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“From Framing to Appropriation: Adapting Media Representations of Child Sexual Abuse in Three Contemporary BBC Radio Plays”

Research on media representations of child sexual abuse (CSA) focuses primarily on the content of newspapers and magazines, occasionally including television. In this context, the omission of the genre of radio drama is intriguing, since for years it has played an important part in inspiring social change1. A relevant example is the significance of radio drama in Africa. As noted by Akaali, together with oral storytelling, radio drama “across Africa is widely used to educate, conscientise, raise awareness and build tolerance” (qtd. in Kunene) and, as Gunner points out, was already utilized in such a way during apartheid (cf. Kunene; see Okeke et al.).

In this respect, one should note the 2015 13-part radio drama project entitled “Thuthuzeleka” (“to be comforted” in the isiXhosa language), “designed to support survivors of sexual assault [...] by raising awareness and dialogue” (“Thuthuzeleka Radio Drama”). Similar initiatives have been undertaken by the BBC over the years. One interesting example was the comic real-time play Bridge (2015) about two would-be suicides. It was a standalone artistic piece, but the credits page was expanded to include extensive information on numerous organizations across the UK which support people in mental and emotional crises. A similar strategy was employed in Who Cares (2021), a radio drama adaptation of the verbatim play about young people “who had no choice but to become the adult in their families” (“Who Cares”). Below the credits and production details one can find a link to more information on support for people like those presented in the drama. Thus, the three contemporary BBC radio plays analyzed in this article – What the Bishops Knew (2010) by Hugh Costello, Bright Spark (2015) by Eve Davies, and Safe from Harm (2021) by Rhiannon Boyle – fit within the trend of socially engaged radio drama. In this particular case, they present an evolving insight into depictions of CSA and pedophilia in this audio genre by appropriating their media representations.

As Basannavar observes, the terms “pedophilia” and “child sexual abuse” have been frequently used as synonyms in the media. He points out that the basic distinction is that pedophilia is generally considered a mental disorder, while child sexual abuse is a “criminally recognized act” which may refer not only to physical acts, but for example creating and consuming pornographic content as well (15). Basannavar highlights the fact that child sexual abuse is considered a “transgressive act,” whereas pedophilia is looked at as a “condition” (15). Therefore, he suggests using the phrase “child sexual crime” as a kind of umbrella term for criminal cases of the discussed nature (15). Therefore, in this article the three above-mentioned terms – child sexual abuse (CSA), pedophilia and child sexual crime – will be used in accordance with Basannavar’s suggestions.

Brian Corby states that “the notions of child abuse and neglect are complex” and “are not phenomena that lend themselves to easy definition or measurement” (79). For him, one of the most comprehensive definitions is the one proposed by Glaser and Frosh. As it will also underlie the concept of child sexual abuse in this article, it requires presenting in full:

Any child below the age of consent may be deemed to have been sexually abused when a sexually mature person has, by design or by neglect of their usual societal or specific responsibilities in relation to the child, engaged or permitted the engagement of that child in any activity of a sexual nature which is intended to lead to the sexual    gratification of the sexually mature person. This definition pertains whether or not it involves genital contact or physical contact, and whether or not there is discernible harmful outcome in the short-term. (Glaser and Frosh 5)

Importantly, the last part of the quoted definition points to the consequences of CSA acts. Corby emphasizes “difficulties in sifting out the direct impact of the abuse from that which may be attributed to other variables, such as pre-existing problems, responses to the abuse by significant adults (including professionals) and later depriving experiences” (197). He offers a division of CSA effects into short- and long-term ones (197–204). The first group includes fear, depression, low self-esteem, guilt and shame, cognitive disability and inappropriate sexual behavior. The second group comprises similar symptoms such as fear, anxiety or depression, but may also include suicidal tendencies, revictimization, and sexual disturbances.

Significantly, as Corby notes with support of numerous research findings (199-208), both short-term as well as long-term effects are hard to trace precisely to a given CSA experience, although for different reasons. Short-term effects are hard to link to CSA occurrences, since sexual abuse does not influence children to such a visible extent shortly after it happens. Thus, the effects may remain concealed or there may be other factors to which the same effects may be attributed. In the case of long-term effects, the difficulty lies in them becoming discernible after a significant period of time, which makes them less convincing to anyone attempting to investigate their link with a CSA event from a child’s past (201). Such a complex interrelation of factors leads Corby to conclude that CSA is most harmful when the abuse “involves penetration,” “has persisted for some time,” “the abuser is a father-figure,” “the abuse is accompanied by violence, force and/or threat of it,” and when “the response of the family is negative” (207).

There are multiple ways in which information about child sexual crime may reach relevant bodies. These include self-reported cases of abuse, police-recorded sexual offences as well as relevant helplines. An example of a report on CSA in the UK is the “Child Sexual Abuse: Statistics Briefing” published in 2021 by National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It highlights the fact that child sexual crime continues to be a very important concern in British society and is clearly on the increase. Of special relevance to the present article are the key findings of the briefing which state that “[o]ver a third of all police-recorded sexual offences are against children.” Additionally, girls and older children are most often affected and the perpetrators are predominantly people whom the children know (“Statistics on Child Sexual Abuse”). However, it should be borne in mind that these multiple information sources are reliable in different ways and that underreporting has, for years, been one of the most challenging problems (see for instance Davidson 26).

Rörig observes that despite significant evolution in the way media have approached the topic of child sexual abuse, “reporting is still often characterized by misconceptions about sexual violence” (5). The media have the power to broaden the awareness of CSA, but the search for sensationalism “manifests the misleading narrative of the singularity of sexual violence” (7). Indeed, as Lonne and Parton add, “[t]he coverage of child maltreatment is characterized by the omission of many details, with nuance and depth in understanding often being washed away” (10)2.

Over the years, the above-mentioned issues as well as many others have been the main focus of numerous studies on media representations of CSA. A brief overview of such research would provide a glimpse into intricacies of representing CSA in the media as well as reveal some general tendencies. This will create a point of reference for the analysis of the radio plays in this article.

Jane Long Weatherred’s study of over 50 years of CSA news coverage (1960–2015) surprisingly overlaps with smaller scale studies, and this, in turn, reveals predominant tendencies in media approaches to CSA. Weatherred distinguishes five periods of CSA news coverage. During the first twenty years (1960–1979) media assign responsibility for reporting child sexual abuse to physicians. The next decade (1980–89) is a period of attacks on the institutions responsible for supporting CSA victims as well as the time of an increasing number of victims deciding to reveal the abuse they experienced in the past. The 1990s witnessed a number of “horrific” (20) cases accompanied by the introduction of a few legislative solutions. During the first ten years of the 21st century, the media brought up CSA cases connected with clergy. Finally, the next 15 years were visibly linked to a rise in focus on institutional responsibility with regard to CSA3.

Social implications and institutional responsibility are rarely in the foreground of CSA news stories. What is more, criminal justice professionals are preferred to victim family members. Most importantly, however, media outlets seem to focus on episodic cases which predominantly involve a child and a person whom the child victim knew. The background for these stories is often “criminal justice details” (Mejia et al. 470). As Cheit et al. observe, such an approach of the media may be linked to the notion of newsworthiness of given CSA stories (100). Additionally, “[t]his leads to an absence of stories that address other important issues, such as the impact of CSA on children, the manner in which people involved may seek help, or larger societal trends” (115).

All of the researchers mentioned above make use of the so-called framing theory to discuss media representations of CSA. As Mejia et al. emphasize, “[t]he news media ‘frames,’ or portrays, social issues through a complex process of organizing information to create meaning [...]. Journalists choose among the many available arguments, perspectives, images, messages, and sources in accordance with how they perceive the story [...]. The inclusion or exclusion of frames promotes certain interpretations of the issue, and hinders others” (471). As a process of “selection, emphasis and presentation” (Gitlin 7), framing very much resembles Linda Hutcheon’s concept of adaptation as involving “(re-) interpretation and then (re-)creation” (8) of the adapted material. At its core, then, framing could be perceived as a method of journalistic adaptation, in which, as Hutcheon could say, “a recognizable other work” are CSA facts which undergo an “interpretative act” (8).

The radio plays analyzed in this article display numerous points of connection with widespread media representations of CSA. However, since the plays do not refer directly to any specific CSA cases, but creatively adapt general tendencies in representing CSA, it seems more fitting to consider them appropriations, as defined by Julie Sanders in Adaptation and Appropriation. Of crucial importance in this respect are two premises of appropriation: that it “frequently affects a more decisive journey away from the informing source into a wholly new cultural product and domain” (26) and thus it is capable of “creating new cultural and aesthetic possibilities that stand alongside the texts which have inspired them” (41). In this light, the analyzed radio plays, while still closely related to media representations of CSA, simultaneously “stand in [their] own right” (Sanders 28), highlighting and elaborating on key issues that can be found in media coverage of CSA.

The first play to be discussed is What the Bishops Knew (2010, re-broadcast in 2012)4 by an Irish writer Hugh Costello. Just like in the case of the above-mentioned Bridge, the credits page for the play includes information on support organizations for CSA victims and witnesses (“What the Bishops Knew”). In this way, listeners seem to be indirectly encouraged to act if the listening experience in any way evokes in them emotions or memories relating to the subject matter of the broadcast.

What the Bishops Knew presents two crime justice professionals, judge Mary Dowdall and her assistant Bob McCabe, investigating the case of Barry Glynn, who after 25 years has decided to reveal the sexual abuse he suffered at the age of 10 from an Irish priest Fr. Mick Spalding. On the basis of interviews and correspondence, Dowdall and McCabe trace the responsibility for neglecting Glynn’s case to a high ranking Irish cardinal in Vatican. However, the moment when they are very close to bringing Fr. Spalding to justice, he suddenly passes away due to heart failure.

On various levels, the play draws on typical media representations of CSA. First of all, the case concerns a Catholic priest, which may definitely be considered a newsworthy topic. What is more, it focuses on an individual case of a man who decides to reveal his traumatic experiences. The singularity of the case is powerfully underlined through the use of Glynn’s monologue which begins the drama. He speaks directly to listeners about being one of Father Spalding’s “special boys”5 whom he took sailing with him. The tone of Glynn’s voice is reflective, but there is a clearly discernible tension and indignation which come to the surface when he talks about his parents being “delighted” that he attracted the priest’s attention. This is manifested by means of a brief nervous laugh which is in stark contrast to the information Glynn seems to be conveying. When after a short pause he unenthusiastically announces: “They all loved him at the boat club of course,” the slow, almost nostalgic, piano melody that has been the background for Glynn’s words from the very beginning of the play becomes a poignant instance of mood music (see Crisell 51). The combination of the way the verb “to love” is pronounced with the minor piano notes refers to events that should not be perceived as positive or happy.

Once this individual focus has been established, the voice of Glynn undergoes a transformation. After a few modulations it sounds distant and flat, and it becomes clear that now it is part of his recorded testimony being listened to in some room or office. In this way, two main characters are introduced and from this point the focus is on their investigation.

The emotionality of Glynn’s testimony is quickly counteracted by Dowdall’s firm announcement that she wants “to keep the focus tight, specific.” She says this in response to McCabe’s mention that the details of Barry’s abuse (recorded during the next session) are “pretty x-rated.” This sets the tone of solemn, close to journalistic objectivity that will be predominant throughout the whole broadcast.

The objectivity is further underscored by the play’s structure. It develops chronologically, with each scene presenting the consecutive meetings of the main characters with Church officials. The investigators follow a rather straightforward line of enquiry. They use correspondence and information from their interlocutors to take their next steps. The tension is increasing, since each interrogation leads to even higher level Church officials, which inevitably aggravates the seriousness of the case depicted in the play.

Additionally, since all the scenes with Dowdall and McCabe are presented as happening here and now, the story gains the atmosphere of immediacy, so characteristic of media coverage. Thus, listeners are given an almost participatory role in the investigation. The immediacy is further strengthened by the fact that Dowdall and McCabe are only characterized by the sound of their matter-of-fact, composed voices, with no mention of their appearance or family background whatsoever.

Significantly, the play does not opt for any solutions to the presented problem. Instead, it seems to emphasize the passivity and neglect on the part of the Catholic Church officials with regard to Glynn’s case. While it is true that Dowdall repeatedly asks her interlocutors if anything was done when the knowledge of Glynn’s abuse reached relevant authorities and – when faced with the negative answer – continues to ask why this was the case, the responses are left with no comment or follow-up on the part of the investigators, as if in accordance with their aim to, in Dowdall’s words, “concentrate on the process.” This is another example of how close to general media representations of CSA What the Bishops Knew remains.

It is noteworthy that Glynn’s confession is never questioned during the investigation. The starting point is the prosecutor’s desire to find out why there was no reaction on the part of the Church officials after they learnt about the potential abuse. This automatically puts all the interrogated clergymen in the position of the accused and forces them to justify their decisions. Thus, the framing of the story directs listeners’ attention towards the ways in which the clergy might perceive their responsibility for what happened.

In this context, the conversation with Cardinal Finnerty, the last one in the play, shows how the truth of Glynn’s suffering becomes submerged in legal and philosophical speculations. The culmination comes when it is revealed that although Finnerty promised Glynn to remove Spalding from pastoral duties indefinitely, he did it only within his own archdiocese. Accused of lying, Finnerty, in an almost presumptuous tone, replies that “mental reservation has been part of moral theology for centuries. One can be ambiguous if the issue at hand is sufficiently grave.” When Dowdall expresses her conviction that concepts such as “mental reservation” may not be seen by society as a satisfactory explanation for what happened, Finnerty suddenly declines to continue the conversation. As a result, “mental reservation” manifests itself as a strategy of avoidance. In fact, it becomes clear that all the interrogated clergymen practice it in various ways, the best example being Fr. Brown, the first one to learn about Barry’s predicament, who confesses that at the seminary the would-be priests were told never to ask about clergymen’s names in case of similar accusations.

The focus on the individuality of Glynn’s case returns in the final part of the play, which is divided into two scenes. The first one resembles information usually provided after an investigative documentary when the consequences of the inquiry are presented. In this case, it is Barry who describes the fate of all the clergymen involved. The last scene begins with a telephone conversation between Dowdall and Glynn in which she informs him that Fr. Spalding died of a massive heart attack on his boat a few days before being officially charged with CSA. This begins Glynn’s second monologue in which he cites the Gospel of Matthew 18:6 and compares the “millstone” Jesus talks about to pedophilia that will “drag down” the clergy if they continue neglecting to act upon it6.

By focusing on a CSA case involving the clergy, What the Bishops Knew might be said to reflect the media interest of the fourth period, as highlighted by Weatherred in her analysis. The next play, Bright Spark from 2015, as if continuing this connection, fits in with the fifth period, since it centers on the institutional shortcomings with regard to dealing with CSA victims.

The play, nominated for Best Single Radio Drama Award, was written by Eve Davies and focuses on a court case. The main character, Janine, has decided to reveal that she was sexually abused by Coal, her teacher, over twenty-five years prior to the events in the play. To substantiate her evidence, she encourages her school friend, Mel, to testify together with her. The scenes of each of the hearings are interwoven with scenes presenting the characters preparing for the questioning and reminiscing about the past. The trial ends with the verdict of the jury which frees Coal from all the charges. This is followed by a short monologue by Janine and a fragment of a song, both of which are of great significance to the message the play is aiming to highlight.

Similar to What the Bishops Knew, in its plot and structure Bright Spark draws on characteristic features of media representations of CSA. The story again revolves around one particular character. This time, however, it is a girl who suffered abuse from her teacher. Thus, the CSA case concerns a figure of authority. The story unfolds as if here and now in chronological order and the tempo is maintained by interweaving the court scenes with behind-the-scenes episodes. In this way, the radio play becomes a mixture of a detailed media court case report with features of a courtroom drama7. The framing of the story is twofold. The main storyline centers on recollections of episodes from Janine’s life directly linked to the time she was sexually abused and this is contrasted with legal officers’ deeply selective approach to evidence during the trial.

Significantly, the play aims to maintain the tone of indictment of the justice system when dealing with CSA victims. This is observable in two specific instances. Firstly, when Joe, the policeman who helps Janine go through the whole process, informs her about the rules to be followed during the trial and gives her advice on how to act during the questioning. The initial signal that by going to court Janine begins, in Joe’s words, a “game” with the system is when he comments on the makeup of the jury: “You wanna hope for more men than women,” explaining that women are less sympathetic towards female victims. This is poignantly underlined by the voice contrasts employed in the play8. The challenge Janine is facing during the trial (the jury consists of 10 women and only 2 men) is underscored through the firm and cutting voice of Meredith, Coal’s female barrister, and contrasted with the matter-of-fact and non-confrontational voice of Ryland, Janine’s male court representative.

Ryland warns Mel and Janine not to discuss any issues related to the case before giving their evidence, which further puts court rules over the need for supporting CSA victims and respecting their feelings. Finally, Joe advises Janine not to look at the accused teacher after entering the courtroom. He also explains in detail the spatial arrangement of the jury and the defendant. Thus, the unknown space of the court becomes a metaphor for Janine’s unfamiliarity both with the situation she is in and with the system as a whole.

The second instance of the system’s indictment is manifested through Janine’s and Mel’s interrogation scenes with Meredith. While Ryland’s questions aim to present the details of the abuse and its circumstances, Meredith’s approach is to ruthlessly discredit both women in the eyes of the jury. Thus, what the possible media report would present as the opposite perspective on the case is appropriated into a scathing attack on the victims by the representative of the judicial system. Coal’s barrister even makes use of the above-mentioned long-term effects of CSA as evidence that Janine and Mel are not reliable in their accounts. As for Mel, Meredith digs out her depressive period when after alcohol abuse she spent some time in an alcohol unit to recover. In the case of Janine, the barrister reveals the woman’s promiscuous behavior, both at school and later in her adult life. She goes so far as to call her a  “fantasist” who was already “off the rails” when at school. Meredith conducts her interrogation in such a way that Janine’s last desperate admission that she had “no boundaries” after Coal had “finished” with her is brutally drown out by the formulaic “no further questions,” which suggests that nothing Janine could say as a witness would change the imposed interpretation. Clearly then, the representation of the court case highlights the ways in which law officers use framing techniques to adapt facts to their purposes by picking on these details which would support their intended interpretation.

Therefore, the final verdict is not surprising and the fact that the focus of the play remains consistently on Janine makes it feel all the more unjust. Indeed, the invisible microphone-focalizer always accompanies Janine9. This is firmly established at the beginning of the story, when she suddenly runs away to the toilet to vomit as a result of strong emotions. The listener is not spared any detail of the scene. At the same time, by depicting Janine’s physicality through audio means, the scene indirectly foreshadows the physical aspects of the abuse which are going to be laid bare during the trial. Additionally, as early as one-third through the play, even before the encounter with Meredith, Janine shouts out how she feels about testifying in court against her abuser: “It’s like being abused all over again. It’s like standing there, taking off your clothes in front of all of them and then taking your skin off as well.” In this way, Meredith’s way of questioning increases the tension felt already at the beginning of the trial. The audio renderings of each scene are thus powerful enhancements of what even a very persuasively phrased media report would only manage to hint at.

These physical aspects of the abuse are also underscored in brief flashbacks in which Janine recalls Coal’s seductive voice and confessions. They appear quite unexpectedly at various points in the play, for example in the middle of court scenes. The personal aspect of these flashbacks is highlighted by the fact that one can hear only Coal’s voice, speaking as if directly to Janine and at the same time to the listener’s ear. An especially significant flashback comes right after Janine argues with Mel after the other woman’s testimony (Mel accuses Janine of self-centeredness and focusing on her own personal revenge). The flashback presents Coal mentioning a poem about crumbling leaves as evocative of young Janine. This suddenly overlaps with his rude exclamation: “You stupid slut! [...] You’re a mess!” Thus, the flashbacks put the listener on Janine’s side, but at the same time show CSA victim’s entrapment within the system.

This specific flashback, however, is further explained in the last conversation between Mel and Janine, when the former makes Janine realize that Coal actually had a sexual intercourse with her, which Janine does not seem to recall at all. As the court system does not allow Janine to include new evidence, the recollected memory is useless in the trial. This is further underlined by Mel’s mention of “dead leaves and broken twigs” (the intercourse took place in a forest). Mel’s recollection triggers Janine’s. In an exchange with Joe, she mentions how she remembers an evening when in the bathroom, after pulling her underwear down she saw “leaves [...] falling onto the bathroom floor. [...] They were autumn leaves, all broken. [...] I tried to flush them down [in the toilet], but they kept bobbing up to the surface.” The images of leaves from Coal’s monologue and then from Janine’s memory blend together, but it is too late and the dead leaves point both to the repressed memory of sexual intercourse and are an indirect announcement of the lost case.

The last part of the play is Janine’s monologue from which she emerges victorious, despite the verdict against her expectations. Her victory is related to her realizing three things. Firstly, that in the mere act of making her oppressor go through the trial, she instilled in him fear of possible defeat. Secondly, that the trial itself was ample proof that someone believed her. Finally, that now, as a mother, she is aware that people like Coal exploit teenage children’s suspension between “knowing so much and understanding so little” and that because of that, what happened to her was “never, never her fault.”

In effect, the play might be said to underscore the indifference of the judicial system when facing CSA. The system refuses to accept that the process of recollection in the case of CSA requires time and careful investigation, not following strict court rules. Thus, from the legal point of view, the struggle to recover true memories of CSA is less convincing than firm denials of the accused. What is more, the song by The Smiths “Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me” (1987), which at the start of the play is presented as the one Coal associated with Janine, is now played once again, but it is intriguing to think of its faded out part as a silent accusation of the ineffectiveness of the judicial system: “The story is old, I know / But it goes on / It goes on / And on” (The Smiths).

The last play to be discussed, Safe from Harm (2021) by Rhiannon Boyle, while following media representations of CSA in a few important respects, appropriates them to present an infrequently encountered perspective. The focus of the story is again an individual case study and the subject matter is a newsworthy theme of child pornography on the Internet. However, the main character is neither a victim nor offender, but a school teacher Alys, whose colleague Tyler is arrested for owning and distributing child pornography online. Her story is told in the form of a flashback monologue while she stays in a psychiatric unit. The focal point of the drama is a fragment of a news bulletin about the arrest. This starts the main character onto a journey towards mental instability. The play presents an extrapolation of consequences of framing pedophilia in a specific way. As suggested by the final scenes of the story, when Alys attacks her colleague with a knife, the consequences of this depiction can have an unpredictable influence on the members of the public.

The framing of the news story heard by Alys triggers her most hidden and stereotypical fears10:

In November, undercover online officers made contact with a male on the internet who    was sharing very graphic images of young children being sexually abused. The investigation revealed that this individual was running an exploitation movie and distribution company. This investigation was dubbed “Operation Trench.” To date, the project as a whole has saved 386 children from sexual abuse worldwide and 348 individuals have been arrested internationally as part of this investigation. Our officers continue to work around the clock to ensure the safety of children around the world.

The emotionless, matter-of-fact voice, apparently of the spokesperson for the operation, moves smoothly from details of this particular arrest to statistical data. This gives an impression of objectivity, but in no way allays potential fears. Notably, the phrase “around the clock” implies constant alertness on the part of the investigators but also that the danger is constantly present. In addition, the numbers suggest an almost one-to-one ratio of children and offenders. Finally, the name of the operation (‘trench’ for ‘trench coat’) evokes a strongly stereotypical image of a pedophile: “a trench coat with some weird stains on it, oversized NHS specs, lank, thinning hair and an unsettling leer” (Forrest).

The uncontrollable panic Alys begins to experience is the result of the clash between the image evoked in her by the news bulletin and the image of her friend – with whom she flirted and was even strongly sexually attracted to just before the arrest – her “work bestie, [who] looks so fit with his salt-and-pepper hair and his beautiful smile.” Sociologist Dr. Sarah Goode’s observation on the nature of our stereotypical perception of pedophiles reflects the state Alys is in: “I think we half-realize that sexual attraction to kids is potentially there in people who look just like us. [...] The problem is,[!] that knowledge makes us so uncomfortable [that] we prefer to pretend it’s ‘those weird monsters over there’” (Forrest).

Faced with this apparently unsolvable contrast, Alys at first acts impulsively and to protect her daughters she even tries to force her mother to dispose of all their photos on view in her house for fear of some stranger becoming sexually interested in them. Simultaneously, her need for understanding what and why she fears soon leads her to contact an organization whose aim is to support all those who seek answers to most basic questions about pedophilia and child abuse.

Her meeting, however, is another confrontation with pre-made conclusions. This is because the person she meets is Christian (a telling name in itself considering his role in the play), who becomes a personification of the ambivalent nature of pedophilia that the drama is aiming to present. While aware that he is the right person to address her questions to, Alys cannot help fighting with all the apprehension and misconceptions she harbors towards pedophiles. This is especially visible in the central scene of the play, the second meeting between Alys and Christian, after the woman insulted him in public in a cafe. During the conversation, Alys learns that he is a “celibate pedophile” (a person who admits to being sexually attracted to children but who has never committed any act of CSA and does not accept this as any form of fulfilling his desires)11 and is invited to ask so many detailed questions as she wishes. As she observes with barely hidden disgust in her voice, “It feels so wrong putting words ‘fancy’ and ‘children’ together.”

When Christian mentions the age of girls he is most attracted to, Alys’ voice instantly overlaps with his and she comments with underlying panic: “I think of my girls!” The climax of the exchange comes when Christian announces that he “would never want to harm a child,” which is commented on by Alys: “And he seems so genuine.” Next, he adds: “I’m a pedophile, not a criminal [...] I’ve had sexual urges but I’ve never acted upon them.” This seems to draw a clear line between child sexual abuse and pedophilia as a condition. However, when Alys asks Christian whether he has ever been tempted to fulfill his sexual desires, he replies with the question: “Have you ever had sexual desires towards another person?”. In response, she admits to dreaming about hiring a male escort due to her uneventful sexual life at home. However, in the light of the beginning of the play, where she is shown openly flirting with Tyler, it becomes clear that her fear is rooted in the fact that the arrest made her realize she became infatuated with a pedophile.

Thus, another ambiguity comes to the fore. Irrespective of any distinctions one can draw between CSA and pedophilia, a constantly unnerving issue is the impossibility of knowing who actually is the person you meet and can become emotionally attached to. Therefore, in regard to the news report which triggers the events in the play, the suggestion is that what media representations of pedophilia decline to explain through limited framing becomes almost impossible to overcome by individuals seeking to understand the true nature of pedophilia.

These conflicting realizations are skillfully depicted through the audio structure of the piece. Most importantly, the play is presented as Alys’ monologue which is also a flashback. She recollects what happened to her while spending her time in a psychiatric unit after her attack on Tyler. In this way, the individual focus is maintained throughout. Untypically for radio plays in which monologue is usually interrupted by dialogic scenes, in Safe from Harm Alys often talks alongside the characters, even using the same words. This increases the dynamics of the story and its confession-like character. In addition, the engagement of the narrator is underlined in two telling ways. Firstly, it is achieved by means of language. Describing the scenes just before the arrest, Alys uses the present tense to emphasize the intimacy of her relationship. After the arrest, she says “he had blue boyish eyes and he was just lovely” [emphasis mine] as if delegating Tyler to the past and making it impossible to relate to him ever again. Secondly, the background sound effects representing the laughter of Alys’ daughters are heard regularly throughout the drama and are a prominent index of the way she personally responds to the events.

As Basannavar observes, “whilst representation is the primary tool through which meaning is delivered, it is also something of which we must be highly skeptical and questioning” (4). Looked at in chronological order, the three discussed plays use appropriation in an increasingly complex way to approach media representations of CSA. What the Bishops Knew frames Barry Glynn’s story as an investigation which puts to the foreground the strategic imperviousness of the Catholic Church to any attempts at demanding justice for CSA victims. Glynn’s final monologue is more concerned with pinpointing the hypocrisy he faced than with his own experience. The individual focus is deepened in Bright Spark, although it also concentrates on appropriating media representations of CSA court cases. The framing of Janine’s abuse, as it emerges from the manipulation of evidence in court, is overshadowed by the personal revelations indirectly provoked by the trial. Despite their drastic nature, they cannot be used in court, but what matters is that they allow Janine to clean herself from guilt she kept inside her for years. Both plays, then, express deep skepticism towards systemic approaches to CSA and highlight the value of the victim’s self-realization in coming to terms with their trauma. Finally, Safe from Harm adapts the format of a news report within its storyline and then builds on it a dramatized commentary on social consequences of media framing pedophilia from a narrow perspective. Thus, the last radio play becomes an example of appropriation which fully “stands in [its] own right” (Sanders 28). Through its presentation of a “celibate pedophile” and the contrast between Alys’ image of pedophiles and her arrested colleague, the play invites listeners to question the established stereotypes and fossilized images of child molesters. By diverging from the usual victim–abuser perspective, it even more strongly highlights the fact that “[c]urrent media reportage of sexual crimes against children [...] fails to document the totality of the nature and reality of such crimes” (Breen 20).

By appropriating and expanding on less expected aspects of “the nature and reality” of CSA, the three discussed audio plays show that “[r]adio can go to places that can be ethically or practically difficult to film. [...] It removes visuals that can distract us with visceral or prejudiced reactions. We are less able to judge by appearances on radio” (Rede). In fact, listeners are invited to create a deeply individual imaginative adaptation of the stories, free from the filmic imposition of ready-made images. This results in a more immersive experience, especially significant in regard to the plays’ subject matter. Notably, when looked at chronologically, each subsequent audio play intensifies the degree of this immersion. At first, in What the Bishops Knew, the position of the listener is more akin to a police assistant, with rare but powerful insights into Barry’s reflections on his ordeal. Next, in Bright Spark, despite the dominance of the court scenes, the snapshots from Janine’s past appear more and more unexpectedly, creating, as it were, a kind of “shattered” narrative which becomes the structural reference to Janine’s state of mind. Finally, Safe from Harm forces the listener to perform a “deep dive” into the psyche of a person whose experiences of facing CSA are frequently marginalized by the media, but whose circumstances in the story are closest to listeners’ own position. Indeed, with each above-discussed play, this position - of media content consumers who are fed with already adapted visual images of CSA - is consistently undermined by taking away what can be effortlessly digested by sight and replacing it with an invitation to perform one’s own visualization, unburdened by frequently fossilized stereotypes. In effect, each of the plays makes an increasing demand on the audience to keep questioning their attitudes to and opinions on the topic of child sexual abuse.


1  Consider, for example, Esta de Fossard’s How to Write a Radio Serial Drama for Social Development: A Script Writer’s Manual (1996), which stresses that “[r]adio is a universal and versatile medium of communication that can be used for the benefit of society” and “can bring exciting, entertaining dramas into the homes and lives of millions of listeners, dramas that engage listeners’ emotions while informing them of new ideas and behaviors that can improve their lives and their communities” (2).

2  For a recent attempt at rectifying this situation, see Basannavar’s Sexual Violence Against Children in Britain Since 1965 (2021), which makes use of various documents ranging from newspaper articles, television programmes, through legal documents, reports to memoirs and interviews in order to create a “bricolage” (2) of changing representations of child sexual crime in Britain since the mid-1960s.

3  Confirmed also by the next study by Weatherred from 2016 (“Framing Child Sexual Abuse”).

4  The play belongs to a two-part series commissioned by the BBC with regard to allegations towards the Catholic Church concerning child abuse. The second play in the series was What the Nun Discovered (2010) by Harriet O'Carroll, but it does not concern CSA and that is why it is omitted from the present discussion.

5  All quotations from all the plays in this article have been transcribed by the author from the recordings of the radio plays.

6  The King James Bible version of this fragment is as follows: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (King James Bible). It is interesting to note the relationship of the play’s imagery to water when one considers the fact that Spalding dies on a boat, in the same place where he abused his victims.

7  I follow Greenfield et al. in seeing this film genre as referring to “dramas that have an attachment to an element of the courtroom” (21; original emphasis). On affiliations between radio drama and film see for example Crook 25-26 and 76.

8  For a discussion on the importance of voice contrasts see Rattigan 148-149.

9  On the focalizing properties of the microphone in radio drama see Lutostański 118-121.

10 On the role of the media in shaping public perception on child pornography, see for instance Christensen and Pollard.

11 For more details on celibate pedophiles, see for example the article by Tsoulis-Reay.

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