Incest and Child Abuse Campaign - 1985

(Apologies for poor quality of images)


 “Is that Moira?” A female voice I didn’t recognise came down the phone line. The accent sounded faintly foreign.

“Ye-s,” I replied warily, fearing yet another cold caller trying to flog me plastic windows or conservatories.

She sounded excited as she told me her name and said she’d wanted to track me down for ages, and only the dawn of the internet – and my French House Party listings – had provided her with a telephone number.  “I wanted to find you to thank you,” she chattered, clearly delighted that her detective work had paid off.

Thank me? I racked my brain to recall some recent altruistic act I may have unwittingly performed. Helping an old lady across the road? Rescuing a cat from a tree? (Rescuing an old lady from a tree?)

Zilch.  Zero. Nada.

The caller’s name was unusual, but it rang no bells.  “Maybe you remember me as Ruth,” she said, taking pity on my embarrassed bewilderment.

Ruth? I was still flummoxed. Her tone became patient. “Twenty-odd years ago, you wrote a campaign in the Liverpool Echo.” Her voice became more solemn. “It was about child sexual abuse – incest – and you wrote about me: I’m Ruth. Now do you remember?”

And oh yes, it all came back to me then.

What Happened to Ruth

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 suffering.

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 abused children).

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.”

 Whitenburgh was a Liverpool psychotherapist who sometimes used hypnotherapy to help his patients deal with emotional trauma reverberating in their adult lives, manifesting in serious clinical conditions such as phobias, depression  and suicidal impulses. Very frequently, sexual abuse will be discovered in the childhood experiences of such people, and in the overwhelming proportion of such cases, the abuser is a parent or relative.

Mr Whitenburgh was one of my sources during the Liverpool Echo campaign. He acquired permission from some of his former patients who had been helped to work through their troubles and he put me in touch with them for interviews – or else he told me about their experiences – with their agreement, of course. Names were, obviously, changed for publication in the paper.

 “Ruth”, a mother of two young sons, had contacted me after the campaign had ended, saying that her adult life had been blighted by what she guessed to be repressed memories of being sexually abused by her father. 

She guessed this because, having read my articles, she felt an enormous sense of empathy and identification with people who had described their childhood abuse, experiencing hard-to-hold-onto echoes of memories which seemed to chime with the stories the victims were telling.

Of Indian descent, she had moved with her family to the UK 13 years previously, when she was 16.   Plagued for years by anxiety, depression and inexplicable, frightening dreams, she had already made one suicide attempt. She begged me to ask Mike to help her. 

When he agreed to a programme of treatment which included hypnotherapy, “Ruth” invited me to attend – or hear taped recordings of – the 11 weeks of therapy sessions she was undergoing.

The series of articles which I wrote concluded with the young woman’s horrific discovery that her tyrannical father was not, after all, an incestuous abuser, but a killer.

Under hypnosis the agonised memory surfaced of the night when he murdered her mother while she – aged seven – watched from her hiding-place.  The crime had been covered up and he was never brought to justice.  At the age of seven, “Ruth” had buried the memory in order not to have to confront it.

She became emotional on the phone. “My experience with Mike was the turning-point for me,” she said.

She now lived in the south of England, she told me. She had a job she loved, a new and happy personal relationship and her two boys whom she had raised alone had grown into fine young men with successful careers of their own.

She talked happily for a while about her life’s achievements and then explained why she had been trying to track me down to make contact.  “For years, I have just wanted to say ‘thank you’,” she said.

I was startled. Journalists spend their lives being castigated and having to defend the excesses of Her Majesty’s Press against accusers who regard us as low-life trouble-makers.  I’d worked for the Sun, for God’s sake; just imagine the stick I used to get at dinner-parties where the chattering classes gathered.  (I used to revel in telling them, actually.)

People are always eager to complain, but now here was something unfamiliar: appreciation. “But it wasn’t me,” I protested, modestly. “It was all Mike’s doing.”

My caller said she had already voiced her thanks to Mike Whitenburgh many years previously; he had been easy to find, but I had gone off the radar.

“What I just wanted to tell you, if I ever found you, was that if you had not written that campaign in the first place and if you had not arranged for me to have that therapy with Mike and told my story, I don’t think I would have been around today.”

And I was moved to silence.

“I was in such a bad way. One suicide attempt had failed, but another might have succeeded.  I was given a new start.”   She took a deep breath. “So I just wanted to say to you what I’ve already said to Mike: thank you for saving my life.”

As I mentioned at the beginning: the child abuse campaign is the work which, more than anything, makes this cynical old hack’s heart feel a pulse of pride.


Campaign stories
Campaign stories
Campaign stories