- 'It Would be Better for the Newspapers to Call a Spade a Spade':The British Press and Child Sexual Abuse, c. 1918–90
On 3 January 1929, a Miss Cooper from Birmingham addressed the National Union of Women Teachers' annual conference and moved a resolution calling for more female police officers. Her chief concern was for the safety of children in public parks, 'where many… cases of indecency and assault take place'. 'At present,' she declared, 'mothers simply dare not allow their children to go into the parks unless they can go with them to look after them, because of the pests of society who frequent these places.' Women police would drive away these threatening men, as they would the 'other pests which crowd our streets with their motor cars, and wait for young people to pass by'. The resolution was carried, as was another calling for the establishment of a committee of inquiry, with at least half female membership, to investigate 'the numerous cases of child assault'.1
Miss Cooper's intervention – supporting a campaign promoted by a number of women's groups during the 1920s – attracted the attention of both national and local newspapers.2 The Times ran a brief report summarizing the speech under the discreet headline 'Women Teachers' Conference'; the Daily Mail was even more concise but ran the story under the punchier title 'Park Pests'.3 A little more detail was provided by the Manchester Guardian ('Women Teachers – Resolution in Favour of More Policewomen') and the Western Daily Press ('Park Pests – Demand for More Women Police'), while the Aberdeen Press and Journal highlighted 'Children's Danger in Public Parks'.4 In each case, though, Miss Cooper's words were recorded without elaboration or analysis, and there was no editorial comment, either about the problem of sexual assault or the role of women police. The resolution was crowded out by numerous other news stories and curiosities; Mail readers glancing further up the column would doubtless have been intrigued by a longer piece about '5,000 Ping Pong Balls' ordered by speed-record holder Major Henry Segrave for his new motor boat. The issue of what we now term child sexual abuse was fleetingly [End Page 89] visible, before being pushed aside by the more pressing concerns of editors and journalists.
In recent years, the importance of the media in publicizing, defining and debating child sexual abuse has become inescapable, and has been the subject of several scholarly studies.5 Media influence has two main elements. First, the media have a powerful agenda-setting role – that is, they select and prioritize certain topics for prominent and sustained attention, while marginalizing others.6 From the 1980s, and even more during the 2010s, the media's interest in child sexual abuse pushed it to the forefront of public discussion, prompting official enquiries, policy responses and action from voluntary organizations, as well as encouraging those who have suffered abuse to report it.7 Second, the media 'frame' issues or events in specific ways – that is, in the words of Robert Entman, they 'select some aspects of a perceived reality to make them more salient, thus promoting a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation'.8 Several scholars have noted, for example, that the media for a long time concentrated their attention on attacks from strangers, thereby downplaying abuse within the home and misrepresenting the nature of the risk to young people.9
This research on the media has focused, however, almost exclusively on the period since the mid 1970s when 'child abuse' and 'child sexual abuse' became accepted terms, 'paedophile' entered the public lexicon, and media interest gathered pace. As a result, we have very little knowledge of how the press approached this topic in earlier decades of the twentieth century – how it responded to individuals such as Miss Cooper who tried to turn the spotlight on the problem and challenge the authorities to tackle it. There is, by contrast, a valuable literature on legal, medical and psychoanalytical discussions of adult-child sexual contact and the efforts of feminist and morality campaigners to raise awareness of how society could better prevent, treat or...