Not Saussure

May 16, 2007

Online safety and moral panic

Filed under: Internet, Panic — notsaussure @ 11:10 am

Devil’s Kitchen is, to my mind, rightly sceptical about some shock … horror statistics from the NSPCC about ‘unwanted experiences’ that children in the UK apparently suffer each day when using the internet. Like DK, I’m of the view that ‘unwanted experiences’ are pretty much part of life and that computers do usually come with an off-switch. Indeed, you could argue that it’s probably safest that children learn to cope with the bullying or unwanted sexual advances that many of them will, unfortunately, encounter at some point during either their childhood or their adult lives by first encountering such things at a safe distance rather than face-to-face.

I’m not being blasé about this, but the fact is that the world isn’t always a particularly pleasant place, and life’s a lot safer and more enjoyable if you have the skills and confidence both to avoid getting into bad situations in the first place and also to deal with them when, inevitably, they do arise.   Better to begin to acquire them, perhaps, in the virtual world, where the threats are more controllable and help is usually closer to hand, than in the actual one.

One of the comments to DK’s piece suggests that

The NSPCC is an organization due a bigger looking-at than it gets,

which prompts me to chuck in my couple of euros’ worth. I fell out with the NSPCC in a big way getting of for 20 years ago when the ‘satanic ritual abuse‘ débâcle really got going. It sounded distinctly fishy to me and then I read Rosie Waterhouse’s classic article on the subject in the Independent on Sunday, which pretty much crystallised my concerns. Strangely enough, I can even remember where I was when I read the article; it made that much impression on me.

The NSPCC, it may be remembered, had been pretty vocal in helping stir up the, quite literal, witch-hunt. Since, at the time, I regularly contributed to the NSPCC, I thought I’d drop them a line asking why they’d been using my money to such mischievous effect. This was, I recall noting to them, particularly galling at a time when systematic abuse in various children’s homes was coming to light. It was, I reasoned, inconceivable that the NSPCC hadn’t received complaints from any of the children on the receiving end of this abuse, so how come they were apparently ignoring actual abuse and, instead, starting up wild-goose chases to disastrous effect?

The reply I received was so breath-taking in its cynicism that it shook even me. Yes, apparently they’d had their doubts about this ritual abuse malarkey but I had to realise that they did an awful lot of very necessary work for children, this costs money, and tabloid bandwagons are a very good way of raising much-needed funds. They rather ducked the question about why they’d failed to spot what was going on in various children’s homes over the years, and hoped they could count on my continued support.

People will perhaps not be surprised to learn that this hope proved misplaced.

Coming at a time when, over in the USA  apparently

parents rate Internet Safety as being a more serious health threat to children than school violence, sexually transmitted diseases, abuse and neglect.

Yes, the Internet,

with the predictable result that

“state and federal legislators appear to have responded to public concerns about Internet safety for children, considering new legislation and issuing consumer alerts”.

it’s perhaps not surprising that the NSPCC has seized this new fund-raising opportunity. But I can’t say I much like it.

As a bit of light relief, people might want to visit this prophetic animation, with a fine Doghorse and  Miss Prism ditty. You won’t regret it.



  1. Very good post; I have written a follow-up.


    Comment by Devil's Kitchen — May 16, 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  2. The phrase “satanic ritual abuse” was invented by the media, not the NSPCC or other child protection agencies, and it is a farcical parody of the disclosures of sadistically abused children and adults.

    I don’t think that it is fair to blame the NSPCC for the excesses of what is fundamentally a media construct, or for stating the same thing as the UK police forces and the Solicitor General at the time – that the ritualistic abuse of children was deemed to have occured in a number of complex child abuse investigations.

    As for Waterhouse’s article – it’s not held to the same burden of proof as those ritual abuse cases in the UK which have been proven before a court of law, although it conveniently ignores the same.

    Comment by B — May 17, 2007 @ 1:43 am

  3. And what ritual abuse cases in the UK would be those, then? Certainly none of those examined by Professor Jean La Fontaine of behalf of the Department of Health as part of their inquiry into the debacle. Her report, The Extent and Nature of Organised and Ritual Abuse looked, you will recall, at all alleged cases of ritual abuse of children reported in the UK between January 1988 and December 1991 and concluded it was complete bunkum. Here’s part of the Telegraph’s report of her comments:

    “People began thinking that perhaps it was something they hadn’t seen because they hadn’t looked and though they had better start looking. That argument is mistaken because we are not talking about a different kind of abuse. It is the same old sexual abuse.” Prof La Fontaine added: “In these cases, the children were worryingly disturbed. It was easy to make a mistake by assuming that, because the children were so damaged, what had happened to them must have been so much worse than normal sexual abuse”. She said claims that the children themselves alleged Satanic and ritual abuse were false. “The fact is that the small children didn’t actually say these things. They said bits and pieces that were picked up by the adults.”

    And what do you mean, it was a media construct? The media picked it up and ran with it, certainly, with the encouragement and assistance of the NSPCC, who were all too happy to obliged since it helped them raise funding for their work. They as much as admitted that to in the letter that so annoyed. What got the ball rolling, though, wasn’t the editor of the Daily Brute deciding to whip up a new panic about something or a bunch of journalists in the pub concocting a story; it was child protection professionals, including the NSPCC, promoting this idea that there was a huge network, hitherto unreported, of ritual abuse going on and that you could spot it if only you looked for it properly. Social Services departments in some areas, particularly Rochdale, Nottingham, and Orkney, picked up the idea with terrifying enthusiasm and caused massive chaos and distress as a result.
    The NSPCC played a large role in promoting the panic. Sorry, but that’s all there is to it.

    Comment by notsaussure — May 17, 2007 @ 1:35 pm

  4. > And what ritual abuse cases in the UK would be those, then?

    IN 1993, three men and a woman from London were imprisoned for between 18 months and life for the sexual abuse of seven chidlren over eleven years.

    “The court was told that on one Hallowe’en a girl was tied naked to a chair in St Mary’s church at Northolt, west London, threatened with knives and sexually abused by adults in black hoods and cloaks. The girl, who said she was driven there by her father, uncle and grandfather, described it as the ‘devil church’.”

    (The Times, 8 June, 1993)

    In 1998, nine people were jailed for a total of 100 years in Plymouth Crown Court for sexual offences against their children and grandchildren.

    “The story has echoes of the discredited cases of alleged ritual abuse in the 1980s. Those cases colapsedin procedural chaos and cries of incredulity; the accused were cleared; the accusers and their allegatoins were all rejected.

    To this day, the official line within which police and social worekrs are expected to work is that there is no such thing as ritual abuse; they say they are discouraged from purusing cases of intergenerational family sadism because it is presumed that juries will instinctively reject them. There is, however, one stunning difference within this account: it could be proved.”

    (The Guardian, 1 August, 1998)

    > Certainly none of those examined by Professor Jean La Fontaine of behalf of the Department of Health as part of their inquiry into the debacle.

    La Fontaine’s report dealt specifically with claims of “Satanic Ritual Abuse” (e.g. intergenerational cults of Satanists) for which she found no evidence. There is a distinction between proving that there are no “secret cults” of evil Satanists and proving that children are not being sexually abused within specific ritualistic contexts. La Fontaine endeavoured to prove the former, but her findings are not directly relevant to the latter.

    The available evidence at the time when La Fontaine was writing suggests that children are being subject to ritualistic forms of child sexual abuse, particularly where the sexual abuse has an organised and commercial aspect. In 1991, the Official Solicitor, David Venables, told the press that allegations of ritual abuse have been upheld in four wardship cases involving 24 children in 1990 – 1991 (The Indepedent, 26 September 1991) and a child sexual abuse survey undertaken by 29 British police forces found that ritual abuse allegations were evident in 1 out of 40 cases of organised child sexual abuse (The Guardian, 19 October).

    > And what do you mean, it was a media construct?

    The narrow definition of ritual abuse that attends the label “Satanic Ritual Abuse” was constructed in the mid-1980s by journalists in the States as well as backlash organisations like Victims of Child Abuse Laws. You can read the press archives yourself if you’d like.

    Once they had created “Satanic Ritual Abuse”, sceptical journalists and backlash orgs used it as a straw man to discredit welfare and health professionals, which was made easier by the fact that some evangelical organisations and authors also picked up the notion of “Satanic Ritual Abuse”.

    However, social workers and psychotherapists have been very ambivalent about the label, and you can read that yourself in the social work and psychotherapy literature that was coming out of the UK and US at the time.

    > They as much as admitted that to in the letter that so annoyed.

    I don’t know why you would find that so annoying. As I said above, the NSPCC and the social work field as a whole was publicly ambivalent at the time about the ridiculous claims that were being made under the label “Satanic Ritual Abuse”. Their view was widely disseminated in social work journals and literature.

    > Social Services departments in some areas, particularly Rochdale, Nottingham, and Orkney, picked up the idea with terrifying enthusiasm and caused massive chaos and distress as a result.

    Strange. If you read the publicly available accounts written by social workers who were involved in those cases, they say that they had no prior knowledge of “ritual abuse” and were horrified by what they were being told by the children in those cases. That doesn’t sound like “terrifying enthusiasm” to me, but you seem very circumspect about the motives of all social workers and psychotherapists as a whole, so perhaps you believe they are all conspiring to lie to the public.

    Comment by B — May 21, 2007 @ 2:04 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: