A Media Note on Telford

The BBC has a quote from Police Supt Tom Harding, who is in charge of West Mercia Police in the town of Telford:

I’m concerned about the 1,000 figure because I don’t know the basis upon which it was reached and actually we’ve worked with a number of young people over many years around CSE [child sexual exploitation] and it’s nowhere near that 1,000 number.

But absolutely we don’t know the full scale of sexual offending as it’s an incredibly under-reported crime, but we are doing everything that we can to encourage those people to come forward.

I’m not playing this down. What I’m saying is that for many years we’ve identified CSE as something that are seeking to tackle, and I’ve had, in the last two years, I’ve had additional resources provided to me by the chief constable and PCC, because it’s something that we really want to work on jointly with the local authority.

Harding was responding an article that appeared in the latest Sunday Mirror on the subject of child sexual exploitation in Telford, which reported that “Professor Liz Kelly, from the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University” had “helped estimate” that “up to 1,000 children” may have been targeted by “sex gangs” in the town. This figure was apparently calculated by extrapolating from information provided by the newspaper about past cases over many years (in one instance going back to the 1980s).

Organised “grooming” sex abuse in Telford was first highlighted in 2012-13, when the police’s Operation Chalice resulted in seven convictions – this was a year after comparable trials relating to Rotherham. However, it is reasonable to suppose that these convictions indicate a deeper problem – and even if Harding is right to be confident that far fewer children are at risk of exploitation now, that still leaves a legacy of historic cases for which perpetrators and those who may have failed in their duties ought to be brought to account.

This is a subject that the Sunday Mirror has been campaigning on for some time – in September 2016 the paper ran a piece headlined “Parents’ fury over grooming ‘whitewash'” (online as “Leaders of town dubbed ‘Britain’s child sex capital’ accused of whitewashing own inquiry”), which was followed a week later with “Theresa May urged to launch Rotherham-style inquiry into the town branded Britain’s child sex capital”, referring to an intervention by the town’s MP, Lucy Allen. Geraldine McKelvie, the journalist responsible for those articles and co-author of the on Sunday, also helped write a memoir by Holly Archer, I Never Gave My Consent: A Schoolgirl’s Life Inside the Telford Sex Ring, which was published by Simon & Schuster UK.

The new article also suggests that older reports ought to be understood as part of the same story: one example here is the death of Lucy Lowe, a 16-year-old who was murdered by arson in 2000 along with her mother and sister by a man named Azhar Ali Mehmood. Lowe had borne Mehmood’s child at the age of 14; he was convicted of murder  in 2001 but not charged for the statutory rape, and according to the report, the killings are said to have been “used as a warning to other girls” by other abusers. A follow-up article about Lowe’s daughter refers to “the network of perverts and paedophiles, which is believed to have started in the 1980s”, suggestive of an overarching criminal conspiracy rather than a social malaise.

While the Sunday Mirror‘s front-page splash drew attention to a serious matter of public concern, its status as “hot news”, it seems to me, is ambiguous: on the one hand, new revelations of something apparently covered up, backed up with new interview material and references to “previously unseen files”; but on the other, largely a synthesis of older material, simply given renewed urgency by the statistic provided by Kelly.

Either way, the new article caught the public attention in a way that the older pieces hadn’t, and the report was widely taken as breaking news that deserved to dominate the news cycle. On social media, the fact that this was not the case on BBC News was a source of particular anger and suspicion – and the BBC’s subsequent decision to frame the story through Harding’s response has compounded the supposed original offence.

The new urgency has also been used as a stick to beat politicians for referring to other subjects: thus when the Green MP Caroline Lucas wrote that “Pleased that my Urgent Question on bullying and harassment in House of Commons has been granted”, Andrew Neil responded by saying that an Urgent Question on Telford would have been more appropriate; and Nadine Dorries saw an opportunity to attack the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan for an unrelated Tweet stating that it was “time to act on hate speech”. Dorries (the only MP, so far as I am aware, to have previously promoted Tommy Robinson on Twitter) replied that it was instead “time to act on sex abusing grooming gangs”, apparently implying that Khan was attempting to shut down discussion of a crime in which British Asians of Pakistani origins have been disproportionately involved.

There has been less interest, though, in asking for more information about specific details. When Harding says that “I’m concerned about the 1,000 figure because I don’t know the basis upon which it was reached”, he’s making a perfectly reasonable point – all we have is the authority of an academic/campaigner, rather than a rigorous assessment we can follow for ourselves; yet this is now embedded as the essential fact about Telford.

Similarly, we’re told that documents show that “council staff viewed abused and trafficked children as ‘prostitutes’ instead of victims”, but we’re not told when this was or how this apparent “view” affected decision-making – were they being dismissive, or just using outdated terminology? (1) An assertion that “authorities failed to keep details of abusers from Asian communities for fear of ‘racism'” isn’t very helpful when we don’t know which authorities, when, or whether “fear of ‘racism'” was an issue they themselves raised or something they have been accused of by others.

One can’t blame a tabloid newspaper for focusing on sensational elements – some would argue that this is the only way to get to the guts of a story – but when these form the basis for a national discussion there are obvious risks that the public will be alarmed and angered without being properly informed, and that the issue will be weaponised by malign elements [UPDATE: for example one such attempt, see here].

Note

1. One of the offences that led to convictions in 2012 and 2013 was  called “controlling child prostitution”. The term “child prostitution” was removed from government publications only in 2016. This is doubtless an improvement, but it is unreasonable to assert that someone who has used the old term therefore has no understanding that this is child exploitation.

In a further follow-up article in the Daily Mirror, we are told:

Officers investigating child sexual exploitation in the town were sent an internal memo telling them “in most cases the sex is consensual”.

…Mr [Dino] Nocivelli, of the firm Bolt Burdon Kemp, said: “Many of these children will have been groomed and manipulated by their abusers and would have been threatened to keep silent. How can you say an 11-year-old is capable of consenting to sex with a 40-year-old? This is rape.”

Nocivelli appears to be providing the Mirror titles with a running commentary. Again, though, more context would be useful. What did the police mean by using this phrase? Were they disregarding the age of consent law, or was the memo simply providing contextual information about the nature of the offence, which was that a child had been improperly persuaded to agree to sexual activity, rather than being overpowered or threatened? Surely the former is implicit in the whole idea of “grooming”, in which the perpetrator uses manipulation and deception rather than brute force. As a particular crime with is own distinctive strategy, this is a difference that officers needed to be aware of.

Let’s see the Mirror publish documents and memos as fully as possible, so we can make informed judgements of our own.