Taking Our Eyes Off The Ball

Last night, BBC Scotland aired a documentary on child abuse in football, and as with everything Mark Daly has produced it was insightful, well researched, handled with taste and well put together.

It was also hard to watch, because he spoke on camera with some extraordinarily brave people, who had harrowing stories to tell.

Here in Glasgow that show generated a lot of noise, most of it extremely ugly. And you can’t have examined the reactions of many people to this and be unaware that somebody, somewhere, was counting on that.

That in some ways it was the point of the exercise.

I don’t need to sell myself as someone who cares about this issue. I’ve written four articles on this site on the subject and I always knew there would be a fifth and probably a sixth and I’ve dreaded writing them.

I care enough about it not to tribalise it or trivialise it. I care enough not to use it as a weapon. What kind of person would do that? What kind of person would appropriate an issue like this to score points over other football fans? A sick one.

This is something that has happened in football, but is not about football.

I write about football and football issues in Scotland; it’s my bread and butter, you might say. I will never write about this subject in the context of the sport, for any reason, but others will, and they’ve started already. Allegations of cover-up abound, but the ones they talk about seem to be awfully shoddy efforts at it, because a lot of them seem to think they are astonishingly knowledgeable on all manner of aspects to it.

You’d think a cover-up would be organised better.

The thing with debates like that is they go nowhere.

Not a soul, living or dead, was ever vindicated or avenged or brought to justice as a result of them.

They generate a lot of heat, a lot of noise, but no actual solutions at all.

Mark Daly knows that part of the problem last night was that some of the perpetrators are beyond reach. So too are many of the victims who might have been encouraged to speak. That’s the nature of these things.

Some people are still within the grasp of the legal establishment and the courts; you have to hope that those people are dealt with appropriately. That they are all found and charged and then convicted and then imprisoned. That will go some of the way towards making sure this stuff never happens again, anywhere.

But the public nature of the debate here in Scotland is now one that has been toxified by the way last night’s show stoked the usual rivalries and old hatreds. The screaming match is in full tilt. Amidst the recriminations and ugly point scoring, no positive course of action is possible. In fact, quite the opposite. Victims who might have come forward in a more sedate, humane, environment won’t because this has become a pissing contest and something creatures born in the dark are fighting with each other over bragging rights.

The very nature of the debate has been warped by that.

This is not to say that the show should not have aired; it did Scotland and Scottish football an immense service. This issue needs to be dragged fully into the light, kicking and screaming if necessary, if things are going to change.

But amidst the hate-mongering, which you have to marvel at when it’s appropriating an issue such as this, we have, all of us, taken our eyes off the ball.

Institutional silence on these issues is widespread.

Abuse allegations have surfaced in almost every part of the country and in every functional industry. It was Theresa May herself, whilst Home Secretary, who said the issue was “woven, covertly, into the fabric of our society.

It was a shocking statement, but sometimes the shock treatment is what’s required to jar you into a realistic examination of these matters.

No one institution is particularly venal or prone to this – that’s a favourite call-to-arms for the loathsome scum I was talking about earlier – or entirely free from it; as May said, a full investigation would “lead into our schools and hospitals, our churches, our youth clubs and many other institutions that should have been places of safety…”

And she was right then, and now.

If allowed to go wherever the road led, it would lead to more places than she was, or is, comfortable with.

Which is why the official investigation she launched has been stymied and delayed and compromised and obstructed at every turn. Because it goes everywhere. It creeps into every sphere of public and private life.

When you look at the big picture it becomes clear that the important question is not who’s “covering up” but of who isn’t hiding something.

Rule number one has long been “protect the institution”, and the drum-beat in the background in Scotland today has roused the natives but missed the point.

Some institutions are bigger than others.

In 2014, when the Westminster child abuse allegations became an international news story, a variety of civic organisations called for a change in the law to criminalize the act of covering up child abuse allegations.

That law would have had to have been clearly defined, and written to allow for certain ambiguities and circumstances, but in essence it would have made a failure to report these matters to the proper authorities a criminal offence.

Public bodies, in particular, would have had a statutory, regulatory, legal responsibility to see that any and all such allegations were properly investigated, by people with the relevant powers of arrest, and subpoena.

That law was never proposed for a full discussion in Parliament far less passed.

The big picture here isn’t about who knew what and when as much as it’s about why the law allowed anyone, anywhere, to keep this stuff “in-house” and why it continues to do so.

A lot of the people who are screaming for blood today reveal their rank hypocrisy whenever an institution close to their own heart is linked to these affairs; then it becomes a conspiracy to “drag them into it”. They have no respect or regard or the slightest concern for the victims. Their talk of “leaving no stone unturned” doesn’t include the ones they live under.

The issue has always been about compelling people to talk, whether voluntarily or not. You have to ask which of the real institutions, the permanent ones, is so resistant to a law which does that.

You have to wonder what turning up all of those rocks would actually find … and as long as guttersnipes are taking shots at each other over petty bullshit what’s under those rocks will remain there.

This is the wider debate our “civic society” doesn’t want us to have.

The blame game keeps us guessing, keeps us arguing, and keeps us from passing the laws and putting in place the regulations that would really open up this can of worms.

The real power, and the larger problem, lies there. If we’re ever going to get to the bottom of this – as opposed to scraping the surface – that’s where our focus ought to be.

In some ways the BBC did a great job last night for those who seek the truth.

In another sense, they did the job the BBC has always put first; protect the institution.

The institution in question is the one that’s in their name.

They never deviate from that responsibility.

Stirring the shit-storm and getting the natives fighting … job well done, and the perpetrators of even greater and more insidious crimes sleep soundly for another night.

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