Friday, 23 November 2012

Fear and loathing in the UK

It's hard to write about recent child abuse scandals surrounding (for instance) the DJ and TV 'personality' Jimmy Savile without a sense of revulsion.

Young girls shipped in from residential institutions to Top of the Tops? A widespread culture of abuse? Powerful older men given places to sleep (and sets of ward keys) in top hospitals? What a disgusting litany of failure. It's hard to know where to begin.

But it's important to face these issues square on: and to say, for instance, that anyone who knows their history knows that all sorts of awful scandals riddled the NHS (and most of our other institutions) throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They were never free of them: at Ely Hospital near Cardiff, for instance, where mentally ill patients were treated appallingly. A culture of fear and of authority reigned: to question 'high ups', whether lay people or doctors, was much more difficult than today. The white-coated, technocratic expertise of the welfare state could be a cloak for abuse as well as a spur to reform. We need to be able to talk about these issues, to debate them, to analyse what went on - all of which is hampered by our present sensationalism.

To be honest, things have undoubtedly got better since the apparently dark days of the 1970s. Our culture has changed. We can talk about these issues: and children's complaints or cries for help are less often ignored. New institutions - such as the Children's Commissioners - now look out for (and speak out on behalf of) young people. Complaints mechanisms inside the NHS are now much more accessible and much more powerful.

So why the panic now, rather than when this nasty little archipelago of fear was at its height?

Well, it's partly because we need something to be frightened of. Something for the media to seize on - for Newsnight to try and redeem itself over the Savile case (disastrously, in the case of its allegations about a senior Conservative Party figure). When an experienced broadcaster like Phillip Schofield loses his head and tries to hand the Prime Minister a list of alleged paedophiles on air, you know there's a run on the bank named 'panic'.

I've written about this heightened sense of fevered hysteria before. It's not new. We used to be frightened about 'Reds under the bed' - a sudden communist takeover. Or we lay awake at night worried about a military coup that would see Mr Wilson or Mr Callaghan carted off to the Tower. Or we thought that nuclear war would obliterte our lives with only three or four minutes of warning - witness the absolutely horrifying, and deeply disturbing, TV dramas The War Game (above) or Threads.

Now, when most of those political and nuclear dangers have receded, the 'papers have got to us at our most vulnerable spot - our kids. So we'll cart them around in our big carbon-spewing car-buses, from school gate to party, and from party to home, pretty much ensuring that much higher risks (obesity, diabetes and heart disease) do get them in the end. If climate change doesn't first.

But less immediate, less hysterical, more hidden, and not-at-all stirred up by the Daily Mail, we tend to forget about those much higher risks in favour of a new set of difficult-to-face terrors.

What a pity.

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