Can you rearrange the following
sentences into a well-known political narrative?
It is wrong to haul young boys from
their children's-home dormitory at night and brutally rape them. It
is wrong to coerce, cajole, or pressurise underage teenage girls -
even apparently willing doting fans - into performing sexual
It is wrong to turn a blind eye to
sexual abuse by a fellow BBC employee. It is wrong to make
accusations of child abuse against a senior Conservative politician
without checking that the accuser has identified the right man. It
is wrong to suppress allegations of sexual abuse by a TV presenter
because it would scupper Christmas tribute programmes to the same
It is wrong to fail to read The
Guardian every morning and keep an eye on Twitter when you are
the head of a news organisation. It is wrong to allow someone to
save face by saying he has resigned, when you have actually told
him that he will be sacked if he doesn't go quietly - and offer him
a pay-off equal to what he would have got had he been
OK: it was a trick question. This is
not about narrative. We all know the Jimmy
Savile/top-Tory-paedophile (or not, as it turns out) story. But the
Second Vatican Council, in very different circumstances, came up
with the idea of the "hierarchy of truths", which applies here.
Statements or stances can be true without having equal validity or
importance. One truth can conflict with another - or, at any rate,
elbow others aside. Sociologists have another way of describing
this: moral panic. That is what has gripped the chattering classes
now over child abuse and the BBC, in a political debate that has
developed an irrational sense of proportion.
A top priority must be the care of
those who were abused as children, and whose lives have been
psychologically blighted as a result. It is now clear that
misplaced shame and the suspicion that they would not be believed
have sentenced them to decades of suppura-ting silence. A tabloid
editor, asked why his paper had not exposed Savile years ago, said
that his accusers were teenage girls from an approved school who
would not have been believed. This is still a problem. Only
recently, police in Rochdale said that sexually groomed under-age
girls would not be credible witnesses.
But the opposite danger, that of
accepting such allegations uncritically, has been made clear by
Angus Stickler, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporter who
accepted accusations against Lord McAlpine without even showing the
accuser a photo to confirm the identity of the man who abused him.
Crusading journalists who short-cut facts to get to a self-evident
"truth" constitute a different kind of danger to society. Reporters
who go hunting for modern-day witches risk getting more than their
In particular, we must not make the
mistake, like generals always fighting the earlier war, of guarding
against only the last set of errors. If Newsnight was
perhaps initially too cautious about the Savile story, the solution
was clearly not to become sloppy or reckless with the next
The history of British moral panics -
from mods and rockers to punks, or satanic abuse in Orkney to
dangerous dogs - suggests an unpleasant tendency to scapegoat
individuals, as society fails to accept responsibility for its
wider failures and problems. The modern mob mentality that is
manifest on Twitter now feeds the frenzy.
George Entwistle has gone from the
BBC, and the threat is that more heads will roll. There is a real
danger that we will end up with a weakened BBC, and hundreds of
abused children no nearer to receiving justice. This is the
complete opposite of what we need.
Paul Vallely is associate editor
of The Independent.