When we sit at an obvious hinge of history, the tendency of the press is to look in the wrong direction for the events that will define a new era. 106 years ago this month, foreign correspondents were camped in Dublin hotels, waiting for a supposedly inevitable civil war to break out after the final passage of Asquith’s Home Rule Act. Leading world power Britain was a much more commanding story than little-understood and impoverished Bosnia, where Gavrilo Princip’s bullet was about to destroy the world that had existed since the Congress of Vienna.
In today’s Britain, attention is lavished on the anti-racist protests and demands for dethroned statues in urbane, metropolitan centres like Bristol, Manchester, and Oxford. Yet the current protest movement with the capacity to most directly shape Britain’s political future has received no attention from national journalists, with the honourable exception of the Guardian’s North of England correspondent, Helen Pidd, despite the fact it is taking place in the town with the UK’s worst Covid-19 outbreak.
Partly, this reflects the fact that it is taking place in Barrow-in-Furness, as remote a decent sized town as it is possible to find in England. Partly it reveals how uncomfortable a tale involving fascists, Islamists, grooming allegations, collapsed faith in the police, and death threats to journalists is to people of all political persuasions.
Barrow is a defence industry town of 57,000 people, overwhelmingly white British. The constituency it anchors is a historically Labour-leaning marginal that fell to the Tories on a 6.5% swing in December, despite voting only 57% Leave, a much less lopsided margin than most “red-wall” seats.
The area has the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases per capita in the UK. Local health authorities put this down to good testing, but by mid-March official stats already showed Cumbria had one of the worst outbreaks in the country. That got little coverage as the media remained obsessed about high population density as the supposedly key factor in places hard hit by the virus.
Amy Fenton, a journalist with the Barrow Evening Mail, has had a nightmarish year, which started in February when Leroy McCarthy, a local convert to Islam whose jailing for threatening to blow up the local hospital Fenton had reported on, made a rape threat against her. McCarthy was jailed for 20 weeks as a result; Fenton showed extraordinary courage and outspokenness in how she handled the situation.
Fast forward to mid-May: a nineteen-year-old woman in Barrow posted on Facebook that she’d been groomed by a gang of Muslim men, trafficked across northern England for some years, and beaten for refusing to attend sex parties during the lockdown.
Two days later she was sent to jail for breaking bail conditions imposed after she was charged with perverting the course of justice earlier this year, accused of making false allegations about five men and falsifying evidence. Her post has been shared 83,000 times so far, and made her case a cause célèbre in the town; so far, supporters have raised £22,000 to pay any legal costs. The woman is being supported by Maggie Oliver, the former Greater Manchester Police detective who blew the whistle about the Rochdale grooming gangs and resigned from the force in protest over its handling of the case.
Local police say they led a year-long investigation, involving the National Crime Agency, into possible grooming gangs in Barrow, and found no evidence they existed. The 2014 Jay Report into the decades-long Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal was, thankfully, a huge wake-up call to how allegations grooming by gangs are handled, and I see no reason to disbelieve the police.
My view would meet with derision from many in the town. On 23 May, there was a large protest at a retail park in support of the nineteen-year-old. Protestors stayed in their cars beeping horns given social distancing rules in, remember, the town with the highest detected Covid-19 infection rate in the UK.
At around the same time, five owners of Indian takeaways in Barrow received death threats after being linked speculatively to the woman’s claims. There is no evidence that they have done anything wrong. Having already been threatened by an Islamist, Amy Fenton was further threatened, this time by right-wing whites angry at the Barrow Evening Mail’s coverage of the case, despite this being shaped substantially by the law on reporting live criminal cases.
Conspiracy theorists said that as Fenton is originally from East Lancashire, with its large Muslim population, she was in the pay of grooming gangs. She was forced into hiding with her five-year-old daughter. The ugly fruits of the campaign to demonise a “scum media” are ripening a long way from Metroland.
A few days later Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka “Tommy Robinson”, turned up in town to “investigate” the 19-year-old’s claims, in other words to make political capital out of them. To their credit, the woman’s family would have nothing to do with him. You can find a lot of support for the nineteen-year-old on anti-paedophile blogs, mostly run by working-class white women. These blogs are deeply conspiratorial, but inclined to proclaim that their anger about grooming gangs isn’t racist by dint of reference to Jimmy Saville and Cyril Smith, and are usually hostile to the far-right.
The most recent public event was another retail park protest on Thursday 4 June, this time attended by Yaxley-Lennon and other far-right figures from outside the region; Yaxley-Lennon spent the night in the cells following a report of an assault at the protest.
That’s where things stand in Barrow at the moment – an unresolved criminal case, a number of horribly traumatised people, and a lot of violent threats in the UK’s corona capital as fascists ride into town; and it’s being ignored by the national media.
The concern raises two uncomfortable realities. The first is that working-class whites have started believing conspiracy theories about authorities covering up for grooming gangs led by Muslims, because for many years police and social services covered up for grooming gangs led by Muslims.
Remember that in 2004, years before the story supposedly broke, Channel 4 made a film about a gang of Muslims grooming white girls in Bradford; the gangs weren’t just known about by police and social services, they were on national TV. Everyone ignored the story, even the far-right, not usually known for having hearts that bleed for the travails of troubled teens. A toe-curling contemporary article by the Guardian’s Anthea Milnes captures the mood of the time; nobody cared about the girls, only whether their story would help the BNP.
As I’ve said already, the Jay Inquiry changed the landscape entirely, and I do not believe that cover ups for grooming gangs are still an issue. Yet innocent men are living in terror because their Muslim faith makes them easy targets of lies and rumours, indirect victims of a collapse of working-class white confidence in the criminal justice system.
The second uncomfortable reality is that these events are intimately bound up with how the Brexit culture wars are playing out in small-town England. Angry working-class Leavers are revolting against culturally liberal police, social workers, journalists, and teachers. This is class war – ironically a class war launched by accident as the readers of the Spectator and the Telegraph pursued their very bourgeois battles with consumers of Channel 4 and the Guardian. I doubt any of them are going to like the outcome.
If there is hope in any part of this very 2020 England tale of woe, it is how many angry working-class whites still reserve contempt for Yaxley-Lennon and his ilk. But if a hard-line law-and-order Tory offered them hanging for persistent sex offenders, they’d jump at it. Both the Leave and Remain political nodes that emerged among the graduate classes during and since the Referendum involve significant exercises in denying reality. The virus has already killed the delusion of Global Britain. Married to white working-class populism, it could kill Woke Britain too.
In this story of things being ignored nationally, let us not forget that local journalists get poor wages and no job security in a dying industry to expose vile criminals, racist thugs, and corrupt-to-incompetent public authorities and businesses. Without them, any country is worse governed. Now they face death threats too. Support them.
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