Not Ben's Blog: The Sequel

Old age protesters are driving political dissent in this country

“Try and track down Mark Thomas while I’m away,” said Ben as he departed for the wilds of Cornwall in his Bentley, leaving me to perform the online equivalent of watering the cat and feeding the plants. “And good luck.”

In fact it proved rather easier to locate the elusive comic campaigner than I’d imagined. There he was on stage last Saturday, addressing the crowds that had gathered in Trafalgar Square for the latest anti-war/stop Trident demonstration.

Mark’s best gag was to wonder why we needed a deterrent when the last nuclear assault on this country occured in a central London sushi bar. As he wisely pointed out, any number of Union Jack-stamped warheads can’t counter the polonium-laced tuna and sashimi menace.

Anyway, Mark is back on newstatesman.com this week, inviting you to download a badge (surely a web first?) of the imprisoned Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan.

You should be aware that this could, strictly, count as “glorifying terrorism” after a parliamentary book launch for a collection of Ocalan’s prison writings was banned on just those grounds – but you can always claim it’s Borat, says Mark. Separated at birth? Read the article and make up your own mind.

Back to the subject of Saturday’s march, one thing that struck me was the average age of those on the streets. Public demonstrations are traditionally associated with youthful idealism yet judging by the number of OAPs (old age protesters) I saw, more of those involved had cut their political teeth marching to Aldermaston in the 1960s than on the great anti-war gathering of 2003.

Even the speakers are beginning to show their age. Tony Benn, that sacred totem of the left, recalled that he had first spoken in Trafalgar Square more than half a century ago at the time of that other misconceived British military misadventure, Suez. Livingstone, Galloway and the numerous veterans of Greenham Common are hardly new voices either.

Only Rose Gentle, speaking eloquently and emotionally about the death of her soldier son, Gordon, in Iraq, ensured the day did not simply become a nostalgic tribute to a golden age of leftie activism.

None of this is to belittle the efforts of those present or their contribution to the long and illustrious history of protest in this country, but it is to wonder where the next generation of political campaigners will come from. Four years ago Ms. Dynamite represented the yoof voice, but now even she is nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, the Stop the War coalition has now hit on a fairly desperate scheme to try to engage the iPod generation, urging peace campaigners to download a new version of Edwin Starr’s classic “War (What is it good for?)” purporting to be by Ugly Rumours, Tony Blair’s former musical collaborators.

“Tony Blair’s band is back – You can send the Prime Minister into the charts,” says the website hopefully.

Even the song is old. And as if the kids care who's No. 1 in the pop charts anymore anyway.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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 non-recent 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 only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

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.