Policy Papers

Scandals and silences: the British press and child sexual abuse

Adrian Bingham and Louise Settle |

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Executive Summary

  • Press coverage has been vital in pushing child sexual abuse up the public agenda since the 1970s: it has encouraged survivors to report offences and prompted politicians, local authorities, social workers and the police to develop policy responses.
  • For most of the twentieth century, however, the press missed numerous opportunities to define and highlight child sexual abuse as a problem.
  • Offences against children, particularly those committed by people in positions of authority, regularly featured in newspaper columns, but the reporting was usually brief, euphemistic and focused on human interest rather than on the cultures and practices that enabled abuse.
  • This press passivity was not an inevitable result of the constrained public discussion of sex before the 1960s: one of the first modern newspaper crusades, conducted by the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, was on the evils of child prostitution.
  • The failure of the press to prioritise child sexual abuse as a social problem can be attributed to its adherence to the definitions and assumptions of the legal system, its reliance on court reporting as a source of entertainment and titillation rather than social commentary, the male dominance of newsrooms, and the weakness of its investigative tradition.
  • While child sexual abuse is now firmly on the press radar, several elements of this earlier journalistic culture remain and continue to distort coverage of offences against young people.


The sexual abuse of children, both contemporary and historic, has become one of the defining issues of our times. Barely a day goes by without media reports of the arrest or conviction of alleged offenders, or of the latest details of official enquiries into the problem, in Britain and abroad. The internet swirls with rumours of conspiracies and cover-ups. If the attention given to child sexual abuse is at unprecedented levels, it has been building intermittently for several decades. The emergence of the paedophile as a specific and potent social menace can be dated quite precisely to the mid-1970s, and by the 1980s, the issue was receiving considerable media attention, both in newspapers and in television programmes such as BBC’s Childwatch (1986).

But why did child sexual abuse receive such limited media coverage before the 1970s? Even if only a small proportion of offences reached the legal system, there were still plenty of cases to report. As my colleague Louise Jackson’s research on the prosecution and prevalence of child abuse demonstrates, in the 1920s over 500 people a year went before the courts for sexual offences against children, rising tenfold to over 5000 by the 1960s. It is true that ‘child sexual abuse’ was not a clearly defined concept or category, either in law or in popular understanding, until the late twentieth century, and as historians we have to be wary of projecting contemporary ideas and labels onto the past. Nevertheless, the notion of an ‘age of consent’ – raised from 13 to 16 in 1885 – has very long historical roots, and by the Victorian period the belief that children required protection from adult violence and sexual attention was well established. Organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), founded in 1884, as well as many women’s groups, sought to raise public awareness about the threats faced by young people. As Jackson has observed, ‘Although Victorians had no umbrella term that was uniformly applied, they would certainly have recognised the term “child sexual abuse”.’

Nor is it sufficient to argue that the media were unable to discuss sex in detail before the ‘permissive’ 1960s. Social norms, reinforced by the operation of the censorship regime, certainly constrained the explicitness of both words and images, but the popular press, in particular, developed a number of strategies for producing publicly acceptable stories and features about sex. Court reporting, legitimized by the authority of the judicial process and the perceived moral need to publicise the punishment of criminality, enabled newspapers to describe sexual offences, even if some of the details were shrouded by euphemism. The popular press also periodically ran noisy moral crusades against ‘vice’ (usually a synonym for prostitution), obscenity and promiscuity, giving readers tantalising glimpses into underground worlds of illicit sexuality while orchestrating public outrage and demanding action from the relevant authorities.

The ‘Maiden Tribute campaign’

Indeed, one of the first modern newspaper moral crusades, run in July 1885 by W. T. Stead, the editor of the London evening paper the Pall Mall Gazette, was on the evils of child prostitution. In a series of four articles, published in July 1885 under the sensational headline ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, Stead sought to expose the prevalence of child prostitution in the heart of the empire. He explicitly intended to put pressure on the House of Commons, which was debating and threatening to defeat, for the third time, a Criminal Law Amendment Bill raising the age of consent from 13 to 16. Countless girls, Stead claimed, were being sacrificed to the insatiable ‘London Minotaur’ in a horror far worse than those recalled in myths of ancient Greece. Stead described this underground trade in considerable detail, explaining how often unsuspecting girls were lured to their ‘ruin’, and interviewing brothel-keepers, procurers and their victims to reveal all sides of the practice. Stead’s most daring tactic was to relay how he had been able to buy, with little difficulty, a 13 year-old girl, Eliza Armstrong, for £5. The series provoked a national uproar. While some newsagents refused to stock what they regarded as an ‘obscene’ publication, there were riots outside the paper’s offices as vendors fought to get hold of extra copies. Thousands of unofficial reprints circulated around London, and the stories were spread around Europe and the United States. The matter was raised in Parliament, where the revelations changed the dynamics of the debates on the Criminal Law Amendment Bill. Stead himself was eventually prosecuted for his part in the purchase of Armstrong and he served three months in Holloway Prison. He was unbowed on release, convinced of the justice of ending what he saw as a ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding the subject. The eventual passage of the new legislation, which also increased police powers over brothels, seemed to testify to the power of his crusading journalism.

This campaign showed that the press could generate significant political and public debate about the sexual exploitation of children. Stead deployed a shrewd combination of melodrama, titillation and moral seriousness to capture readers’ attention, framing the problem as one with a clear enemy – the ‘dissolute rich’ – and practical solutions, namely raising the age of consent and tackling brothel owners. The combination of press interest, active campaign groups, such as the NSPCC and the National Vigilance Association, and reform-minded politicians, kept the issue on the public agenda for some years, resulting in legislation such as the Punishment of Incest Act of 1908. This momentum was, however, difficult to sustain. Women’s organisations tried to maintain the pressure for reform after 1918, but the climate they faced gradually became less hospitable, and press and parliamentary support was hard to find.

Court reporting and judicial commentary

The popular newspapers that dominated the increasingly competitive market after the First World War were less keen on the controversial investigative journalism pioneered by Stead. Titles such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the News of the World were highly attuned to the interests and needs of their target readerships and advertisers, and sought to produce colourful and varied publications packed with ‘human interest’. Editors were content to use court reporting as cheap and reliable form of entertainment and titillation – one Fleet Street veteran aptly described the News of the World as the ‘Hansard of the Sleazy’ – and rarely highlighted or commented upon wider social issues. Crusades remained a key tool of the popular press, but they tended to follow the political agendas of the newspaper owners, address relatively conventional talking points, such as the activities of ‘modern young women’, or offer stylised and predictable exposés of immorality, such as urban prostitution or drug-taking. Elite newspapers, such as The Times and the Manchester Guardian, had a different set of news values and provided more detailed reporting, but they tended to focus their editorializing and opinion pieces on what they perceived to be the important matters of high politics, economic policy and foreign affairs. Despite proud claims of acting as a critical ‘fourth estate’, the press were reluctant to scrutinise the private activities of high-status individuals or challenge the culture of secrecy that surrounded many institutions, including churches, public schools and children’s homes; nor did self-declared ‘family newspapers’, with their tendency to idealize domestic life, have much incentive to probe the violence and abuse that occurred within the home.

After 1918, the bulk of the coverage of child sexual abuse in national and local newspapers comprised brief, factual reports of court proceedings, usually under euphemistic headlines that did not draw attention to the sexual nature of the alleged offences. Flickers of outrage failed to spark off more heated and high profile debates. Reporting was episodic and fatalistic, as if these crimes were an inevitable feature of society. ‘Serious charge against fisherman’ declared the Hull Daily Mail in June 1920, over an 11-line report of the murder of a 13 year-old girl who was, according to the police, ‘outraged, probably stunned, and thrown into a pond while still alive.’ ‘Mother’s Shock – Sees Stranger With Her Child on Omnibus’ ran a Daily Mail headline in August 1927, focusing on the drama of a mother unexpectedly seeing her five-year old daughter being taken away onto a bus by an unknown man, rather than the subsequent indecent assault charge. Some reports were so discreetly placed that they were not headlined at all. Only those reading their paper carefully, and able to decipher the euphemisms – ‘grave offences’, ‘improper assaults’, ‘outrages’, ‘corruption’ – would have been appreciated the regularity of these crimes.

If there was any additional commentary on cases of this type, it almost always came in the form of extracts from the judge’s summing up. This was convenient and relevant copy for journalists; indeed, the News of the World considered itself to be the judges’ ‘trade paper’. As the sociologist Carol Smart has noted, however, the judiciary was packed with middle-aged and traditionally-minded men who were often very resistant to the more victim-centred approaches put forward by campaigners. The press served as a platform for these views, and alternative perspectives were conspicuous by the absence. Suggestions from the bench that children were responsible for, or complicit in, their abuse, were not uncommon. Reporting from the Devon Assizes in November 1925, for example, the Devon and Exeter Gazette recorded a judge’s statement:

that it did seem rather regrettable, and a place where the law rather failed, that nothing could ever be done in the case of little girls under sixteen with whom offences were committed and who often, of course, were guilty themselves. Sometimes they were as guilty as the male.

In 1934, the same paper covered a judge dismissing a case of serious sexual assault on a young teenager with the observation that the victim:

is one of those girls of whom there are so many to-day […] who are as immoral as any grown-up woman can possibly be.

In 1954, another judge actually asked the press to publicise the names and addresses of three 14 and 15-year old boys who ‘tempted’ men in public lavatories: even the liberal Manchester Guardian was happy to oblige. Blame was also sometimes attached to wives and mothers, with accusations that they had not done enough to satisfy their husbands or safeguard their children. In July 1925, the Hull Daily Mail reported on the case of a 48 year-old fitter who was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for incest with two of his daughters, and with assaulting two others. Five lines of the 11-line report were focused on the failings of the mother, who protested that she had been ‘terrified for years into silence’: the judge was entirely unsympathetic, observing that:

threats to murder would not have the slightest effect on the mind of any decent, ordinary English woman.

If members of the judiciary perpetuated the beliefs that children were often sexual corrupters, and women were ultimately responsible for preserving sexual morality, they also offered fierce condemnations of those men who they betrayed  acceptable norms of masculinity, and these too were reported by the press. In November 1924, for example, the Hull Daily Mail reported the conviction of a 41 year-old labourer for incest: describing that case as ‘about as frightful as had ever come before a court of justice’, Mr Justice Talbot declared that the seven year prison sentence ‘which the law allowed for such an offence was very far from sufficient’. Such remarks offered newspapers an invitation to highlight the gravity of this issue, but they declined to take it up. Indeed, during the 1920s, some judges spoke explicitly about the vital role the press had in publicising sexual abuse within the family. Mr Justice Roche noted that ‘many did not know that incest was unlawful, although they knew it was wrong’, and criticised the culture of euphemism that surrounded the topic:

It would be better for the newspapers to call a spade a spade and state that there had been a conviction for incest or rape instead of referring to an indecent offence. 

Similarly, Mr Justice Cardie observed in July 1927 that:

Again and again he had seen men and women in the dock who, through suppression of the reports of these cases, said they did not know incest was a crime… He hoped no false delicacy would stop the newspapers publishing the convictions so that there could be no excuse for a plea of ignorance.

Perhaps the clearest sign of press passivity on this topic is that these comments were not picked up or pursued in editorial commentary and opinion pieces, and that the security of euphemistic language was retained for so long. Even judges could not shake the press out of its slumber.

Alternative perspectives?

Nor did voices from outside the courtroom generate much response. In 1925, a Departmental Committee on Sexual Offences Against Young People – appointed the previous year by Arthur Henderson, the Labour Home Secretary, after pressure from women’s organisations – made a number of recommendations, including the abolition of the defence of ‘reasonable belief’ that a girl was over 16, the provision of a separate waiting room for young witnesses, and the option for evidence to be given in camera. The report’s authors challenged institutions to respond to child sexual abuse with something better than ‘ignorance, carelessness and indifference’. These policy debates were reported, especially in the elite newspapers, but, once again, the coverage was factual and passive without any editorial intervention. Leading articles, opinion pieces and letters were conspicuous by their absence, and there was no apparent appetite to conduct further investigations. One of the reasons that the political and legal establishment was able to ignore the 1925 report, despite the lobbying from women’s organisations, was because the press showed little interest in the issue.

Women’s organisations attempted to generate public interest in this topic by using dramatic language to highlight the extent of the problem. In January 1929 a delegate at the National Union of Women Teacher’s annual conference made an ‘urgent plea’ for more women police officers to protect children in public spaces, and claimed that ‘so great were the dangers of assault and indecency in the parks to-day that mothers no longer dared allow their children to play in them.’ The following year, Miss Kelly, a member of the Departmental Committee on Sexual Offences Against Young People, moved a resolution at the conference of National Council of Women ‘deploring the delay in introducing legislation’ to implement the Committee’s recommendations, despite what she highlighted as an ‘astounding increase’ in sexual crime. In both cases, the remarks were picked up by the press, but were given little prominence and not taken further.

On the rare occasions that the press did seek to investigate child sexual abuse, it was conflated with other social ‘problems’, particularly prostitution or homosexuality. In the early 1950s, for example, the Sunday Pictorial tenaciously pursued the head of the London Choir School at St Michael's College, at Bexley in Kent. In consecutive front page headlines in July 1951, ‘Father Ingram’ was accused of being an imposter and an abuser. Ingram issued a writ to close down the story, but this was dismissed two years later, and Ingram was eventually convicted of five serious offences against three ex-pupils, and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. During its investigations, the Pictorial uncovered other cases of abuse and exposed those too. But at this moment the press was whipping up a broader moral panic about homosexuality – which would lead, in 1954, to the establishment of the Wolfenden Committee to investigate – and the exposure of Ingram was presented as part of the ‘problem’ of homosexuality, rather than being defined separately. 'If You Love Children, This Is The Urgent Lesson Of The Evil Father Ingram’, wrote Colin Valdar, the Pictorial editor:

…how many other private schools, without effective supervision, are exposing children to the “care” of known homosexuals?

The issue was soon swallowed up in the wider debate about the recommendations of the Wolfenden committee, made in 1957, and the case for homosexual law reform.

‘Sex maniacs’

The popular press was, ultimately, far less interested in considering reform proposals or conducting investigations than in generating human interest from stories of criminality and sexual transgression. After the Second World War increasingly close relationships between journalists and the police, combined with the rise of the language of psychology, led to a genre of ‘manhunt’ articles laden with narratives of sexual danger involving dangerous and unpredictable ‘sex maniacs’. In August 1960, for example, the Daily Mail reported that ‘Five hundred police in London were last night hunting a sex maniac who poses as a detective’:

He has raped a seven-year-old girl and assaulted at least four others. Scotland Yard fears that

unless he is caught soon the life of an unsuspecting child may be in great danger… If any child

returns home saying she has been questioned by a CID man who produced a card saying

“Police”, her parents are asked to telephone the Yard or nearest police station at once.

Similar narratives about a dangerous sexual predator featured in the coverage of the search for the so-called ‘Mad Dog of Jersey’, deemed to be responsible for a series of attacks on women and children throughout the 1960s. In 1971 Edward Paisnel was finally convicted of these crimes, and the press demonised him both as a ‘beast’ and a calculating killer who dabbled in Satanism and black magic. The reporting of the Moors Murders in 1966, similarly focused on the abnormality and unmatched depravity of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and highlighted their interest in extreme and occult literature. Such coverage consolidated the focus on the threat of evil strangers who were characterised by their distance from society and social norms. The preoccupation with individual evil discouraged consideration of broader social, cultural or policy issues, and there continued to be little press interest in wider discussions of sexual abuse.

The emergence of the ‘paedophile’

It was only in the mid-1970s that there were major shifts in the coverage of child sexual abuse. The  reasons for these changes included: the emergence of a more sexualised culture; the legislative reforms of the late 1960s which decriminalised consenting adult male homosexuality (and therefore clarified the distinction between the ‘homosexual’ and the ‘paedophile’); the resurgence of the women’s movement, with its focus on the prevalence of male violence and abuse; the shift towards more child-centric thinking in education, criminal justice and leisure; and the emergence of a more populist, outspoken and interventionist tabloid press in the wake of the Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. These developments enabled child sexual abuse to be identified as a specific, and important, social problem; for it to be widely and explicitly discussed by newspapers by now both deeply interested in, and highly attuned to, changes in sexual culture; and for these debates to be seen as important contributions to wider political and cultural contests over the future of Britain.

High profile abuse cases increasingly received ‘disaster coverage’, where the front and subsequent pages were cleared, and highly detailed reporting was offered alongside expert opinion and speculation, and hand-wringing editorials. In August 1983, the tabloids dedicated considerable space and resources to reporting a gruesome incident in Brighton where a six year-old boy was kidnapped and sexually terrorised. This was, according to the Daily Express’s front page, ‘The Crime That Shocked A Nation’; pages two and three recounted ‘The Vital Clues as the Hunt Goes On’, while page five described the ‘Women Sharing the Boy’s Horror’. An editorial considered ‘How the rot set in’ – ‘We have witnessed a deliberate overturning of the values and assumptions which used to form the cultural bedrock of our daily lives’ – and lamented the ‘tide of evil’.  An accompanying feature outlined the determination of some MPs to outlaw the ‘sick and sinister’ organisation, the Paedophile Information Exchange.  The centre pages, meanwhile, were devoted to a detailed profile of ‘Brighton, The Town without Innocence’. The distance travelled since the scanty, timid and evasive reporting of the 1920s could hardly be clearer.


The ability of the press to place the issue of child sexual abuse high up on the public agenda was evident as far back as 1885 with the scandal generated by W. T. Stead’s Maiden Tribute article. For most of the twentieth century, however, the press was very reluctant to discuss or investigate the problem in any detail. The perspectives of the judiciary were passively accepted, and the critical voices of campaigners were marginalised. Individuals and institutions were able to keep their private activities hidden from view. Male-dominated newsrooms offered court reporting as a form of entertainment rather than a source of social analysis. Since the mid-1970s, this has rapidly changed, and paedophiles have been presented as major social threats. This publicity has helped survivors to understand, and have a language for, what has happened to them, and has encouraged them to come forward in greater numbers. Yet the coverage of child sexual abuse is still shaped, and distorted, by many of the assumptions and practices developed in earlier decades. The moral grandstanding and sensational language of the Stead campaign has many echoes today, and the tabloids have developed a populist, punitive law and order rhetoric reminiscent of previous generations of vigilance campaigners. The high-point of this populism was the News of the World’s ‘Naming and Shaming campaign’ launched in 2000 in the wake of the murder of Sarah Payne. With 110,000 child sex offenders in Britain, ‘one for every square mile’, and the police unable to monitor them all, the paper argued that parents should be able to find out about offenders in the local area. Just like Stead over a century earlier, the paper claimed that it had been forced to act because the authorities were failing to protect children, and it was prepared to bypass the usual legal and parliamentary processes in order to make its point. Social work professionals offering more nuanced responses, meanwhile, were routinely dismissed portrayed as naïve or gullible do-gooders adhering to ‘trendy’ theories rather than employ ‘common sense’.

While lambasting other institutions for their failures, inadequacies and cover-ups, the press has remained quiet about its own chequered record. Despite its claims to be a ‘fourth estate’, serious investigative journalism – of the sort that enabled The Times reporter Andrew Norfolk to expose in 2012 the extent of the child abuse scandal in Rotherham – has been rare. The press has accepted conventional wisdom and recycled stereotypes with little critical scrutiny. Opportunities to expose the activities of serial abusers such as Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith went begging; while undoubtedly constrained by the libel laws, journalists all too often did not want to ‘rock the boat’ or endanger their access to politicians and celebrities. The NHS and the BBC have at least set up enquiries to help them learn the lessons of the past; the press, by contrast, remains very reluctant to put its performance under serious scrutiny. The new self-regulatory body, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, should create mechanisms to encourage the industry to create a more self-reflective and historically aware culture.

Further Reading

Louise Jackson, (2000) Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England. London: Routledge.

Carol Smart, (2000) ‘Reconsidering the Recent History of Child Sexual Abuse, 1910–1960’, Journal of Social Policy, 29:1. 

Mathew Thomson, (2013) Lost Freedom: the Landscape of the Child and the British Post-war Settlement. Oxford: OUP. (Especially chapter 6, ‘Sexual Danger and the Age of the Paedophile’.)

Judith Walkowitz, (1992) City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Victorian London, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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