Whenever a Hollywood actress complains about some lecherous man, there’s blanket coverage. Even our MPs feel the need to tut. So why, when there are allegations involving 1,000 underage girls abused by child-grooming gangs in this country, does no one turn a hair? For the most part, the paedophile scandal in Telford was ignored by the people who should care most.
The BBC, which has devoted hour upon hour to the #MeToo movement since the allegations over Harvey Weinstein broke last year, initially did not even think it worth covering the Telford abuse story on the section of its website devoted to news from Shropshire, let alone the national news. In the House of Commons, after the news broke, ‘urgent questions’ were being asked in the Commons chamber about the potential bullying of Westminster researchers. The fate of Telford girls, uncovered by the Sunday Mirror, was relegated to the junior chamber in Westminster Hall.
It’s true the news has always tended to focus on the interests and preoccupations of the powerful and well-connected — and Telford is a far cry from Westminster. But there is another reason why the story made no waves. The alleged perpetrators fit a pattern of offending which was evident in the Rochdale and Rotherham scandals: they are predominantly Asian men targeting predominantly white girls, often in care, some terribly young. As Alexis Jay wrote in her 2014 report into the Rotherham scandal, plenty was known about what was going on; yet ‘several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so.’
The same stories are now emerging about Telford. One victim has said that she was raped so often in her early teenage years that she visited a clinic twice a week for three years to pick up the morning-after pill. No one at the clinic asked any questions. It was easier to turn a blind eye than to confront the uncomfortable reality.
Following the Jay report into Rotherham it seemed briefly as if the collective denial of the exploitation of underage white girls by Asian grooming gangs was at an end. It seemed that lesson had been learnt and that all the authorities involved — local councillors, police, social workers, MPs, even the BBC — had understood that however racially sensitive an issue, however much you fear inciting Islamophobia, it’s worse in the end for everyone to ignore it. Politicians began to speak publicly about a culture of sexual exploitation among Pakistani men. The BBC even made a documentary about the Rochdale scandal: Three Girls. But then came the Darren Osborne attack. Osborne drove his van into a group of Muslims outside a mosque in Finsbury Park and killed a man. In his trial, it turned out that watching Three Girls had made him angry. Everyone’s original fear came flooding back. Some stories are too dangerous to report.
But there’s a price to be paid for ignoring terrible crimes, whatever your motive. Not only do paedophiles go unpunished and children suffer, but the general population, who know full well what’s going on, become frustrated and enraged. This gives great power to populists and racists. As far back as 2004 the BNP was distributing leaflets talking about paedophile gangs targeting white girls — and this at a time when we now know that the police and social services not far away in Rochdale and Rotherham were playing down (or covering up) these very crimes.
The same dynamic plays out in Sweden, where an unprecedented influx of immigration has meant a rise in gangland violence. Because the police and politicians refuse to link the new arrivals with the new crime, people have started turning to the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, who look set to do well in elections later on this year.
Politicians seldom have problems condemning the activities of white racist groups. Rightly so. But rape and sexual assault need to be investigated and exposed, whoever the perpetrators are. Some politicians have agreed that the abuse discovered in Telford is merely an extension of the harassment of women in general. This is quite untrue. It’s a highly specific cultural and criminal issue, with its own discrete characteristics — a subject that keeps being dodged and, as a result, keeps coming back. It deserves its own debate in Parliament, especially because the victims are those whose voices tend not to be heard.
It would be tragic if Parliament were to end up discussing the fate of people with a large social media following while losing sight of girls, often from broken families, who depend more than most on social services and on the police working as they should. This subject might be off-putting, difficult to debate and report. But this is why we have a public service broadcaster, and politicians. As the Rochdale abuse scandal ought to have demonstrated, such horrors will never be addressed if they cannot be discussed. It would be tragic if Parliament, and the BBC, with the best intentions, end up failing the people who need them most.