Moral Panics, flight

Sketch by Isobel Williams. http://isobelwilliams.blogspot.co.uk/

Proof is a timely new publication by the Justice Gap. The first edition, a collection of 16 short essays, reflects on availability of justice in an increasingly victim-focused climate. It features a balance of perspectives from well-recognised names: practitioners such as the current Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders, Mark Newby and Mark Barlow, academics including Ros Burnett and Brian Thornton, journalists like David Rose and David Jessel, and caseworkers such as Dennis Eady.

  • You can find out more about Proof magazine – and order here.

For a short publication, it wastes no words. From the foreword, it establishes a standpoint that ‘moral panic’ is a term to be treated with caution, and is not limited to the child sex abuse scandals currently gripping the nation. The magazine provides strong commentary on the problems within our justice system, from guarantees that ‘victims’ will be believed, to the inherent prejudices against those who are accused (particularly of sexual offences). There is consensus among several authors that guilt should not be assumed only from the number of people making allegations, and that victim-centred measures subvert the fundamental concept of the presumption of innocence.

David Jessel points out that the popular concept of ‘witch hunts’ can apply both to unconvicted sex offenders and to would-be claimants, and Alison Saunders draws attention to the flawed belief that if someone has been acquitted, the decision to prosecute was wrong. Mark Newby and Mark Barlow explain that, for all the uproar following Savile (who has become the face of a child abuse ‘moral panic’), it is worth remembering that widely-accepted guilt and mass loathing have resulted from the evidence of one side, and with no trial enabling it to be challenged.

Proof casts a skeptical eye beyond the criminal justice system, to look at how the media can incite moral panics (such as the ricin terror plot, or jihadists) and create bogeymen from vulnerable minority groups (those accused of abhorrent offences), vilifying them under the pretense of ‘uncovering truth for public benefit’, distracting us from their true motives of profit. Authors also discuss the damaging consequences of media interest in cases, such as how newspapers reporting the names of those who have yet to be tried can lead to their lives being permanently affected, and how salacious reporting of cases, which can twist ‘facts’ beyond all recognition, can seriously prejudice trials.

Overall, the publication provides a well-balanced and engrossing read, to suit criminal justice professionals, academics and students as well as a general readership, although a source list would be useful for some of the articles. Proof is bold in its collection of competing and controversial voices, offering some engaging and thought-provoking debate.

This article was written for the FACT (Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers) magazine. Thanks for letting us use.

 

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Profile photo of Naomi-Ellen Speechley About Naomi-Ellen Speechley
Naomi-Ellen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester, looking at the investigation of wrongful convictions of historic sexual abuse. She previously lectured in forensic psychology and criminological psychology at the University of Winchester, and was a lead researcher on a project at the University of Oxford, studying the impact of being falsely accused of abuse

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2 Comments

  • Christopher Lennon January 19, 2016 7:41 am

    “There is consensus among several authors that guilt should not be assumed only from the number of people making allegations, and that victim-centred measures subvert the fundamental concept of the presumption of innocence.”

    ” … for all the uproar following Savile (who has become the face of a child abuse ‘moral panic’), it is worth remembering that widely-accepted guilt and mass loathing have resulted from the evidence of one side, and with no trial enabling it to be challenged.”

    Quite, and these points have needed saying, or writing, for some time. Similar remarks are often treated with incredulity by educated persons who seem to have forgotten basic principles.

    A disturbing number of alleged abusers are deceased. If an accuser cannot face someone in their lifetime, it should at least raise a question of credibility.

    I recently corresponded with a former fellow pupil I have not seen for about 60 years, after finding an online blog, written on behalf of himself and unnamed others, accusing two long deceased teachers of even older abuse, in one case sexual, the other physical. I felt obliged to defend both men, in the context of their time and from my own experience and explained, as sensitively as I could, that I do not believe anyone was actually abused by them, all those years ago.

  • Martin Wright January 19, 2016 10:02 am

    ‘Proof’ also has a chapter about Bryn Estyn. See The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt, by RICHARD WEBSTER (SHORTLISTED FOR THE ORWELL PRIZE). 2005. http://www.richardwebster.net/brynestyn.htm. It conclusively shows that many of the allegations were false: in at least one case the accuser and the accused were not at the home at the same time, one accused won substantial libel damages, others were acquitted.

    Publisher’s summary: In 1991 rumours began to circulate in North Wales that Bryn Estyn, a home for adolescent boys, was the centre of a paedophile ring. A massive police investigation was launched which, over the next ten years, spread to care homes throughout Britain. Thousands were accused, hundreds arrested, and the prisons began to fill up with convicted care workers. Some of these pleaded guilty for the simple reason that they were guilty. But the majority continue to protest their innocence to this day. In this book Richard Webster examines how a number of genuine cases of sexual abuse became the basis for an extraordinary collective fantasy and how rumours of a non-existent paedophile ring shattered the lives of hundreds of innocent care workers and their families.

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