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Wednesday, 07 February 2018

University historian honoured for research uncovering history of child sex abuse in Britain

Written by The Editorial Team

A historian from the University of Sheffield has been honoured for his research which highlights how press coverage of child sex abuse in Britain has changed over the last century.

Professor Adrian Bingham from the University’s Department of History has been awarded the Royal Historical Society Public History Prize in recognition of his research which is shedding light on the history of child sex abuse in Britain between 1918 and 1990.

The study, which is part of a collaboration with historians at the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh, aims to contextualise current public inquiries and contribute to future policy making.

The study has found:

  • Press coverage has been vital in pushing child sex abuse up the public agenda since the 1970s; it has encouraged survivors to report offences and prompted politicians, local authorities, social workers, and the police to develop policy responses
  • For most of the 20th century, however, the press missed numerous opportunities to define and highlight child sexual abuse as a problem
  • Offences against children, particularly those committed by people in positions of authority, regularly featured in newspaper columns, but the reporting was usually brief, euphemistic and focused on human interest rather than on the cultures and practices that enabled abuse
  • The failure of the press to prioritise child sex abuse as a social problem can be attributed to its adherence to the definitions and assumptions of the legal system, its reliance on court reporting as a source of entertainment and titillation rather than social commentary, the male dominance of newsrooms, and the weakness of its investigative tradition
  • While child sex abuse is now firmly on the press radar, several elements of earlier journalistic culture remain and continue to distort coverage of offences against young people

The research is also identifying factors that made it difficult for victims to report sexual abuse over the last 100 years, as well as highlighting any shifts in policy or practice that made a difference to the ability of victims to seek support and prosecution of offenders.

Researchers involved are identifying what procedures were developed for the reporting of allegations and why cases fell through the net.

The team is examining how social workers, police, teachers, and other professionals responded to abuse, the likelihood of conviction in the court of law, and explain broader social attitudes. They are also considering why past policy opportunities were lost in order to suggest how this may be avoided in future.

The study has also developed the first ever amalgamated criminal justice statistics that can trace the treatment of child sex abuse cases in the courts between 1918 and 1970.

The study also found:

  • Across the 20th century, criminal justice failed to deliver justice to children and young people
  • Even when there was an awareness of the deficiencies of the law and an impetus to remedy them, opportunities were missed and change was alarmingly slow
  • Oversight of children’s welfare was divided between competing branches of social work (psychiatric, moral welfare, child care, etc.) and other welfare professions. This made for fragmented decision making, and failures of communication between different agencies responsible for child safeguarding.
  • It was not until the 2003 Sexual Offences Act that the child was placed at the centre of legislation and the category of ‘abuse of trust’ was created

Professor Adrian Bingham (pictured) said: “My colleagues and I believe that historians have a public duty to inform contemporary debate by sharing their research widely. When there is such intense interest in events that happened several decades ago, historians have a vital role in explaining the specific contexts in which individuals were operating and how that shaped what happened.”

Historic cases of child sex abuse have become a central focal point of political, social and legal concern in the UK. As yet, knowledge of the broader history of sexual abuse throughout the 20th century is partial, with some instances well documented and others forgotten.

The research was initially funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and was supported by the organisation History & Policy. It is generating interest from policy makers in terms of how history can inform decision making today.

Professor Bingham recently shared his research with the Independent Police Complaints Commission and practitioners in the field of child sex abuse at the St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre Annual Conference. He also gave evidence to the NHS inquiries into the Jimmy Savile case, which was cited in a number of public reports, regarding the history of sexual culture, celebrity and the press since the 1960s.