Which story is the April Fool?

After a quick look through the tabloids’ websites, it’s quite difficult to tell.

Oh, we have a laugh, don't we? April Fool and all that. Hyuk hyuk hyuk. The day when you can't believe anything you read in the papers!

Take, for example, this story in the Express: SALT BANNED IN CHIP SHOPS. I mean, we're not really meant to believe it, are we? Come off it. Classic April Fool japery, and very well executed – the casual observer could be lulled into thinking that salt really was being banned! The SALT BANNED headline and the intro "Salt shakers are being removed" make it appear to be a genuine story – but it has all the hallmarks of an April Fool spoof.

Props to the Express, though, for including quotes from the Taxpayers' Alliance and the Monmouth MP David Davies to make the nonsense appear more believable. But really! They'd certainly check the facts before lending their respected voices to a story that isn't all it seems. So, well done to them for playing along in the spirit of 1 April.

Oh.

The date on that "salt banned" story appears to be 31 March, not 1 April. And it seems that it was put out there as a real story claiming SALT IS BANNED, despite the salt not being "banned" at all, but merely tucked away behind the counter.

I suppose if that's a ban, you could say cigarettes are BANNED because they're behind the counter: you know, BANNED in the sense of being "available to customers". That kind of BANNED. The same kind of BANNED that cars are thanks to bonkers Brussels beaurocrats, as reported in Tuesday's Daily Express. When the headline says "Cars face ban from all cities . . . another plan forced on us by the crazy EU", that encapsulates a story in which no one is demanding that cars be banned from any city (let alone all) quite neatly.

If you've tried scouring through the tabloids' websites this morning, thinking to yourself "Which one's the April Fool?" I don't blame you if you've given up in the end. Is it the boy who assaulted someone with a marshmallow? The travelator on the golf course? The poodles dressed as koi carp and a panda? How are we supposed to tell the difference?

April Fool spoofs work because of a level of trust in the other 364 days of the year; if you're largely expecting what's presented to you to be entirely accurate, you could easily be fooled by a plausible enough tale this morning. If you get told about bans that aren't bans on a fairly regular basis, you might look at the April Fool stories and think: Oh well, it's no less ridiculous than what we had the other day.

It's all coming to an end, this annual silliness, for a few reasons. First, because readers can quickly seek out information to debunk the stories. Second, because we're all becoming even more healthily sceptical about what we read in the papers than we ever were. And last, because the EU has BANNED April Fool stories for reasons of health and safety. You couldn't make it up . . .

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.