11 October 2012
In July 1885 the Pall Mall Gazette ran a series of article entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. These were written by the Gazette’s editor W.T.Stead, the man who invented the newspaper interview, took it to new heights when he started interviewing the dead, with whom he, a spiritualist, routinely communicated and, finally, took himself to new depths when he bought a ticket for the Titanic.
Stead’s article was about child prostitution in London. This caused some consternation among the great and the good, presumably because some of them were guilty. Certainly Edward, Prince of Wales, was said to have a taste for perilously young girls. Stead had procured a child to demonstrate the truth of his case, but some technicality of the deal gave the g & g the chance to have him imprisoned for three months. He emerged triumphant.
Stead, a man of a certain, bizarre greatness, had tabloid or even ‘yellow’ instincts. A couple of crossheads from his Maiden Tribute articles were ‘The Violation of Virgins’ and ‘Strapping Girls Down’. Yet he was a genuinely great journalist and his campaign was brilliantly successful. As a direct result, for example, the age of consent was raised from thirteen to sixteen.
This is not to exculpate him, it is just to say that there are irrational subtleties in the public response which should be noted
As well as the interview, a convention of journalistic style, Stead had also created a convention of content – child abuse has, ever since, been a tabloid and, latterly, broadsheet basic. We are now in the midst of another abuse flare-up – Jimmy Savile and the abduction of April. The latter brought out an entire town, eager to be involved, and the former is reaching ever more dizzying heights with not only the destruction of Savile’s gravestone but also the prospect of his family having his body exhumed. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, was given a splash on a plate by Lord Patten when he spoke of ‘the cesspit of the Jimmy Savile allegations’.
One has to be coldly honest about what exactly is going on here. First, child abuse is horrible and, when accompanied by murder, it becomes a crime beyond imagination. But there are nuances in terms of the reaction. Is there the same emotional reaction to the abuse of boys by women as to the abuse of girls by men? Definitely not. The age of the girl does not seem to be material, Savile is being indicted on the basis, as far as I can see, of mainly teenage victims,some above the age of consent. This is not to exculpate him, it is just to say that there are irrational subtleties in the public response which should be noted.
Secondly, who can doubt that there is, for some, an erotic fascination? Without doubt, once we have reached the point of exhuming perpetrators, there is a ghoulish fascination. There is also a suspiciously easy moral righteousness. Child abuse is almost the only evil on which we can all agree. It is thus all to easy to form a mob. We should not forget those mothers who demonstrated outside the house of a pediatrician, nor should we forget the sight of their daughers – eight or nine-year-olds in short skirts and full make up. (I commented on this and other things at the time and was called, somewhat alarmingly, ‘brave’ by Laurie Taylor.) The point about those mothers and those children is that contemporary culture has successfully blurred the line between child- and adulthood. 40-year-olds dress like kids and kids dress like 20-year-olds. It is not, frankly, surprising in such a climate that some inadequates may confuse themselves to the point of vile criminality. Or put it another way: we still pay a Maiden Tribute but in away that can easily be disguised by a moral frenzy.
Without doubt, once we have reached the point of exhuming perpetrators, there is a ghoulish fascination
The problem with moral frenzies is they make cowards of us all. All the apologisers queueing up at the BBC have become Men without Chests (C.S.Lewis, definitely, following Nietzsche, I think.) They are puppets of the prevailing temper, devoid of independence either of intellect or judgment on the matters at hand. I don’t blame them – I’d probably be forced to do the same in their position; their chests have been stolen not given away.
The question is: does any of this do any good? The answer is obviously no. Child abuse should be prevented and/or punished. It should not be used as a priggish moral crusade to disguise our woes nor as a prison for our intellects. Stead would be horrified. Sorry, I meant Stead IS horrified. He still pops us at seances.