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Artillery Row

Newsnight and the rapist

The BBC should be embarrassed by its careless coverage of a man who has now been convicted of rape

The BBC first encountered Omar Badreddin and his family when they were in Syria attempting to gain refugee status in Britain. It made for a compelling piece of journalism. When Badreddin arrived in Britain, though, he was charged with sexual assault.

There must have been panic in the newsrooms. Nigel Farage even accused the BBC of taking part in a “conspiracy of silence” over the case. But the Beeb was in luck. Badreddin was found not guilty.

What followed was a Newsnight report, hosted by Katie Razzall and still available on YouTube, which dwelled on how “what began as a story about escape from war became a window on the isolation of beginning a new life”, and how “plenty are suspicious of newcomers with their different customs and traditions”. 

“That, believes Omar Badreddin, was at the heart of the case against them,” Razzall said, after which Badreddin claimed, “I felt she [the accuser] didn’t want foreigners in this country and that is why she made up the whole story.” You can imagine the sympathetic nods behind the camera. Out of the civil war frying pan and into the xenophobia fire! What could make for a more textbook Newsnight story?

Well, the BBC should perhaps make a sequel here because Badreddin, his brother and two co-defendants have been found guilty of raping a 13-year-old girl. The BBC has now been compelled to report:

A gang who groomed and raped a 13-year-old girl, using threats to kill and kidnap, have been handed jail terms.

The four attackers were aged between 15 and 21 when they abused the victim between August 2018 and April 2019, Newcastle Crown Court heard.

The girl said they “tortured” her, making childhood a “living nightmare”.

It goes without saying that the most important thing about this case — far and away beyond anything else — is the welfare of the poor young woman. I hope that she can build a new life despite this horrific trauma.

But the case is unavoidably embarrassing for the BBC. A note was added to the report about Badreddin’s conviction:

In 2015 and 2016, Newsnight followed the story of the Badreddin family, who were Syrian refugees who had settled in the UK. During the year, their son Omar was tried for sexual assault and found not guilty. Two years afterwards, in 2018 and 2019, Omar Badreddin and his brother Mohamed committed multiple counts of rape. They were found guilty and were jailed on 1 March 2024. The BBC reported this. In any situation, the BBC can only report on the facts as they stand at the time, which is what we did in this case. The Badreddins’ subsequent crimes are appalling, and we express our sincere sympathies to their victim.

It is certainly true that the BBC could not have known what Badreddin would go on to do. It would be silly to think that they could have looked into the future. Any one of us might know a person who will commit dreadful crimes.

But this does not excuse the BBC’s presentation of the 2016 case. 

Did Badreddin have any evidence that his underage accuser was motivated by xenophobia? I can’t find any reference to such a possibility in contemporaneous reports on the case. We all know that sexual assault convictions do not reflect the prevalence of sexual assault — and while we should of course treat people who are found not guilty as being innocent, that does not mean that we should demonise their accusers without just cause.

What was the relevance of Razzall claiming that “the Syrian men in many ways appeared less sexually experienced than the girls they were supposed to have attacked”? Sadly, it is possible for a child to be more sexually experienced than an adult. We inhabit a dark world. But so what? The significance of this claim — a claim which it is very easy to imagine predators employing — was never elaborated on. 

This note by Razzall in a 2016 article on Badreddin’s “not guilty” verdict was also reflective of ideological bias:

… when I walked into the Badreddin’s home this afternoon, there was little celebration — and the tears they shed were not of joy.

The family told me ever since their son’s arrest, they have felt humiliated and dishonoured, even though they were certain their son was innocent. In Syrian culture, this type of accusation is so damaging to their reputation, that even though Omar Badreddin has been cleared, they fear the stigma of it will stick.

In Syrian culture the stigma of this kind of accusation might stick. Unlike in British culture where we don’t take it so seriously? 

Again, I am by no means claiming that the BBC should or could have known about crimes that Badreddin would commit years later. That would be absurd. But the romantic presentation of his case was dismal. 

The Newsnight journalists were so pleased about delivering a rebuke to concerns about migration and crime that they overstepped the facts and engaged in propaganda. This tragic and appalling case means that their efforts will have the opposite effect than they intended.

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