They were little children, gang-raped and beaten till they bled by those charged with their care. “Buggery, rape, bestiality, violent assaults and torture,” is how Labour MP Ann Clwyd summed up the findings of a pulped report by Clwyd County Council into abuse at children’s homes in north Wales. Steven Messham was sent to Bryn Estyn – supposedly a care home, in reality a rape factory – at the age of 13. Those who, like him, had been hand-picked to satisfy the perverse needs of sexual monsters were sent to flats and hotel rooms in their pyjamas to be raped. By the time Messham escaped on the eve of his 18th birthday, more than 50 men had abused him.
The psychological effects of child abuse are profound. Shock, fear and disbelief come immediately, psychologists note; in the long term come anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Abused children often start wetting the bed again; as they become adults, they can be plagued with self-hatred, an inability to form meaningful relationships, and a tendency to “escape” through drugs or risky sex.
Some of the abused simply cannot cope with the brutal theft of their childhood. Nearly two decades ago, Mark Humphreys was found in his north Wales bedsit, hanging from a staircase. Simon Burley and Peter Wynne hanged themselves, too; Robert Chapman toppled to his death from a railway bridge; Brendon Randalls drank himself to death; Lea Homberg’s life ended in a drug overdose.
It may seem needlessly macabre to retell the horrors of abused children, but it has become necessary. The story is now all-out war against the BBC, much to the undisguised delight of its opponents. It is difficult not to picture the relish on the face of Rupert Murdoch when he tweets: “BBC getting into deeper mess”. When criminality on an industrial scale took place at his News of the World, this monstrous mogul sacked those he deemed responsible and remained in place; when the Beeb make a serious mistake, the Director-General is out pronto. But in the mounting crusade against the BBC, the stories and the voices of the abused have been purged: this no longer has anything to do with them.
Let’s be clear, Newsnight screwed up. Its report alleging that a senior Tory was implicated in the abuse of children – widely, and wrongly, named on the internet as Lord McAlpine – did not stand up to scrutiny. It is a mystery why a recent photograph of Lord McAlpine was never shown to Steven Messham – although the police have largely escaped scrutiny for seemingly wrongly identifying him to Messham in the 1990s as one of his tormentors.
The consequences of all this could be far more disastrous than the possible termination of one of the few television programmes that can be described as a national institution. This is where we have ended up. Steven Messham – a victim of systematic rape – has been forced into a humiliating apology. The Mail on Sunday has produced a two-page hatchet job on him. On the BBC’s Daily Politics show yesterday, ex-Tory MP David Mellor smeared him as a “weirdo”. A survivor of abuse who bravely spoke out now faces a smear campaign against him. Lord McAlpine was wronged, but he is receiving more pity than those buggered when they were very young.
What message will this send to other victims? We already know that the vast majority of child abuse goes unreported and – on many occasions when it does come to light – it is after the abusers have died. Many children are already too terrified to step forward to reveal their experiences. According to a report in the medical journal The Lancet in December 2008, abuse of children in developed countries such as the UK is far higher than reported by child protection agencies, and usually committed by those close to them. The proportion of cases that ends up being reported is as low as one in 10. According to the NSPCC, at least 64 children are sexually abused every single day in England and Wales, and one in four are aged under 11.
And yet the narrative that now risks being fuelled is not under-reporting, but rather the false accusations of rape – even though the Home Office believe they make up 8 per cent of reported rapes at the very most. Following Newsnight’s humiliating apology on Friday night, I appeared on BBC 5 Live with the former Tory MP Jerry Hayes; we were both shocked when, prompted by the Lord McAlpine crisis, an interview was aired with a man discussing his experience of being falsely accused of rape. Is this really where the emphasis should lie in the current climate?
What is happening is no longer about securing justice for children who have been raped and tortured, left traumatised, their lives ruined. It is now about undermining victims of abuse, and an ideological crusade to dismantle the BBC by its opponents.
I hesitate to use the word “disgraceful”; it does not begin to cover the shameful depths currently being plunged. Steven Messham was let down badly by the police and by journalists; he is now re-living his abuse while being publicly smeared. This must not be allowed to continue. The focus must return to the victims; to bringing all those responsible to justice; and to encouraging others to speak out. If not, children will continue to be silently raped and abused.
Those twisting this saga have probably not given that any thought. Those with decency and empathy, on the other hand, must – before more damage is done.