Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Times's Daniel Finkelstein says that if the Liberal Democrats want to become the leading progressive party, they must target Tory, not Labour seats at the next election:

Mr Clegg's stated strategic goal of taking over the centre left is at odds with his tactic of targeting Labour seats at the next election. Labour retains sufficient regional strength that an attempt by the Liberal Democrats simply to wipe them out seems almost certain to fail. They may, to be sure, win a few seats in Labour areas next time. But, after that, progress will stall. And the targeting will have had a huge cost. It will make the sort of soft merger of the forces of the centre left -- the informal coalition-in-all-but-name that the Liberals must hope to lead in a few years' time -- much harder to form.

In the Daily Telegraph, Irwin Stelzer reflects on Irving Kristol's life and his influence on David Cameron's thought:

It was Kristol, too, who realised an important fact that underlies much of David Cameron's thinking: culture affects economic performance. The family must be preserved, as it is the source of the stability that permits people to look to the future, save and invest. Crime must not be condoned, lest society unravels. Welfare that induces dependence is a disservice to the recipients, even if those who make it available feel good.

In the Guardian, Vernon Bogdanor writes that Britain's unreformed electoral system allows the main parties to ignore their declining membership:

There has been a prodigious alteration in the public perception of parties, but it remains unnoticed because the electoral system fails to register it. The system refracts rather than reflects opinion, emphasising the major party vote and de-emphasising the vote for minor parties and independents. It enables Westminster to remain a closed shop, so allowing the major parties to postpone confronting the crucial question of how they are to regain their lost members and voters.

The Wall Street Journal's Thomas Frank argues that the Democrats must champion health-care reform on moral, not technical grounds:

From the beginning they have understood the problem primarily as a technical consumer issue, not a bid for social justice in a manifestly unjust time. In their criticism of the insurance industry they have largely avoided terms like "profiteering" in favour of dry talk about lower costs and more competition -- hardly an ideal platform from which to launch a crusade.

The Independent's Johann Hari says that the EU and the US should concede to China's key demand at the Copenhagen climate talks:

China has hinted it would agree to more substantial restraint at Copenhagen if the rich world -- responsible for 90 per cent of all the warming gases belched into the atmosphere so far -- agrees to give 1 per cent of its GDP annually to poor countries to adjust to clean fuels. There's a lot to criticise the Chinese dictatorship for, but this isn't one of them. It's a reasonable request for simple justice. Poor countries have done very little to cause this crisis, but they will feel the worst, first. They deserve our reparations. Yet both the EU and US have damned this sane proposal as "totally unrealistic".

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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 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.