The Role of Media and Child Protection:
Transforming the Social Problem into a Public Issue
May I begin by thanking you for the opportunity of addressing you this morning? It is both a pleasure and a privilege to be here in Bangalore and to have the chance to explore this important topic with you. This is my first visit to your city and to India and I hope that it will not be my last.
My career to date has involved me holding senior positions in both government and voluntary child protection organizations and has brought me into contact with the media. Through those experiences, I have come to understand that the media is critical to the process by which a society comes to address the suffering of abused children. For that reason, I chose to entitle this paper “Transforming the Social Problem into a Public Issue”.
The work experiences that I refer to, have all been gathered within a United Kingdom and Irish context and it is for you to decide if the learning gained is applicable here. I can think of no reason why it should not be but I want from the outset to make it clear that I have no knowledge of the media in India or in Bangalore.
To be clear, what I want to explore with you is the way in which a society moves from a position of tolerating the suffering of children to a position of applying resources focused on addressing that suffering, and removing it or greatly reducing it. I would like to illustrate this by discussing the way in which the death of children known to the child protection services, moved British society to act and address the abuse of children.
If you look at the development of child protection legislation in England through recent history, you find that the government was quicker to act to create laws to protect farm animals before it brought in any laws for vulnerable children. As a consequence, concerned voluntary organizations who wanted to address this abuse and to use the legal system to do so, had to use the acts of parliament to protect animals as a basis for legal action. They argued that a child should have at least the same value as a cow or a sheep in English society.
These court proceedings shamed the government into bringing in legislation that extended some protection to children. The date for this does not go back very far in history. In fact we are talking about the late nineteenth century, and it was not until the nineteen thirties and forties that any real protection was afforded to children at risk in society through the legal framework of the country.
Looking at where we are today a great deal has changed. Significantly, the progress of protecting children through the law has been crisis led. In short, legislative change has followed the emergence of a perceived problem in society. When you examine these situations, you find that it is not that the problem has just occurred. Rather it is that the awareness of the existence of the problem has just been recognized by wider society. It was not that children have only recently started to be abused. It is that wider society has become aware that this abuse is experienced by children within our community.
The awareness of child abuse in society and the fact that much of it could be prevented, is where the media have a vital role to play. The pre-requisite for them exercising this role is for key players in the media to become well informed and knowledgeable about the subject. For this reason, I welcome this opportunity to share with you the learning gained from our experiences in another society far removed from here.
Later other speakers will look in detail at the legislative framework that is in place here. For that reason, I will limit my remarks to British and Irish society. The development of legislation was led by reactions to perceived crises which in turn generated increased political will to address the problem. Sadly, what often happened was that the introduction of new legislation did not give rise to the allocation of additional resources to ensure that the new laws would be fully complied with. This gap between the stated intent of government to care for vulnerable children and the reality of how it delivers that care, is important and relevant when considering the role of the media. It is not enough for those in power to say they are going to act and introduce new laws if they do not provide the means by which the new expectation of service provision can be met.
Perhaps the best example of this would be the introduction by the United Nations in 1989 of a convention to define the rights of all children in the countries of the world. The UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) represented a major and ground breaking development in that it sought to set down through defining the basic rights of all children, a framework for care and protection that would tie in all countries that sign the convention. It would no longer be acceptable for any country that agrees to be a signatory to the convention to have in place legislation that fails to adequately protect children or that did not respect their rights. In short, the UNCRC became the reference point against which all legislation that effected the lives of children to be introduced by any government, would be judged. If a country either failed to meet these standards or did not ensure that they complied with the UNCRC when creating legislation, they exposed themselves to the risk of significant reputation damage on an international basis.
I mention this as I know that India became a signatory to the UNCRC in 1992 and therefore is in the same position as the United Kingdom and Ireland were when crises emerged regarding the way in which vulnerable children were responded to. The media, both broadcast and written, held the government accountable by highlighting the fact that they had committed themselves to respecting the rights of all children but had fallen down in their practice. This they saw as newsworthy and as a consequence the number of column inches that the death of vulnerable child would generate in the written media increased. Child abuse became a hot news topic.
It is also important to raise the issue of vested interests with regard to the involvement of media and the issue of child abuse. It is the case that many organizations that are involved with children, as well as government, do not want the media to be informed and to have knowledge of the reality of the suffering of children in society. Their motivation is often driven by self-protection and the avoidance of reputational damage. In some cases it may also be the fear of prosecution as they may either be involved in the abuse themselves or have known that the abuse was happening and did nothing to stop it. For government, particularly within the democratic system, it is more likely to be about keeping power and votes. If their performance in protecting the most vulnerable members of society is shown to be ineffective, this could lead to them losing power. People may no longer vote for them.
The media are critical in this process and their role is recognized by politicians and others in power in society. For that reason we have political lobbyists and public relations practitioners. Ultimately what they are seeking to do is to influence key systems such as the political system. Information has an impact on influencing which is where the media come in. The reality of suffering of the abused child in society is valuable information that can be used by the media to influence political decisions such as the enactment of new laws and the allocation of resources. This requires the gathering of statistics on subjects such the number of children that die or are significantly harmed when known to the statutory child protection services. Information should also be available on the detail of the steps taken by those in authority to establish the circumstances surrounding the harming of the child and the actions taken to ensure that those responsible are held to account. If you do not have these mechanisms in place to give you this information, this deficit can become a matter of interest itself to the media. This was certainly the case in the United Kingdom and in Ireland.
Vested interest may seek to suppress the gathering of this information as they realize the influencing power that it holds. Why would you remove a child from an abusive situation in the community to place them in a government home where they run the chance of being abused again? If this occurs it has the power in some countries to literally bring down governments as can be seen from the experience in Ireland where the government was seen to be failing in its responsibilities to vulnerable children and not holding members of the Catholic Church accountable for their actions in Ireland. This situation led to the Fianna Fail party led by Albert Reynolds’s being voted out of power as they were seen as being ineffective in dealing with this issue in Irish society.
The experience in Ireland with the Catholic Church clearly illustrates the role that vested interests play in influencing decision making processes in society that directly impact on the protection of children. The media are the means by which public opinion and those in positions of leadership can be mobilized and change can take place. For this to happen, the media and those who have the knowledge need to form a partnership whereby the reality of the child abuse problem that exists in society is shared and made widely known by the media.
The reporting of the problem has to be informed and factual. It is a highly emotive subject and it generates strong feelings. It is important that sensationalism is avoided but this is best done through making available well documented factual information. From the experiences gained in Ireland and in the United Kingdom, we found that charities or voluntary organizations are best placed to share this information as their activities are not directly controlled by government. Occasionally, a whistle blower may emerge within the government system that exposes significant malpractice and cover up. These situations are short lived generally and rarely generate a flow of factual information that is needed to achieve the maximum impact for influencing.
In the United Kingdom and in Ireland you have recently seen the emergence of a new phenomenon. It is referred to as “compassion fatigue”. Very simply, this is the condition were the public who the media supply news to, become disinterested in a topic because they have been exposed to it so often. They become tired of it. The fact is that the suffering of abused children gives rise to strong emotions in most people when they hear of it. These feelings are predominantly negative in content. We do not like experiencing them and try to avoid them in our lives. As a result, we have to be motivated to accept them which we are more likely to do if we see purpose or reason for doing so. Hence, the involvement of media at the early stages of the cycle of transforming the social problem into a public issue generates positive results for the media as people are motivated to hear more about the issue. They see purpose in it. This stage needs to be carefully managed and extended so that change can be achieved and the onset of compassion fatigue offset by positive actions being taken.
In the United Kingdom, it took several years for this to occur but it is now the case that the public has been educated and informed by the media and has an understanding that all children have rights which should be respected, particularly the right to be protected from abuse. Governments now realize that although children do not have the vote, their situation is intertwined and linked with many others who do vote, and therefore they cannot be ignored. The vulnerable and at risk child in our society has developed and acquired political value and this is a fact that the media are well aware of, within most democratic countries across the world.
The media are dependent on information that they regard as newsworthy. The abused child is newsworthy from a number of perspectives. With us, it was firstly the number of abused children there were in our society. Secondly, it was whether that abuse could and should have been prevented. Thirdly, it was subjecting to public scrutiny the performance of the caring agencies, both government and voluntary, with regard to their practice and effectiveness in protecting vulnerable children. Finally, the abused child is newsworthy from the perspective of the offender and whether they have been held to account for their actions by the justice system.
The involvement of media in all these aspects of the abused child has led to change in our society. New laws, increased allocation of resources, the removal of failing or apathetic officers and ineffective government officials, and the prosecution of the guilty, all testify to the positive involvement of the media in the issue of the abused child in Ireland and the United Kingdom. This experience can be replicated elsewhere if the essential ingredients are in place.
I would like to conclude by confirming what these essential ingredients are and then reviewing for you the critical role of the media in shaping society’s response to the issue of the abused child. For the existence of the abuse of children in society to be newsworthy there has be a belief held by those in the media that most people in their audiences would accept that this is wrong and should not be tolerated. The media require this to be in place if the abuse is to be newsworthy. If the media believe that the general public do not care what happens to children, they will not regard what is shared with them by the media as worthy of their interest. As a result, the suffering of children in that society will not be newsworthy.
I do not believe that this situation exists here but I mention it because it has an influence on what the media regard as newsworthy. They have to believe that people really care about what happens in this society to vulnerable children. They have to believe that if the general public, or their readers, listeners, or viewers, were to be informed as to what the reality is then this would stimulate their interest. What the media want to avoid is information that nobody is interested in. Therefore the fundamental question for the media is – Do people really care what happens to vulnerable children in our society?
In our situation in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the answer was in the affirmative. This energized the media to focus on the issue and provide the information to their audiences that stimulated their interest and attention. This served to mobilize public opinion. Politicians are greatly influenced by public opinion and therefore acted accordingly. Change has resulted and the social problem became a public issue.
The role that the media played in this process cannot be underestimated or minimized. Quite simply it would not have happened if the media had not engaged with the issue and sought to inform the rest of society to what was happening. They had to take chances and expose themselves to some degree of risk but the results were very positive for vulnerable children in our society. As someone who has given their entire working life to this issue, it represents a matter of great satisfaction for me to have seen so much positive change from where we were to where we now are. The media have been critical to this process of change. It is my belief that what was achieved in our society can also happen here.
22nd January 2014
(This paper was written during a recent visit to Bangalore for presentation to an Indian audience outlining how our experiences here in Ireland and the United Kingdom could help to assist those in India who seek to support the development of effective child protection services across that vast continent.)