BBC Newsnight crisis: Charities warn of damage to child abuse victims

Charity chiefs have warned that the scandal surrounding BBC Newsnight’s investigation into the child abuse which took place at a Welsh care home, leading to a senior Tory being wrongly named on social media, could deeply damage the chances of more victims coming forward.

Over the weekend, former Conservative minister David Mellor described the child abuse victim at the heart of the crisis, Steve Messham as a “weirdo”.

Messham told the BBC he believed he had been abused by a “senior Tory”, but after peer Lord McAlpine was named on social network, Messham said he had not been the man who had abused him when he was at the home.

The Mail on Sunday newspaper also pointed the finger at Messham, in a piece entitled: “A victim of his delusions: Astonishing story the BBC DIDN’T tell you about its troubled star witness.”

But Peter Saunders, chief executive of the National Association of People Abused in Childhood, (Napac), told BBC Breakfast that it was not helpful to the victims of child abuse.

“Survivors often are left high and dry and of course the comment by David Mellor yesterday referring to a survivor of abuse as a weirdo certainly does not help our cause because we are often described as being weird if we dare to speak out about the abuse we suffered as children.”

He added: “I think speaking out is one of the most important deterrents to child abusers everywhere.”

On the Sunday Politics show, Mellor said: “I don’t see how Newsnight as a brand can survive this… they rely on a man who the Mail on Sunday over two pages reveals… is a weirdo.”

BBC director-general George Entwistle quit dramatically on Saturday night, saying he was taking responsibility for the “unacceptable” Newsnight report which wrongly implicated former Tory Party treasurer Lord McAlpine in the North Wales child abuse scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, even though he had not known of the programme an advance.

The programme was cleared for broadcast at the level of the BBC board of management, even though the abuse victim, Messham, was never shown a photograph of Lord McAlpine and the peer was not given a chance to refute the allegations.

Messham withdrew his accusation a week after the broadcast, apologising to Lord McAlpine and saying he had been mistaken.

Peter Watt, director of the NSPCC helpline, told The Huffington Post UK: “Being sexually abused can lead to long-term physical and emotional damage. We know that it can take years for victims to speak out about abuse.

“It is vital that those who do are able to receive therapy and counseling to help them recover from their ordeal and re-build their lives.

“Adverse comments on victims disclosing the horrendous attacks they suffered as children are extremely unhelpful. This could stop other victims from coming forward and prevent abusers being brought to justice.

“This sends the wrong message to young victims of abuse who may be discouraged from speaking out. And it could also make it more difficult for adults to speak out on behalf of children and report their concerns.

“We urge victims of child abuse or anyone with relevant information to contact the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000.”

John Cameron, the NSPCC’s head of child protection, told the Guardian: “I’d like anybody who has to make adverse criticism of someone who is saying they have been a victim of abuse to think very carefully about how that is helpful, both to that individual and to those who have been victims of abuse and who will want to come forward.

“There are children out there today who are suffering abuse and people need to reflect very strongly on any commentary about victims and how that could prevent people coming forward.”

The furore around the investigation is “deeply frustrating”, said former children’s minister Tim Loughton over the weekend on BBC Radio 4.

He said: “We really mustn’t forget that this is about child abuse.

“This is about vulnerable children and young people, going back many decades, who have been subject to pretty horrific abuse.