Notes on a scandal: the Jimmy Savile case is all too familiar

The court of public opinion: Jimmy Savile’s house, defaced after his crimes were exposed. PA

For all its extraordinary impact, the Jimmy Savile scandal has not unfolded in an exceptional way. The media and justice systems’ treatment of the affair is only the latest example of a relatively new type of scandal: the institutional child sex abuse scandal.

Institutional CSA scandals emerged only recently as a focus for sustained public concern because of the longstanding taboos that for decades kept child abuse hidden from ‘official’ visibility and marginalised from UK public debate. These taboos were only challenged in the 1980s by sustained feminist campaigning, media coverage, and public testimony from individual survivors, finally making open allegations possible and the pursuit of justice for victims a political priority. Yet because news coverage of abuse continued to focus on the dominant idea of “stranger danger” and the powerful image of the “predatory paedophile”, still little attention was paid to the more prevalent problems of institutional and familial abuse.

Since the 1980s, a succession of scandals has exposed the sexual abuse of children in care homes, schools, universities and various religious institutions, and forced the problem of institutional child sexual abuse onto the political and journalistic agenda.

Through an empirical examination of the Savile story, we have been developing a model of how institutional child sexual abuse scandals unfold. This model is also applicable to past scandals of this type; it shows how the Savile case, far from being anomalous, has in fact followed an established pattern. Understanding that pattern can help identify the forces which keep these stories from emerging – and the ones that drive them once they do.

Based on our reading of the available data and official reports, we propose that an institutional scandal progresses through the following phases: latency, activation, amplification and justice.

Latency

In the first phase, “latency”, the ongoing or past sexual abuse is known about or suspected by others but remains secret or concealed. Gossip, hearsay, rumour and speculation generate “open secrets” – at times, as in the case of Savile, so open that they extend even beyond the institutional site of abuse. There may be accusations and complaints, or even threats from those in the know about blowing the whistle, but as long as the abusive behaviour is not made public the scandal will not be “activated”.

Activation

To progress from the “latent” to the “activated” phase, a news organisation must not only know about the alleged sexual abuse, but also commit to report it – and crucially, it must name the alleged abuser or abusers. Any doubts about an allegation’s reliability and the risk of libel and defamation charges will discourage news agencies from reporting allegations they think, or even know, to be true. Even in an era of information overload and heightened awareness of child abuse, scandal activation is not inevitable. But once allegations are made public, few crimes generate more vociferous and collective outrage than institutional child sexual abuse. And once an institutional scandal is activated, it is virtually impossible to stop.

The typical institutional reaction, as was seen in the BBC’s response to the Savile allegations, is to prioritise the protection of its reputation. There are three primary techniques of reputation protection: denial of abuse, denial of the knowledge of abuse, and denial of responsibility for abuse. Whichever of these is used, public denial is the main force that drives and animates an activated institutional child sexual abuse scandal.

Since public naming requires editorial assurance that there is enough evidence to substantiate the allegations, the default editorial position at the point of scandal activation is that the accused is guilty. Institutional denial, therefore, is universally interpreted as a form of calculated lying. Those accused of lying about or covering-up child sexual abuse will be plunged into a volatile “trial by media” in which claims and counter-claims are publicly scrutinised for validity. This begins the “amplification” phase.

Amplification

In the “amplification” phase, attention shifts from the crimes themselves to the institutional context which facilitated or enabled them. For a child sexual abuse scandal to be “amplified”, the transgressions of individuals must be connected with allegations of “institutional failure” that elevate the scandal to a systemic level. Institutional failure can range from procedural incompetence and mismanagement to a range of criminal behaviours, including non-disclosure and deliberate cover-up.

It is in this phase that we hear talk of cultures of denial, cover-up and impunity. An amplifying scandal can implicate and expose failings not only within a single institution, but across a range of institutions. Scandal amplification creates a swarming effect, as news organisations compete to scoop their market rivals by printing fresh allegations and denunciations that reinforce the image of the accused as guilty.

Justice

The “justice” phase of an institutional child sex abuse scandal comprises restatement of the primary transgressions, new disclosures of incriminating evidence and supplementary transgressions, and intensifying denunciation of the individual(s) and institution(s) involved. Faced with mounting evidence of guilt, the accused may choose to tender a public confession and apologise. As many public figures have learnt to their cost, continued denial or defiance may be self-defeating, merely intensifying “trial by media” and the public censure once guilt is confirmed. Public censure consists of a range of status degradation ceremonies, from public shaming through to resignation, dismissal, criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

Because of the stigma attached to child sexual abuse, there is no such thing as a de-activated scandal. Those found guilty in the “court of public opinion”, even if the case never reaches a court of law, forfeit the right to be forgotten, or forgiven. In an age of “trial by media”, historic sex crimes are no longer “historic”.

Official reports into institutional child sex abuse invariably generate intense public appetite for further scandalous revelations and evidence of further cover-ups and whitewashes. And attempts to address past failures such as the Catholic Church’s recent announcement that it is establishing an expert commission to advise on how to combat clerical sex abuse are dismissed as window dressing.

Had it not been for the resolve of the ITV Exposure team to name Sir Jimmy Savile as a prolific sexual predator, his “national treasure” status would still be intact. As scandal reporting increases public awareness of institutional child sex abuse and outrage at institutional denial, the pressure to punish the guilty and secure justice for victims will intensify.

Even the most powerful and beloved institutions, from the BBC, to hospitals, to the Catholic Church, may be subjected to “trial by media”. It remains to be seen what effects the tighter regulatory regime proposed by Lord Justice Leveson will have on the willingness and ability of journalists to investigate – and where appropriate activate – complicated institutional child sexual abuse scandals.

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