Child abuse, online communities, and the BBC

Photography: Kyle Cheung

Personne ne lit autant les journaux que les journalistes, qui, par ailleurs, ont tendance à penser que tout le monde lit tous les journaux.

– Pierre Bourdieu, Sur la télévision

This morning’s Online Journalism lecture with Paul Bradshaw, and guest speaker Paul Lewis, was on the importance of online communities. I’ve got a brilliant, witty, vibrant online community on Twitter, through which I’ve made some very good friends and some very important contacts. This community is split fairly equally – as the activity of sorting my followees into Twitter lists proved – into two categories: feminists and journalists, with a fairly sizeable intersection of fellow feminist journalists. These communities share many common traits but the ongoing crisis at the BBC, with horrifying allegations of child abuse at its centre, has highlighted a clear division between the two.

To paraphrase Bourdieu, no one is as obsessed with journalism as journalists, who tend to assume the rest of the population share that obsession. I was surprised, for example, at having to explain the Newsnight/McAlpine backstory to my partner and my mother (both of whom watch the television news and read the paper reasonably regularly) on Saturday afternoon, hours before George Entwhistle’s resignation.

Since September my media obsession has been deeply intensified by spending all day, five days a week, surrounded by other student journalists – even Friday’s post-subbing trips to the pub are frequently dominated by discussion of news and the media. In fact, one article that caught my eye in the Independent this morning was: The tragic story of a good man brought down by a basic lack of journalistic curiosity.  I, like George Entwhistle, was out when that Newsnight aired. Apparently unlike George Entwhistle, I was aware of the story more than 12 hours before it was broadcast, when Iain Overton tweeted about it, and I’d followed Michael Crick’s reports for Channel 4 throughout the afternoon. Also unlike George Entwhistle, I was sat in the pub, glued to my iPhone, for the duration of the broadcast, full of that journalistic curiosity and desire to know what the BBC had up its sleeve.

So it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that the British mainstream media have devoted so many column inches and so much air time to the crisis currently engulfing the BBC (and, indeed, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism). To a media community that’s so obsessed with itself, it’s hugely gripping.

But, as the feminist segment of my online community has repeatedly pointed out, the media’s obsessive coverage of the crisis as “media news” undermines the real crisis at the heart of it all – the sexual abuse of hundreds of children, and the systems that enabled powerful men to get away with it for decades. In her excellent blog post on the subject, Stavvers wrote:

The two recent child abuse scandals have both found themselves derailed by exactly the same method: a protracted session of the mainstream media navel-gazing and taking pops at one another. The Jimmy Savile case turned into a study of why Newsnight didn’t report on the story. Meanwhile, the re-examination of the North Wales abuse scandal turned into a study of why Newsnight did report on the story.

That message has very slowly and very quietly nudged its way back into the mainstream media, via Owen Jones, Yvonne Roberts, and the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, but speculation about the future of the BBC, and whose head will roll next, continues to overshadow the experiences of hundreds of victims of abuse.

In this afternoon’s Journalism and Society lecture, Roy Greenslade asked “who do you think are the real victims in all this?” I couldn’t quite believe it when several voices responded, “Newsnight.” Greenslade was quick to remind the class of “all those kids who were abused”, but it’s a frightening culture where such hideous crimes can be so easily forgotten, discarded as chip wrappings, in the face of the next story.

Paul Bradshaw talked a lot this morning about the functions our online communities play in our journalism. I hope one of the functions of mine will be to keep me firmly focused on what’s really important.

4 thoughts on “Child abuse, online communities, and the BBC

  1. Shockingly, this whole affair became wholly about the BBC within hours of it coming to light. Any mention of the victims in the MSM, now, seems to be just context for a discussion on the political and corporate cover-up.

  2. The man who has had the unenviable task of leading the BBC through one of the worst crises in its history thrust upon him has a rather different CV to his predecessor – one which may help him in his sudden new role.

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