The BBC has been accused of presenting a distorted picture of the extent of ritual sexual abuse in Britain after a documentary claimed it was rooted in an ill-founded “Satanic panic” among social workers and child protection experts.
The two-part investigation by journalist David Aaronovitch for Radio 4’s Analysis sought to question how what were described as the “bizarre ideas” of Satanic abuse gained traction among police and social care professionals in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The programmes suggested that the lessons of investigations into suspected sex rings in the Orkneys and Rochdale, which found no evidence of Satanic abuse, were in danger of being forgotten in ongoing efforts to uncover the extent of abuse by Establishment paedophile rings.
But two contributors to the documentary have criticised the programmes, saying evidence of successful prosecutions in which ritual abuse had been alleged was ignored by producers and Mr Aaronovitch had presented a “conspiracy theory” that Satanic abuse was a fantasy.
Tim Tate, an award-winning documentary maker who investigated and has written a book on Satanic abuse, and Sarah Nelson, an Edinburgh University researcher on child sexual abuse, have made or are preparing formal complaints to the BBC.
Mr Tate said: “For years we have had a problem with both sides in this debate – those who allege a massive international conspiracy of Satanic abusers and those who say it is all nonsense – drowning out any sensible debate of a very difficult phenomenon.
“Mr Aaronovitch is entitled to his views but he should not have been allowed to present them in this way on the BBC.
“It is the case that Satanic abuse does happen. It is also the case that it appears to be rare. But it has far-reaching effects which are different from other forms of abuse and because of this type of debate no protocols have been developed to deal with it.”
The documentary, the last part of which was broadcast this week, claimed that Satanic abuse only became recognised in Britain as a result of “unproven psychoanalytic theories” first aired in North America. It said a moral “panic” that large-scale ritual abuse was taking place was found to be without foundation.
The complaints claim it is incorrect to suggest that professionals had effectively fallen for an unproven theory, arguing that concern about the phenomenon was based on the testimony of victims.
They also raise concern that linking doubts over ritual abuse to ongoing investigations risked making people more sceptical about the allegations of VIP abuse.
A BBC spokesman said: “These programmes were a deliberately challenging examination of the treatment of historical child abuse allegations and their relevance today. The programmes in no way downplayed the horrific nature of child sexual abuse.”
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