It is a bit late for the press to be discovering rights

British newspapers will struggle to persuade readers to join them in righteous indignation over Leveson's proposals.

It is not at all surprising that the British press collectively rejects the idea of a law that might change the way journalists are expected to behave. The spectrum of published opinion starts with extreme contrition on behalf of the industry for terrible past deeds done, coupled with mealy-mouthed opposition to the remedy Lord Justice Leveson proposes. Then, at the other end, there is mealy-mouthed contrition and extreme opposition to Leveson.

The underlying point is always the same. It is that the press should be given time to get its own house in order before the chloroform of state intervention is uncorked. That is a natural enough position for journalists to take. It is my own instinctive position. The free press becomes conceptually less free when the boundaries of its legitimate activity are codified in law. Whether or not it would actually be less free with “statutory underpinning of an independent regulator” that Leveson envisages is a different matter.

But the argument isn't really about what the immediate outcome would be. To hacks themselves, their editors and proprietors this is a point of principle – pristine and immutable. Whatever statutory instrument Leveson devised, it was always going to look like a thin end of a wedge – or perhaps a slippery slope – to the affronted guardians of free speech.

British journalists might have a problem persuading their readers to join them at the giddy heights of moral indignation. Why? Well, for one thing, as advocates, the papers themselves are hardly without interest in the case. Titles that carried out vicious, cynical intrusions into the private lives of people sometimes experiencing harrowing trauma are now the ones most frothily resisting Leveson’s proposals for redress. In most people’s conceptions of justice, the accused does not get to decide where the boundaries of reasonable punishment lie.

But there is another reason why certain newspapers might struggle to mobilise the nation onto the barricades in defence of a lofty principle. The conservative press in particular has not, in recent years, had much truck with the sanctity of abstract rights when they interfere with the delivery of popular outcomes. Whether it is the case of Abu Qatada, tediously difficult to extradite because evidence used against him might have been tainted by torture, or the issue of prisoner voting rights, or the various debates that were had under the last government about anti-terrorism laws or, indeed, any judicial ruling that appears to reward villainy by recognising the intrinsic humanity of the accused, the British popular press has often – although not exclusively – chosen the path of raw populism and expediency.

I don’t for a moment want to equate phone hacking or breaches of the PCC code with acts of terrorism. That would be ridiculous. The point is not about equivalence of offence or some hierarchy of rights and freedoms. It isn’t even a point about consistency. It is simply an observation that, over a number of years, certain British newspapers have aggressively debunked the idea that a theoretical line drawn in the democratic ether should be a significant barrier to doing whatever it is politicians want to do. Now we the media are conjuring such a line and urging the politicians not to cross. Why would anyone listen?

Billboards in Wapping advertise the Sun. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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 historical 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.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

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.