait award competition. The large-scale oil painting joins such important figures in the NPG's Contemporary Collection as footballer Bobby Charlton and the UK's "favourite"  billionare, Sir Richard Branson. Glancing over the portraits in the Contemporary rooms of the NPG, I'd say that, aesthetically, they have a lot to offer. The variation in styles begins to be somewhat overwhelming, however, leaving one skimming over pieces with less initial impact, such as John Swannell's photo portrait of Princess Diana with her sons (which at first glance I presumed to be a promotional shot from a 1970s family sitcom). Excluding this happy accident of a photo, most of the paintings could belong in any wing of the Tate Modern; some are so obscure that it seems the artists just decided to paint something  in their characteristic style, the famous figures depicted being mere quirks that made the pictures noteworthy enough to get into the NPG. The portrait of Holmesis one of the exceptions in its initial straightforwardness, though she looks so remarkably sad one would guess she had had her two Olympic gold medals revoked. In fact, there is no allusion to her sporting career at all.

But it does leave us questioning the kinds of people our society chooses as role models. Why is it that we value these people? If their fame is celebrated in the form of a portrait, why are the reasons for their being celebrated so often left out of the picture? This is perhaps less surprising in the case of some of the well-known actors portrayed, such as Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren. Perhaps they've reached the stage when they're famous for being famous, like the disreputable Kardashians or the wretched Jade Goody? We see faces such as those of Sir Roy Calne, surgeon extraordinaire, scientist Robert Winston and Body Shop founder and human rights activist Dame Anita Roddick, who have contributed to society in a slightly more productive way. But they are a lonely few in a sea of tabloid-worthy celebrities.

Kelly Holmes and J K Rowling are Orwellian Big Brothers,  inspiration to the proles to make something, anything, of their lives. Congratulations to Dame Kelly for joining the ranks of 16th-century kings and 20th-century singers. Let's hope it motivates the lazy nobodies to get out and climb the ladder so high they're forced to cover their faces in public.

Dame Kelly's portrait will appear alongside Britain's favourite celebrities, including the Queen. Photograph: Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.