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How We Finally Turned Into a Nation of Paedophile Hunters

British society has stopped ignoring child abuse and is tackling it head-on. What's changed?

Illustrations by Krent Able. Click to enlarge.

"It was a different time." This is the mantra of those seeking to dampen the crimes of the paedophiles currently being hunted in the UK. And they're right, though why that should constitute any kind of defence is difficult to see. But it does at least raise other pertinent questions – namely, when and why did our society shift so dramatically from one that ignores child abuse, to one that quite deliberately, and so dynamically, addresses it?

As our kids' heroes continue to be unmasked as monsters, Britain, we've come to realise, has a fucking terrifying history of glossing over the sexual abuse of children; of hushing up, of clearing away after, of slyly permitting. From the sidelines – while browsing, say, a new long-scroll dossier on the unchallenged assault work of Jimmy Savile, or reading in the FT that senior Tory whip Tim Fortescue once boasted he'd cover up for any "chap" embroiled in a "scandal involving small boys", so long as it was worth it in "brownie points" – it suddenly seemed our long-term approach to the matter had been to pose a binary question. Were you a credibly accused paedophile with (a) no money, no connections, no light-entertainment showreel to speak of? Or were you a credibly accused paedophile who had (b) popularised a catchphrase, once shot shit with the Beatles, sat in parliament? To the (a)s might come policemen, red-top reporters, any local vigilantes with the time and petrol. Meanwhile the (b)s sat tight, thinking, with fair reason, "Someone'll fix it".

Have matters changed for the better? This is a time of nightly top-line news on child abuse. UK police have just revealed the arrest of 660 paedophiles in the last six months, and a big government inquiry has been announced; the issue is squarely in our national conversation. After years of careful dredging by campaigners and journalists, the occasional grenade of a question lobbed in to parliament by fringe MPs, more recently an ex-health minister acknowledging on the radio that UK children's homes were "a supply line, sometimes" and Channel 4 broadcasting something with a no-mess title like How Cyril Smith Got Away With It, all of this atop the fizzy shame of a public still digesting Jimmy, digesting Stuart Hall, digesting Rolf – have we shaken ourselves awake? There is a sense that Britain has begun to try remodelling itself, deliberately and dramatically, away from being a country that would prefer not to know. Toward being a country that would prefer, instead, no.

So: Why now? Why our sudden interest in confronting child abuse rather than pretending it doesn't exist?

THEORY 1: A CRISIS TOO BIG TO BRAND-NAME

I spoke to a social worker, 30 years into a job in child protection, who told me about our current state of affairs: "I feel heartened, optimistic and, like all good child protection professionals, forever dubious and cynical." (He asked not to be named in this article.) "One notices after many years in the work that these big-issue responses to child abuse seem to come in waves." Waves that wash in, and then recede.

He gave the examples of "Colwell, Cleveland, Baby P" – catastrophes widely reported on, lamented, and then lost to churn. We had a war, a European Championship campaign, another series of Bake-Off to prosecute. "The media certainly ran with [these stories about child abuse]. There were investigations and criminal findings. But somehow all were somewhat self-contained," the social worker told me. "Not 'big picture'. It would die down again, even though us in the work knew full well that much abuse was still out there."

This may have been a matter of digestibility. In the past, the social worker explained, famous instances of abuse "tended to get compartmentalised into ciphers". He used them himself: Colwell, Cleveland, Baby P. "And what seems to get lost is that it's all one thing. It's all child abuse." The sheer difficulty of digesting the current rolling combo-horror makes it almost too unwieldy to get a name. Applying a name gives a horror some shape; it gives it a start and an end; it starts the process of our forgetting about it. "What's different now?" said the social worker. "Those different threads seem to be finally coming together in to a critical-mass [acceptance] that there has been, and is, a very big child abuse problem in all walks of life. That seems a new facet to me."

I spoke to Beatrix Campbell, a writer, broadcaster and campaigner who has reported on child sexual abuse for more than 20 years. Campbell knows the history of this stuff intimately. "In what conditions does a society, do enough people in a society, want to listen?" she said (taking, politely, one of my questions and making it better). "The conditions come and go. There are times that are hospitable. There are times that have very, very cold climates indeed. We're in a climate for it right now."

There were several reasons, as Campbell saw it, for current conditions being pro. And one of them was glaring. "Dead men have detonated this stuff."

THEORY 2: A CONFLUENCE OF DEATHS

It appears the only confirmed corporal punishment Savile ever received for his 50 years' incumbency as one of the worst men alive was a semi-serious dusting from a Welsh professional wrestler, Adrian Street. Street faced Savile in the ring once and, appalled by the celebrity's backstage boasts about girls, "dropped him on his skull". (Street told his local paper that he'd do more, now, were a rematch possible.) Savile, famously, felt so invincible during his lifetime that he published a cheerful anecdote in his memoirs about police-authorised rape. I cannot better Beatrix Campbell's phrase for it. "Jimmy Savile had astounding room for manoeuvre."

And then in 2011 he died.

Campbell: "In the moment he loses his power? To threaten, to litigate, to blether on and on as he did? The lid on a tomb full of stories is lifted. It's like the moment when a dictator dies. People get to tell their stories."

Savile's death – "serendipitously" as Campbell puts it – followed that of "another big powerful man who did bad things".

"There's a shower of rumours in Rochdale about what a dangerous, dirty rotter Cyril Smith was"

Cyril Smith, MP for Rochdale for 20 years, was widely known in his constituency and in Westminster to predate on young boys. Questioned by police about offences related to child abuse, he was outed by magazine exposés (twice) and known by at least one Rochdale councillor to visit a hostel for vulnerable boys at night ("he went straight upstairs to the lads' rooms"). Smith was never held to account as a dangerous paedophile. In fact, come his 80th birthday, two years before he died in 2010, Smith was given a party at Rochdale town hall, sent a fond message from party leader Nick Clegg, and given a DeLorean sports car. His successor MP in Rochdale, Simon Danczuk, detailed much of this in a book published in May. Danczuk has been probably the most active figure in addressing Rochdale's traumatic and unresolved relationship with Smith.

Campbell: "There's a shower of rumours in that city about what a rotter, what a dangerous, dirty rotter, Cyril Smith was. A wave of his constituents who have a story to tell. And Simon Danczuk decides to take his constituents seriously. He thinks what they have to say is important." In tandem with Tom Watson, that ridiculously impressive asker of annoying questions, Danczuk badgered parliament to launch an inquiry.

"Smith's death and Savile's death were the detonator," Campbell told me. "Those deaths generated a new kind of knowledge about what had been going on and [victims] felt: yes, that happened to me, and there's a place to put my story at last."

Illustrations by Krent Able. Click to enlarge.

THEORY 3: A LESSENING IN DEFERENCE (OR THE "WE DON'T GIVE AS MUCH OF A SHIT THAT YOU'RE ON TELLY" THEORY)

Say what you like about the fading of celebrity luminosity, a decade and a half into the age of biannual Big Brother, at a time when TMZ will cheerfully broadcast the backstage royales of just about the only famous family left with a sense of mystique – at least the chances are reduced of a Savile-style omerta ever happening again. Hundreds of onlookers, voluntarily keeping quiet for half a century to protect a wide-roaming paedophile on the grounds that, what? They couldn't possibly shop the guy who'd once shared stage space with Pan’s People? Who was friends with Frank Bruno and DJ Andy Peebles? Fun-run mainstay Jimmy Savile? Grass him?

Old hesitations begin to seem absurd. We know that until recently it was possible to stroll into Paris Hilton's private shoe lair by rooting for a key under her door mat. The court cases of the well-known now routinely require intimate shaming: reviews of drug habits, the detailed itemisation of a mucky DVD collection. Mount Celebrity has been made to look squatter. Fame is a reduced quantity, and perhaps we are no longer so inclined to defer to it.

I spoke to Brigid Featherstone, a former social worker who is now a professor of the Open University. Her specialism is gender and inequalities, and she told me that this crumbling of deference was a subject of growing academic interest. "People at the minute are inclined to believe the very worst of people in power. We've had, over 30 years, a growth in inequality, and the social-scientific evidence suggests that the more unequal a society is, the less trusting it is." Scientists, doctors, judges, politicians. We don't genuflect to them quite as we did, post-war, for instance, when the gaps in society were narrower. "People are questioning things, and don't just accept because someone is a lord, or is well connected, that they have to be listened to. When there was more possibility of social mobility, there was more trust around."

And without that trust? "I think it would be quite scary if we ended up not being able to trust each other at all – but it does open up the possibility for people to say: 'Actually, I think it might be so. There might have been collusions, cover ups'… There is a contesting of the fact that just because you're in a position of power you are right, and can be believed."

THEORY 4: WE'RE JUST UNCOUTH NOW

When the 83-year-old Tory politician Lord Tebbit appeared on Andrew Marr a fortnight ago, he was asked by his host how likely he thought it was there'd been a political cover-up of child abuse "in those days" – meaning the 1980s, Tebbit's time. "I think there may well have been," Tebbit replied. "But it was almost unconscious. It was the thing that people did at the time… You didn't talk about those sort of things… Not even, if I may say so, television journalists. Let alone the politicians."

Well Marr had been told. Marr could consider his hand well and truly slapped. And how about that last bit: Grubby themselves investigating reports of a state-protected paedophile ring, the politicians? It's worth a note that the first person in government to make a public effort to confront child sex abuse within the establishment was Geoffrey Dickens, a Tory who in 1983 sent to his chiefs a dossier pointing a finger at eight prominent figures. (The dossier has since been lost.) Dickens was known within his party as bit of a joke, a clown, in part because he had a cockney accent. And that open talk of paedophiles in government: what a boor.

From a couple of decades' vantage it comes to seem that reports of abuse were disregarded, then, because of some sort of cognac-cupboard etiquette. (Maybe there was a page about it in Debrett's Guide; perhaps that dreadful social vandal Nancy Mitford had determined that any effort to obstruct operational paedophiles was non-U.) Less couth now, are we any less likely to abuse children? No. The social worker I interviewed told me he didn't believe there had been significant upswings or downswings in child abuse at given points in his career, only swings in the acknowledgement of it as abuse. "The what's-the-harm thing is complex, because one clearly has to analyse who was saying it – suffice to say those in my line of work were not. But yes, societal attitudes have changed. It is less denied, and talked about and acknowledged more openly."

So television journalists like Andrew Marr may ask grubby questions about it. And politicians may have to delve for grubby answers. And while this may be crass, by sad old standards, this is good. "As people in my line know," said the social worker, "it's a case of, sorry, I know you don't want to deal with a dark subject. But here's how it really is."

Illustrations by Krent Able. Click to enlarge.

THEORY 5: DUBIOUS QUESTIONS ABOUT GENDER

There were theories I brought to an expert like Beatrix Campbell, I should say, that were shot down without hesitation. For one, Campbell took issue with my in-those-days thinking. ("I don't accept this mantra that 'once accepted' behaviour is now being challenged. The people who endured [abuse], whether it was in the 1950s, the 1970s, the 19-whatever, never felt it was acceptable, always knew that it was in some way injurious.") And she doubted my line of questioning on gender.

Thinking of Theresa May, home secretary, who announced the inquiry, and Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, who welcomed it, I suggested to Campbell that part of the new mood might be due to there being more women in positions of power. What if they were less inclined to perpetuate a culture of turning away, hushing up? "We don't have many women in power," Campbell said, flatly. (She was speaking before the recent Cabinet reshuffle.) "We have very few. We've got a political culture in Britain that is robustly misogynist."

"The people who've made this happen aren't women who've got power... They're people who've had horrible experiences of powerlessness"

Whereas Featherstone had cautiously agreed with my pitch – "I think it's possible the Theresa Mays of this world are less likely to be 'clubbable', to be more influenced by an understanding of the harm of abuse" – Campbell told me: "The people who've made this thing happen aren't women who've got power. The people who've made this moment are precisely not that, they're people who've had horrible experiences of powerlessness."

Gender was not absent from the issue, Campbell said, crediting activist groups such as Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3 for "reviving eternal feminist questions" about "sexually oppressive behaviour and uninvited sexual intrusions". But as to matters of gender and why now, why this mood, Campbell pointed to the very opposite of my first thought – powerlessness, and how it can make people very, very angry. "We're in the second decade of the 21st century and we've still got a very misogynist political culture. So when certain moments arise like this, it's a..."

She paused. Final exasperation? "A final exasperation, that's a good way of putting it. Women are so sick of it."

THEORY 6: A MULTI-FACETED SHIT STORM (OR THE "ALL OF THE ABOVE" THEORY)

In the mid 1980s, already thickly guilty of sexual crimes against children, Rolf Harris had the idea he'd make a film. Kids Can Say No!, a 20-minuter for schools, featured a racked soliloquy (Harris looking frankly appalled by the thought) in which he said: "Some people don't act right with kids." He advised children: "You have a right to feel safe." The film ended with an educational song – just Harris, a couple of dozen kids, and two uniformed policemen, dancing. Apparently pleased with it, Harris made a sequel.

It's the thickness, the layered-on nerve of this, which jolts. Rolf fronting Kids Can Say No!… Jimmy Savile lending his name to an educational book called Stranger Danger... Cyril Smith founding a charity called the Rochdale Childer. The experts I spoke to agreed that if the national mood has shifted, significantly, it is because of the thickness of all that's gone on. A layered-on convergence of shit happening at once.

When I spoke with the social worker about the theories outlined here, he said: "All of the above." "What we're seeing," said Featherstone, "is an eruption of a range of forces." Campbell: "The convergence is what's important. You've got a matrix here where all sorts of things that are apparently disconnected come together."

"The big picture is finally starting to be revealed"

Featherstone and the social worker saw reasons for proper optimism. "There's still a long way to go," said the social worker. "But much has improved. The big picture is finally starting to be revealed." Featherstone: "I think we've had a genuine opening up around sexual abuse, sexual violence, I do." It was left to Campbell to sound a wary note. Hold on, she cautioned, no back-patting yet.

Despite the launch of a government inquiry, "we cannot overestimate the scale of resistance that there is to the implications of all this, to the sheer scale of childhood oppression, of sexual predation, and those with an interest in protecting it. You know: people like doing it. A lot of people hate it. But a lot of people like it."

"Over the last 30 years there's been, maybe every five years, a scandal," said Campbell. "A really important story that ought to change things. People think about it, they worry about it, it becomes part of the national conversation. And then those with an interest in shutting it up, shut it up. That happens absolutely consistently."

So don't be too hopeful?

"So hope for the best," said Campbell. "And expect the worst."

@tomlamont

Illustrations inspired by Brian Bolland's work in The Killing Joke.

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