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Hierarchy of truths illuminates BBC crisis

16 November 2012

Moral panic over the abuse scandals has led to scape-goating, says Paul Vallely

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 acts.

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 man.

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 dismissed.

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 fingers burned.

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 child-abuse allegation.

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.


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