South America: why the silence?

Why does the US media care more about riots across the pond than protests happening on its doorstep?

When some 150,000 young people set fire to cars and bus stops, built barricades and clashed with police in Santiago during protests in demand
of free public education earlier this month, there was barely a ripple in the mainstream British and US press. Only the Guardian gave the story a brief mention on the homepage of its website.

It might be tempting to interpret this as an oversight; after all, the riots in England understandably dominated headlines in this country. But while this may account for the silence of the British press, it doesn't explain the lack of interest from the US and other European media.

The relative silence of the US media is especially baffling. US identity, as well as foreign and domestic policy, has been shaped by interactions with Latin America ever since Independence. From the 1846 Mexican War, to the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala, to the Reagan administration's backing of the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and the ever-present Cuban Question, the US has a long record of engagement with its southern neighbours. Immigration, from Latin America in general and Mexico in particular, has been a dominant theme of US domestic politics for decades, as has the Andean drug trade.

So why the absence of coverage? Many Americans consider themselves heirs to a European, and specifically British, cultural and political heritage. Though there is mixed truth in this, it is perception that matters. Although there are growing numbers of Spanish language television and radio stations, the mainstream US media and the manufacturers of culture in general are predominantly white; they look east towards their Atlantic cousins, rather than south to their Hispanic neighbours.

Another explanation could be practical. Of the ten countries with the highest rates of kidnapping in the world, five are in Latin America. The Blackberry - now almost as ubiquitous a tool for the reporter as a notebook once was - is nicknamed "the phone of death" in Venezuela due to the number of people mugged - and killed - for them. 20 journalists have been killed in Latin America so far this year. This problem is especially endemic in Mexico, where journalists reporting on the drug trade are often silenced.

But not all of Latin America is dangerous, opaque, or geographically hostile. And many other areas of the world that are - parts of Africa and the Middle East, for example - do receive substantial press attention. European nations tend to have a greater interest in former colonies, or those involved in the cold war. Spain, which did have an empire in South America, tends to be more vocal about South American affairs; El Pais even had an editorial on the Chilean student protests.

But though Britain may not have had colonies in South America, it had an informal trading empire there, and Britain almost went to war with the
newly independent United States over the latter's territorial expansion in South America on more than one occasion.

Today, Britain still has interests in Latin America. But as Dr Ramos, an expert on Latin American history at Cambridge University, says:

"Although the UK has important investments in South America (for example, the UK is one of the major investors in Peru), this is not reflected in the coverage the region gets in the British press. Since the 19th century, Britain has seen Latin America as an area of US 'natural' influence."

There are also ideological reasons for the lack of commentary on Latin American affairs in North America. US policymakers and opinion formers are perhaps reluctant to draw attention to the examples of successful social democracy that have taken root in their back yard. The democratic
re-election of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who is implementing a series of pragmatic but quasi-socialist nationalisations, reveals that his anti-imperialist approach is far more popular than the neoliberal policies of the North American-educated elites, often seen as US stooges.

Likewise, social reforms and public works programmes in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay have enjoyed relative success. And though Hugo Chavez's regime may not be a functional social democracy, the Venezuelan President is popular amongst the working classes, which benefit from his redistributive policies. Chile, meanwhile, is the most economically successful of all Latin American countries, and its citizens are protesting en masse in the capital in demand of more equal education. It is not surprising that this message is not being loudly relayed in America, which is the most unequal country in the developed world.

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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.