Justice is not racist

Concerns about political correctness are preventing too many MPs from properly addressing the scandal of sex-grooming gangs

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

We had driven slowly down the street looking for the house which belonged to one of Telford’s most notorious sex-grooming gang rapists. Based on what my sources had told me, it was probably the house with a flourish of Arabic calligraphy painted near the roofline. I’d got out to have a look on foot while my cameraman and producer parked further up the hilly road and readied the camera. That’s when I noticed the two South Asian men in a car watching me.

Soldiers call their behaviour “dicking”. It’s a term which comes from Northern Ireland, where it was normal for the IRA to have people watching before an attack, giving a signal when the right moment comes. They inched their car around corners to keep an eye on us as we moved about the estate. The man in the passenger seat kept a phone to his ear. There was definitely something off about them.

I decided to take the bull by the horns. I was on my own but there were only two of them and I suspected their menacing glares were unlikely to be matched by threats. I had to hope that whoever was on the other end of that phone call wasn’t racing towards us in a confrontational mood. Advancing on the car directly, I hailed them in a friendly fashion and asked if they knew where the abuser lived. Naming him seemed to disconcert them and they mumbled something about not knowing.

Their flustered reaction confirmed they had been watching me. Nobody innocent responded like that. But they were also agitated by the confrontation. If they’d already called for back-up, now was the time to move. So I said a quick thanks and jogged up to join my team. I had my producer on the phone by then, so he could tell me if they made any move while my back was turned. It felt very much as if we were in hostile territory.

When I started making an investigative documentary about grooming gangs, I hadn’t expected it to be quite so white-knuckle for me personally. Surely the outlines were well known: majority Pakistani ethnicity gangs, largely in Northern towns, had groomed and abused white girls on an industrial scale. Fears of being called racist kept the police, councils and local journalists from stopping it. It took the brave reporting of Andrew Norfolk of The Times and the courageous whistleblowers and survivors he found to reveal it.

But over the years it felt like nothing had changed. Stories kept coming out and they weren’t confined to the north anymore. Leafy Shropshire, Oxford and Bristol were now revealed to have had brutal rape gangs stalking their streets. Yet the initial mood of horror had receded. When a report saying at least 1,000 girls in Telford had been raped, BBC News didn’t even put it on the front page.

Furthermore, there had been a lot of push-back to the claim that those of Pakistani ethnicity were over-represented as abusers. When a long-promised report by the Home Office into the issue came out in 2020, it said that the data was bad but that from what was available it seemed that white men made up the majority of abusers. Claims of ethnic over-representation were now described by the Left as discredited stereotypes or even “racist”. 

But over-representation and being a majority are not the same thing. Britain was 85 per cent white in 2011, 90 per cent white in 2001, 95 per cent white in 1991. It would have been almost beyond belief if a majority of abusers had been “Asian”. It smelt like a fudge to me, yet another attempt to put the spectre of ethnicity back in its box. It’s especially telling that since 2020, the media has carried claims that anything and everything can be labelled racist, from the English countryside to punctuality, yet the rape by largely ethnic Pakistani gangs of mostly white girls who they called “white slags” and other horrifying terms somehow isn’t.

I wanted to find the truth and start a national conversation that we never had when the lid blew off the scandal. My TV documentary, Grooming Gangs: Britain’s Shame, took over a year to come to the screen. With a two-man team, we had to exhaustively read every report and article, trawl through leads, and earn the trust of dozens of survivors, whistleblowers and campaigners so we could tell their stories. What they told me shocked me to my core. Not just the horrors we knew about but the things that never made it to court, the abusers and their protectors who were never prosecuted and — worst of all — that the abuse was still happening.

With exclusive access to work by the Maggie Oliver Foundation — a charity run by the Greater Manchester Police whistleblower who exposed the rape gang scandal in Rochdale — we encountered horrifying stories and statistics about the ongoing nationwide abuse. In February, the charity was managing over fifty live cases of complex child sexual exploitation (CSE). The charity has supported over 1,000 survivors of child sexual abuse and exploitation through its legal advocacy and emotional support services since 2020. Just last year alone, over 400 victims of abuse contacted the foundation after being failed by the police in some way. The average age for abuse to start from all of the foundation’s cases in the last three years is just twelve.

Along the way, I found that many other things had never changed. Not only were horrifying cases of complex CSE and group-based exploitation still rife across the country, but the ability to confront the crisis honestly — across all communities — was still desperately lacking.

In the Oldham borough of Glodwick, the scene of race riots in 2001, my crew and I found ourselves surrounded after only a few minutes. The crowd let us go, but the mood was palpable. In Oldham, when I told an Asian man I was a journalist, he told me the media had faked the Manchester bombing to make Muslims look bad. It was very clear that the divide between communities was still as wide as ever.

I also found that many of those who should have been punished had not been. The incredibly brave survivor “Elizabeth” told me her rapist, Asghar Bostan, had been let out of prison after serving half his sentence. Some Rotherham councillors who had served at the time of the failures had — far from retiring in shame — continued to work in public office, and in one case went on to become Labour parliamentary candidate.

But there were also signs of hope

But there were also signs of hope, even though conservative outlets who pride themselves on being outspoken turned down my proposal to cover the story. One editor at a leading right-wing publication told a colleague that my pitch for the film couldn’t be considered as they didn’t want a film “by a white man” on the issue. The mainstream media aren’t interested — to date there is still only one drama about the subject, despite it being the worst race hate crime in twenty-first-century Britain, with decades of abuse from the 1970s. But GB News was willing to take the story and invest time and money on a painstaking investigation.

Another sign of hope was the rumblings in government about wanting to finally deal once and for all with the issue. Many of the policies announced last month — a new taskforce, better data collection on ethnicity, and stronger sentencing — come directly from my film. Mandatory reporting will also help prevent the culture of cover-up where abuse was described by the authorities as reflecting personal choices by underage girls.

But there is still more to do. When the scandal first broke in 2011 there were many promises by a horrified political class, but the results have been inadequate. It is up to the political parties to make protecting vulnerable young people a priority. Keir Starmer has said that he wants to halve violence against women and girls, but just four months ago he had to remove Dominic Beck — who was forced to resign from Rotherham Council in 2015 — as Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Rother Valley. 

The reaction to the government’s promise to clamp down on grooming gangs and the resurgence of the issue in the national conversation has been profoundly depressing. On the day that the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, outlined the government’s plans, Labour apparatchiks took to the airwaves to run an all too familiar media line. Summoned to the BBC, the West Yorkshire Mayor, Labour’s Tracy Brabin, described this renewed focus on the rape gangs as “dog-whistle politics”. 

Once again Brabin was dealing with a culture clash issue on her patch, following recent controversies involving a teacher forced into hiding after showing a drawing of Mohammed and an autistic boy facing death threats after a Quran was scuffed at a school. Brabin bottled those issues by failing to stand up for freedom of speech and oppose militant activism from local mosques. To that shameful record she can add the disgrace of preferring to cry “racism” when the risible over-representation of Pakistani rape gangs is raised.

More Labour figures followed Brabin’s capitulation with similar displays of cowardice. Lisa Nandy said “singling out” the over-representation of Pakistani rape gangs was a problem. Councils rejected claims they had covered up the scandals, despite official reports and whistleblowers confirming it regularly.

It’s clear that the grooming gangs crackdown has rattled Labour to its core, with The Sunday Times reporting last April last that it was the final straw that pushed the party into running controversial adverts that claimed Rishi Sunak did not want to imprison child abusers.

Wholehearted support would have been a better response. Instead, Labour’s refusal to debate the proposals (beyond Starmer saying he had called for mandatory reporting for a long time), while maintaining a tone of negativity about them has added to the politicisation of efforts to tackle the issue. 

This is a shame, because the proposals could make a real difference. The new police-led and National Crime Agency-supported CSE taskforce will parachute in specially-trained officers to deal with complex cases. My investigation found credible reports of grooming gangs from around 50 different towns and cities across Britain, but only one of them — Rotherham — has received an NCA-focused operation. 

The agency has revised the number of victims from 1,400 as concluded in the 2014 Alexis Jay report to at least 1,510, with Operation Stovewood leading to hundreds more arrests and dozens of convictions. More cases are going through the courts right now. It has changed lives. The taskforce could bring more of that gang-busting success to the rest of the country, securing justice for thousands who have been ignored by authorities.

The proposed raft of measures also commits the police to recording ethnicity data, a vital component that has all too often been missing, allowing activists to muddy the waters and lie to the public about the truth on grooming gangs. As the Home Secretary said to me in Rochdale, “The truth is not racist”.

… it is unlikely the government will be held to account

The government’s plans to tackle the gangs are welcome, and campaigners and survivors told me they were “cautiously optimistic” they would lead to improvements, but it is unlikely the government will be held to account by an opposition that cares more about brushing this issue under the carpet. 

More troublingly, the silence among the government’s own backbenchers threatens to see this crisis kicked into the long grass once again. Whitehall insiders told me that some Tory MPs are too frit to support their prime minister on the scandal, which apparently is too controversial for them to speak up on.

A combination of activists engaged in distraction techniques and cowardly Conservatives risks ruining the plans that have given survivors, whistleblowers and campaigners cause for cautious optimism. It is the duty of my colleagues in the media and of us all to ensure we eventually get the culture of accountability that victims desperately need. 

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