It was way back in 1973 that the BBC brought out a television programme which was to live with many of us for the next twenty years. The programme entitled That’s Life gave us many things: silly songs; performing pets; Jobsworths; real issues of the day and of course an annoying campaigning gappy toothed presenter. Improvements in dental treatments have filled the gap but Esther Ranzten remains, as enthusiastic and as campaigning as ever.
“I’m a trained journalist, working both in television and in the newspapers and as such when I come across, if you like, good causes, that deserve a platform or areas of injustice that could be changed, my instinct are to try and bring that to as wide an audience as possible. I suppose that has meant that during all my working life I have tried to campaign for issues and causes that I have really believed in.”
Esther Rantzen was born in Hertfordshire on the 22nd June 1940 and is thus at the time of this interview half way through her sixty fifth year. Retirement however is not on the agenda. And there have of course been many, many issues. So in Esther’s own words:
“Let me give you an example from That’s Life. We had one story of a mother whose child had fractured her skull in a playground accident falling from a slide from no great height but onto tarmac. We discovered as a result of broadcasting the story, that serious accidents happen all over the country using playground equipment, and secondly, nobody had been collecting any kind of statistics because the A&E departments of hospitals recorded the accident but not where it happened.”
Before my eager campaigning readers get too over excited in stretching for their Personal Injury protocol letter let me remind you that this is an example from the late seventies.
“We did some more research and discovered that there are safe surfaces with either rubber tiles or woodchip which can mean that if children do fall, it is a soft landing. So I started to drop china plates in television studios just to demonstrate the difference. A china plate shatters on tarmac and bounces on rubber. As a result Parent Teachers Associations and local authorities around the country began to dig up the tarmac and replace it with safe surfaces.”
I remember it well. Overnight playgrounds were transformed from concrete to smelly wood chip.
“Now if That’s Life were on the air now, I would be doing a story about the local councils who have not maintained their playground surfaces and therefore chain up the gates because they do not have a statutory duty to provide play space and they are terrified of litigation if they provide an unsafe surface. So I would be saying is it not time that we made it part of the local authority’s responsibility to make sure that children have somewhere to play.”
‘Terrified of litigation’? Now I am sure she meant that in a positive way. After all Esther is all in favour of personal injury.
“Well personally I am also a spokesperson for one of these, personal injury, no win, no fees organisations, namely the Accident Advice Helpline”.
See I said she meant it in a positive way.
“My experience has been that we are a very non-litigious population. That we would rather get on with life, than keep the pain alive by going to lawyers and there is a huge sum of money by way of compensation that people are actually entitled to but that they do not claim. So I think that we are not litigious until we are pushed”.
So are there exceptions to the rule?
“Of course, there is always an exception to the rule, there always has been, what do you call it, the vexatious…
The vexatious litigant?
“Yes, the vexatious litigant. Actually there is one in my village, but I better not name them for fear of litigation.”
Very nice! So no win no fees get the Rantzen backing?
“Yes, well, it is actually a campaign that we ran for years on That’s Life, saying that all lawyers ought to offer no win, no fees and that people ought to have access to compensation because our experience of investigating people who were clearly entitled to compensation was that there would be interminable delays that insurance companies managed to spin things out and it was causing real hardship. I have spoken to a minicab driver who was blocked by the other side’s insurers even though the other car has smashed into the back of him when he was stationary at the lights, and as a minicab driver it was his livelihood at stake, so for me it is just a continuation of a campaign that I started on That’s Life.”
And thus we find ourselves back on campaigns. Her biggest to date relates to her involvement with children and in the particular reference to the chilling statistic that on average sixteen children commit suicide every year as a result of bullying, “literally bullied to death”. In the 1980s Esther produced and presented three programmes about child abuse called Childwatch, following which she founded the charity Childline, the free 24- hour national helpline for children in distress or danger.
So what can lawyers do?
“Now I believe in good law as a basis for good conduct and I certainly think that it would be very interesting if lawyers were prepared to take maybe group actions or single actions against schools and education authorities. I think that there are certain schools who are in such deep denial [of bullying] and who take so little action to protect the children they nominally look after, that they need what could best be described as a short sharp shock. They need to understand that it is in their interests to make sure that they do protect their children.”
Well I am sure with Esther around they are not going to forget their obligations and if any lawyers decide to take up the challenge they will not have to look too far for a willing expert witness.
And what law reforms would Esther bring in?
“I would ask the criminal bar to recognise how badly they are failing children. We do not provide justice for our children, particularly child witnesses. Our system of the adversarial legal system is designed to frighten adults into telling the truth. Now what it does, is intimidate children into being unable to speak at all and I believe that we need to create an inquisitorial system which would mean that we could find proper corroboration for the children who are disclosing crimes such as abuse and we would find a language for child defendants like, for example, the children who killed Jamie Bulger so that they could understand it.”
Is it really that bad?
“I think the system is a disgrace at the moment, in the sense that it has let our children down so badly and there are plenty of other countries that do it better.”
So what basic rights do children have?
“I tend not to talk about children’s rights. I tend to talk about what they need because I think when you talk about children’s rights then you sort of inflame people’s own rights such as discussions, you know, about women’s rights. Children’s rights they find that difficult to accept, but if you talk about what children need, there’s no question that children need proper legal protection from dangerous criminals because at the moment they do not get it.
By dangerous criminal what exactly do you mean?
Well, if you sexually abuse children and you make sure you damage them so badly they can not give evidence or you abuse children so young, they can not give evidence, you will get away with it for life. Because you are getting away with it there has been an estimate, which says that a paedophile in an average career makes a thousand assaults either on different children or on a single child. So how much misery and suffering are you condemning children to with a legal system which never brings paedophiles to justice?”
It can not be as simple as just changing the way the courts run to prevent this?
“Let me tell you a story. Two children I know very well were sexually abused by an old neighbour. The older child physically attempted to protect the younger child; we are talking about a seven year old and a five year old. She flew at him with her fist to try and stop him doing the same to her younger sister. She disclosed to her mother. It was decided by the CPS that the younger child was too young to give evidence; therefore the seven year old was not allowed to refer in any way to the sexual abuse of her younger sister. When the man was charged, an older young woman came forward, a woman of 24, who he had also abused, using the same form of bribery. The older woman gave evidence to the police but the judge would not allow it to be heard, because he said it would be prejudicial. That meant the seven year old was uncorroborated either by her younger sister or by the older woman. The man was only convicted of one offence against her, when in fact he had assaulted three that we know of, probably more.”
Harrowing stuff, there is more..,
“Another example, took place in my local authority in London. Ten children, whom I knew who were in care, were sexually abused by a house parent there. They decided as young adults that they would go to court together. The local authority had lost the papers. The judge stopped the case. So, what are we talking about? We are talking about criminals who are going unpunished. We are talking about victims who are going unheard. Now that is not what our criminal law is there to do.”
It was the English philosopher, Edmund Burke who stated that ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Whilst Esther is around ‘nothing’ is not really an option.