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Content type
Policy and practice paper

June 2001


Chris Goddard, Bernadette J. Saunders

This paper examines the role of the media in relation to child abuse and child protection and argues that the media have been essential to the task of placing the problem of child abuse in the minds of the public and on the political agenda. The media have played a major role in defining what is "normal" and what is "deviant" in society, thus contributing to definitions of what is, and what is not, considered to be child abuse.

Significantly, the media have appeared, at times, to have more influence on child protection policy and practice than professionals working in the field — a phenomenon described as "legislation by tabloid"

While acknowledging that the media’s portrayal of child abuse and child protection can have negative consequences for children and their families, it is argued that media coverage is vital if public concern for children is to remain on the political agenda, and if child protection services are to remain accountable.

The media have been essential to the growth of society’s awareness of child abuse and neglect, not so much from specific community education campaigns as through ongoing news and features reporting on specific cases, research and intervention initiatives (Gough 1996). The failures of child protection services in particular have preoccupied the media in Australia for decades (Stanley and Goddard, in press) with headlines having a familiar ring wherever they appear: in the United States, "Brianna report cites chaos in 7 DC agencies" (Horwitz and Higham 2000); in New Zealand, "Never again: how we failed James Whakaruru" (Collins 2000); and in the United Kingdom after the terrible death of Victoria (known as Anna) Climbie, "Why did no one try to save this bright, happy girl?" (Bright and McVeigh 2001).

As Stanley and Goddard (in press) have noted, such media coverage has a major impact. Every such death provides opportunities to re-visit previous tragedies. Recently a UK tabloid The Mirror devoted its entire front page and three other pages to "The lost ones" (7 May 2001). Inside, the paper carried more than 20 stories, accompanied by photographs of children who died as a result of abuse, neglect or murder (Wynne-Jones and Sayid 2001).

Other child abuse stories feature prominently and regularly in most major newspapers. In Australia, on one day (6 June), The Advertiser in Adelaide devoted its entire front page to the story of a former magistrate found guilty of sexually abusing young boys (Weir 2001), The Courier Mail in Queensland carried a major story entitled "Drinking dad drops his baby, court told" (Watt 2001), while The Age in Melbourne reported on its front page that "child-porn swoop leads police to state bureaucrat" (Silvester 2001).

As Hutson and Liddiard (1994: 73) note, media representations of social problems are important not least because of the impact such representations have on "public attitudes". Writing of youth homelessness, they argue that the stories provided by the media are the "main source of information" for most people (1994: 73).

Child abuse, it may be argued, is no different. According to Goddard (1994: 9): "Every development in knowledge of the problem of child abuse has been accompanied by disagreements about definitions to be used, the incidence of the problem, theoretical approaches to causation, the perpetrators of abuse, the effects on victims, efficient approaches to practice, the adequacy of child protection policies, and the appropriateness of methodologies chosen to ascertain the ‘truth’ about all of the above."

These "discrepancies" have increasingly been fought out in the broader media as well as in professional journals, to the extent that it has been claimed that the media’s influence over child protection policy is far greater than that of the professionals working in the field (Goddard 1998).

At the same time, there has been yet another media and communication revolution. According to O’Shaughnessy (1999: 3): "Satellite and cable communications, digital television, computers, video games, virtual reality, and the Internet are again changing our patterns of behaviour, our modes of accessing knowledge, our entertainment, and our ways of seeing the world and interacting with one another. We truly live in a "media-world."

O’Shaughnessy (1999: 4) argues that the "complexity" of the media makes one definition difficult to arrive at, but proposes the following as a starting point: "The media are technologically developed and economically profitable forms of human communication, held either in public or private ownership, which can transmit information and entertainment across time and space to large groups of people."

In this paper, some of the central issues concerning child abuse and the media are examined, although this examination is confined largely to the print and television media, with some reference to film and live theatre. Given the size of the material to be presented, the impact of mass media education and prevention campaigns will be explored in the next Issues paper. [In recent years, the Internet has become a source of child abuse and exploitation; this subject (and the prevention of online abuse) will be addressed in another Clearinghouse publication.]


News reports play a large role in our lives. Stories of crime and deviant behaviour, in particular, provide a significant part of those news reports. Grabosky and Wilson (1989) suggest that issues of crime and criminal justice attract so much attention because such reporting is full of drama, involves life and property, and the frightening power to deprive a person of liberty. In other words, crime news will always be "prime news" (McGregor 1993), although some authors have suggested that media coverage of crime has declined (see, for example, Grabosky and Wilson 1989).

While many journalists take the position that that they merely reflect society’s views, they clearly exercise some degree of power (Grabosky and Wilson 1989). It has been argued that journalists play a major role in constructing what is considered "deviant" in our society and, therefore, what is "normal" (Ericson et al. 1987). Ericson and his colleagues maintain that journalists do not merely reflect the work of others who define deviance and attempt to control it, but are themselves in some ways agents of social control; they are "a kind of deviance defining elite" who articulate the "proper bounds to behaviour" in our society (Ericson et al. 1987: 3). Such a role has inevitably led to critical scrutiny of the role of journalists in creating images of crime.

The medical and media "discovery" of child abuse

In 1962, Dr. Henry Kempe and his colleagues published their article "The Battered-Child Syndrome" in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Kempe et al. 1962). According to Barbara Nelson (1984: 58), this "caused a storm" in the medical and mass media, with the AMA contributing a press release entitled "Parental abuse looms in childhood deaths". Nelson argues that while the "rediscovery" of child abuse as a social issue is usually attributed to the work of Kempe and his colleagues, "in point of fact, the popular articles based on Kempe’s research were equally important in creating the sense of an urgent national problem" (1984: 13).

Nelson reports that Kempe’s article was followed by stories about child abuse in mainstream magazines such as Time. At this stage child abuse was defined narrowly, and speedy legislative responses were therefore possible. Defining the problem narrowly (to the "battered-child") "reduced conflict" and enhanced the "non-controversial nature of the issue" (Nelson 1984: 14). The media’s role was important "in transforming the once-minor charity concern called ‘cruelty to children’ into an important social welfare issue" (Nelson 1984: 51).

Nelson analysed media coverage of child abuse using the "issue-attention cycle" described by Anthony Downs (1972). Downs proposed that this cycle of interest in a problem "is rooted both in the nature of certain domestic problems and in the way major communications media interact with the public" (1972: 39). Downs describes five stages of this cycle: a "pre-problem stage" where the social condition exists but has yet to come to full attention; a second stage of "alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm"; a third stage where the price of solving the problem is seen as high and may involve some major re-structuring of society itself; a fourth stage where public interest slowly declines; and a final "post-problem" stage where there is "a twilight realm of lesser attention or spasmodic recurrences of interest" (Downs 1972: 39—40).

Downs does not define this cycle of interest solely in terms of media coverage and qualifies his formulation by arguing that not all social problems will go through this cycle. Indeed, the media continue to "discover" child abuse.

There is little sign of "compassion fatigue" or "media fatigue" (Cohen 2001: 192). Child abuse is still "in the news" (Goddard 1996a: 7). Nelson suggests that there are four factors that contributed to child abuse breaking out of Down’s limited cycle of attention. The first is increased media coverage of "specific types" of abuse (1984). Nelson gives examples such as child abuse in military families, an issue which has received little attention in Australia. Second, and conversely, child abuse became linked with broader issues such as violence in the family more generally. Child abuse coverage has thus been enhanced both by "topic differentiation and issue aggregation", according to Nelson (1984:57). Continuing media attention is also fed by a third factor, the media monitoring of papers in professional journals. Nelson proposes that this "symbiotic relationship" between the mass media and professional outlets, while well established, has rarely been studied. A fourth factor, the increased use of "soft news" or human interest stories about child abuse, in addition to the "hard news" or crime stories, has also led to sustained media interest in child abuse (Nelson 1984).

The growth in the number of articles on child abuse in professional journals (which as Nelson notes, feed the broader media) was also accompanied by a growth in the number of journals. These factors have allowed increased coverage of child abuse in professional journals without excluding other topics (Nelson 1984).

In recent years, there has also been a reverse cycle of interest in media coverage of the problems, with child welfare researchers, academics and practitioners examining media coverage. The UK-based journal Child Abuse Review published a special issue devoted to media coverage of child abuse and neglect (see, for example, Goddard 1996b). In Australia, Children Australia has carried a number of articles on the subject (see, for example, Goddard and Liddell 1993). The Queensland Crime Commission Police Service Project Axis: Child Sexual Abuse in Queensland: Selected Conference Papers included a major paper devoted to analysis of media coverage of child sexual abuse (Goddard and Saunders 2000b). Part of this Issues Paper is based upon the Project Axis work.


The deaths of children already identified as abused by the child protection service and other health and welfare workers have become a major part of the media coverage of child abuse and neglect, in the UK and elsewhere. According to Goddard and Tucci (1991: 3): "The names of children, Maria Colwell, Darryn Clarke, Tyra Henry, Jasmine Beckford and others comprise a litany engraved on the minds of British social workers and familiar to many working in child protection."

Without doubt, the most well-known of such cases in Australia concerns the death of Daniel Valerio. Daniel’s death also had the most profound influence on child protection policy and practice in Victoria. A brief account of this influence follows.

Daniel Valerio

When the Liberal-National coalition was elected to government in Victoria in October 1992, its stated policy was one of opposition to mandatory reporting. Six months later, in March 1993, the Minister for Community Services announced the introduction of mandatory reporting. The volte-face was caused by the death of Daniel Valerio and, more specifically, the trial of Paul Aiton for his murder (Goddard and Liddell 1993).

Daniel’s cruelly curtailed life can only be summarised very briefly here. The account is based on media coverage in The Sunday Age (Tippet 1993) and the Community Services Victoria (CSV, now known as the Department of Human Services) internal inquiry report (CSV 1991).

Born in early 1988, Daniel stayed with his mother Cheryl Butcher when his parents separated. Early in 1990, she formed a relationship with Paul Aiton and soon afterwards a number of people noticed bruising on Daniel. Reports were made to protective services in August 1990. Short-staffed, they did not respond but passed information on to the police. Inadequate communication, failures to follow procedures, and lost or confused messages exemplified responses. When the police eventually visited Daniel’s home, Daniel and his four-year-old brother were both found to have extensive bruising. Daniel’s brother claimed that he had been hit with a stick by Paul Aiton, and he even took the police to retrieve the tree branch he said was used as a weapon. The police removed the stick and arranged for a medical examination by the Police Surgeon. A few days later, in September 1990, and after visits to a general practitioner on three occasions, Daniel was dead.

A post-mortem examination revealed internal injuries akin to those found in road accident victims, more than 100 bruises, and old fractures to both clavicles. On 26 February 1993, Aiton was sentenced to 22 years jail. On 3 March 1993 the headline in The Age read "Mandatory reporting soon: State’s backflip on child abuse", and the main headline on the front page of the Herald Sun of the same day declared "Child Abuse Win: Law to change" (Goddard and Liddell 1993:25).

Goddard and Liddell propose that the "backflip" on mandatory reporting took place because of a massive campaign by the Herald Sun. They suggest that the campaign was interesting for a number of reasons:

  • The details of Daniel’s death, covered during Aiton’s trial, had already received extensive media coverage. For example, The Sunday Age exposed the internal inquiry report by CSV in November 1991.
  • Goddard and Liddell describe the media campaign by the Herald Sun as "unprecedented" (1993: 25), with Daniel’s bruised and battered face appearing in the paper on a daily basis. The coverage of the murder trial was turned into a campaign by the Herald Sun, entitled "Save our Children". Every day the paper contained a pro-forma letter, demanding the introduction of mandatory reporting, which could be cut out and sent to the Minister for Community Services.
  • This campaign was reinforced by talk-back radio who combined with the Herald Sun to call a public meeting to debate the issues.
  • Media resources were used to establish that most Ministers opposing mandatory reporting had been on record as supporting the initiative when in Opposition.
  • The media coverage made much of the fact that more than 20 professionals had been involved in the case in the weeks leading up to Daniel’s death. The campaign had a clear and simple goal — to force the introduction of mandatory reporting.

It is common to criticise such media coverage. As Goddard and Liddell (1995) note, the dominant academic analyses tend to rely on Cohen’s (1972) "moral panic" approach. In their review of the media approaches to child abuse "scandals" in the UK, Franklin and Parton (1991) make a number of criticisms, suggesting that events tend to be sensationalised and trivialised, vital issues are misrepresented, and scapegoats are sought. The result has been described as "legislation by tabloid" (Franklin and Lavery 1989: 26).

Goddard and Liddell state that, whatever the criticism of the Herald Sun campaign about Daniel Valerio, there was a great deal that was wrong with the way the police and child protection responded to Daniel Valerio, both at a systems and at an individual level. The Coroner’s report, for example, found that the Police Surgeon contributed to Daniel’s death (Goddard and Liddell 1995). They argue that the Herald Sun coverage of Daniel’s Valerio’s death: "provides a powerful case study in how the media can react to events such as child abuse fatalities. Rather than concentrate exclusively on the real or imagined faults of the individuals involved . . . the Herald Sun attempted to use the case for what it saw as constructive ends" (1995:362)

Armytage and Reeves (1992) argue strongly that accountability in child protection services will always be demanded, and public (and implicitly media) scrutiny is unavoidable. The alternative they suggest is even worse: a public that shows little or no concern for the child who has been abused or neglected.

Provoking media campaigns

In Australia, there are a number of accounts of the media’s influence on child protection policy and practice. Goddard describes a campaign by the Victorian Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (now known as Australians Against Child Abuse) to reform the protective service system in Victoria (Goddard and Carew 1993). Problems of high staff turnover, high vacancy rates, and large numbers of unallocated cases did not appear to be given a high priority in spite of representations to the responsible ministers and senior managers.

Goddard’s account of action research, change efforts and the political issues involved includes an analysis of the decision to use the media to bring pressure to bear on the state government. The media campaign, initiated after other tactics had failed, is described as an "action of last resort" (Goddard and Carew 1993: 266), given concerns about the media’s propensity to sensationalise individual cases and trivialise serious problems. Nevertheless, the tactics were apparently successful. Initial media coverage was followed by in-depth investigations by ABC-TV "Four Corners" and The Age newspaper (Goddard and Carew 1993).

Coverage in The Age (a five-part series written by Sally Loane) commenced on 2 July and ended on 7 July 1988. On 7 July an extra 118 more staff and a $7.2 million increase in the child protection budget were announced by the state government. The coverage by "Four Corners" ("Victoria: State of Abuse", by Paul Barry) went to air on 1 August 1998. On that day, the Premier of Victoria announced an inquiry into the state’s child protection service. Goddard suggests that the timing of these announcements, proclaiming large increases in resources and an inquiry, might be "entirely coincidental" (Goddard and Carew 1993: 273).

Charities running media campaigns aimed at child welfare policy change in the UK have recently come under scrutiny (for example, Barnardo’s and NSPCC). Analysts have suggested that, of late, it has become harder to differentiate media campaigns aimed at changing policy and pure advertising (Rickford 2001).


As Ericson (1995) has suggested, many of the media analysts now appear to regard the media as a social problem. This view seems to be shared by many health and welfare professionals working in child protection (Goddard 1996b). One of the reasons for this oft-expressed dissatisfaction has been the increasing focus on responses to child abuse rather than the abuse itself. Many of the negative analyses of the media coverage of child abuse and child protection ignore the important role played by investigative journalists (see, for example, above: The cause célèbre and changing policy).

The idea that investigative reporting is a "powerful catalyst for change" has become widely accepted, and the reforming role of investigative journalists has been dramatised in novels and films (Protess et al. 1991: 3). A "folklore" has grown up around investigative journalism in democratic societies: "Vigilante journalists bring wrongdoing to public attention. An informed citizenry responds by demanding reforms from their elected representatives. Policy makers respond in turn by taking corrective action." (Protess et al. 1991: 3)

This "folklore, depicted in films like All the President’s Men, has survived in spite of the reality of the journalist’s life being very different: According to Patterson and Russell (1986: 1): "The average reporter on the average newspaper in the average city was more likely to be covering a sewer board meeting than arranging a clandestine encounter with a faceless source in a dark garage at midnight, there to learn the secrets that would bring down a president, but no matter."

Investigating and reporting social issues has been described as "the most challenging, and perhaps the most important" role in journalism (Griffin et al. 1991: 208). A number of child abuse scandals (and we do not use this word lightly) have only seen the light of day because of the persistence of the media. The efforts of Alison Taylor (1998) in bringing the abuse of children in "care" in North Wales to public attention were supported by extensive explorations of the problems by the print media (see also Goddard 2000).

In recent years, journalists have published their accounts of investigations into problems in child welfare services. The analyses by Eileen Fairweather (1998) of her exposé of abuse in Islington’s children’s homes provides a valuable case study. Working as a freelance journalist, Fairweather learned that social workers in Islington wanted to "blow the whistle" on child sexual abuse in children’s homes in their region (1998: 19). The reports written by Fairweather, and another journalist Stewart Payne, appeared in the London Evening Standard. Fairweather describes how the stories were initially dismissed as "gutter journalism" and "sensationalist" but the newspaper persisted for three years: "provoking 13 government-ordered inquiries . . . the forced resignations of Islington’s social services directors, numerous reforms, and apologies by the council to the young people abused in its care . . . and a major police inquiry" (1998: 19).

Fairweather and her colleague uncovered an "appalling regime of sexual abuse and management cover-ups", but do not claim all the credit: "I find it terrifying . . . that ultimately this nightmare was ended only thanks to the determination of one key whistleblower, who tirelessly gathered evidence and persuaded others to talk". She goes on to assert that if it had not been for that individual and the commitment of the newspaper: "Islington’s children’s homes would still be controlled by paedophiles, pornographers and pimps." (1998: 19-20)

Investigative journalists have made a major contribution to our understanding of the full extent of child abuse.

In 1998, The Guardian in the UK published a major investigation by Nick Davies entitled "The most secret crime". In a report spread over two pages for four consecutive days Davies, an acclaimed investigative journalist, exposed the seriousness and scale of the problem of child sexual abuse and the failings of those organisations with a responsibility to children. Davies made some valuable points in the opening piece of his investigation, in which he sought to establish the scale of the problem: "The sexual abuse of children is a special crime, not simply because of the damage it does to victims, not even because of the anger and fear it provokes in communities, but more particularly because it is so easy — easy to commit, easy to get away with" (Davies 1998a: 4).

Davies (1998a: 5) suggests that the reason that it is easy to get away with is that: "Beyond the inherent difficulty of detecting and preventing this most secret crime, beyond the obstacle course of concealment erected by the collusion of clever paedophiles, the child victims of sexual abuse are betrayed by organisations who repeatedly prefer to avoid embarrassment by concealing awkward allegations and by a system of protection which simply does not work."

The following day, Davies (1998b) exposed scandals in child protection in the United Kingdom and case histories of the whistleblowers who attempted to expose corruption in the services supposedly protecting children. On the third day of the series, Davies (1998c) turned his attention to the Anglican Church, which had repeatedly failed to deal with serious abuse by priests. In the final part of his investigations, Davies (1998d) exposed the haphazard nature of child protection and the grim catalogue of failures.

Such detailed and exhaustive investigations are unfortunately rare. Nevertheless, they not only serve to provide detailed information about the extent and size of the problem. Davies’ third piece, for example (1998c), was accompanied by the telephone number of a national child protection helpline providing counselling information and advice. The final piece (1998d) was accompanied by an editorial calling on the government to set in place child protection strategies. Such examples of educative and investigative journalism are rarely examined by those who undertake media analysis.

As noted above, it is easy to be critical of media coverage of child abuse, even the in-depth reporting examined here. Many of the criticisms of media coverage of crime (see, for example, Surette 1992) can be made about the media portrayal of child abuse; it is often stereotyped, superficial and sensational (Wilczynski and Sinclair 1998). Wilczynski and Sinclair suggest, however, that even sensationalist coverage can have potentially beneficial effects, for example on public awareness. The work of journalists like Davies and Fairweather also highlight the disturbing fact that too many children have had to rely on whistleblowers and journalists for protection from abuse.

Investigative journalism in the print and other media (see, for example, O’Carroll’s (2000) account of a television investigation) continue here and overseas. Series of articles such as those entitled "Broken Lives" by Julie-Anne Davies in The Age (see, for example, Davies 2001; Goddard 2001) will continue to have a major impact on policy and public perception. Understanding the issues and problems associated with media coverage of child abuse will become more important.


Media representations are the primary source of information on social problems for many people (Hutson and Liddiard 1994). Maley (2000: 37) noted that: "In social and cultural matters, the various media provide the main platforms of debate, and their choices of subjects, participants and opinions shape the agenda and much of its content."

Similarly, Giordano and Stan (1992: 29), writing about the outcomes of a seminar, "Focus on Children: The Beat of the Future", held at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in the United States, note the "mere coverage of issues affecting children places journalists in the role of advocate".

Specifically, it is apparent that the media’s conceptualisation of children and young people, and media reporting on both physical discipline of children and child abuse, is significant in reflecting and defining society’s perceptions of children and young people (Franklin and Horwath 1996), and what is and what is not acceptable behaviour towards children.

Accepting the position that "the issues of childhood and child abuse are closely linked" (Corby 1993: 6), it therefore follows that to be effective in contributing to the prevention of child abuse and neglect, the media must not merely focus on the issue of child abuse, but must also draw attention to the perceptions and the status of children and young people in society.

Evidence of the potential for journalists to be advocates for children is demonstrated in some of the newspaper articles cited in this paper. Indeed, Levy (1999: 996) has argued that: "strengths, vulnerabilities, habits, and even flaws of the media can be brought to bear on the story of child maltreatment . . . the media . . . can sway hearts and minds . . . can define center stage . . . can significantly influence fundraising. [The media] are actually human despite occasional evidence to the contrary."

Unfortunately, attitudes towards children, as portrayed in the print media, are clearly ambivalent. For example, the Children’s Express, a UK charity which teaches children journalism and gives them the opportunity to report on issues concerning children, analysed how children are portrayed in both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. They found that children are stereotyped and that childhood is portrayed neither realistically nor appropriately: "the media . . . portrays an image of the child . . . which . . . affects people’s opinions and thereby political decision making" (Ridley 2000: 6)

Indeed, assessment of the media’s portrayal of children reveals that the majority of stories describe children as either victims or as out of control, even evil (Franklin and Horwath 1996). Although children’s vulnerability and resilience are the focus of a number of articles, there is far less emphasis on children as responsible citizens, or on children as autonomous individuals with rights. In some articles children appear to be coveted, but the emphasis appears to be on their physical cuteness, novelty appeal, or sensational arrival into an adultcentric world. Children are portrayed as more of a burden, expense, and appendage to adults than as the adults of the future — society’s most important investment (Goddard, Saunders and De Bortoli: research in progress).

A major component of any successful child abuse prevention strategy would therefore be to develop initiatives that redress such views (Tomison 1997). The UK National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse (1996: 77) recommended that the media "take a more balanced and sympathetic view of children". In line with a belief in the importance of "listening to children" the Commission felt that the media should take the views of children into account when presenting on an issue in which children have some interest. The Commission recommended that the media should have an obligation to consider a child’s best interest in stories in which children feature, and that the failure to do so would constitute grounds for a complaint to a relevant authority.

Children and privacy — the shame of naming

A common criticism of the media is that only the more grotesque cases of child abuse are reported. Such cases give the media the opportunity to "titillate" the audience with "unwholesome" stories (Nelson 1984). On the other hand, it is clear that many child abuse scandals and child protection system failures would not have seen the light of day if it were not for concerned individuals and the resources of the media. The responsible media coverage of child abuse and child protection is essential; children who require protection from the acts and omissions of adults can rarely speak for themselves. Nevertheless, using the power of the media to promote what some might perceive to be a child’s best interests does not necessitate revealing the child victim’s identity. Nor is it necessary to identify a child in the pursuit of justice on his or her behalf. In fact, this was a deciding factor against the accused in two cases before the Supreme Court of Victoria (December 1995 and January 1996): Hinch v. Director of Public Prosecutions; and Television and Telecasters (Melbourne) Pty Ltd v. Director of Public Prosecutions.

The issue of revealing a child victim’s identity in the media was also brought to the fore by The Australian’s coverage of "the boy in the box". Goddard and Saunders (2000b) examined Scott’s (1998a; 1998b) reporting of this child abuse case in both the Victorian and Queensland editions of the newspaper. For the Queensland edition a decision was made not to identify those involved (Scott 1998a) and the names were changed. In Victoria (Scott 1998b), the child’s identity was revealed but, as the Queensland coverage of the story clearly demonstrated, this was not necessary. The two stories were otherwise identical, occupying exactly the same amount of space. The photographs used were also changed to protect the child’s identity, but it could be argued the "news value" remained the same whether the child was identified or not. The child’s right to privacy has received inadequate attention.

Judicial Proceedings Reports Act 1958 (Vic.) and Hinch v DPP

In Victoria, it is an offence under subs. 4(1A) of the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act 1958 (Vic.) if a person: "publishes or causes to be published any matter that contains any particulars likely to lead to the identification of a person against whom a sexual offence is alleged to have been committed . . . whether or not a proceeding in respect of the alleged offence is pending in a court."

It is a defence to a charge under the Act if the accused can prove that publication occurred with the permission of the Supreme Court, the County Court or the Magistrates Court, or with the permission of "the person against whom the offence is alleged to have been committed" (Collins 1996: 60). The Act does not set out special conditions pertaining to sexual offences against a child: "Parliament made no provision for that permission to be given by parents, guardians, custodians or any one else in place of the victim (save a court)" (Victorian Reports 1996: 691).

Where consent is required to legitimate an action such as publishing the identity of a victim: "it will always be necessary to consider whether the nature and consequences of the consent have been understood. In the case of consent under para 4(1B)(b) of the Act, the victim must have some comprehension of the consequences of losing his or her anonymity as a victim of a sexual offence" (Collins 1996: 61)

Derryn Hinch (a talk-back broadcaster and TV presenter) and Television and Telecasters (Melbourne) Pty Ltd were charged under the Act when the identity of an eight-year-old boy (pseudonym William), who had been sexually assaulted by two men, was publicly revealed. The child’s name was publicised in an interview between Hinch and William’s parents on Channel 10 television.

The parents’ motives for the media exposure were their dissatisfaction with the lenient sentences given to the perpetrators who sexually assaulted their son, and their desire for William to be viewed as "a victim, to be pitied but not condemned" (Victorian Reports 1996: 695). Hinch and Channel 10 argued that: "the telecast was for the purpose of criticising the perceived inadequacy of the sentences imposed by the County Court, and for the purpose of promoting an appeal" (Collins 1996: 61).

William’s parents spoke with him about the interview before it took place and the child gave consent for his identity to be revealed. He encouraged his father to "go for it" (Collins 1996: 60). The capacity of an eight-year-old child to give consent with full understanding of the implications of disclosing his or her identity was a point of contention in court. In a case before the High Court in 1992 it had been reasoned that: "A minor is, according to this principle, capable of giving informed consent when he or she ‘achieves a sufficient understanding and intelligence to enable him or her to understand fully what is proposed’" (Secretary, Department of Health and Community Services v. JMB and SMB (Marion’s case) (1992) 175 CLR 218 at 237, cited in Collins 1996: 61).

In William’s case it was decided that it was doubtful whether an eight-year-old child could ever have "the requisite degree of understanding of the ramifications of a loss of anonymity under s. 4 of the Act for the defence to be made out" (Collins 1996: 61). Further, it was decided that: "it [cannot] be said to have been necessary to disclose the victim’s name or indeed the names of the offenders; the point that the sentences were too light and that an appeal was warranted against their inadequacy was quite capable of being made without the disclosure either of identity or of details that might lead to identification" (Victorian Reports 1996: 690, emphasis in original).

Subsection 4(1A) of the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act explicitly aims to protect all victims of sexual assault, including children, from exposure of their identity through the media. The implications of such exposure must be fully understood by the victim for his or her consent to be given for the violation of this protection of privacy.

In Victoria, the privacy of children who are victims of crime may also be protected through other judicial means. Under the Children and Young Person’s Act 1989, s. 19 and s. 26, a magistrate in the Children’s Court (normally an open court) may impose restrictions both on publicity and on access to Children’s Court hearings.

Two other Acts provide a means for a court in Victoria to impose restrictions on the publication of details leading to the identification of a victim of crime. The Magistrates Court Act 1989 (s. 126) allows, in the public interest, concealment of the names of witnesses or persons whose safety is endangered, and The Health Act 1958 (s. 129) allows for the suppression of the name of a victim allegedly infected with HIV (Fox 1997).

Further, while criminal proceedings are generally held in open courts with minimal, if any, restrictions on reporting by the press: "the superior courts have an inherent right, which is exercised in exceptional circumstances, to conduct their business in camera [in a court closed to the public] or to conceal the identity of witnesses by use of pseudonyms or other means . . . a trial judge may order that the whole or part of the proceedings be heard in a closed court, or may limit who may be present in the court-room, or may impose restrictions on the reporting of proceedings" (Fox 1997: 240).

Victoria is the only Australian state or territory that allows for criminal proceedings to be held in camera for any type of case (Magistrates Court Act 1989 (Vic.), ss. 126, 3 (1)). Other Australian states and territories restrict in camera proceedings to cases where a sexual offence is alleged to have been committed (Bishop 1998). In Victoria, there has also been recent case law on the emerging idea of allowing witnesses to use pseudonyms where they are at risk. Though not specifically designed to protect children, they can provide useful analogies (Richard Fox 1999, personal communication).

Similar Acts to those described in Victoria apply in each Australian state and territory (see Bishop 1998). In Queensland, for example: "a court is required to exclude all persons, other than those excepted, from the court when the complainant is giving evidence in respect of a sexual offence [Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1978 (Qld), s. 5; s. 3 ("complainant", "examination of witness")]. (Bishop 1998: 358)

In relation to legal restrictions on publication in Queensland: "restrictions are imposed in sexual cases on the publication of the complainant’s identity and the premature publication of the accused’s identity. Other than when the report is an "exempted" report, a report in a sexual case must not reveal the name, address, school or place of employment of the complainant, or any other particular likely to lead to the identification of the complainant, unless for good and sufficient reason the court makes an order to the contrary" (Bishop 1998: 359-360).

Children’s rights to privacy

The subject of rights to privacy of children who are subject to crime is a complex one, and a preliminary literature review suggests that little if anything has been written about the effects of media coverage of children as victims of crime.

The Australian Press Council has set out the broad principles to which it is committed (November 1999). Its "Statement of Principles" argues that "the freedom of the press to publish is the freedom of the people to be informed" but is also "important because of the obligation it entails towards the people [rather than] the rights it gives to the press". The statement also stresses that "Liberty does not mean licence".

It appears that, after these broad statements, it is the third general principle that is central to the issues discussed here: "Readers of publications are entitled to have news and comment presented to them honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest" (Australian Press Council "Statement of Principles", November 1999: 3).

Similarly in the United Kingdom, rights to privacy, according to a Press Council ruling, can be superseded by claims of legitimate public interest or where an individual gives consent (Crone 1989). Children as victims, such as in the case of the "boy in the box" (see above) cannot give consent for the same reasons that they are not deemed able to give consent to sexual assault: they are not fully informed. The UK ruling stressed that public interest must be "legitimate", and not merely "prurient" interest or "morbid curiosity" (Crone 1989). Something that is "of interest to the public" is not the same as "in the public interest" (Crone 1989). Children are barely mentioned, if at all, in such discussions, although the UK Press Council did state that children should not be subject to "damaging" or "critical" articles just because their parents are in the public eye (Crone 1989).

In an examination of violence, crime and public safety, Hurst and White (1994: 102) briefly examine the psychological effects in the context of ethics and exposure to media violence. Setting the context, they state: "Children are smaller, weaker and less knowledgeable than adults. Until they grow in stature, strength and understanding equal to that of adults, it is unfair to take advantage of their relative powerlessness. And exercising unequal power destroys the trust children have in adults to care for them."

Hurst and White (1994) suggest that children can fall between "the self-regulatory cracks", and they examine the Cangai siege. In this siege, Mike Willesee’s interview with two children being held hostage (in which they were asked if they had seen anybody killed) was condemned. According to Hurst and White (1994), the Herald and Weekly Times later introduced guidelines which, amongst other aims, sought to prevent the exploitation of children while gathering news.

It is interesting to examine the "Professional Practice Policy" of the Herald and Weekly Times. Children are the subject of Section 10.0:

10.1 "You should not normally interview or photograph children under the age of 16 on subjects involving the personal welfare of the child in the absence of, and without the consent of, a parent or other adult responsible for the child."
10.2 "Children should not be interviewed about their parents or siblings when the parents or siblings are the subject of any story except in the presence of, and with the consent of, a parent or other adult responsible for the child."
10.3 "No inducement should be offered to a child to cooperate in an interview. . ."

There are clearly many issues that are not covered by these guidelines and many problems to be resolved. When does a parent have the right to agree to the disclosure of intimate details about the welfare of his or her child? Intra-familial child abuse clearly demonstrates that parents do not always act in the best interests of their children. When one parent abuses a child, does he or she no longer have the right to consent to disclosure? Can it be assumed that the non-abusive parent retains that right when the other parent has abused the child? There are clearly significant concerns remaining about protecting children from abuse by the media.

According to the limited material available, the Australian Press Council appears to be "concerned to protect children from unnecessary publicity" (Hurst and White 1994: 122). Hurst and White cite the case of The Sun in Sydney which was reprimanded by the Press Council for publication of a photograph of a 12-year-old boy whose father had shaved his head and dyed his hair as a punishment: "The fact that the boy’s parents had given authority for the picture made no difference. The [press] council said the newspaper had ‘added to the boy’s humiliation’" (Hurst and White 1994: 122).

Accusations of invasions of privacy are major issues in the ethics of journalism, according to Belsey (1992: 77). He suggests that this is because society "values personal privacy" but also "thrives on publicity". In their book Media Ethics, Christians et al. (1991) give case examples and draw out three moral principles: the first "promotes decency and basic fairness as non-negotiable"; the second puts forward "redeeming social value" as the guiding principle for choosing what private information can be disclosed; and the third states that "the dignity of persons ought not be maligned in the name of press privilege" (Christians et al. 1991: 139—140).

Holsinger (1991) also states that "questions of privacy present more hard decisions than any others", and few topics are debated more heatedly. It is interesting to note that far more attention appears to have been paid to the privacy of children as perpetrators of crime than as victims. The recognition that young offenders need privacy appears to be universally recognised on the grounds that "publicity for juvenile offenders would stigmatise them and make it more difficult for them to go straight" (Holsinger 1991: 380). There are clearly accepted arguments that young people who commit crimes "should not be haunted for the rest of their lives by the mistakes of their youth" (Holsinger 1991: 237). This is why identification of the perpetrators in the Bulger case in the United Kingdom caused such intense debate (Franklin and Horwath 1996).

In New Zealand, the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 states, in line with legislation elsewhere, that children should not be identified in child protection matters in civil courts dealing with such cases. In the Youth Courts (dealing with offenders) offenders must not be identified and information that could lead to identification is also suppressed (Burrows 1990).

Burrows suggests that judges cannot overrule this by giving permission to publish details. There seems to be a prevailing view that "sensitive facts" about an individual’s private life need to be treated with care (Burrows 1990). It appears that it should be possible for a child to take action on the grounds that disclosure of such information causes injury. Although a number of authors, both in New Zealand and elsewhere, indicate that there is no clear and coherent right to privacy in common law, the right to report is clearly circumscribed by a recognised right to privacy to some degree.

The tension is clear: breaches of privacy are nearly always "justified for a higher moral purpose or public good or for a nobler motivation than privacy protection" (Brill 1990: 44). Privacy, however, is almost exclusively examined from an adult perspective. The arguments used should be even more forceful when considering the needs of a child. De Cew, for example, describes privacy as a shield needed to protect individuals out of fear of being "scrutinised, judged, ridiculed, pressured, coerced, or otherwise taken advantage of by others" (1997: 74). These concerns, it is argued, apply even more to the child victim of abuse.

An excellent analysis of these issues is presented by Patterson and Wilkins (1994). They argue that: "while much of the debate focuses on the right to privacy, an equally compelling argument must be made for the need for privacy. Privacy is not to be viewed as a luxury or as an option, it is a necessary component of a democracy upon which many of its values such as freedom, individual dignity, and autonomy rest" (1994: 110, emphases in original).

Patterson and Wilkins argue that there are two particular causes of current problems. First, community standards are changing, and what was once regarded as private is now openly and commonly reported. They cite the example of breast surgery which was once regarded as entirely private but is now commonly reported and the media coverage is "credited with saving lives" (1994: 110). The second cause they describe as arising from the fact that: "privacy is both a legal concept in the domain of the courts and an ethical concept debated by philosophers. A confusion over which analysis is appropriate confounds our thinking" (Patterson and Wilkins 1994: 110). According to these authors, the result is that: "journalists have been caught between what the law allows and what their consciences will permit. This confusion has led to ethical bungling" (1994: 111).

A number of writers have observed that the perspectives and overall rights of victims have only recently been acknowledged, if considered at all (see, for example, Fattah 1986; Mawby and Crill 1987). Rape victims are the exception to this, and a number of effects of victimisation have been identified. Mawby and Crill (1987) suggest that emotional and psychological problems, behavioural and relationship difficulties, ill-health and financial costs are amongst these. Children are rarely mentioned in this limited literature on general victimology. It is noted, for example, that children in households that have been broken into are also affected by the crime (Mawby and Walklate 1995), but there are few other studies.

A recurrent claim is that the criminal justice system does not place value on the perspectives of victims, who may feel that they are subject to secondary victimisation (Fattah 1986). There appears to be little research on the effects of media coverage of the criminal justice system. Rape victims, in spite of their right to privacy, are reported to suffer embarrassment (Holmstrom and Burgess 1978; Allison and Wrightsman 1993). It is interesting to note that rape victims are seen as having anonymity for life (Mawby and Walklate 1995). One of the primary benefits of anonymity for rape victims has been that they are given the space to deal with victimisation in their own way (see, for example, Roberts 1989).

The child victim of assault

The above summary identifies some of the issues arising from a brief review of the literature. There are, however, a number of other unresolved issues relevant to the child victim of assault:

  • It is not clear why the child victim of physical assault should not be granted the same rights to privacy as the victim of sexual assault. In the latter cases the victim is given anonymity. This anomaly requires consideration. There are cases, for example, where it may be difficult to distinguish physical abuse from sexual abuse. For example, injuries to the genitalia may be physical injuries inflicted for a sexual purpose.
  • While there are many books and articles that cover the effects of child abuse (for example, Goddard 1996a) the victim of serious intra-familial abuse faces particular problems that are not faced by many other victims of crime. The most obvious is that the crime committed by parents or caregivers does not necessarily end the relationship between perpetrator and victim. This makes the media coverage of these issues particularly sensitive.
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) clearly states (Article 16) that no child "shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy", and also pays attention to his or her reputation.
  • Children, the evidence suggests, often blame themselves for their own victimisation. This is another reason for media sensitivity to their needs.
  • The media clearly have major social responsibilities in the area of child abuse. While many of their efforts in exposing problems and educating the public are praiseworthy, there are risks to the child. Children who are physically abused are often told that it is their fault and that the abuse is punishment. As a result they internalise messages of guilt and self-blame. These may be exacerbated by media coverage, which may be discovered later and re-awaken these feelings.
  • While the law is extremely important, changes in the law alone can only achieve limited change. Education and discussion are also important elements in any consideration of children’s rights to privacy.


Identifying the perpetrators

Throughout the Western world, awareness of child sexual abuse has led to action by members of the public to draw attention to horrific crimes against children (Goddard 1997a). British newspapers have carried many articles on the dangers created for children when convicted child sex offenders are released from prison. The British media demonstrated that they were prepared to identify or "out" the perpetrators. A selective review (Goddard 1997a) demonstrated that tabloid newspapers carried particularly graphic studies.

The Liverpool Echo on 17 June 1997, for example, devoted almost its entire front page to an "exclusive" by Jason Teasdale (1997) to the effect that a "convicted paedophile" would soon be released. Broadsheet newspapers, for example The Guardian, also carried such stories. Interestingly, The Guardian, exactly one week earlier, had carried the news that this particular man was to be released, under the headlines "In a few days this man, a convicted child rapist, will be released. Police say he is ‘incredibly dangerous’. Should you be told if he moves in next door?", and "Nightmare on any street" (Bowcott and Clouston 1997). The story in The Guardian was accompanied by a photograph of the man, who had been detained after being found carrying a bag of books and toys. He admitted to the police that he was searching for a child (Bowcott and Clouston 1997).

The Guardian story summarised the issues in its opening: "Newspapers are ‘outing’ paedophiles and their homes are consequently being fire-bombed. Do child molesters deserve a second chance after they have served their sentences? Or has the public the right to know when such a menace moves in next door? (Bowcott and Clouston 1997: 2)

The role of newspapers in "outing" convicted child molesters is examined in another piece in the same paper by Gary Younge (1997). Paul Horrocks, acting editor of the Manchester Evening News, a paper described as exposing several child molesters, is quoted as saying that a newspaper takes risks when it does so: "The paper must balance children’s safety with the threat of mob rule; it pits the chance that a paedophile may re-offend against the fact that he has served his time and may be denied the right to resume a normal life. ‘There is a risk that people will take the law into their own hands. But there is a greater risk that children will be hurt. If you can’t take risks to protect children, then when can you?’ [Paul Horrocks] says." (Younge 1997: 3)

Risks there certainly are: "One of those ‘outed’ by the Manchester Evening News suffered physical and verbal abuse from his neighbours and moved away as a result. Horrocks describes as ‘regrettable’ a case of mistaken identity in which an innocent man was attacked by an angry mob" (Younge 1997: 3).

The anger and the potential for tragedy are described in the piece by Bowcott and Clouston (1997: 3): "In May 1994, a girl aged 14 called Samantha Penell died after the house in which she had been staying was burnt down. Those who set fire to the building were looking for a paedophile."

They recount other stories: a convicted child molester stabbed to death in Edinburgh, and a man in Manchester badly beaten by a gang who wrongly believed that he was a child rapist (Bowcott and Clouston 1997). Such problems also occur in Australia. The release in New South Wales of convicted child killer John Lewthwaite prompted a considerable degree of media attention. After his release his new home was attacked by local residents, angry at his presence in their community.

Does media coverage create or reflect public dissatisfaction?

At the heart of this matter is the tension between children’s rights to protection, on the one hand, and, on the other, the right of those who abuse children to be considered to have reformed after serving their sentences. This is assessed by Caroline Lewis (1996: 92) in a paper in the Harvard Civil Rights: Civil Liberties Law Review. She suggests that "growing feelings of frustration and powerlessness" have been expressed by communities as media coverage has brought home the realisation that sex offenders are living in their neighbourhoods. High rates of recidivism and lack of success in rehabilitation have been quoted in support of legislation such as Megan’s Law in the United States. According to Lewis, opponents of such laws argue that they infringe the released offenders’ civil liberties and limit their chances to rebuild their lives. These opponents also question the data on high recidivism rates and argue that most sex offences against children take place in the family or in child care.

A lack of confidence in the courts pervades many discussions. The case of Said Morgan in New South Wales is considered to reflect a lack of confidence in the courts’ ability to deal appropriately with those charged with sexual assault. On 1 August 1997, a jury took little more than half an hour to find Morgan not guilty of murder or manslaughter. Morgan, a former detective, claimed that it was instinct that caused him to shoot an alleged child molester six times in the head with his police-issue revolver (Balogh 1997). The unnamed alleged offender was killed two days after Morgan learned that the man was charged with sexual assaults on three girls aged six, eleven and fourteen. Two of the victims were related to Morgan and the girls claimed that they had suffered four years of abuse including anal intercourse and digital penetration (medical evidence confirmed that abuse had occurred). The alleged perpetrator had threatened to kill the girls if they disclosed the abuse (Balogh 1997).

In an editorial describing the verdict as "astonishing", the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that the fact that "juries simply do not like paedophiles" might have contributed to the decision. Speculating about other factors, the editorial suggested that: "Perhaps the explanation for the outright acquittal was the jury’s unwillingness to leave the question of punishment to the court, as would have occurred had the jury found Mr. Morgan guilty of manslaughter" (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 August 1997, Editorial).

How much the media create rather than reflect such a lack of confidence remains a central question.

More recently in the United Kingdom, the death of Sarah Payne, eight years old, led to a major tabloid campaign. Sarah disappeared on 1 July 2000 while playing with her brothers and sister near her grandparents’ house in West Sussex. Two weeks later, her body was found a few miles away.

On 23 July, the News of the World started its "Named and Shamed" campaign:

There are 110,000 child sex offenders in Britain . . . one for every square mile. The murder of Sarah Payne has proved police monitoring of these perverts is not enough. So we are revealing who they are and where they are . . . starting today. (News of the World, 23 July 2000:1, emphasis in original)

Under the headline, "Does a monster live near you?" the News of the World claimed to "begin the biggest public record of child sex offenders ever seen":

Today we start by identifying the first of these offenders but we make a pledge that we will not stop until all 110,000 are named and shamed.
Week in, week out, we will add to our record so that every parent in the land can have the right to know where these people are living.
It is absolutely not a charter for vigilantes. The just rule of law is crucial and outbursts of uncontrolled anger will solve nothing.
Today too, we campaign for a major change in the law: child sex perverts jailed for life must never be released. They must never get parole. Life must mean life. (News of the World, 23 July 2000:1, emphases in original)

And so the listing began. With counties listed in alphabetical order, it was easy to search for a region of interest. It was not clear how the first 40 or so child molesters were chosen for this "naming and shaming". London had three exposed while Dumfries and Galloway, with a fraction of the population, had four. Portsmouth and Southampton had two each and there was trouble to come there (News of the World, 23 July 2000).

The child molesters did not appear to be picked for the type of crime. There was a grandmother jailed for eight months for sexually assaulting two boys, a priest sent down for three years for abusing trainee priests, a man jailed for seven years for raping a girl with an intellectual disability, and a researcher fined for possession of indecent pictures of children. There were priests, a choirmaster, teachers, and a violinist, while others were merely described as a "pervert" or a "paedophile" (News of the World, 23 July 2000).

Other sections of the newspaper included "Help and advice, 10 facts to shock every parent", including a Scotland Yard claim that 64 per cent of child molesters "re-offend four or more years after their first conviction", and "What to do if there is a pervert on your doorstep", with guidelines from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. An interview with Ray Wyre, described as a "senior sex crime psychologist" ran under the headline "Their evil is incurable, says crime expert" (News of the World, 23 July 2000).

This campaign demonstrated that the media are not united in approaches to child abuse. Aldridge’s (2001: 93) "tabloidisation" of broadsheets (referred to above) only goes so far. Opposition to the News of the World campaign was not slow in appearing. The day after the "naming and shaming" began, the headline across the top of The Daily Telegraph read "Children ‘put at risk’ by paper’s paedophile campaign". The Chief Constable of Gloucestershire condemned the campaign, calling it "irresponsible journalism": "He voiced fears that the move could drive offenders underground, thus undermining the sex offender’s register which had enabled police to monitor convicted paedophiles after their release . . . The paper remained defiant, despite the criticism." (Millward 2000a: 1)

The criticism was persistent. The next day (this time on page six) The Daily Telegraph, under a headline "Straw attacks tabloid editor for identifying paedophiles", reported that the Home Secretary Jack Straw had also "condemned the News of the World" (O’Neill 2000: 6). The first reports of mistaken identity started to appear now, with a man in Manchester mistaken for one of those named and shamed.

The Daily Telegraph editorial wasted no time in attacking the News of the World:

Rebekah Wade, the new editor of the News of the World, claims the most high-minded and public-spirited motives for her decision to publish the names and whereabouts of 110,000 people who have been convicted of sex offences against children. She is doing it, she says, for Sarah Payne, the eight-year-old whose naked body was found in West Sussex . . . Ms Wade stressed that she did not want any "vigilante acts" . . . [but] her campaign was counter-productive from the moment her paper hit the streets. (Editorial, The Daily Telegraph, 24 July 2000: 21)

The paper then goes on to criticise the "extreme animosity" displayed by the News of the World towards those named and shamed by giving examples of the language used:

"Pervert pounced on 13-year-old", said the caption beneath one of the 49 photographs of offenders published in the paper. "Ran an evil paedophile ring", said another. "Carried out sick sex attacks", said a third. Meanwhile the leader column raged: "No more freedom for the fiends". If Ms Wade is really against displaying animosity, her choice of inflammatory language is inexplicable. (Editorial, The Daily Telegraph, 24 July 2000: 21)

This criticism by The Daily Telegraph of the language used by the News of the World is interesting. The broadsheet Daily Telegraph’s editorial is entitled "A nasty piece of work", Wade’s campaign is described as a "rabble-rousing witch-hunt" and "like a campaign of incitement to violence" (Editorial, The Daily Telegraph, 24 July 2000: 21).

There is little subtlety of language to be found on either side of the campaign:

And to all the pious, indignant, insufferably pompous critics of this campaign we say this: Unless you’ve got a better idea, and we know you haven’t, stop your pathetic, sneering, whining nonsense and read our interview with the Paynes today. Then ask yourself one simple question: If there were a convicted paedophile living next door to you and your children, wouldn’t you want to know? (Voice of the Mirror, 3 August 2000: 6)

By 27 July, there was a half-page "Medianews" analysis in The Daily Telegraph entitled "Is it now Rebekah Wade who has gone into hiding?":

It now seems to be Wade herself who is hiding . . . Yesterday the News of the World’s actions were denounced in the House of Lords, while the Press Complaints Commission said it was launching an investigation after receiving its first formal complaint . . . the association of chief Police Officers’ spokesman on sexual offenders, denounced the campaign . . . (Born 2000a: 21)

Once again, the language was less than subtle, and Wade’s campaign was said to look "like crude newspaper thuggery" (Born 2000a: 21). Even the public support for the campaign was challenged:

The News of the World boasted that public opinion was firmly behind its campaign, with 88 per cent in favour of "naming and shaming" sex offenders. But public opinion is fickle. Successful newspaper campaigns — which can take years — need to have the backing of at least some relevant experts. (Born 2000a: 21)

 The Daily Telegraph pursued the News of the World just as the News of the World was determined to pursue child molesters. By Monday 31 July, The Daily Telegraph criticism was back to page six: "Pressure to halt ‘name and shame’ campaign" was the headline:

Probation officers produced a dossier of evidence yesterday to show that children were being put at risk as a result of the campaign by the News of the World to "name and shame" paedophiles. (Laville 2000: 6)

Although there were more reports of "vigilantism" against innocent victims described in Laville’s piece (2000: 6) there was also another equally prominent article about how Megan’s Law in the United States came to be introduced. A measured piece with the headline "Killing of child brought change to US law", the article provided arguments for and against such a law (Fenton 2000: 6).

By 5 August, some two weeks after the News of the World started its campaign, there were only two stories on the front page of The Daily Telegraph ("Britain’s biggest-selling quality daily" it declared on its masthead): At the top of the page, the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday; at the bottom "Paper drops paedophile campaign":

The News of the World yesterday abandoned its campaign to "name and shame" paedophiles amid increasing criticism that it was to blame for vigilante attacks. The Sunday tabloid, which has published photographs and addresses of 83 convicted sex offenders over two weeks, said it was dropping its "naming procedure" after meeting the police and child welfare groups. (Born 2000b: 1)

Inside the paper, and flagged on page one, three pieces described how the campaign went wrong, and were so flagged on page one. Millward’s article actually describes the activities of a "shadowy anti-paedophile pressure group" who had "wrongly identified sex offenders" (Millward 2000b: 7). Another piece, by The Daily Telegraph’s media correspondent, "Folly of campaign was obvious from the start" listed the problems of the campaign (Leonard 2000: 7).


The language of the media

On some accounts, journalists are crusaders uncovering the truth, according to Franklin (1997). This understanding is based on six assumptions: journalists are independent of government; journalism is "relatively egalitarian"; journalism is conducted independently of economic pressure; journalists act as "watchdogs" of the public interest; and journalists underpin democratic principles (Franklin 1997: 27-28). These "giddy claims", Franklin (1997: 29), provoke "incredulity" amongst many, and the assumptions must be significantly qualified.

Aldridge (1994) examined the UK print media coverage of a number of child abuse deaths during the period 1985-1991, including the death of Tyra Henry. She concludes that: "In its intimate relationship with the family and the state, social services work offers a multi-faceted and very soft target for some sections of the national press when intervention seems to have failed in certain specific circumstances" (Aldridge 1994: 70).

On the other hand, Aldridge suggests that there are other occasions when: "any intervention at all is construed as a mistake, and still others when real mistakes seem not to produce the furore that they could have — or even should have" (Aldridge 1994: 70).

As noted above, such events may be described as "legislation by tabloid" (Franklin and Lavery 1989: 26) or as "tabloid turbulence" (Moore 1992: 46). Goddard and Liddell (1993, 1995) argue that this media coverage needs to be taken seriously. Aldridge suggests that broadsheet newspapers have not only become more like tabloids (a process she calls "tabloidisation" (2001: 93)) but that broadsheets have a similar "architecture" (2001: 97).

Broadsheets and tabloids in Australia have all taken part in calls for child protection reform. This writing is frequently criticised for being too emotional: "Much of the writing on child abuse is emotional, reflecting the strong feelings aroused by the subject. Many articles, books and broadsheets are laced with affect and tinged with hyperbole. Objective and balanced writing exists, but not in overabundance"(Myers 1994b: 86).

While much of the scholarly analysis of the media coverage of child abuse and child protection has considered what has been described as the "unevenness" of reporting (Franklin and Parton 1991: 9), little attention has been paid to analysis of the language used to describe child abuse and the child victims in media texts. Goddard and Saunders (2000a: 39) suggest that this deficit may, in part at least, be due to the complexity of the issue: "Discourse analysis involves a number of disciplines, including literary studies, philosophy, sociology, social and cognitive psychology, linguistics and others."

In contrast, the importance of the language used to describe social issues has been widely recognised in other fields. The news, as Fowler (1991: 222) has noted, is not "a natural phenomenon" but "a product". Language is seen as a major issue for feminists (Cameron 1990) with sexist features of language well documented (Fairclough 1992). The media have been described as projecting and perpetuating racism (Smitherman-Donaldson and Van Dirk 1988). Myths about rape, it is claimed, have been perpetuated by gender bias in language (Benedict 1992).

Fairclough argues that textual analysis should play an important role in all social science research. Citing four major reasons (theoretical, methodological, historical and political), Fairclough (1995: 203-209) insists texts are part of social action: "The language is widely perceived as transparent, so that social and ideological ‘work’ that language does in producing, reproducing or transforming social structures, relations and identities is routinely ‘overlooked’."

In methodological terms, texts can produce evidence about social structures, processes and relationships. Historical analysis can provide evidence of social change while, in political terms, social control and domination are exercised through texts (Fairclough 1995).

Goddard and Saunders (2000a) describe research examining the coverage of child abuse cases in three major Australian newspapers together with some analysis of UK newspapers. Goddard and Saunders (2000a) cite examples from tabloid and broadsheet newspapers where children described as abused, neglected or at risk may lose their gender as the story unfolds. The child’s gender is clearly identified and then lost. The pronoun "it" is substituted and, as a result, the child originally described as a boy or girl becomes an object. They label this phenomenon "gender slippage" (2000a: 42) and propose that it may be "an emotional, perhaps unconscious response, to unpleasant situations" (2000a: 43).

Textual analysis of some child sexual abuse reports led to the discovery that the words used to describe the abuse may seriously reduce the seriousness of the offences. Goddard and Saunders cite a story from the liberal UK broadsheet The Guardian:"Man jailed for sex with girl, 10" (Sheffield 1997). The headline clearly states the seriousness of the offences, but textual analysis by the researchers revealed that the serious and repeated sexual assault of the young girl has been represented in a way that reduces the impact of the crimes.

The sexual assault is called an "affair", the perpetrator and victim are described as having a "relationship", and the victim and perpetrator are even called "the couple" (Goddard and Saunders 2000a: 43). The irony, of course, is that perpetrators of such serious abuse often use this "lexical redescription" (2000a: 43) in order to rationalise their violence against, and sexual abuse of, children (Butterworth 1997). Such language in the media reframes serious sexual abuse of a child by an adult male as a "consensual relationship between adults" (Goddard and Saunders 2000a: 44).

A case of mistaken identity

On April 20 2001 The Age carried an unattributed story "Mother killed 4 babies, court told". Accompanied by a small postage-stamp sized photograph of a woman identified as Ms. F., the report took up a single column for half of page three. Ms. F. of New South Wales had been charged with the murder by suffocation of her four children, deaths previously explained as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (2001: 3).

On the same day The Herald Sun, under the headline "Four murder counts" reported the same story, also on page three:

A 33-year-old mother charged with the deaths of her four infant children appeared in court yesterday.
[Ms. F.], from Singleton . . . is accused of murdering her two daughters separately between 1989 and March 1999 (O’Shea 2001:3)

The Herald Sun story was also accompanied by a photograph, slightly larger, of Ms. F. alighting from a car. Unfortunately, the woman pictured on page three of the Herald Sun did not appear to be the same woman pictured on page three of The Age.

The next day The Age carried the following brief apology on page six:

In yesterday’s Age under the heading "Mother killed 4 babies, court told" a photograph was published of Mrs K . . . R. . . . Mrs R . . . was incorrectly identified as [Ms. F.].
The Age profoundly regrets the error and apologises to Mrs R . . . and her family unreservedly. (The Age, 21/4/01: 6)

On the same day The Australian carried a more prominent story under the headline "Wrong woman in death photo". The journalists reported that:

A woman wrongly identified as an alleged murderess in front page newspaper reports was traumatised and under heavy sedation at her home yesterday. (Walker, Tedmanson and Videnieks 2001: 3)

The wrong photograph, it transpired, had appeared on page one of The Singleton Argus, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Canberra Times, as well as in The Newcastle Herald.

The "Media" supplement in The Australian provided an analysis by Mark Day of the "terrible mistake":

Mistakes do happen. Newspapers are put together by humans. The remarkable thing is that there are not more mistakes . . . A newspaper without a single error would be worth framing. (Day 2001: 4)

Media "mistakes" vs child protection "mistakes"

The tone of the analysis by the media of a media "mistake" starkly contrasts with the criticisms by much of the media of child protection "mistakes".

In spite of claims that media interest in child abuse is a "fairly recent phenomenon" (Franklin and Parton 1991: 11), press coverage of the problem has been discovered as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Note this 1854 newspaper headline: "Shocking Charge Against Another Roman Catholic Priest" (Engel 1996: 30).

Over time however, the intensity of media coverage has changed (see Introduction above) and the focus has shifted to an assessment of child protection responses. In the United Kingdom, in particular, social workers in child protection are: "denounced as wimps if they fail to intervene but decried as bullies if they intervene too much. To cite a conclusion that has become a cliché, social workers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t" (Franklin and Parton 2001: 240).

Despite acknowledgment that child protection work is "immensely difficult, extremely stressful, maybe dangerous to the workers, and more often criticised than appreciated" (Saunders and Goddard 1998a: 41), child protection workers "rather than the abuser can appear in press reports as the major threat to children" (Franklin 1998: 8).

This no-win situation faced by child protection workers is arguably inherent in their potentially conflicting duties to both protect children and to preserve families (Goddard 1996b). Child protection work inevitably involves both "assessing risk and taking risks" (Cooper 1993: 78), and it is acknowledged that child protection work: "is complex, overwhelming, multidisciplinary and multi-dimensional. Ethical, moral and emotional issues abound…High levels of complexity and uncertainty inevitably create anxiety in workers and organisations" (Goddard, Saunders, Stanley and Tucci 1998: 254).

There is also recognition that professional judgements must be made, and that inevitably, decisions will sometimes be wrong and have tragic outcomes. Unlike the media’s coverage of media "mistakes" however, "human fallibility" is rarely emphasised in the media coverage of child protection mistakes, perhaps in part because of the serious consequences that may result from child protection decisions.

As a consequence,the negativemedia coverage of child protection responses to child abuse has led to the development of more sophisticated media strategies on the part of the organisations(see, for example, Goddard and Liddell 1995; Franklin and Parton 2001). Issues of privacy and confidentiality often constrain direct challenges to media coverage but, nonetheless, there have been concerted attempts to develop effective and productive relationships with the media. Franklin and Parton (2001: 244) suggest that these are created: "both for coping defensively with persistent media hostility and, more proactively, for promoting more positive and sympathetic images . . ."

In spite of these public relations developments, individual practitioners in child health and welfare may still be identified and their practice may be subjected to close and critical scrutiny. This trend started in the UK with the inquiry into the death of Maria Colwell in 1974. The social worker in that case, identified in the media, became the focus of the "search for blame", and requested protection when she appeared at the public inquiry proceedings (Aldridge 1994: 164). Developments in building better relationships with the media may enhance the image of the organisations involved, but many offer little protection to individual workers working in less than optimal circumstances.

Defining child abuse: media portrayal of "physical punishment"

As noted above, the media play an important role in constructing what is "deviant" in our society and, therefore, what is normal (Ericson et al. 1987). Ericson and his colleagues argue that journalists articulate the "proper bounds to behaviour" in our society (1987: 3). Recent research has also highlighted the impact of the language employed when describing an issue, such as the promotion and protection of children’s rights, to its perception by the public (see Goddard and Saunders 2000a; Saunders and Goddard, in press; Goddard and Saunders, in press). The media’s representation of physical punishment of children provides an interesting case study.

Children are the only "group of people" in our society who are "routinely hit" (Willow and Hyder 1998: 93), sometimes with both legal and social sanction. Indeed, McGillivray (1997: 241) has observed that "childhood at present is defined by corporal punishment". Australia’s 1990 ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) prompted increased attention to issues such as children’s rights to bodily integrity and freedom from unnecessary physical pain.

However, media coverage of the physical punishment of children (and the language employed) rarely focuses on the perspectives of children (see, for example, Willow and Hyder 1998). Rather, it tends to emphasise the rights of parents to use physical means to shape children’s behaviour. Further, the physical punishment of children presents the media with an opportunity to use puns in newspaper headlines (see Saunders and Goddard 1998b and 1999a):

  • A smack for smacking (Editorial Opinion, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2/5/95)
  • Punishment ban smacks of good sense (Horin, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5/6/95)
  • UN slaps Australia over child discipline (Farouque, The Age, 22/6/94)
  • No fair cracks of the whip (Bone, The Age, 23/6/95)
  • Spanking plans smack of folly (Dusevic, The Australian, 20/6/95)
  • Critics give Denmark’s smacking ban a wallop (Knowsley, The Age, 2/6/97)
  • UN go to bat for our kids (Loane, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8/10/97)

Similar reporting occurred more recently when New South Wales passed legislation codifying parents’ rights to hit children, including with an implement:

  • Spare rod and save parents — what beats a slap (Hudson, Herald Sun, 9/4/01)
  • Cash for strap hits raw nerve (Letters, Express, 19/2/01)
  • Rules spell out how to smack a child (Lipari, The Daily Telegraph, 26/10/00: 2)
  • Laws to tell parents how to discipline (Lipari, The Daily Telegraph, 26/10/00: 1)
  • Law to spank parents who smack (Ellicott, The Australian, 26/10/00)

As noted by Saunders and Goddard (2000), such reporting stands in stark contrast to the coverage of events where a child is seriously or fatally injured as a result of excessive physical punishment, or "reasonable" physical discipline "gone wrong". The tone of media reporting in such cases aptly reflects the seriousness of this issue:

  • How long must the children suffer? (Fogarty, The Age, 23/10/96)
  • Jail for bashing death (Ross, Herald Sun, 10/2/99)
  • JAIL for letting dogs die FREE for bashing a child (Titelius and Dolan, Herald Sun, 18/2/99)
  • They’ve crossed the line Too many parents resorting to violence (Dickens, Herald Sun, 29/3/99)
  • Accused "hit baby 10 times" (Cant, The Age, 26/4/99)
  • I meant no harm, says accused (Gregory, The Age, 22/4/99)
  • Hit boy to "shut him up" (Silverii, Herald Sun, 22/4/99)
  • Baby locked up (Herald Sun, 3/5/99)
  • Appeal lodged on child belting (Greber, The Courier Mail, 31/10/00)
  • Five years for killing toddler (Silverii, Herald Sun, 8/5/99)

Although the physical punishment of children has been banned in a number of countries (Sweden 1979; Finland 1984; Norway 1987; Austria 1989; Cyprus 1994; Denmark 1997; Latvia 1998; Croatia 1999; Germany 1999; and Bulgaria 1999), it appears that the media in Australia prefer to regard it as "normal" rather than "deviant" behaviour. "Children continue to be the only people against whom violence is considered to be acceptable" (Saunders and Goddard 2000: 124).

In some cases the "light smack or tap on the hand or bottom" (Goddard 1996a: 182) turns "into beating and so along the line to the point where abuse laws, or the criminal law, can be invoked" (Boss 1995: 28). Indeed, many deaths and severe injuries of infants and young children may be linked to "confusion about, or reluctance to condemn, corporal punishment of a child" (Goddard 1996a: 182). As a general rule, media coverage of the issue in Australia has tended to be conservative and has failed to make the connection (see Saunders and Goddard 1999b). This view of "physical punishment" is also reflected in the media elsewhere. The following headlines appeared in the same newspaper within one week:

  • Cruel "disciplinarian" goes to jail" (Gower, The New Zealand Herald, 3/5/01)
  • Ban on smacking is hitting too hard (Editorial, The New Zealand Herald, 10/5/01)

Is there a backlash?

In 1988, David Hechler’s The Battle and the "Backlash": The Child Sexual Abuse War was published. The principal focus of the book is on what Hechler terms the "backlash". Hechler’s argument, outlined in his first chapter, can be summarised as follows: The discovery of the full extent of child sexual abuse followed the recognition of physical abuse as a serious problem. Child sexual abuse had previously been regarded as rare, or the product of children’s imagination and fantasy and rarely covered by the media. The media’s "discovery" of child sexual abuse, according to Hechler, led to an onslaught of cases and coverage.

Hechler, an investigative journalist, claims that a "backlash" started in Jordan, Minnesota. A widely publicised case, where it was alleged that adults ran a child sex ring, collapsed and defendants were acquitted. In Hechler’s words, "what the media giveth, the media taketh away" (1988: 6). Just as the media "discovered" child abuse, according to Hechler it also "discovered" the "backlash". "Articles appeared on other cases that had fallen apart . . . there were articles suggesting how easily anyone could be accused of sexually abusing a child, and how difficult and expensive it was to defend oneself" (Hechler 1988: 8).

Hechler (1988: 7) links cases where "charges turned bizarre" to the creation of a "backlash": "Allegedly abused children were talking about strange rituals, possibly satanic, involving the killing . . . of animals. They told of eating excrement, drinking urine, and observing the murder . . . of babies."

It is interesting to note the language used by Hechler in his book. He writes that "one thing is clear: there isa war" (1988: 3, emphasis in original). A newspaper advertisement likening a pre-school sexual abuse case to a witch hunt is described as "an example of the salvos that have been fired" (Hechler 1988: 3).

Six years after Hechler’s book, another book was published on the subject. The "Backlash": Child Protection Under Fire, edited by Professor J. E. B. Myers (1994a), provided more detailed analysis of media coverage of child abuse. The theme of the book is provided by the second sentence of the first chapter: "In the late 1980s, after a period of almost exclusively favourable media attention, child protection became more publicly controversial" (Finkelhor 1994: 1).

According to Finkelhor, all social movements "engender backlash", travelling through "cycles of attention and controversy", and can be said to have a "natural history" (1994: 1). The shift from generally positive media coverage of child abuse largely involved a shift in focus from child abuse itself to a more critical examination of society’s response to child abuse, or what is now called child protection. This analysis is supported by Finkelhor’s summary of what he terms the "very successful" mobilisation of responses to child abuse. Child abuse, and child sexual abuse in particular, "have clearly arrived on the public agenda" and have been "occupying center stage" for far longer than most social problems do (1994: 2).

Finkelhor (1994) attributes this success to the alliance of child welfare professionals and the women’s movement, particularly in the area of child sexual abuse. Success, according to Finkelhor, has also been achieved because of the "symbolic strength" of the fight against child abuse. Child sexual abuse in particular, he argues, has been even more "symbolically powerful" (1994: 3). This is because child sexual abuse unites three important preoccupations of the period: sexuality, changing gender and family relations, and the relationship between crime and justice (1994: 4).

Myers (1994b) examines the literature on the so-called "backlash". Reviewing newspapers, magazines, books and broadcast media, he discerns a "disturbing trend": reporting is increasingly critical of the child protection system (1994b: 86). Myers also states that "coverage of child sexual abuse is particularly vitriolic" (1994b: 86). His definition of "backlash" (taken from Webster’s Dictionary) is "a strong adverse reaction to a political or social movement" (1994c: 17). Myers also states that it is necessary to distinguish between two types of criticism of the child protection system: legitimate and illegitimate criticism.

According to Myers, there are several themes that dominate the literature on the "backlash". He summarises the themes using the print and broadcast media, as well as books and journals. The major themes summarised are as follows. In the first, it is alleged that the whole child protection system is "out of control" and has major problems. In the second, child protection is seen as a witch hunt, with parallels drawn to the Salem witchcraft trials of the late 17th century. In the third theme, professionals involved in child protection are portrayed as unstable and contributing to hysteria about child abuse (Myers 1994b: 89-90).

Other connected themes include the portrayal of professionals as the problem (1994b) or as "Nazis" (1994b: 93-94). Myers also claims that those who are responsible for the "backlash literature" and who are critical of child protection use "rhetorical devices" to support their arguments (1994b: 100).

Research at the Child Abuse and Family Violence Research Unit at Monash University (Goddard and Saunders 2000b) has led to rejection of the term "backlash" in this paper in favour of "contested aspects" of child sexual abuse. Some aspects of child protection practice have become contested, with considerable argument about the grounds for, and level of, intervention. The use of the term "backlash", it is argued, is inappropriate. While Goddard and Saunders (2000b) found that the number of articles in the print media critical of child protection services has increased, there continue to be many articles exposing the extent of child sexual abuse. Indeed, the suggestion of a significant "backlash" is contradicted by other researchers.

For example, Jenkins (1996), reviews the subject of "clergy abuse" in the media: "Prior to the late 1980s, the use of these two words [clergy and abuse] almost invariably produced stories about clergy being active in the fight against drug abuse or child abuse, but this picture changed with a tremendous upsurge of stories about clergy themselves being active as abusers" (Jenkins 1996: 54). Jenkins found that the number of stories about the clergy as perpetrators of abuse increased dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is hard to equate these and other findings with any significant "backlash".

It is also important to note that "contested aspects" may be unavoidable in some circumstances. As Hechler acknowledges in his book, referring to an American case, uncertainty may always be with us: "What really happened in Jordan (Minnesota)? All the questions may never be answered. It will take a book or two to begin the process" (1988: 8).

Pyck (1994) makes similar points in an analysis of the Cleveland case in the United Kingdom and the Oude Pekela case in the Netherlands. In the words of Pyck, these were "the high-profile, multiple-victim cases" (1994: 70). The important distinction, according to our continuing media analysis, is summarised succinctly by Pyck, describing the media coverage about the Cleveland case: "Some reporting was thorough and objective, although other stories were exaggerated and distorted" (1994: 71). Interestingly, Hechler uses a similar distinction when reviewing the Jordan case: "While some of the coverage was superficial and sensational, there were articles that examined the issues more carefully" (1988: 6).

It is interesting in this context to return to some of the earlier literature. Wilkinson (1980) reviewed the coverage of child abuse by the Washington Post. He inquired into whether the newspaper covered child abuse on a systematic basis and whether child abuse received the same coverage as politics, fashion or recipes. His answer was that the Washington Post did not cover the problem in the same systematic fashion, and he proposed a number of reasons for this. First, the competition for space in the newspaper is fierce. Second, child abuse does not easily fit one particular area of reporting; it can be part of police, medical, political or sociological reporting, and therefore tends to "fall through the cracks" (1980: 250). Third, many child abuse cases are reviewed in courts such as the family courts and there are restrictions on reporting and issues of confidentiality (see section above on the publication of victims’ names). Fourth, other sources of news, such as hospital emergency rooms, present reporters with additional problems, particularly over verifying accusations of abuse.

In her review of the coverage of child abuse in magazines, Signorielli (1980) paid particular attention to the issue of sensationalism. She reports that sensationalism is a major concern of professionals who argue that "sensationalist coverage distorts and exploits a serious problem". The other side of the coin, she proposes, is that sensationalism involves "reporters and editors trying to . . . cover serious social issues, while continuing to turn a profit" (1980: 259). According to Signorielli’s analysis, stories of child sexual abuse and pornography were treated in the most sensational fashion, with incest "rated as the most sensational of all child abuse stories".

The child protection system

Much of the media coverage in the United Kingdom and the United States that is described as part of a "backlash" is concerned with child protection responses rather than with child abuse itself. For instance, Aldridge (1994: 205) writes of "inordinately hostile press coverage" of social workers in United Kingdom child protection. Franklin and Parton (1991), again in the UK, suggest that social workers in child protection are described in the media as "fools" or "wimps" in some cases, or "villains" and "bullies" in others.

Little attention has been paid to the impact of sensationalist coverage on child protection practice itself. In an interview with a social services manager, Goddard (1994a, 1994b) shows that in one case in the United Kingdom the more extreme features of the abuse were not emphasised, in an attempt to avoid sensationalist media coverage. This case study is also of interest because of the way child protection services are described as slow to use the media even in response to media campaigns orchestrated by victims’ parents.

Part of a perceived "backlash" may also be the result of poor media relations skills in protective services. Tate (1994) describes child protection as becoming "defensive, terse and unforthcoming" in the face of sensationalist media coverage. Poor media relations, according to Tate, lead to public perceptions that there must be a problem in the way the case is handled by child protection, rather than that the child’s need for privacy requires restraint on the part of protective services: "By staying silent, social workers are handing the crucial battle for the hearts and minds of those who employ them to those who would rather they did not intervene in cases of alleged child abuse. The press is a vital conduit — perhaps the vital conduit for the creation of a political climate which either enables or obstructs good child protection work." (Tate 1994: 184, emphasis in original) As noted earlier in the section, Media "mistakes" vs child protection "mistakes", more recently there has been greater recognition by child protection departments of the need to develop more sophisticated, positive relationships with the media.

The continuing analysis by Goddard and Saunders (2000b) of the media coverage of child abuse suggests that both "contested" and "uncontested" aspects of child sexual abuse may be treated in a sensational manner by the media. However, "contested aspects", such as recovered or false memories, and ritual and satanic abuse (for example, Richardson et al. 1991), can become "contested truths" when covered in the media. "Contested truths" arise where there appears to be little middle ground: memories are recovered or false; ritual abuse does or does not exist. The media do not easily report uncertainty. As Gorelick (1995: 268) suggests, "any subtlety or middle ground in the public discourse is virtually obliterated".

The following case study provides important contextual analysis of this area.

Contested aspects of child sexual abuse: "recovered" vs false memories

One of the most hotly "contested aspects" of child sexual abuse in recent years has been that of recovered or false memories. (Once again, this is an area where the choice of words reveals a great deal.) The work of Deacon et al. (1999) of Loughborough University in the United Kingdom is particularly instructive when examining media representations of child sexual abuse, so their work will be examined in some detail.

Deacon and his colleagues examine what they term the "natural history" of one print media article (in Britain’s broadsheet newspaper The Guardian) about what they identify as the "so-called false memories" or the "false/recovered memory debate" or "recovered memories" (1999). They seek to trace the article’s development in "the interaction between several individual and institutional sources and news professionals, through to details of its production, and then to its decoding by individuals" (1999: 10). Their analysis of the newspaper article focuses on "the issue of definitional power, exploring the different ways in which competing institutional sources, media professionals and audience members seek to define the meaning" (1999: 10).

Deacon et al. briefly summarise the controversial issue of whether memories of traumatic events can be "recovered". They declare that the basic issue is: "whether these memories are real recollections of actual events, or whether they are false — implanted in the minds of vulnerable individuals by therapists who employ dubious therapeutic practices (in particular related to hypnotic regression and suggestion) and who are professionally obsessed with the issue of child abuse and its prevalence" (1999: 10). They argue that in order to "understand and evaluate . . . the representation of the issue in this [Guardian] article . . . it is necessary to pay attention to details of its inception and production" (1999: 11).

The Guardian story analysed by Deacon et al. (1999) was prompted by the release in January 1995 of a report of the Working Party of the British Psychological Society (BPS) on recovered or false memories. It is particularly interesting to note that Deacon et al. report that the BPS investigation was — in part, at least — prompted by the media debate on the issue: "There were also concerns that the alarmist and unsubstantiated debate about the prevalence of ‘False Memory Syndrome’ was distracting media and public attention from the wider issue of child abuse." (1999: 11)

The conclusions drawn by the BPS report were "equivocal" (1999) and thus might be difficult to "convey to the media" (1999). The plans of BPS were somewhat undermined by the British False Memory Society (BFMS), which organised press releases prior to the BPS news conference and broke the news embargo.

Deacon et al. (1999) suggest that a number of features of this case need to be acknowledged. Two are of particular significance for this review. First, there was open conflict between the two organisations over the BPS report and the issue of recovered or false memories. Second, both attempted to set the agenda of the media as both believed media response to be crucial in influencing the broader debates on the subject.

Deacon et al. (1999) interviewed the journalist who wrote the piece, who stated that his interest in the report was prompted, in part at least, by the fact that the issue was already on the media agenda. The status of the BPS was influential and the organisation of the launch, which allowed for forward planning, was also helpful. The negative aspect of the report was the "agnosticism of the Working Party’s message — that false memories might exist but they are unlikely to be widespread" (1999: 15). This was counterbalanced by the actions of the BFMS, which created extra "news value" by objecting to the report (1999: 15). (Goddard (1997b) has written of the media coverage, and of similar tactics used in Australia by Broken Rites, a pressure group representing victims of clergy abuse, in connection with a press conference held by the Catholic Church in Melbourne.)

The study by Deacon et al. examines other influences on the way the report was "encoded" and how one view was "privileged" over another (1999: 15-17). The BPS is seen as "an arbiter on the issue — dispassionate, professional, expert"— while the BFMS was regarded as an "advocate . . . whose intervention was grounded in vested, rather than independent, motives" (1999: 15). The BPS is thus given a "discursive ascendancy" (1999). Skidmore (1995: 93) has also emphasised the importance of "credibility of sources" and of who gains the title of "expert".

Deacon et al. (1999) also conducted a series of 14 focus group interviews. From these they concluded that audience decoding of the message created by the journalist occurred at "evaluative" rather than "interpretative" levels (Deacon et al. 1999: 26). "In this example audience responses and journalistic mediation are similarly constrained by their negligible access to alternative repertoires of discourse and experience about the false memory issue" (1999: 27).

The work of Deacon et al. (1999) has been summarised in some detail because it provides important evidence that there are limitations in media analysis that is purely textual, and because it recognises the importance of contextual issues and analysis. They argue that mass media research has not developed in an "incremental" or "linear" fashion but rather by "moments of sudden transition and transformation" (1999: 5). Understanding of child sexual abuse can be viewed as developing in a similar manner. Tracing the story from its production to its reception, Deacon et al. (1999) also suggest that deeper analysis of media activity is required and that far more rigorous theoretical approaches are required if more insight is to be gained into the influence of the media in social problems.

Other criticisms

Some authors have suggested that the critical media coverage of child protection services, the so-called "backlash", is deserved. Pinker (1994), for example, in a review of Aldridge (1994), claims that negative media coverage of social workers in child protection is a result of the: "sheer scale of the professional errors, the tragedies and the injustices uncovered. Of course, there have been times when newspapers have oversimplified some of the issues but such errors are as nothing compared to the sort of incompetence on which they are reporting." (Pinker 1994: 19)

It is argued that the use of the term "backlash", deserved or not, to describe some media coverage of child sexual abuse is not only inappropriate but also serves to conceal other legitimate criticisms of how the media sometimes report the problem. For example, Franklin and Parton (1991) assessed the content of the United Kingdom coverage of child abuse in general and found examples of seven main criticisms. They claim that: reporting is often sensationalised and trivialised; tends to be biased; presents an oversimplified account; contains inaccuracies and misrepresentation; seeks scapegoats; is sometimes racist; and is often sexist.

Franklin and Parton (1991) make an important contribution in their analysis of what the media do not cover. They identify three main issues: first, the media rarely report on the inadequate resources provided to child protection services; the media frequently fail to deal with gender issues in child sexual abuse, rarely reporting, for example, that most perpetrators are male; and third, the media rarely see the issues from the child’s perspective, viewing most cases as a clash between the state and the parents, with children’s rights rarely considered (1991).

It is suggested that further research into what is not reported in the Australian media would add to the contextual understanding of media coverage.

Whether or not there is a "backlash", there is continuing debate about how child abuse should be defined, and who should be doing the defining. Catherine Lumby (1999: 179) appears to suggest that too much attention is paid to the problem: "One of the problems is that the burgeoning academics, professional and popular discourse on the subject of child abuse has created a pervasive definitional problem when it comes to separating genuine victims of abuse from those who recognise themselves in the often emotive jargon which clouds the issue."


Overall, it is clear that the media’s portrayal of child abuse and child protection can have negative consequences for children, families and the child protection system, such as the denial of a child’s right to privacy and anonymity and the trivialisation of the physical punishment of children and the scapegoating of child protection workers.

However, it is argued that media coverage is vital if public concern for children is to remain on the political agenda, and if child protection services are to remain accountable. Further, in addition to their role in highlighting specific childhood concerns, journalists may also exert a powerful influence on social and political responses to all children and are thus in a prime position to advocate for children in society.

The challenge for those involved in child welfare and child protection then, is to make greater efforts to understand media influences and to use the media constructively. While a "partnership of equals" with some sections of the media may be impossible, a more active partnership is essential if the complexities of child abuse and child protection are to be responsibly debated and appropriate goals are to be set (Goddard and Liddell 1995: 362-363). The latest revolution in communications suggests that the media’s influence on child abuse and child protection may change but is unlikely to diminish.

In the next Clearinghouse Issues Paper (no. 15), Bernadette Saunders and Chris Goddard will explore the impact of mass media education and prevention campaigns.


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Dr Chris Goddard is Associate Professor and Head of Social Work at Monash University, and is Director of the Child Abuse and Family Violence Research Unit at Monash University. His latest book, co-authored with Dr Janet Stanley, In the Firing Line: Violence and Power in Child Protection, is to be published by Wiley this year.

Bernadette Saunders is a Social Work Lecturer and a PhD Candidate at Monash University. Her PhD research, Physical discipline of children and the intergenerational transmission of family violence, is supported by the Australian Research Council and Australians Against Child Abuse.

The authors wish to acknowledge the support of Australians Against Child Abuse in their continuing research.

This paper draws, in part, on Goddard, C. and Saunders, B.J. (2000), "The role of the media", in Project Axis: Child Sexual Abuse in Queensland: Selected Research Papers, (pp. 73-127), Queensland Crime Commission, Brisbane.