Friday, 2 November 2012


"Paedogeddon" was a one-off special of Chris Morris's "Brass Eye" satirical documentary show, aired on Channel 4 on 26 July 2001. The programme was a response to the then News Of The World editor Rebekah Wade's campaign to "name and shame" convicted paeodophiles after it was revealed that the murderer of eight year old Sarah Payne, Roy Whiting, had previously abducted and assaulted young girls in the area where Sarah was killed. The News Of The World's campaign caused something of a national uproar, with mobs aggregating in housing estates and attacking individuals suspected of being paedophiles, resulting in some notorious examples of mistaken identity, including the home of a paediatrician being attacked in Newport, Wales.

The events had all the trappings of what contemporary sociologists call a "moral panic". It's fashionable to view such moral panics as media-generated phantasms, and dismiss them accordingly. But that is far from the case. A moral panic is actually a process in which a deep social problem that lies unacknowledged in the collective unconscious erupts into consciousness via the punishing social superego mechanism of the media, most usually through the tabloid press. There then follows a moment of agonising hysteria before the calming, reasonable voice of the paternalistic liberal media tamps it down with imprecations against "mob rule" and "kangaroo justice". At the end of the whole process, the issues remain pretty much as they were before. Which is to say that moral panics are media-managed cathartic processes that give vent to anxieties while doing nothing to resolve them.

"Paedogeddon", compromising its gullible populist celebrities to expose the wafer-thin understanding of the issue that drove the panic, is a classic example of a liberal-paternalist damping down of inchoate public rage. Its biting satire was actually soothing balm. It did everything necessary to endear itself to a metropolitan elite for whom the sight of mobs waving placards denouncing "peadofiles" was unspeakably embarrassing in a modern democracy. Morris excoriated the tabloid hype by imagining a Britain overwhelmed by child molesters to such an extent that, for all the complaints against the programme, it must surely have been clear that he was attacking the media's tendency towards hyperbole, and not the victims of abuse themselves.

There was, however, one problem with this approach. The actual scale of paedophile activity in Britain and northern Europe had been exposed three years earlier in a sober report by The Guardian's Nick Davies, and the reality was far in excess of Morris's satire. Davies's report, titled "The Sheer Scale Of Child Sexual Abuse In Britain" is by quite some distance the most shocking and depressing report I have ever read, and I would recommend not reading the entire article if you want to retain even the slightest flicker of faith in humanity. In attempting to enumerate the problem, he wrote:
The ease of the crime is reflected in its scale. No one knows the exact numbers, but to construct a picture is to watch an arithmetical explosion. Start with a hard fact. At the last count, there were 2,100 child sex abusers behind the bars of British jails. Now think of all those who have previously been convicted but who have been released back into the community. You have to multiply by 50: according to the Home Office Research Department, there are 108,000 convicted paedophiles in the community.

Now, think of all the child victims who are conned and confused and never report their abuse in the first place; and all those cases which are reported but which fall short of the demands of the courts; and all those cases of rape and indecent assault which are convicted but which are not statistically recorded as crimes against children. At the most conservative estimate, the NSPCC and specialist police agree with studies here and in the United States, that the official figures for convictions record no more than ten per cent of the paedophile population. Which means that today in Britain, there are probably 1.1 million paedophiles at large. Other studies suggest that the figure is very much higher.

This vast scale appears to be confirmed by “prevalance studies” which take samples of the population and establish how many were childhood victims of sexual abuse. In the UK, the United States, Germany, Switzerland and Australia, studies consistently find that around 20% of women and around 8% of men suffered sexual abuse as children. In the current population of UK children, that would cover 1.5 million girls and 520,000 boys, a figure that is consistent with the projection of 1.1 million offenders.
That's one hell of a lot of nonces. It becomes clear then, that paedophilia is not a marginal activity pursued by a small number of isolated individuals, but is an endemic part of British society, and perhaps all human societies in turn. The surprise is not in Wade's moral panic, but in the fact that the dark truth, as evidenced in the recent Jimmy Saville hysteria, stayed suppressed for so long. There is the added irony here that it was Nick Davies's research in exposing the issue that would facilitate Wade's ascent to the top of News International, and the same Nick Davies whose research into phone hacking would bring her low again.

The lesson, as with so many British scandals of recent times, is that despite the punitive hysteria and dubious methodologies of the tabloids, the truth of what they point to is usually even worse than their moral panics suggest. The crooked timber of humanity is more warped than we could ever have guessed.


Bobby's Dream said...

Thanks for posting this. Excellent as ever. Read the Nick Davies report - sobering stuff. Given the nature of the crime it, as you say, unbelievably hard to measure and thus impossible to say whether it's more prevalent in atomised Western society currently than in the past or whether it is a constant in 'human nature'. There is certainly a high incidence of victims amongst the population of people with severe mental illness.
I guess your drift is that, once we have symbolically killed Saville and a few other high profile celebrities, the hunger for justice/revenge will be sated, the boil will be felt to have been lanced and we can return to 'life as normal'.

Phil Knight said...

Cheers - I've actually got some more to say about Savile and the tabloids, so look out for that.

Not surprised at all by the link between abuse and mental illness. I think child abuse is the secret "key" to a large proportion of seemingly intractible social problems.