I had instigated the prolonged campaign which appeared in the Echo in early 1985, the first journalist to research and write about a taboo
topic previously avoided by the media (just ignore Esther Rantzen’s usurping claim; she picked up the baton and ran with it almost two years later).
The campaign exposed the widespread sexual abuse of children – and in particular, incestuous abuse. The Echo even ran its own “child-line” for distressed children to ring and get help, no longer isolated in their silent
I’d say it was probably the most significant work of my career – certainly it’s undeniable that
the ensuing social and legal reforms in child protection were a result of that first, groundbreaking campaign of mine. For this reason it’s the journalism of which I’m most proud.
From the exposure of paedophiles who abuse children supposedly under their protection – parents, step-parents, family friends, relatives, Roman Catholic priests, teachers, workers in children’s
homes and with children’s leisure organisations – to the sort of recent revelations of celebrity sexual misdemeanours, culminating in the Jimmy Savile scandal ….. such things have always happened but – shamefully - they used to be
kept secret from the public.
Until 1985, that is. The Echo campaign was the first to storm the citadel of secrecy maintained
by the powers-that-be. The British Establishment – including the Press - had turned a blind eye to the iniquities which the strong and powerful inflicted on the weak and powerless behind closed doors.
The campaign changed all that – and since I was a freelance writer, my aim was that the topic should become viral – as indeed it did.
But it was not an easy task to bring this under a national spotlight. The courage of the Liverpool Echo in agreeing to the campaign was not, for
many months, matched by the national newspapers.
Nervous editors were interested but dithery, terrified of opprobrium. I well
remember a conversation with Jane Reed, then features editor of Today newspaper (remember it?), who was very keen to carry the piece I wrote and spent weeks trying to convince her editor to run it.
Finally, she rang me, victorious. At last, the boss had caved in to her persuasion: the piece would go in the following Wednesday. The two of us were delighted. It was, after all, a big
and very challenging story – and Jane’s motto was known to be “If you don’t want to change the world, don’t be a journalist.”
Then, at nearly midnight on the Tuesday, the phone rang. “He’s pulled it,” Jane said desolately when I answered. “At the last minute, he took fright and whipped it off the page.”
We were both dreadfully dismayed. But Jane was undeterred. The woman who was later to become Director of Corporate Affairs at News International and
be awarded a CBE for her services to journalism, did not give up. Eventually the piece went in.
For me, at that
time, it was all stations go. Immersed in child abuse issues as I was, I wrote extensively in the national Press (including the Sunday Times magazine, which carried my “Relative Values” piece about the Incest Crisis Line run by Richard and Shirley
Johnson, siblings who had both been abused by their father). I learned a great deal from Richard and my other contacts in child protection charities, such as Michele Elliott, the dynamic founder of Kidscape, who was made an OBE in 2008 for her work helping
And for quite a long time, when the media required another interview or think-piece about this previously-censored
subject it seemed as if I was the only freelance journalist in Britain with enough informed knowledge to be able to write reliably about what was becoming a new buzz-topic.
When Esther Rantzen eventually brought the issue to television audiences and became involved in the launch of Childline nearly two years after the Echo campaign – and nearly three years after Michele Elliott
launched Kidscape - I confess it was a relief to be able to turn away from humanity’s dark side and resume pitching feature ideas to editors about subjects other than child sexual abuse.
Now here – 25 years later – was a call out of the blue from “Ruth” and I was saying, “yes, I do remember you; you worked with Mike Whitenburgh.”