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Finding the balance: Rape and sexual abuse in the media

Finding the balance: Rape and sexual abuse in the media

Television and the media can be a valuable medium for sharing stories and highlighting societal issues and events. However, with this comes a moral responsibility to support and protect those in the audience who may be personally affected by the subject being explored.

In recent weeks, there have been concerns raised about the upcoming BBC drama, ‘The Reckoning’, which will be based on the atrocious acts of sexual abuse committed by Jimmy Savile, who was a well-known BBC presenter at the time of his crimes. It is reported that Jeff Pope, the executive producer of The Reckoning, has stated, “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.”

2016 report by Dame Janet Smith into Jimmy Savile and the BBC found at least 72 people were sexually abused by Savile in connection with his work at the BBC. Smith’s findings were highly critical of the culture within the corporation at the time and identified multiple accounts of Savile’s behaviour being questioned by individuals both within, and visiting the BBC, but these did not lead to any formal reports or further action. The report noted that the culture of the BBC at the time allowed Jimmy Savile’s crimes to go unreported, and there were at least 5 opportunities missed to stop the abuse. Whilst there is still much unknown about this upcoming drama, we would like to see it acknowledge the failings, and toxic at culture at the BBC which allowed these crimes to go unchecked at the time.

We recognise that it is incredibly important to learn from the past, particularly when it comes to exposing the failures of the systems and the culture in place which can allow paedophiles like Savile to avoid being exposed and punished for their horrific crimes. However, the way in which this is achieved through the media needs careful consideration.


The concerns, and considerations we have with any form of dramatisation or media portraying sexual violence and abuse include:

1) Dramas where the focus is on the perpetrator.

We have concerns that early reports on the ‘The Reckoning’ indicate that the drama will focus heavily on the life and fame of Savile. When the perpetrator is the primary focus of such dramas, it can give the impression that survivors are faceless and unheard. Survivors and their voices should be kept at the heart of the story. We would question why a strong focus on the perpetrator and their life story is necessary. Previous dramatizations which have been produced to bring awareness to shocking failures of institutions include, Three Girls (BBC) and Unbelievable (Netflix) which have focussed primarily on the survivors’ experiences. This approach helps to raise awareness of the long-term impact of sexual violence and abuse and highlights why more needs to be done to ensure survivors are never failed by the systems designed to protect them.

2) Engagement with survivors & specialist services.

Any programme which includes sexual violence or abuse should always be produced in close partnership with survivors, and professionals with extensive knowledge of sexual violence and abuse. This is to help ensure the magnitude of these crimes is recognised, and the challenges a survivor may face are accurately represented. Additionally, it is vital that survivors are given the support necessary and are listened too throughout the process. It is encouraging that recent reports have suggested that the production team of ‘The Reckoning’ are liaising closely with survivors and those affected by Savile’s crimes.

3) Raising awareness

Rather than a dramatization that risks sensationalising sexual violence and abuse, documentaries are an effective way to tell the important stories of survivors and helps to bring awareness to areas where systemic change is needed. In recent months we have seen documentaries such as, ‘Nowhere to Run: Abused by our coach’ and ‘Football’s Darkest Secret’ navigate these difficult topics sensitively, whilst bringing much needed awareness.

Whilst dramatised depictions can sometimes risk sensationalising these crimes, when done correctly, they can be helpful and inspiring for survivors as they show us that we are not alone. As humans, we have always wanted to see our experiences reflected back to us through art and this is no different for survivors. ‘I may destroy you’ is a prime example of this being achieved effectively. This show sensitively explored the topic of sexual violence and abuse, and the impact of trauma on a survivor’s life.


For a great number of survivors, watching movies or dramas depicting sexual assault or rape can be really difficult. Seeing triggering content can stir up bad memories which can cause anxiety, low moods or flashbacks. The trauma that survivors face does not end when the assault does, what is rarely acknowledged in film and TV is the long and bumpy road of acceptance and healing that survivors face. We always urge any survivor who is considering watching something they may find triggering to always prioritise their mental wellbeing first. Here are some of our top tips when watching potentially triggering media.

In broadcasting ‘The Reckoning’, we hope the BBC and their production team will be courageous and honest in telling this story in a sensitive way which honours the survivors and recognises individual and institutional failures to take action. We hope to see a programme that raises awareness of the culture, both within the BBC and in wider society, which allowed Jimmy Savile to commit his crimes over such a long period of time and failed to either protect or support the victims and survivors who were targeted by Savile regardless of age, background or gender. ‘The Reckoning’ needs to promote understanding of the impactful changes needed to ensure organisations have a zero-tolerance stance on sexual abuse and sexual violence.

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