Content warning: this article mentions abuse, sexual violence and child sexual abuse in relation to how depictions of abuse in media impact survivors.
I have experienced or witnessed something traumatic
Within a two-week span, the BBC announced their Jimmy Savile focused drama, ‘The Reckoning’, Wayne Couzens, the Met Police Officer who murdered Sarah Everard was on trial, and another woman, Sabina Nessa, was murdered on the streets of London.
For a survivor or someone who has gone through trauma of any kind, this was a tough week. Suddenly the steady ground you walk on feels as if it’s doing the stereotypical disaster movie rendition of an earthquake.
It was a strange time. Coverage of abuse and traumatic events in the media tends to creep up on you like your first winter cold. First you have a scratchy throat, then a dribbly nose and suddenly, you’re in the throes of a full-on head cold.
By the time the news of the BBC drama and the Wayne Couzens sentencing came round I suddenly found myself at 6pm on a Wednesday hovering over the helpline tab of the Survivors Trust website. Weirdly, I’ve never called it before, and I didn’t really know why I wanted to in that moment, or what I would say.
A couple of hours and a bowl of pasta later, I felt calmer, and I asked myself: ‘Why make this drama? Is there a way to make a drama like this responsibly? How can people wanting to dramatise events around abuse, or an abuser do it and still keep survivors and their safety in mind?’
Speaking to Survivors Trust and Survivors Network
My first port of call when asking these questions was the Survivors Trust, a national umbrella organisation which has local, community based ‘member’ organisations, delivering the on the ground, face-to-face support to survivors, Survivors Network is one of these member organisations, based in Brighton.
First, I spoke to Jay Breslaw, CEO of Survivors Network in Brighton. In our discussion, three main talking points were clearly important to Jay and to Survivors Network when it comes to depicting sexual violence of any kind in media or even covering stories around sexual violence as a journalist: dispelling myths, centring the right person in the story and treating survivors and survivor organisations who advise on productions like expert consultants.
“…things that we hold true are often about our socialisation that we've had in our lives growing up.”
Toward the start of our conversation, Jay expressed frustration at how often film and TV makers uphold myths around sexual violence, in this instance using rape myths as a very prominent example.
The notion that women, girls and those of marginalised genders can do things to ‘prevent’ sexual violence being committed against them is toxic to the cultural change necessary to actually keep those people safe, “If people who are filmmakers or upcoming holding those rape myths, or having not fully understood them, then all they're doing is reinforcing the messaging that actually leads to people, women and other people being more unsafe in society.”
Centring the right person in the story
“Is our trauma entertainment?”
Speaking on who should be the focus in a drama or documentary about the topic of sexual abuse Jay said: “It’s just really important to think about who we're centring in these stories. Who is the story about and, and how are they involved?” Thinking back to an example she felt was handled with survivors in mind, Jay mentioned ‘Leaving Neverland’, the documentary about two men who, as children, were groomed by Michael Jackson.
“It was a hard watch, and it got a lot of media attention…but it was done so sensitively and really centred the survivors and their stories and their narratives…There was a lot of time spent really unpicking some of their feelings. And I certainly didn't watch it as sensationalistic.”
So, the question is, ‘if I am going to create something that involves commentary on sexual abuse of any kind, what is my motive?’ That motive needs to be based on how that film or TV drama might impact survivors through due consideration about the relative formats. This then also needs to be informed by the motivation behind what the focus of that piece of media is.
Jay did think there are a lot of “questions to be asked” about how much access Jimmy Savile was given to hospitals, children’s homes etc. and wondered if addressing that, and addressing the wider cultural neglect that enabled Savile to do what he did, might be a motivator behind centring him instead of the survivors, but was left without a sure conclusion in our conversation, as was I.
Give back to survivors and survivor organisations
“Try thinking about it, like they're an expert consultant.”
One of the most pertinent points Jay raised in our conversation ̶ and one that I was almost astonished I hadn’t previously thought to flag before ̶ was the idea of treating survivors who advise on any kind of production/news story as ‘expert lived experience consultants’, and who are paid as such.
Where there is an absence of individual survivors and their specific stories being utilised, Jay mentioned the idea of giving a donation to a survivor organisation such as Survivors Network or Survivors Trust, organising a fundraiser to support and promote them, or at the very least ensuring people are signposted to those organisations as the production goes to air etc.
Most vehemently though, Jay emphasised the need for “due consideration” from production companies, when asking a survivor to take part in their safeguarding processes, for what actually “has a huge potential of harm to that person.”
- See also: 'No return to the workplaces of the old status quo, the new normal is trauma-informed'
- See also: 'This world mental health day: how survivors can safeguard their mental health'
Looking at what a survivor organisation could want to see from a drama focusing on abuse
In the conversation with Kate Hardy from Survivors Trust (the national organisation), she immediately brought up an aspect of how working with the topic of abuse in a TV series or film comes with many complex inherent sensitivities:
“If you are considering making any form of TV show, or film, with content of rape or sexual violence and sexual abuse, especially if it's based on true events, there should be a regular protocol in place for having conversations with survivors and how then you're supporting not only survivors, but the people in the in the workforce, who are then dealing with having this secondary trauma as well.”
Moving back to specifically talking about the BBC drama, ‘The Reckoning’, Kate first mentioned that the news of the production had encouraged much discussion within the organisation on what this drama might look like, what a survivor organisation would ideally like to see from something covering Jimmy Savile’s crimes and how production might keep survivors in mind. Survivors Trust themselves posted a blog addressing this, titled ‘Finding the Balance’.
“I think with any drama, particularly of this size, there's always going to be someone that will be re-traumatised by the drama, and seeing the events portrayed on TV. So, I think that's a big concern, the sheer number of survivors that would have been affected by his crimes and are living with those impacts today. And even if they have tried to reach out to survivor groups to gain a perspective, I feel like the risk of re-traumatising many individuals is still very high.”
“We would much prefer to see recognition, that these crimes carried out by perpetrators like Jimmy Savile, often, they're supported by a toxic culture. It isn't the case of one individual covering up their actions, and everyone's oblivious to it, there is a toxic culture that's allowing these kinds of people to go unchallenged, not necessarily unnoticed.”
Something that came to light in our discussion as a point of focus for both of us was the importance of giving this story the scope of the wider societal structure that enabled Savile’s crimes, as Kate mentioned above.
The worry for her, and from survivors, myself included, is that without that scope they run the risk of depicting Savile as a super-intelligent, scheming genius who managed to manipulate everyone into doing what he wanted. This is an oversimplified take on what happened. As Kate emphasised, a toxic culture facilitated what happened, and as Jay also said, there was a lot of neglect on the part of people who allowed him access.
Kate questioned, “What is the true benefit of creating a drama, if it's just sensationalising crimes, and bringing up topics to re-traumatise survivors, if there's no positive conversation or drive towards a culture change that's going to come from it?”
In the midst of this conversation, the question of ‘am I bringing something new to the conversation? Am I bringing something new to light by bringing the system into question?’ came up as something vital that those producing any kind of media content around abuse should be asking themselves.
- See also: 'The mental health and sense of self of young girls is being eroded by sexual harassment'
- See also: 'EMDR: the “hyperspace” of processing traumatic memories'
“Ultimately, the survivors should be at the heart of the story, not the perpetrator.”
Again, as with Jay from Survivors Network, Kate emphasised the importance of who a drama about abuse or sexual violence is centring. Kate was clear, “I would never say no to dramas completely, because we have seen where they can be done well… I think ‘Unbelievable’ on Netflix, which, although was quite triggering, was very powerful. And again, was quite survivor centric.”
Reflecting on these words from Kate, there’s something to be said for those who are in production on a TV series or film that dramatises events around abuse or sexual violence, to review those examples that have been well received by survivor communities, and to examine how they went about taking safeguarding measures in production for both audience and crew.
On the topic of various productions who approach Survivors Trust for advice or to be put in touch with survivor groups, Kate also confirmed that they get these requests a lot. Most of the time, the production doesn’t get put in touch with actual survivors. Only in very few circumstances do Survivors Trust put them in touch with local member organisations (like Survivors Network), if they think it would be feasible and beneficial for both parties.
Revisiting the important point Kate made about also ensuring crew are being protected from secondary or primary trauma, she said: “One in four women, one in six men are affected by some form of sexual violence or abuse. So, you've got a massive crew, there will be people in there who are survivors. And I think people forget that. So, there should always be that kind of trauma-informed approach to how these topics are handled on set.”
To wrap up with Kate, we reviewed everything we had previously explored to come up with the essential discussion points that might help a production such as the one working on ‘The Reckoning’, or any in the future, to keep survivors and safeguarding in mind.
“Is the content included needed for the story? Or are you using it to elicit drama or purely for entertainment purposes?”
“Being incredibly mindful of how you're portraying these crimes… Especially if there are any explicit scenes and things like that. Are they necessary? Because a lot of the times, they're not necessary, and they're purely there for impact, shock.”
“Ensuring you've got adequate signposting and support around the project in general. So, whether this is the signposting at the end of the programme, but I think it's also important to have it on websites, like iPlayer, just a really clear conversation around that topic.”
Again speaking on the attitude towards safeguarding staff on set, Kate said: “I think a lot of it comes down to the culture within the workplace. It’s like the whole approach you take to the production. And that stems from those conversations with charities or people in the specialist sector early on, because it’s that overarching approach.”
Where things stand…
Currently, the BBC and ITV Studios have not provided us with a statement covering what work they’re doing on the production of ‘The Reckoning’ to ensure survivors voices are being not only included, but used as a basis for all decisions about the depiction of abuse or the events around it in the series.
In our last communication with a member of ITV Studios (the production company) we asked for: ‘A standard statement explaining what kind of measures are being taken by production to work with survivors/or a survivor organisation like NAPAC or Survivors Trust to ensure safeguarding is taking place.’ As previously mentioned, we have yet to receive comment.
In statements for iNews and The Guardian, Piers Wenger, head of BBC drama has said, ‘The script had been written with co-operation from survivors of Savile’s abuse’ and Jeff Pope, executive producer of the drama has said, “The purpose of this drama is to explore how Savile’s offending went unchecked for so long, and in shining a light on this, to ensure such crimes never happen again.”
It is impossible to speculate on the effect that ‘The Reckoning’ might have on survivors, both those directly linked to Savile’s crimes and those not. Depending on how the subject matter is handled, it might go to great lengths to, as Jay Beslaw from Survivors Network said, ‘dispel myths’ and centre survivors at the heart of the story in a sensitive and respectful way.
The sentiment I am left feeling most strongly, from my two conversations is that, given that the BBC had a part to play in what happened, it is essential that the drama brings into question this larger, “toxic culture”, as Kate Hardy put it.
Notions around Savile hiding in plain sight, going unchecked or fooling people, don’t quite sit right; because as it has come to light over the last ten years since his death, there were much larger forces at work that allowed this abuse to happen, so large in fact that sometimes it can be difficult and distressing to admit, that we, as a culture and society have a share in the responsibility of.
Again, I revisit these words from Kate Hardy in our discussion: “There is a toxic culture that's allowing these kinds of people to go unchallenged, not necessarily unnoticed.”
As a publication focused on improving the mental health of our world, we believe it is of the utmost importance to handle these topics with care, respect and with a trauma-informed approach in mind.
If documentaries and TV or film dramas are to cover the subject matter of abuse, in this instance, child sexual abuse; producers, writers, directors, actors, editors, and cinematographers must look at what it is in our society as a whole that allows this abuse to happen, not at an individual, and what can be done to keep those who have already been irreversibly affected by abuse safe, and to prevent more people from being affected by it in the future.
As stated, the BBC and ITV Studios have not yet responded to our approaches for comment.
If the issues discussed in this article apply to you or someone you know, you can contact Survivors Trust's free helpline on 08088 010 818 and find more about the helpline's opening times here.
You can also contact NAPAC on their free helpline on 0808 801 0331.