The Jimmy Savile allegations are growing daily. Scotland Yard says that 300 people have come forward as part of Operation Yewtree. If proven, the allegations would make Savile one of the most prolific sex offenders Britain has ever seen.
The BBC, like other public institutions, has serious questions to answer about a powerful culture of protection that appears to have existed, where people were afraid to speak out and those who did were ignored.
A most disturbing aspect of the ensuing public debate has been the many voices arguing that something like this couldn’t happen today.
It is true that, since the 1970s, there have been huge advances in law, policy and practice. The 1989 Children Act created a comprehensive legal framework to protect children. Since then, the duty to keep children safe has been extended to a range of agencies that come into contact with children. Partly as a result of this, public understanding of child abuse is much greater.
But there is a striking, and worrying, similarity between the Savile case and more recent child abuse cases which repeat the too-familiar pattern of power relationships which are exploited, and young people – particularly girls – who are ignored when they ask for help.
Take the recent case in Rochdale, where nine men were eventually convicted of abusing up to 47 young girls over several years. Cries for help were ignored, or disbelieved, and warning signs were repeatedly overlooked. The public debate that followed focused – unhelpfully – on race, disguising similarities with other comparable child abuse cases involving white men, and indeed similarities with the Savile case.
The fact that the men were Pakistani and the girls were white provoked much more comment than the fact that the gang’s leader was also abusing a young Asian girl, exerting the same power over her by virtue of age and social standing as Savile and others appear to have done to teenage girls decades before. Ignoring young girls is not new. At least seven of Savile’s victims say they spoke out while he was still alive.
There are many things that can and should be done immediately to break this pattern.
The Labour Party would support legal changes to protect children in the entertainment industry and ensure that all agencies are reminded of their responsibilities by restoring a new, streamlined set of guidance, previously dismissed by Tory ministers as “red tape”.
At the same time and as a matter of urgency, children’s voices need greater prominence in the child protection system.
Reducing social workers’ caseloads and providing more administrative support would address burnout in the social work profession, while enabling social workers to spend time with the children they are tasked with protecting and giving them more opportunity to detect abuse.
We must also consider the ongoing and serious implications of the imbalance of power in society. In Rochdale, police assumed that the young girls were involved in prostitution, while social services made what The Guardian called “an equally contemptuous and class-bound assumption that these young women from the bottom of the heap had freely made a lifestyle choice”.
Child abuse happens across all races, cultures, classes and age groups. But should be willing to confront the fact that young victims may also be dismissed more easily because of their class or background when they ask for help.
This is why Ed Miliband was right to call for a public inquiry into the Savile allegations, to provide answers for the victims and lessons for society.
The police have called Operation Yewtree a “watershed moment for child abuse investigations and… a landmark investigation”. It would be a fitting tribute to the brave young people, who have come forward over many decades to confront their abusers, if the attention prompted by the Savile case ensured that, in future, we listen.
This article was originally published in Tribune Magazine.