Media Democracy and the civil rights movement for adult survivors of child abuse
The right to “freedom of expression" is enshrined by article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It is a right that in the largely democratic West many of us take as read.Freedom of expression has shown itself as a powerful tool in the many civil rights movements throughout history, from the right for women to get the vote to the struggle against apartheid. The influence of the media has the power, (sometimes) to transcend race, religion or territorial borders. The explosion of personal blogs on the topics of surviving physical, emotional and sexual abuse, mental illness, and the increasing public awareness through TV programmes and magazines on such subjects shows some progress.
Harnessing the media, and the civil rights movement for survivors of child abuse, therefore, seem to go hand in hand. During an incest survivor's conference on the topic of severe trauma conditions a participant whispered to me “The difference between our civil rights movement and the struggle against apartheid, is that they weren't ill when they were campaigning". Of course such a comparison could seem hard to stomach when we are fortunate to live in a democracy and where discrimination against people with trauma related mental health problems is neither overtly violent nor sanctioned by the government. Yet a civil rights movement is what many of us still feel is required. After all, there are many elements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that arguably elude persons suffering mental distress. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person".
The media however is increasingly governed by comercial forces and whats “sells" is often the factor which governs media and editorial decisions. A media which is governed by commercial and profit led interets alone can not claim to be truly democractic. I have seen many notices posted up by journalists on abuse survivors forum pages. The adverts usually read something along the lines of “I writing a feature for a national women's magazine. I am looking for a victim of severe incestous abuse who has come though the other side fighting and whose perpetrator has been convicted in a court of law". Of course the vast majority of incest abusers are never caught let alone convicted and not all survivors “get over it" per se. The bleak reality of long-term damage rarely sells. Furthermore, if triumphing over adversity is really always as easy as the some media would have us believe where is the incentive for change? For the increased investment into adequate social services? and a reform of a mental health system that lets many abuse and trauma survivors down?
Whilst there are mercifully many exceptions to this style of advert there seems in the main a tendency to request the same type of person to interview - the sort of person who will be the most likely to get the feature writer a cash sum, does not present the reader with too many uncomfortable social realities and more often than not has “triumphed over adversity".
There are some elements of mental health issues that seem to be too unpallitable for the general public. For example issues of long term disability, economic disadvantage, access to and often prolonged battles for “services" and extreme social isolation. Many survivors in fact feel more stigmatised and silenced than their perpetrators. Some do not “triumph over adversity", in fact the sad reality is that abuse survivors - especially abuse in its severest form- have a masively above average mortality rate; a situtauon that could be aleviated with access to appropraite help and state support.
Through my own reading of personal blogs and campaign websites I notice a growing feeling amongst mental health users and adult survivors of severe abuse that the media exposure they require is not an interview in Chat magazine about how they “got over it with Prozac", nor unchallenging and voyueristic TV programmes that either set out to shock the audience or are too banal to genuinely hold up a mirror to society- let alone challenge it. Arguabley such mainstream programming rarely gets clearence to feature the most severely affected mental health “service users" due to legal and “ethical" contraints. Yet those are perhaps the ones who have most to say, the most cause to demand radical reform of the mental health service, who feel that the mental health service has a tendency to inadvertently replicate situtaions of powerlessness and lack of dignity present in the orginal abuse, who ask for clean wards that offer a safe and compassionate environment, who want to hold the structures that have a hold on their life accountable.
They, perhaps are the people at most risk of dying because of their condition, yet also have the least credibility due to the “mad" label. They are the ones whose “right to life" is most threatened yet “freedom of expression" is the most curtailed by a corporate media hungry for financial gain that does not cater to smaller or marginalized sectors of society. Thus, the democratisation of media is the best hope for the civil rights of the disempowered. There is a long way to go, but with increasing media literacy and public access to communication channels the hope is that things will change for the better, even if at present, that change feels to be happening rather slowly.