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Friday 11 July 2014, David Bowden

Putting the past on trial

This week’s headlines have been dominated by two very different, but inextricably linked attitudes towards generational failings.

The major story in the UK media this week surrounded the alleged cover-up of child-abuse allegations against senior British politicians. Following claims that government officials had repeatedly suppressed or ignored accusations of a ‘Westminster paedophile ring’ during the 1970s and 1980s, the current home secretary, Theresa May, launched two major inquiries into the nation’s major public institutions’ record of handling child-abuse claims.

Institute of Ideas director Claire Fox appeared on both BBC Radio 4’s Today and BBC Radio 2’s The Jeremy Vine Show this week to discuss the story. In both appearances, she raised concerns that, post-Savile, there was an increasing danger of undermining due process by treating currently unfounded allegations as fact and that such investigations into historic allegations are in danger of becoming a ‘witch-hunt’. You can listen to her at times very heated debate with Simon Danczuk MP on Radio 2 here (from seven minutes in) and a more sober discussion on the history of witch-hunts on Today here (from two hours 54 minutes in).

Yet amid the panic over how previous generations responded to child-abuse allegations, more anxiety has been voiced this week over whether our reaction has gone too far. On Monday, I was a guest on the BBC’s 5 Live Breakfast discussing fears that adults had over interacting with children in the current climate, with numerous interviewees suggesting they would be wary of comforting a lost child. Discussing the issue with journalist Martin Daubney – who was treated with suspicion while visiting his own son’s school – I argued that responses to previous panics around an exaggerated threat of ‘stranger danger’, such as the notorious Criminal Records Bureau checks, had contributed to ‘a climate of mistrust’ around adults and children. You can listen to our discussion here (from one hour 42 minutes in).

The ambivalent attitude we have towards intergenerational relations and perceived past misdeeds was tackled in a Battle of Ideas debate last October, titled ‘Putting the past on trial: burning dead witches?’ At that debate, the parenting writer Jennie Bristow argued that contemporary society had become so fixated on exposing perceived failings in the recent past, as well as overprotecting children from perceived risks, because we’ve become increasingly uncertain of what independent adulthood today should mean. The debate, featuring psychiatrist Sir Simon Wessely and Irish journalist John Waters, is well worth a watch for anyone looking to get a better understanding of this week’s headlines. Watch it here.

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