Child abuse scandals and online discourse, Episode 160
Published on 3 Feb 2017

On 15 November 2016, Danielle Farrel, spoke to about her PhD research, which examined the 2012 child abuse scandals in the UK. The research focused on the multifunctional nature of online discourse surrounding the issue. In this interview, she provides an overview of the main findings and recommendations.

Date of recording
Audio transcript

2012 Child Abuse Scandals in UK

DF - Danielle Farrell

On the 15th November 2016 we recorded a discussion for with Danielle Farrell about her PHD research. Danielle shared with us an overview of the main points of her thesis which was an examination of the 2012 Child Abuse Scandals in the UK. The research focused on the multi-functional nature of on-line discourse surrounding the issue.

DF I carried out my PHD over 4 years. The title and the focus changed slightly over that time but when I graduated in December 2015 the title was the UK 2012 Child Abuse Scandal, the multi-functional nature of on-line discourse. So in simple terms what I did for the purpose of my thesis was, I took Jimmy Savile, Catholic Church and Ageing gang child abuse allegations. I then looked at the on-line discussions in the UK press and what I found was that a lot of on-line Newspaper publications did not invite discussion for these articles, whether that was because it was such a controversial issue and they didn't want to deal with what could be the fall out, that was one sort of thing that came to mind. So what I did was I found that the Daily Mail and The Guardian had the most on-line discussions so I narrowed it down to just include those 2 newspapers and the on-line discussions and about the thesis around the content of those and within that I conducted a content, or a texture analysis and the content analysis and used both of those methods to find the results.

Int Ok and what did you find, what were the kind of key things you found in your research?

DF The key things were that, again this will probably cover one of your later questions but anyone of the key things that were found, albeit a small number, but in the Guardian there was people who defended Paedophilia and said, "you know it's ok to be a paedophile as long as you don't act on those desires" and albeit a small number but that was one of the key things that came out. There was nothing like that in the Daily Mail content. They were more about discussing the topic and a lot of the discussion in both the Guardian and the Daily Mail was about supposed to focus on the article. A lot of the on-line discussion caused people to talk about things that had nothing to do with the on-line discussions and then it would eventually be brought back to what the focus was and one of the findings I also found that was quite apparent was the amount of people that actually said, especially in the allegations that were pin pointed towards Jimmy Savile, was the fact that surprisingly there was quite a lot of people that said, "do you know he's dead now, so let it go and let him rest in peace" and all that sort of thing. There was more than what you would think, well what I thought personally, I don't know about anybody else but what I though personally to say that you know, just let it go, he's dead now.

Int So was that in both the sources you looked at, both the Daily Mail and The Guardian?

DF There was both a lot of, both publications had a lot of mainly know, there is nothing you can do now, rest in peace. Then there was quite a lot of discussion around, oh we should have known he was a paedophile because of the way he dressed. Well, no, if anybody choses to behave in that manner it doesn't matter how you dress or how you look but there was a lot of discussion around that and the fact that he used to wear certain outfits should have made people realise but there was a lot of discussion around that.

Int Were there any other bits that really struck you as, you know that you weren't expecting or comments people made or views they took that were surprising to you?

DF This again, with, I go back to the one, the people that were trying to defend paedophilia, the responses to these comments were quite surprising, I thought because if we were to have a face to face discussion with a group of people and they were discussing paedophilia and there was people saying," you know it's alright, as long as you don't act on these" I would imagine that discussion to become quite heated and that people would say, "you know it's no" but in a quite heated manner and maybe quite abusive but in actual fact on line peoples responses were quite calm and they would say, "well you know, we never thought about it like that" or whether that was because  they had time to sit back and sort of digest what they were reading before they actually typed anything in the discussion whereas through having that face to face discussion, the likelihood of people sitting back and actually thinking of the responses would be quite slim.

Int Yeah I suppose that's something to do with the media isn't it, not being face to face.

DF Yeah and also one of the themes in the discussion alongside this and the thesis was whether people chose to admit they were paedophiles on line because they found it therapeutic and whether it was because they had the computer to hide behind almost and you know rather than sitting in the room with a Councillor or whatever it gave them a chance to sort of discuss their desire safely and on the other side of the coin, you also had people who took part in the discussion and said, no I was abused maybe 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago and we talk about their experiences. So you have got that other side of the discussion whether it was therapeutic for victims to go on and sort of discuss their experiences.  Also what I had to do in my PHD was cause I did the content analysis and a texture analysis but within that I took a what would be referred to as a virtual ethnographic approach. So to explain your more traditional ethnographic approach would be a group of people and the researcher would either then choose to be involved in the group while conducting the research or just watch from being an outsider or watch from a far. But obviously with it virtual ethic approach you can't do that in the same sort of way. So throughout my PHD and actually ever my first and second supervisor had different opinions about whether I should take this approach and I had to write a report to defend why I took this approach because within the virtual ethnic approach I could have either of done overtly or covertly which, if I had done it overtly I would have went on to these on-line discussions and said, "hi I'm Danielle, I'm a PHD student at the University of the West of Scotland. I am including these on-line discussions and I will be including your comments in my research or the covert approach which is always your researching people but they don't know that your researching them and for me that was important because I chose to do the covert approach but then you have all the discussion about whether its ethical because obviously you are going in and you taking peoples comments but the way I defended it and had to write a report was, you know, say things like, if I had gone on to a discussion, discussing such a controversial issue as child abuse, people might have withheld from like you say, I'm a paedophile, I am defending this because of x, y and z, whereas I didn't say anything so I was watching these discussions, reading these comments and people were being quite open. So my main justification for taking the covert approach was I wouldn't have got the same findings if I had said, I'm Danielle, I'm going to be watching what you are saying.

Int Yeah, it would have inhibited people presumably.

DF Yeah.

Int So in terms of the ethics then what are the ethics around doing this kind of virtual and covert?

DF Basically what I said, you know, whether you have the right to be in somebody's personal space but then you have also got the argument about, its on-line, so its public, so yes its peoples personal choice to read a newspaper article and comment on it but if they chose to comment then they are putting in the public domain. So there is that argument and you have also got the argument whether all research is done covertly anyway because people could be researching on a daily basis and you don't know that people are doing it, then you have got people saying like everybody's got a mask who they hide behind. One of the examples I used to defend my research was there was this previous research and it had been done covertly and it was a man who was researching football hooliganism and the way people behave and he had taken the covert approach and what he did was, if he had gone in there with his friends and said, "I'm going to research how you behave at a football match" they are going to hold  back and behave almost prim and properly whereas that's not the reality of how people sometimes behave at a football match. So you have got to weigh up the whole what you want to get out of the research and then sort of justify your approach in that sense. Obviously we had things I had to weigh it up and say you know if I go in and talk to them face to face and said you know the purpose of the research and what I was doing I could have structured questions. I could have been more specific but the way I had seen it was covertly was leaving it open and it was covering things, even that I possibly wouldn't have thought to ask and even after I wrote the report to defend why I was choosing the covert approach my second supervisor actually said, "you know Danielle you have changed my way of thinking, you have defended it in really good way, so carry on".

Int So imagine they are about what you hope to get out, what people hope to get out of research. What did you hope to get out of yours?

DF When I first started the research that's what I meant earlier when I said, it had changed so much in the 4 years because when I first started my PHD it was actually on the pilot study that I did, was actually on a completely different topic but it was still about on-line discussion but the pilot study that I had carried out was on murder cases, so I started looking at a local murder case in Ayrshire at that time where a local bar man had been tortured and burnt to death and it was all about whether that had happened because of his sexuality and stuff. So I had looked at that study first, well I had made that into a study first and then a progressed from that and used the Joanna Yates murder, 2010, and all the online discussions that had gone on surrounding that and it was more to prove , rather than topic being so important at that stage, it was more to prove that there was enough going on, on-line to be able to the study rather than the topic and just at the time when I had completed the pilot study all the things about Jimmy Savile and everything started to evolve so that's why the title changed, yet again. The title, if I'm honest, changed about 5 times in the full 4 years and the focus changed so it went from being more about the topic as to more about the ethnographic approach. So that's why in the title it says the multifunctional nature of on-line this course because its more, in some sense, it's almost more about the method or virtual ethnography as it is about the actual subject matter.

Int So you talked about different groups in your PHD, the Asian Gangs and Jimmy Savile and was there a third one?

DF Catholic Church.

Int Were there key differences or similarities across those groups or did you treat them separately?

DF I had to treat them separately because there was too much material to be able to deal with them as one. So I carried out the texture analysis and the content analysis on the three different groups. As it turned out when I was submitting the thesis I was over the word count with the three case studies. I went to my supervisor for advice and said what do I do because I almost find it painful when you have written something and you have to cut down the word count and I'm like what do I do and he's like well you have got three case studies so it's like having three lungs, you can afford to take one away and I was like, ok I wouldn't have thought about that, embarrassing, but fair enough. So I took the Asian gang one and I still included it but I put it in as an appendix rather than in the main body of the thesis because that's not counted in your word count. So I took the Asian gang one away but yeah they was common themes like, they always seem to talk about, in all three, you know, they always to talk about appearance of people like in the Catholic Church they were quite often naming certain people that were more well known within the Catholic Church so they would say, " oh well he used to behave in that way, so we should have known" and they took advantage of their position. What was said about Jimmy Savile because they were saying that he took advantage of this celebrity status, so it was kind of like that but then with the Asian gang you had, it was like, it's a different scenario because that was more a case of peoples race that was being talked about because you didn't have people there that had a status within the Catholic Church or a status within the celebrity world. So like you said earlier, if any key findings were more related to Social Work I would probably say, it all as a whole, because it all affected vulnerable people, whether it was now or 30/40 years ago but with the Asian gangs because it even said in some of the discussions, because that was more contemporary, that was happening, now as opposed to the Church and the celebrity allegations that had happened maybe 20/30/40 year, whereas the Asian gangs we were talking about, having maybe in the last 5-10 years because they were talking about Asian guys who had like pin pointed white girls and sort of like groomed them. There was a lot more talk around Social Work and that in those discussions whether, these young girls that had been abused had fallen through the net in some way, whereas with the Catholic Church and the celebrity because those allegations had apparently taken place 30/40 years ago, yeah obviously it shouldn't have happened and there should have been people out there stopping it happen, at that time, there wouldn't have been such a big emphasis on the Social Work roll at that time or it wouldn't have been dealt with in the same sort of way. So that was one of the key differences between Asian gangs to the other two case studies, if that makes any sense.

Int Yeah it does, so kind of a lot more was expected of Social Work in that situation compared to the rest.

DF Yeah because they were more contemporary as opposed to.

Int So do you think it was more around the contemporary issue than it was the celebrity issue and the Catholic Church issue.

DF Yea.

Int Right ok. So more about historical abuse rather than covering it.

DF Yeah whereas the Asian gangs is more current, maybe not in the last year or so but in the last 5-10 years.

Int So there was much more discussion of maybe Social Work.

DF What they could of done and what they didn't do and whether it was because alleged victims had been in care homes and whether that's why they were so easily groomed by these people because these Asian guys made them feel special, made them almost like the love they didn't get. They sort of filled that gap albeit wrongly but for that short time.

Int That's really interesting that, that aspect was not focused on in the other groups.

DF No, no it wasn't.

Int Were the police focused on more in the celebrity case than the Catholic Church case.

DF Well, the police, I would say were involved in all three whether, you know whether they could have acted differently but again especially with Jimmy Savile case anything was talked about justice and everything, it was more like, well he's dead now, so we can't bring him to justice. So it was more but then there was also talk of other celebrities that were accused, like Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter and other celebrities like that, who are still with us that could be brought justice and the discussion around that, but as I said in the celebrity one it was more, well he can't be brought to justice, he's dead, cause he was the main focus, Jimmy Savile, although there was other celebrities talked about. But then obviously you have got the Catholic Church Priest, the majority of them are still around. There was more of a talk about police and how they could be brought to justice as well but I would say, again, more so in the Asian gangs because it was more contemporary and more current.

Int So when you were looking at this discourse on line was it in response, was it kind of in people's immediate response or did you monitor it for a number of months?

DF I had like, can't remember the exact number but I had like thousand and thousands of comments, so what I did was, I obviously, because you have got to narrow it down because you end up with too much and you can't deal with it, so I had dealt with it over, I think it was over like, no I started like a year and whatever, but then because so much came out in such a short space of time, I narrowed it to like 6 months and what was said, in a 3-6 months period because, as I said you have to narrow it so you can easily work with it.

Int The other question I had was around moderators, so online forum must have moderators.

DF Yeah they did. The Daily Mail didn't make such a big emphasis on the moderating. You kind of got the sense that a moderator was there now and again you would see "this comment has been moderated" but in The Guardian you would see it regularly. It would say "this comment has been removed", so within the discussion, it would be exactly where the comment was and it would say, "this comment has been removed". It wouldn't tell you why, it would just.

Int So you weren't able to find out what the moderators were basing their decisions on.

DF No, no there was no way of finding that out but what I did do was in the content of analysis I did include those comments so I did, I don't know how much people would know about carrying out a content of analysis, but content analysis is more about your frequency. You come up with like codes. So like I came up, after reading and re-reading all the comments about five to ten times I would then have a clear idea of what themes were reoccurring so I would have themes like, the moderator or comments removed by moderator or appearance where they talked about Jimmy Saviles appearance. I think maybe I had ten-twenty codes or themes within the content of analysis. So then you would, this was a very time consuming process because then you would have to go through every single comment and every single discussion and then the simplest way was to use tally marks and say, "oh well that comment mentioned that" but obviously we would have more that one theme that would be discussed within one comment so you might have Jimmy's Saviles appearance but then you might have them talking about whether he can or cannot be brought to justice for example. So you would have those two themes in the comments. So it was very time consuming to have to go through it. It took months and months because you would go through something and then go, oh sugar, I've lost count and then you would to start again.

Int Sounds really complex.

DF So obviously those results, because they were to do with frequencies, I presented them in percentages and tables and then I would write about the findings in a few paragraphs underneath each table but then that was the purpose of following it up with a texture analysis because a texture analysis and one of the key phrases that it is always stayed with me when you're talking about a texture analysis and how important that is and why a content analysis and texture analysis complement each other it's because a texture analysis looks beyond the sentence, so it might, it's more about what was said in that sentence and why it was said as opposed to, just ok, that was said and counting how many times it was said. Because always if you just include a contents analysis that's great and it tells you the frequency of themes being discussed but it doesn't always say well why is that happening, how is that being said, what context is it being said in. So that's why it's important to have something alongside a content analysis because it doesn't quite work on its own.

Int Were there any, from your point of view, key recommendations or implications for Social Work or Social Services or any other public bodies.

DF What I did say when summoning up of the thesis, was, the involvement of technology, further research could be done. I started my BES in 2011, with a re-sit last year and in that 4 year period. But even now people could probably go back and say, well technology has evolved so much that people can now, one of the things I said, like people don't even need to read paper, News papers, in print format to comment and that was one of the things I did say at the time. You know when people used to have to write to the Editor and wait to see if their comment or letter would get published but now people can comment almost instantly and the discussions I analysed was evidence of that, how fast media has moved on and how fast paced it is. So as one of the recommendations I said, as time goes for further research to be done in this kind of subject with this technology, as technology keeps evolving, it's going to get more fast paced and people are always writing paedophiles or people claiming to be paedophiles will have nothing to hide behind and so it's more and I would say about that and I had also said about whether, obviously as particularly with the Asian gangs its whether, Social Work obviously need to, especially in that area of the Country where that particular child abuse was alleged to take place but they need to look at your know how they deal with things like that and did these people slip through the net and if so they need to look at why and make sure it doesn't happen again in that area but for the ones that happened 30-40 years ago  it's more difficult because you think well why, there are reasons why people didn't come forward at the time and why they are coming forward now, so its whether, I think from that respect its thinking about how can we make sure it doesn't happen again, so that in 30-40 years now child abuse allegations are coming out.

Int Yeah and I wonder if there is something around better support for people that have abuse in their history.

DF Yeah I mean, like I said, people deciding to take the online discussions and online forums is fine and it maybe therapeutic but is it really the right way to go or are there other avenues that would be more appropriate. So these people are whether, I don't know, if its online forums that people feel more comfortable, is there a way of having a more supported online forum that's maybe more appropriate as opposed to commenting on an online discussion and online newspaper. Albeit that's fine if somebody decided to do that but something more appropriate.