Hysteria is threat to research

August 3, 2001

A 'mocumentary' on paedophilia was a valid critique of media sensationalism and exploitation, says Colin Clark.

In the wake of the furore over Channel Four's screening of the Brass Eye spoof documentary on paedophilia, the government sought to challenge the Independent Television Commission over why it failed to respond to complaints about the programme.

The debate over what topics television can and cannot treat in "comic" fashion happened to coincide with the publication of a Home Office green paper on the sex offenders register, which proposed moves to increase the frequency of checks on offenders and on the number of people listed. Sadly, the topics raised by these separate issues have been conflated and somehow blurred - and we are all the poorer for it.

Brass Eye attracted more than 2,000 complaints to Channel 4 and about 600 to the ITC. It also outraged children's charities, which demanded that a repeat screening be ditched. Home secretary David Blunkett said he was "dismayed" by the programme. Child protection minister Beverley Hughes called it "unspeakably sick", although she had not watched it. One tabloid newspaper demanded the revocation of Channel Four's broadcasting licence and the sacking of those who commissioned the show.

But Channel Four stood by its decision to broadcast, although it "regretted offence" caused to victims of child abuse. Its chief executive Michael Jackson said that the programme "sought to challenge the inconsistencies in the way the media approaches and sensationalises paedophile crime".

This is surely the key. Through satire, the programme sought to make a serious point about the gross sensationalism and crass exploitation that, in recent times, has characterised media coverage of sex offenders and their crimes. It examined the uneasy links between tabloid hysteria about a serious subject and street campaigns to burn out paedophiles - or paediatricians, as happened in one case - from their homes. Essentially, it asked "who is leading whom?"

Brass Eye exposed the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the media and made a few "celebrities", eager for the limelight, look like fools as they lined up to make absurd statements about a subject they clearly knew little about.

Undoubtedly, some elements of the programme, such as the use of child actors, caused unease. But focusing on this deflects from the real issues.

The programme was fundamentally not about the sexual abuse of children and those who perpetrate such acts. This was just a "case study" showing what happens when you get a dangerous media frenzy around a serious social issue. Such hysteria can create a climate where informed professional social research is almost impossible to carry out. Research funding councils might think twice about granting money for such studies if it might land them in the tabloids. A sociologist might not want to be involved in researching some aspect of sexual abuse if it carries with it a threat of tabloid exposure and "mob" violence.

This might sound far-fetched, but a heated climate of "moral panic" around paedophilia could destabilise research studies that are crucial in helping to build a wider picture of why some individuals carry out such activities.

It seems evident that Brass Eye 's makers knew exactly what would happen in the post-broadcast meltdown. The tabloid media will lash out when it is viewed as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution to a "public concern". Similarly, those celebrities who were taken in reacted with anger and embarrassment at being made to look foolish. The key point is that the criticism the show has generated is part of the Brass Eye exercise and proves that what it was trying to show is true.

The reason the programme caused offence is not because it trivialised or sought to "raise a laugh" about the sexual abuse of children, but because it made us question our prejudices and assumptions about who we trust when we watch television or read a newspaper. I only hope that the hysteria and exposure of the reaction to the broadcast will not lead to research studies or individuals being jeopardised or threatened.

Colin Clark is a sociologist at Newcastle University.

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