Stephen Glover writing in the Daily Mail yesterday …
The Today programme on BBC Radio Four claims an audience of several million people. It is the leading radio news programme. Yesterday it devoted its prime slot to an extraordinary series of articles in the latest Lancet medical journal.
According to Today, the journal alleges that one in ten children in high-income countries such as Britain is maltreated. Bizarrely, this actual figure does not appear throughout 63 pages of articles, though it is highlighted in The Lancet's press release.
The word 'maltreatment' includes hitting, punching, burning and serious emotional abuse (whatever that means), as well as sexual abuse. The BBC says one million children are affected in Britain every year.
Today also claimed that one study in the journal 'estimated' that at least 15 per cent of girls and 5 per cent of boys have been exposed to sexual abuse of some kind by the age of 18, and that 5 to 10 per cent of girls, and 1 to 5 per cent of boys, are exposed to penetrative sexual abuse.
All this was reported as though the BBC had just descended from Mount Sinai. Its credulous reporter actually used the word 'revealed'. The study was accorded the status of holy writ. One in ten children is abused. One in seven girls is sexually abused.
Jane Barlow, professor of public health at Warwick University, was then wheeled on to add such authority as she may have to these amazing figures. She said that more children should be removed from their parents.
The story, as relayed by the BBC, is that many ordinary people are child abusers. You might be. I might be. It is a universal problem. Its scale is apparently enormous.
Following the case of Baby P, and other similar tragedies, we might be tempted to believe these figures are correct. We would be horribly misguided to do so. Intelligent people - rather than academics paid to assemble statistics to further an agenda of their own - start from the position of what is likely. I do not, for example, think it likely that 50 per cent of people are fundamentally dishonest. I would take some persuading that one woman in two is a lesbian. Of course, I might be wrong, but most of us have a view based on experience of what seems plausible, and what does not.
Fifteen per cent of girls are sexually abused? As many as one in ten of them exposed to sexual penetration?
These figures could be true, but they challenge the beliefs that most of us have about human beings and the nature of families, where the alleged abuse supposedly takes place. We might be persuaded by an immense amount of detailed original research, though most of us would probably still harbour reasonable doubts. The 63 pages have been assembled from hundreds of other studies, all of which had wildly differing terms of reference. Many of its conclusions rely on 'self-reporting', or retrospective recollection.
The claims by adults of childhood abuse are set down as fact. What any of us remember about our youth is, with the best will in the world, coloured by false memories. Some people reinvent their pasts.
There is also the obvious fatuity of the statistics as presented. A light, occasional smack on the bottom is hardly to be compared with sexual abuse, and yet the two very different acts are lumped together in the same shocking set of figures.
Look at the wide range of figures. One to 5 per cent of boys are supposedly exposed to penetrative abuse. Which is it? You would think me pretty flaky if I said that London was a city of two to ten million people. The difference is huge.
Presented with shocking statistics, the media are liable to alight on the higher figure, which is presumably the intention of those publishing them.
One can't be sure about the motives of the authors of these studies or of The Lancet, though I have a pretty good idea. I feel on even firmer ground with the Today programme. Research of this sort is not disinterested and dispassionate. Some social scientists set out to 'prove' what they want to be true, and they rely on the co- operation of compliant journalists with a loose grip on statistics eager to agree with them.
The story here, embraced by the BBC without critical inquiry, and given vast and unwarranted prominence, is that the nuclear family is dysfunctional. At its centre lies widespread sexual abuse.
Do not think the apparent demise of the Left means the old culture wars are finished. There is a tradition stretching from Marx to Lenin to Stalin, and more recently taken up in a thousand university social science departments, antagonistic to marriage and the family. They are seen as old-fashioned, bourgeois institutions dangerously independent of the State. In the word of one brilliant author on the subject, the family is regarded as 'subversive'.
No one denies that terrible things go on in families. God knows, we have had enough examples in recent weeks - from Baby P to the case of the monster in Sheffield who raped and impregnated his daughters. But the exception does not prove the rule. Some barmy feminists extrapolate from individual cases of rape to say that all men are rapists. Similarly, it does not follow that, because some families are dysfunctional, the institution itself is flawed.
Professor Jane Barlow, and many like her, will use these studies to say that the authorities should be more active in taking children away from their parents and placing them with foster parents. The attraction of such an arrangement for the State is that it then owns the children. They can be taken away from the foster parents and placed with new ones.
The case of Baby P does not tell me first and foremost that there are some wicked parents: we all know that. Instead, it tells me that the incompetent servants of the State are the last people in the world to whom the care of children should be entrusted.
And far from accepting the thesis that the crumbling family unit should be still further destabilised - surely the intended implication of The Lancet's study - we should be arguing the exact opposite. The family, for all its occasional weaknesses and shortcomings, needs strengthening, not more undermining. Too easy divorce and promiscuity and the pressures of the modern workplace have eaten away at its integrity.
Far from trying to protect the family, successive governments of all colours have helped to enfeeble it by offering tax incentives to those who choose not to get married, though the Tories under David Cameron seem at last to have woken up to what has happened.
Now we are told, on the basis of suspect studies employing research that has been spatchcocked together, and then credulously presented by the BBC, that the institution itself is rotten. We are all guilty - or, to be more precise, tens of millions of men are guilty of sexually abusing children.
I don't believe it, and this research doesn't come close to proving it. What it does prove, though, is that there are still many who want to discredit the family. This is ideology masquerading as science - and what could be more dangerous than that?
Mail readers had their own misgivings. "Somewhere between 1 and 5% is not a statistic, it is a wild guess", said Trevor Nicholson, while a lady from Suffolk knew the real motivation behind the figures: "One always looks to the "spin offs" - one of which is more state interference: unaccountable intrusion into children's family, medical, and educational lives. I would have thought that Labour has done its utmost in the last 11 years to "convince" parents (to the point of intimidation, threat, and, yes, even helplessly ALLOWING their kids to go off the rails) that DISCIPLINE is a non-agenda item. More Labour rubbish - likely to INCREASE PUBLIC SECTOR EMPLOYMENT AT EXORBITANT AND UNACCOUNTABLE COST."
"The BBC should not allow itself to become a mouthpiece for any group to promote hate speech against another. It is against the law. To claim that tens of millions of men are paedophiles who abuse their own children is rabid hysteria. If a right wing organisation were to cobble together a list of spurious data implying that a certain ethnic group were rapists, paedophiles and criminals they could face prosecution. This is no different except they are taken seriously by the authorities! This is the equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials on a larger scale. The sad thing is that the authorities were complicit in that as well", wrote John Smith.
And here is Brendan O'Neill writing on Spiked …
"It is appalling that words like "animal", "feral" and "vermin" are used daily in reference to children", said Martin Narey, the chief executive of the children's charity Barnardo's, as he unveiled a new survey this week which apparently shows that adults in Britain suffer from an "unjustified and disturbing intolerance of children".
Yet who was it that introduced these foul words into the public debate about kids? Barnardo's itself! It was the pollsters employed by Barnardo's to survey 2,021 people who asked loaded questions about whether children can be viewed as "feral", even as "animals" who are "infesting" our streets.
What Narey, and the subsequent media coverage, implicitly presented as a groundswell of intolerant prejudice against animalistic children is nothing of the sort. Rather, Barnardo's has carried out a shameless piece of advocacy research, designed to discover the prejudices that it is convinced (by its own prejudicial outlook) are lurking within the adult population.
The media have had a field day with Barnardo's survey findings. "Britons fear and loathe "feral" children", says Reuters. Some media outlets have taken the research as evidence that adults have a warped view of kids (see the Guardian, for example), while others have welcomed it with open arms as confirmation that British yoof really are going to hell in a handcart. "Half of British adults are scared of children who "behave like feral animals"", screeched the Daily Mail.
The coverage all springs from Barnardo's press release, titled "The shame of Britain's intolerance of children". It tells us that "more than a third (35%) of people agree that nowadays it feels like the streets are infested with children". Something about that wording doesn't ring true. Have you ever heard anyone say the streets are "infested" with kids? I haven't, either. But then, no member of the public volunteered to Barnardo's the view that Britain's streets are "infested". Rather, the image of "infestation" was introduced by the Barnardo's-employed pollsters.
They put the following statement to their 2,021 respondents, "Nowadays it feels like the streets are infested with children", and asked them to agree or disagree. How is one supposed to respond to such a bald, black-and-white statement, where there's no room for manoeuvre? What if you are, say, an elderly person who thinks there probably are too many kids hanging around on street corners, when they could be in youth centres or on football pitches instead, but you would not necessarily use the word "infested"? Do you say "agree" or "disagree" to the survey statement?
In the event, eight per cent "strongly agreed" and 27 per cent "agreed", adding up to Barnardo's total of "35 percent" who think the streets are infested with children. A large majority, 46 per cent, "disagreed" and strikingly 14 per cent "strongly disagreed", almost twice the number who "strongly agreed". Maybe some of this 60 per cent who disagreed or strongly disagreed with the idea that Britain's streets are infested with children were thinking to themselves "What a disgusting sentiment. Why am I being asked this question?"
Even worse, having introduced the noxious notion that Britain's streets are "infested" and found that some people seemed to agree, the chief executive of Barnardo's then went on to say that "it is appalling that words like "vermin" are used daily in reference to children". Are they really? The survey doesn't mention "vermin" and so far as we know none of the respondents volunteered the belief that children are verminous. Rather, Barnardo's is extrapolating from its already loaded question about "infestation" the loaded idea that British adults have an "unjustified and disturbing" view of children as "vermin". No we don't. You just think we do.
The question on whether children are "feral" was even more convoluted. "Most adults think children are feral", claimed the newspaper headlines, as if Barnardo's had uncovered a scientifically measurable prejudice against young people. In fact, Barnardo's put the following statement to its respondents: "People refer to children as feral but I don't think they behave this way. Do you agree or disagree?"
Eh? Come again? I write and edit words for a living, and even I was bamboozled by this statement. Does one say agree or disagree to the first part ("People refer to children as feral") or the second part ("But I don't think they behave this way")? It took me a couple of minutes to work out that I would say "agree". Forty-two per cent of respondents agreed with Barnardo's statement (that is, they agree that people refer to children as feral but don't think that is a useful description), while 45 per cent disagreed with Barnardo's statement, which presumably means they think children are in some way feral (at least I think it does; I'm confused again). Not surprisingly, 13 per cent said "Don't know", which was by far the highest "Don't know" response for the whole survey. If there had been a choice that said "I have no idea what you are talking about", I imagine it would have been selected by, ooh, at least 20 per cent of the respondents.
Whatever this bizarre question on feral children tells us - about Barnardo's scribes; about the illiteracy of pollsters; about the duplicity of advocacy research - it does not scientifically prove that "most adults think children are feral". Just as the responses to the loaded statement "British children are beginning to behave like animals" - with that horrid animal image being projected on to public debate by Barnardo's itself - does not tell us everything, or anything really, about how adults view, interact with and care for children.
The black-and-white nature of Barnardo's questioning must have also proved problematic in relation to the issue of "professional help". The following statement was put to the respondents: "Children who get into trouble are often misunderstood and in need of professional help". Forty-nine per cent of respondents disagreed, and this was held up in Barnardo's press release as evidence that adults are not sufficiently sympathetic to the plight of children. On the other hand, the response might signal a healthy suspicion towards "professional help". Certainly the mums and dads among the 2,021 respondents might kick against the idea that troubled children need outside intervention rather than discipline or care within the family home.
Barnardo's has simply found what it wanted to find: that British adults don't understand children, and in fact even fear and loathe them, and thus we need expert charities to educate the British public about how wonderful children are and how we should look after them. Charities like, oh I don't know, Barnardo's maybe? It is telling - in the extreme - that these survey results were released just a few days before Barnardo's is set to launch its first-ever TV advertising campaign calling upon us all to "stop demonising children". How convenient to discover that "most British adults" demonise children just before you launch a campaign against the demonisation of children. The gods have smiled on Barnardo's.
It is of course true that adult society has a somewhat fraught and even fearful relationship with young people today. As a consequence of a growing sense of insecurity, and a collapse of adult solidarity, young people are increasingly looked upon as either vulnerable victims or potentially violent tearaways. This view of youth is stoked by politicians, the media and even children's charities, all of whom feed us a constant diet of anti-social behaviour scares, stories about chavs, slags, gangs and knives, and concerns that childhood obesity and binge-drunkenness will turn our children into feckless adults. However, this does not mean that adults think children are vermin or animals that are infesting our streets. And by squeezing today's difficult relationship between adult society and young people into this moralistic straitjacket, in which everything is reposed as a war between dumb adults and victimised children, Barnardo's is only making matters worse.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by Barnardo's advocacy research. This is a charity (founded in 1867) that has long relied upon presenting children as victims and adults as buffoons. As one study of Barnardo's early years in Victorian times says, "Barnardo's philanthropic narratives" set out to "popularise the plight of poor children while simultaneously casting the adult poor out of the English community and calling into question their basic rights to citizenship". Today, too, Barnardo's is popularising the idea that children are victims while questioning adults' moral priorities. All the better to boost the fortunes of a charity that loves to play the role of in loco parentis.
The GOS says: Two intelligent articles. And here's something else: this week a lot of publicity was given to the statement "It saddens me that the probability is that, had Baby P survived, given his own deprivation, he might have been unruly by the time he had reached the age of 13 or 14. At which point he'd have become feral, a parasite, a yob, helping to infest our streets".
And who said that? The head of British Nazi Party?
No. It was Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo's.
I've told this story before in these pages, but it was important to me at the time and still is, so I'll tell it again: some years ago I was responsible, as part of my day job, for organising a concert to raise funds for the NSPCC.
The concert was given by a local youth orchestra and choir run by the organisation for which I worked, about 100 children in all.
Before the concert the NSPCC sent me some leaflets to distribute to the audience. They contained the information that 15% of children in our county were suffering from some sort of abuse.
As the concert went ahead, I stood at the back and looked at the audience of delighted mums and dads, grannies and little brothers. I looked at the children performing so brilliantly on stage. It was inconceivable that out of that choir and orchestra, most of whom I knew and taught personally, fifteen were being abused - presumably by fifteen members of the audience, many of whom I also knew personally.
It was clearly ridiculous, and I have never believed anything the NSPCC said since, or organised any activity which might have benefited them.
When I wrote to the NSPCC and expressed my disquiet at their propaganda, buried in their reply was a paragraph that was very illuminating. It said that abuse could take many forms: inadequate clothing, lack of supervision to and from school, lack of proper heating at home, for instance.
Nearly sixty years ago I lived with my parents, of course, in a normal, loving family. But my bedroom was heated with a paraffin stove that smelt and fumed and left condensation dripping on the walls, yet still in the mornings the windows were coated with ice on the inside. I walked nearly three miles to school and three miles back, in all weathers, completely unsupervised and wearing a gabardine mac that leaked. I sat in school all day with wet clothes and sodden shoes, and then put the same wet coat on to walk home.
My friends were all in the same boat - there were no truly waterproof clothes then, almost none of our parents had cars, central heating hadn't been invented.
So, according to the NSPCC, I was an abused child. Whoopee, I am a victim! Who do I sue?
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