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The Complex Meanings of Child Abuse: Media, Society and Culture


In this article we seek to explore the complex meanings of child abuse and how they are represented in the media and civil society. The article commences by analysing three distinct discourses of child abuse: media, professional and human rights. It then moves on to examine media reportage of child abuse.

Discourses of Child Abuse: Media, Professional and Human Rights

The conceptual language of child abuse takes a number of distinct discursive forms. First, there is the descriptive language of moral condemnation contained in traditional words like 'cruelty,' 'neglect,' 'ill treatment,' 'indecency,' 'incest' and, latterly, 'torture,' 'grooming,' and 'exploitation,' that have framed popular media conceptualisations of child abuse. This is the language adopted by the media in reporting child abuse cases. It reflects back to the public its own moral outrage and condemnation, which some commentators argue can form moral panics (Fitzgibbon, 2012). Second, during the 1960s the professionalisation of child protection led to the emergence of a new medico-legal language (physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse and sexual abuse), which has become the dominant official discourse (Kempe and Kempe, 1978). This discourse is articulated in official guidelines, procedural manuals, professional training and student texts. The third discursive form is the language of universal human rights, which has challenged traditional thinking about childhood. Human rights discourse emerged out of the atrocities associated with the Second World War and the emergence of totalitarian societies. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) boldly proclaimed 'all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights'. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) became the first international treaty to improve basic standards regarding the treatment of children. In addition, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has established basic standards within the European Union regarding the treatment of citizens, which are enforced by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

All three discourses inform public responses to child abuse in quite distinct ways in case reportage. The mass media tends to use the populist language of moral outrage and condemnation. For example, in the recent UK trial of Daniel Pelka, a four-year-old abused and killed by his parents, the Daily Mail (1 August 2013) declared 'the Polish monster who tortured and killed his four-year-old stepson had been jailed in this country three times ... But despite his serial offending he was never put on a plane back to Poland.' The Daily Express (4 August 2013) informed its readers 'Daniel Pelka's evil mother revelled in being cruel ... she swore, took drugs and was often seen in the company of older men, who degraded her calling her a "slut" and a whore in the street but she seems to enjoy it.' This populist language of media condemnation evokes the Maria Colwell*1 case that prompted the first media crusade against child abuse. Subsequent UK child abuse inquiries such as the Cleveland Case (1987)*2, the Orkney Case (1992)*3, and the Victoria Climbié Case (2003)*4 have all attracted major media outrage.

The mass media's reportage stands in sharp contrast to the medico-legal language of public enquiries. The Ryan Report (2009), which was examining a historical event in the sense that its investigation of child abuse in Irish industrial and reformatory schools was about institutions that have been closed for many years, chose to adopt a medico-legal approach: physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse and sexual abuse. While physical abuse was the dominant mode of abuse identified by the survivors in their evidence, sexual abuse featured heavily in media reportage, partly because of the moral paradox of clergy sexually abusing children, which became a media 'angle.' Finally, the human rights approach to the conceptualisation of child abuse is part of a humanistic discourse that challenges unaccountable adult power. It confronts society with much deeper questions that cannot be easily accommodated in media conceptualisations, albeit the media can lead the debates. For example, the Kilkenny Report (McGuinness, 1993) and the Roscommon Report (Gibbons, 2010) exposed the absence of children's rights in the Irish Constitution, necessitating a referendum in 2012. The media played a key role in leading the debate for constitutional change through its reportage of these inquiries' findings. Probably the most successful media campaign waged by human rights activists on behalf of children has been the outlawing by the ECtHR of corporal punishment (Holohan, 2011: 56- 8). However, there are profound issues arising from plural childhoods, in which many children become victims of child abuse because of poverty, which the media does not address.

The Media, Child Abuse and Civil Society

While it is undoubtedly selective with the news, the mass media has had a powerful influence in augmenting children's rights within civil society, simply by reporting child abuse. Survivors of child abuse become the spokespersons - 'the child's voice' as victims of adult power (Ryan Report, 2009; Deetman, 2011). Their narratives enable us to assemble an account of the child's historic experience in care. Inevitably, the presentation of the issues shapes the public response - demanding more effective services for children. But there are also deeper issues involved, notably the use and abuse of adult power over children that tend to be framed in terms of accountability within the public realm. Justice must be done and seen to be done. This is, of course, right and proper. There is, however, a missing link in this nexus, which centres on the role of civil society in framing social and moral discourse of adult-child power relations. The sociocultural context of the debate is often lost in the public discourse of condemnation and denial.

However, civil society is not monolithic. There are various strands within civil society: conservative, liberal and radical (Powell, 2013). The conservative strand defends traditional values, organised religion and class interests. It finds its media voice through populist newspapers. These national organs have many local imitators. Liberal civil society on the other hand tends to be more progressive, reflecting the liberal views of the middle class intelligentsia, through broadsheet newspapers like The New York Times, The Guardian, etc. These are very much the minority in terms of newspaper sales, but they are highly influential in terms of shaping elite public opinion. On the other hand, the voice of radical civil society tends to be expressed through the fringe media and protest. Television and radio, which have a much larger audience, present news to mass audiences in increasingly tabloid form. However, there are key programmes, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Radio 4 Today programme, the Raidió Teilifís Eireann (RTÉ) radio programme Morning Ireland, the BBC Two programme Newsnight, the RTÉ television programme Primetime and Channel 4 News, which offer deeper news analysis and discussion of current affairs aimed at the intelligentsia.

A number of studies focus on the capacity of the media to manufacture scandal and foment moral panics among the public. As the issue of child abuse has evolved since the Maria Colwell Report in 1974 (Field- Fisher, 1974), public interest in and engagement with child abuse has grown, enveloping the media itself, as in the ongoing Jimmy Savile case. Civil society is no longer only confronted with child abuse within the family or care institutions but also among the cultural elite, including media 'celebrities.' This changing sociocultural context frames mass media responses to allegations of child abuse, especially when the accused is a celebrity, into morality theatre. The narrative has moved on and the media must now report on itself. That has proved to be a challenging task for the media.


The complexity involved in defining child abuse reminds us that it is a socially constructed concept. Child abuse is not stable in its ultimate meaning but influenced by media and popular discourse. The media played a key role in the construction of child abuse as a major social problem during the latter part of the 20th century. From a largely unacknowledged issue (prior to the 1960s) reportage of child abuse has now reached saturation point (Kitzinger, 2004: 36). Moreover, the issue has been covered across a range of genre (including news programmes, television drama, films, call-in shows and soap operas) thereby reaching a diverse range of audiences. While acknowledging the importance of the media in raising awareness, a number of commentators have also noted that the media's interest is very recent and has generally relied on others (eg, activists, professional groups) to lay the groundwork. Rather than being in the vanguard, the media has generally brought up the rear. The groundwork for the recognition of child sexual abuse, for example, lay in early activities by feminists and survivors, and involved international links within the women's movement across the world (Kitzinger, 2004). However, when the media did finally become involved in highlighting the issue of abuse, the impact was enormous. Extensive coverage helped to transform tragedies - such as the death of Maria Colwell - from local events to national scandals, requiring substantial government intervention. Moreover, the media has been instrumental in calling powerful institutions - notably the Catholic Church - to account for their handling of child abuse allegations (Powell and Scanlon, 2015). In Ireland, some of the most shocking and influential media coverage concerned clerical child abuse. Of particular note was the broadcast of a number of powerful documentaries detailing the abuse of children in institutional and community settings, including: Dear Daughter (RTÉ, 1996), States of Fear (RTÉ, 1999,) Cardinal Secrets (RTÉ, 2002) and Suing the Pope (a BBC documentary broadcast in the UK and Ireland in 2002). These landmark programmes led to the setting up of the first inquiries into the church's handling of allegations of abuse in Ireland (Powell and Scanlon, 2015).

Notwithstanding the positive aspects of the media's interest in child abuse, it must also be acknowledged that there are a number of drawbacks. The media has been accused of reporting child abuse in a sensationalist and simplistic manner (Franklin and Parton, 1991; Fitzgibbon 2012; Kitzinger, 2004) and of scapegoating the professionals (usually social workers) connected with child abuse cases (Franklin and Parton, 1991). Moreover, the tabloids' preoccupation with attacks perpetrated by strangers ('stranger danger') may divert attention from the fact that most abuse is perpetrated by individuals already known to the child. The explosion in media interest in child sex offences may also have helped to fuel a 'moral panic' at a time when there is no evidence to suggest that these offences are on the increase (Silverman and Wilson, 2002). It can be argued, therefore, that while the media has undoubtedly played a key role in raising awareness of child abuse, this has sometimes been a mixed blessing.

Authors Fred Powell and Margaret Scanlon have recently co-authored a book Dark Secrets of Childhood: Media Power, Child Abuse and Public Scandals, Policy Press, UK 2015.

  • *1: Marie Cowell died in 1973, at the age of 7. Her stepfather was later found guilty of manslaughter. Her death prompted a public inquiry which became the focus of national media attention and had a considerable impact on the development of child protection policy in the UK.
  • *2:The Cleveland crisis began in the spring of 1987 when, during a five-month period, 121 children from 57 families were taken into care in the county of Cleveland in England (Kitzinger, 2004). The children were removed due to concerns that they had been sexually abused. The controversy became the focus of media attention.
  • *3:The Orkney case involved nine children from four different families being taken into care, leading to a public outcry and intense media scrutiny (Kitzinger, 2004).
  • *4: In 2000 eight-year-old Victoria Climbie died following extreme abuse and neglect. Her death led to a major public inquiry (Laming, 2003) and media scrutiny of the actions of social services, the health service and the police in the London boroughs where she lived.

    • References
    • Buckingham, D. (2000) After the death of childhood: Growing up in the age of electronic media, Cambridge: Polity Press.
    • Butler, I. and Drakeford, M. (2005) Scandal, social policy and social welfare, Bristol: Policy Press.
    • Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Volumes I-V [also known as The Ryan Report], Dublin: Government Publications.
    • Deetman, W. Reports into child abuse in the Netherlands, 2011 and 2013. Amsterdam.
    • Field-Fisher, T.G. (1974) The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the care and supervision provided in relation to Maria Colwell, London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
    • Fitzgibbon, W. (2012) Probation and social work in trial, London: Palgrave.
    • Kempe, R. and Kempe, C. (1978) Child abuse, London: Fontana/Open Books.
    • Gibbons, N. (2010) Roscommon Child Care Case: Report of the Inquiry Team to the Health Service Executive, 27 October 2010, Dublin: Health Service Executive.
    • Holohan, C. (2011) In plain sight: Responding to the Ferns, Regan, Murphy and Cloyne Reports, Dublin: Amnesty International.
    • Kitzinger, J. (2004) Framing abuse: Media influence and public understanding of sexual violence against children, London: Pluto.
    • McGuinness, C. (1993) Kilkenny Incest Investigation: Report presented to Mr. Brendan Howlin TD, Minister for Health by South Eastern Health Board, May 1993. Dublin: The Stationery Office.
    • Parton, N. (1991) Governing the family: Child care, child protection and the state, London: MacMillan.
    • Powell, F. (2013) The politics of civil society: Big society and small government, Bristol: Policy Press.
    • Silverman, J. and Wilson, D. (2002) Innocence betrayed: Paedophilia, the media and society, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Fred Powell

Fred Powell is Professor of Social Policy and Chair of the Institute of Social Science in the 21st Century at University College Cork, National University of Ireland. He is the author of many books and articles and an international authority on civil society. His research interests include: civil society, community work, social policy.

Margaret Scanlon

Margaret Scanlon is a postdoctoral researcher at University College Cork. She was previously based at the Institute of Education, University of London, and has produced a series of publications on childhood and youth. Her research interests include: children and youth studies, youth work, informal education, media studies.

This article called to our attention the frequency that violent child abuse occurs in our present-day world. And it illustrated how the media brought this to our attention, often after the media learned about it from people who were already aware of the tend. Now what is to be done? Let's think about abusive discipline by care-givers. Would you agree that many times disciplinary abuse results because the parents or other caregivers did not know how to handle a child whose behaviour displeased them? They were raised using abusive measures, and that is the only way they know to address the problems. Teachers, social workers, guidance counsellors and child life workers are taught non-abusive measures of discipline. How can the rest of us learn? Can the media through family stories or other means help us learn to practice non-violent means of dealing with our children?

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