Here's watching you, Big Brother

Despite the tabloid sleaze-fest, will the reality TV show survive its move to Channel 5?

Here it comes, whether you like it or not.

Big Brother is approaching for its annual cavalcade of fame-hungry stage-school kids fighting, shouting, crying and shoving wine bottles up their vajayjays - but this time, there'll be a difference. This is Richard Desmond's Big Brother now it's on Channel 5.

I wrote a short while ago about how Desmond's publications have turned into an incestuous circle-jerk of cross-promotion in which it's hard to work out where the plugging ends and the actual content begins. And BB is going to be all of that, but turned up to 11.

It has already begun.

"We're starting to get really excited about the return of BB," says New magazine, ahead of the usual rather predictable celebrity flimflam in which it's reported that Cheryl Cole zeugmatically lambasted her sometime beau Ashely Cole on the phone: "You'll never be in my life, my home or my heart again".

Meanwhile, Star magazine says "We're all talking about Big Brother's return!". Are we? Apparently, we are. Well, when you're in the Desmond universe, we are.

OK goes with "Big Brother presenters finally reveal their shocking new celebrity housemates" on the cover, introducing a story in which, surprise surprise, the new celebrity housemates aren't actually revealed. But regular readers know by now that the coverlines aren't so much a description of what's inside the mag as a series of long-range salvoes intended to hit as many targets as possible. Brian Dowling, host of the new show, reveals that he would love to see "Britney Spears and the Octomom".

So now we know.

As well as all that, there's a handily-timed celebrity coupling of former Big Brother contestants - Alex Reid, crossdressing cagefighter and onetime husband of Katie Price, has become smitten with Chantelle Houghton, the celebrity who wasn't a celebrity, but then she was, but then she wasn't again. Never let it be said, by the way, that I'm snooty about this kind of publication because it contains some delightful prose:

When these two heartbreak refugees, drowning in the shark-infested waters of failed celebrity relationships, clambered aboard their love life raft and bumped lips for the first time, the nation raised a collective eyebrow and tutted,

splurges the intro, rather joyfully anticipating the cynicism. OK is well worth a read, even if you have no love whatsoever for the parade of beaming physogs within.

The stage is set, then, for an all-out assault from Desmond's assets over the coming weeks. The Daily Star has always prided itself (if "pride" is a feeling we can, hand on heart, associate with that publication) on plastering its pages with Big Brother whenever it turns up; and this can surely only accelerate as the frenzy begins; the Daily Express will no doubt show a great deal more interest in BB this time around, due to the Channel 5 connection.

There's nothing wrong or unethical with any of this, by the way; it's just that I think it might be interesting to see the way in which the rival publications deal with it. How are the Star and Express's non-Desmond-owned tabloid counterparts going to cope with giving what is essentially free publicity to a competing business? On the other hand, it's going to be difficult to pretend that Big Brother isn't there, either. Is there going to be some way of covering it without covering it? Perhaps we'll start to see a slew of articles on how BB isn't what it used to be, how it should have ended with Davina, how it's all gone pear-shaped since it moved from Channel 4... and perhaps it's not beyond the realms of imagination to think that these kind of articles are already being penned in preparation for the battle ahead.

As for me, I've always watched Big Brother, and I suspect that isn't going to change any time soon; whether it survives the transition from Channel 4 to Channel 5 we don't know just yet. But I think that the move might actually be a chance, to use that horrible phrase, to "reboot the franchise" and clear out the clutter. If it does fail, I have a feeling it won't be because of a lack of support from Richard Desmond's other assets.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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 become historical investigations 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.