War is sport, sport is war

I feel like I’m spoiling all the fun, but I find it distasteful to reduce the Libya campaign to a fo

IT'S WAR. The Sunday Mirror headline said it all. It wasn't quite the barely restrained glee of Chris Morris's presenter on The Day Today announcing the opening of hostilities, but it wasn't a bus ride away from it, either.

You can get a clue to how we see war by how newspapers are selling themselves through their front pages. The news-stands are covered with more explosions than human faces; the bombs are the story, and the message. One cloverleaf-shaped explosion in particular so beautifully conveys the story that it's on five front pages today. The bombs are the stars.

The Sun veered close to "Gotcha!" territory with today's headline, "TOP GUNS 1, MAD DOG 0", superimposed on the blast. This is war as a football match, war as a thing that can be counted in terms of a score. One-nil to us! "We", the Allied forces, are the "Top Guns"; we are Tom Cruise on a brave but necessary mission against one man, The Mad Dog, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Other newspapers take a different approach. The Independent and Guardian sell themselves on human faces and, in the Guardian's case, the result of those pretty orange bomb clouds: dead bodies. And that brings the reality home. All of a sudden it isn't a cup tie, or a film with a stirring soundtrack where the goodies defeat the baddies, or a distant kaboom on a strip of desert: this is something very real.

Whatever the arguments, or the case for intervention, or the case for intervening in Libya instead of, say, Bahrain or Yemen, this isn't a football match. This isn't a Hollywood film. This isn't one-nil. This isn't half-time. Those beautiful cloverleaf explosions will have people inside them . . . I feel like I'm spoiling everyone's fun, but there it is. I find it a little distasteful to reduce the military campaign to a football score, an away win, a penalty kick.

The Sun was just carrying on the good work from the News of the World yesterday, whose front-page "BLOWN TO BRITS" explosion and cut-out missile carried the same message. Just in case you had any lingering doubts about who was The Bad Guy, the subs helpfully put Gaddafi's face in bright red cross-hairs. To further stoke the jingoism, we were told it was "our boys" who were making the things explode.

This, then, is the tabloid glee of war. Our Boys are attacking The Mad Dog, and it's one-nil already. How can we not support it? How can we not be shocked and awed by the beautiful photos of explosions, the family-friendly pictures, without mangled corpses or that messy business that gets left behind when the clouds disappear? IT'S WAR. War is sport, sport is war. Look away now if you don't want to know the score.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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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.