It's difficult to understand what possessed Peter Hain that he allowed himself to get into a position where he had to resign from his government post because he took illegal donations of £100,000 for his campaign for the Labour Deputy Leadership. Given the amount of fuss there has been lately about just such shenanigans, he might have had the intelligence to realise that sooner of later he was going to be exposed.
Or was it that he didn't care? Did he subscribe to the all-too-common belief among politicians and senior officials that everything they do is right, and it doesn't matter what the rest of us think? Listening to the radio in the last few days one has noticed a common theme among the politicians being interviewed - they are sympathetic towards Hain, and quietly outraged that the public and the media should have targeted him for what was, after all, just a piece of "incompetence".
They've got a bloody cheek, really. The general public are increasingly not permitted to make mistakes. You make a mistake and put the wrong sort of litter in the wrong litter-bin? You're some sort of criminal. You make an honest mistake on the road? You're a criminal. A Polish woman has just been sent to prison because she drove out of a filling-station on the wrong side of the road and caused a crash in which someone died. Tragic, yes. Regrettable, yes. Criminal, no. It was a mistake. A dreadful one, but a mistake none the less. Most of us have done the same thing at some time, driving to our holidays in France.
Benefit claimants are not allowed to make mistakes - we've all seen the TV adverts, "no ifs, no buts" …
Then there's the question of "perception". A motorist was arrested some time ago because he revved his engine in a racist manner. There were a couple of people on the pavement nearby who were of a different ethnicity, and they "perceived" that this was directed at them because of their race. Nobody questioned this - offence had been taken, so an offence had been committed. Personally, I've driven to a quiet stretch of road and tried revving my engine in a racist manner without success. No matter how hard I press the accelerator, no matter which foot I use, no matter what expression I have on my face at the time, it always sounds the same. Perhaps I have the wrong sort of car.
Public perception is easily manipulated by unscrupulous people, of course. There is a widespread public perception that all motorists are a danger to themselves and others. It isn't true. If it were, the figures wouldn't show what a miniscule proportion of accidents involve drivers over the age of 25, and most drivers are over 25. There's a widespread perception that breaking a speed limit is a heinous offence and a dangerous thing to do, when actually the statistics show that a very small number of accidents are attributable to excessive speed and a significant number of the accidents that do happen involve drivers travelling within the limit. Research from the Road Traffic Laboratory some years ago showed that drivers who always adhere to the limits are three times as likely to have an accident.
There's a widespread perception that speed cameras prevent accidents. It isn't true - since the introduction of cameras there has been a nationwide fall in average speeds, but any corresponding drop in the number of fatalities has been well within the limits of normal statistical variation.
There's a widespread perception that 4x4s cause Global Warming, and that individual people can manipulate their "carbon footprints" to "save the world". Neither is true.
But these perceptions are widespread nevertheless, mainly because (a) they've been promulgated by unscrupulous people whose jobs depend on proving that the particular hobbyhorse they've mounted is a Grand National winner, and (b) it's easier to believe a cliché than it is to dig up the evidence to disprove it.
Another general and widespread perception is that all politicians are venal and dishonest. Which makes it all the harder to see why Peter Hain made no attempt to stick to the rules.
All of which is just a kind of introduction to my main thread, sort of trying to sneak up on it …
I am a child abuser. A serial child abuser, in fact.
When my children were small I occasionally smacked them. That's child abuse.
When they were a little older I sent them off to walk to school in the rain. That's child abuse.
Sometimes I fed them chips and burgers, and let them drink Coke. That's child abuse.
When, many years ago, I was a teacher, I sometimes spoke to children about their behaviour or their (lack of) work in a derogatory and diminishing manner. That's child abuse.
I sometimes punished children in a (usually vain) attempt to modify their behaviour. That's child abuse.
Once even more years ago when working in a school that still used corporal punishment, I caned three boys on their bottoms. That's child abuse. I didn't enjoy the experience much, but it was still child abuse.
I spent a good portion of my career making children sit or stand in straight rows, without talking or moving, all doing exactly the same thing in perfect unison. Sometimes this kind of training would go on all day for several days running. We even won prizes for doing it so well. It was a children's choir, and they loved it and kept coming back for more, so I suppose they were willing accomplices in their own abuse.
Which leads me to the latest attempt by a well-known and hitherto respected public institution to alter public perceptions for their own purposes. I parted company with the NSPCC a long time ago, after I had organised a concert in their support. Over 150 children performed to a packed audience - two children's orchestras and a choir.
The NSPCC provided leaflets to be distributed to the audience which included the extraordinary claim that one in ten children in our largely rural county were abused by their families or close friends. Looking round the hall, at children I taught every week, at parents I knew in some cases rather well, at happy smiling faces, at significant levels of attainment, at children enjoying themselves by showing how well they could perform, at families lost in admiration and pride for their offspring, it was preposterous to believe that 15 of those children were being abused in any way, or that 15 of those parents harboured a dark and dirty secret. I couldn't believe it then, and won't do so now.
But then, it all depends on what you call "child abuse", doesn't it? We tend to think of sexual abuse, or violence. But the NSPCC in its wisdom, knowing cynically that the more child abuse there is, the more important they and their "work" will become, have simply moved the goalposts. Hence the list above - making children walk to school in inclement weather, for instance, was the rule rather than the exception when I was a kid, but now it's included in the list of abusive behaviour. By that token, not only have I been a child abuser most of my adult life, but I was also abused in my own childhood - I was smacked when I was naughty, I slept in an unheated bedroom where ice regularly formed on the inside of the windows, I walked to school in pouring rain wearing a distinctly porous gaberdine coat, I was caned in school for misbehaviour, I was punished with Saturday morning detentions on occasion … oh, I had a hell of a rotten life (pause for violins).
Now the NSPCC have upped their game once more by suggesting that using a baby-sitter is child abuse (yup, guilty as charged yet again, yer honour).
Here's Mick Hume, writing in the Times Online …
How could anybody criticise the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children? Well, they could point out that the NSPCC's media campaigns spread a poisonous message of mistrust by implying that all of our children are at risk from adults, most often those closest to them. I once suggested the charity be renamed the National Society for the Persecution of Child Carers, or the Promulgation of Calumnies about Childhood.
Now, however, the NSPCC appears to be parodying itself by setting up a new body of experts to protect children from abuse on television parenting shows. Not content with saving kids in the real world, they want to rescue those on reality TV. And having bullied and guilt-tripped parents to toe the line, they want to do the same to TV's own parenting experts.
The NSPCC took exception to two "irresponsible" programmes. Bringing up Baby on Channel 4, where mentors taught different systems of childcare, sparked allegations of abuse when one expert suggested that parents leave babies to cry. The Baby Borrowers, the BBC's "unique social experiment", has attracted opprobrium by leaving babies in the care of those whom the NSPCC calls "inexperienced teenagers".
Child protection crusaders have long expanded the definition of child abuse to include anything from smacking a child to shouting at it. Now it appears that even leaving a baby crying in a cot is to be redefined as child cruelty, especially on TV, as is leaving babies with non-related teens - or as we used to call them, baby-sitters. Somehow, generations of us survived such horrific experiences, even without an army of TV producers watching over us.
Of course, those reality shows and their multiple experts are also symptoms of our society's harmful obsession with parenting and child protection. They only add to the inflated debate about the "right" way to raise children, and risk leaving parents with a growing sense of confusion and insecurity. Time to grow up. There is no right way to bring up baby. And whatever hotch-potch method you use will have no long-term effect on your child. As one wise man said, if you can avoid locking them in a wardrobe or beating them over the head with a frying pan, they should be fine.
Unfortunately for the NSPCC, this new attempt to alter public perception may have backfired on them, if these comments by Times readers are anything to go by …
Well done, it`s about time the NSPCC got a spanking - Kevin Sheridan, Shepway
One of the real cruelties to children is the constant bombardment from all quarters about their behavior. An alien visitor to this planet (or this country, at least) would be left with the impression that all out children are obese, feral, alcopop-swigging, murderous illiterates who get battered by their carers on a daily basis. And the NSPCC bears some responsibility for this perception of children - Fran Maguire, Stockport
I believe that the NSPCC and many other organisations and individuals should really work at establishing the differences between abuse and discipline: between smacking and beating: between firm parenting and bullying - R Bingham, Lauzun
I too am at a loss to say what the NSPCC actually does. Their ads are totally irresponsible and whip up hysteria and vigilanteism. Many ads seem to be saying "give us money or the kid gets hurt"! - Anne, Shoreham
I couldn't agree more - the NSPCC is a bogus charity, unless your definition of charity is enriching your own employees and the advertising industry - Sally R., London
I have never donated to the NSPCC since they were part of the dawn raids in "The satanic abuse scandals on Shetland in the'80s". Some of those children were never returned to their families because they had been fostered out too long before their families were proved innocent of the charges made by aberrant American doctors following their latest trendy theories. As far as I am aware the NSPCC never apologised for their part in this injustice - Moggie, Hemel Hempstead
The NSPCC has to invent new forms of child abuse to keep its profile high and the donations rolling in - Uche George, London
The NSPCC should have been struck off as a charity when it reached the point that less than 50% of its spending was on children and it started spending massive amounts on pointless adverts. When people put a pound in the tin they expect it go to children, not to buy a new BMW for an advertising executive - Steve, London
There seems to be an obsession with avoiding any immediate hardship in any form with children, which in my view is myopic - Matt, Cardiff
Hear hear! After years of donating I finally cancelled my direct debit to that wretched organisation several months ago and shall never donate again. If they want to destroy family and trust then they can do it with someone else's money, mine shall go to other charities - David, Ellesmere Port
... but is it?
When it comes to public perceptions, these comments seem to suggest that the NSPCC may have put their foot in it. And speaking of money, they are calling on parents to get childrearing advice from their new website www.bethefullstop.com. Being the fair-minded individual I am, I took a look.
On the front page I found a number of links that looked promising. I clicked on "get positive tips for positive parenting" and was invited to click onwards to either "do this" or "done this". I clicked "do this" and was invited to register and donate. I clicked "done this" and was invited to register and donate.
I tried "learn how to recognise the symptoms of abuse" - and was invited to register and donate.
I tried "help activity groups to keep children safe" - and was invited to register and donate.
I tried "email the government about keeping children safe in activity groups" - and was invited to register and donate.
Finally I tried "get involved in a local campaign" - but these links didn't seem to work at all, which by then was something of a relief. It's quite obvious from this website that the NSPCC aren't actually interested in doing anything positive at all, or in encouraging you to do anything except give them money.
On YouTube there's a copy of the NSPCC's latest advertising video. It shows a distraught mother flipping out because her son is being incredibly annoying, repeatedly kicking a ball against the wall of the caravan inside which she is washing up. She dashes out of the caravan after him, and finds her way blocked by a phalanx of earnest do-gooders at their desks, who protect him from the consequences of his naughtiness. As he makes his escape he even manages to look rather smug about it.
I'd like to offer the NSPCC an alternative video, which I believe shows one consequence of their misguided policies - have a look at this.
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
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