The Manchester “Grooming” Report in Media Context: Some Notes

From the Manchester Evening News:

Greater Manchester Police have been accused of ‘covering up’ historic child sex abuse over the past 15 years after it emerged that a 100-strong gang of suspected paedophiles were left free to offend, despite the force knowing what they were doing.

Maggie Oliver, the retired detective who blew the whistle on GMP’s aborted Operation Augusta – which had uncovered widescale abuse but was closed abruptly in 2005 regardless – said that not only had the police ‘deliberately’ not investigated child rape, but that it had tried to get today’s report by the mayor’s office suppressed.

The background to the story is not new: way back in 2014 ITV News ran a piece titled “ITV News investigation finds hundreds of child abusers walking free in Manchester due to police failings”, which included the detail that “Margaret Oliver submitted a report to senior GMP officers more than 10 years ago with details of the abuse allegations.” Then as now, there was particular emphasis on the abuses suffered by Victoria Agoglia Byrne, who died of a drug overdose aged 15 in 2003. However, public memory is short, and the new report is being regarded by many on social media as a shocking new “grooming” revelation, with anger that it is not today on the front pages of all the newspapers.

The mayor’s office report be read in full here. It explains that Operation Augusta came into being following a 2004 television documentary called Edge of the City, which took an observational approach to deprivation in Keighley on the edge of Bradford. Broadcast was delayed after the BNP attempted to capitalise on the documentary’s segment on grooming, and the Guardian interviewed the director, Anna Hall, at the time:

According to Hall’s film, the Keighley social services office has recorded 50 to 70 possible cases of grooming, while the children’s charity Barnardo’s currently has 15 projects working with young people across the UK who have been abused. But what struck Hall about the cases she found in Bradford and Keighley was that “blatant abuse was going on under people’s noses, and no one seemed able to prevent it”.

Prevention and cure are both difficult. Where the girls are over 13, police are unable to act unless they themselves make a complaint. Many of the girls either do not think they are being abused, or have been so heavily drugged that they cannot recall clearly what has happened, or are intimidated by what will happen to them and their families if they do speak out. Hall’s hope was that the film would convey the sense of outrage felt by the victims’ families and by social workers, and that this might lead to changes in the law and dedicated policing nationwide.

This notion that “police are unable to act” if a girl is 13 or over unless she complains is new to me, and it is curious that such a comment was apparently taken at face value. Of course, it may be that a non-compliant witness aged 13 or above might make a successful prosecution more difficult, but that’s not the same as the police being “unable to act” (1).

According to the new mayor’s office report:

We have established that this documentary was a consideration of the gold command, and in our judgement appears to be one factor in the decision to initiate Operation Augusta. Mrs Oliver believed the Augusta team was not required to research Victoria Agoglia, although she had since spoken to a close relative of Victoria who believed that in 2014 the chief constable had agreed to reopen the case. Mrs Oliver believed the overdose that killed Victoria Agoglia was administered by the Asian abusers. She expressed the view that she believed that social services knew they had failed Victoria as she was in their care. Although she had no evidence, Mrs Oliver believed that social services tried to exclude the family from the inquest into the death of Victoria to “protect their own backs”.

The decision to look in turn at Operation Augusta’s failure followed a 2017 BBC documentary called The Betrayed Girls, which focused on Rochdale but also referred to other towns.

It is worth pausing to note that despite a popular trope that the mainstream media is involved in “covering up” grooming crimes, their exposure in this instance owes a great deal to the work of reporters at three of the UK’s terrestrial broadcasters.

As such, it is depressing to see Oliver’s willingness to amplify the self-described “alternative media” of the conspiracy milieu – thus today on Twitter she is engaging with Anna Brees, while the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has referred to “Mr [ Chris] Jacobs, who is acting for Maggie Oliver and John Wedger [sic – should be “Jon Wedger”], both retired senior police officers and whistleblowers” (more on this here). Brees and Wedger are strident in their denunciations of the mainstream media, expressed in conspiratorial terms, and sometimes seguing bizarrely from Satanic Ritual Abuse to the BBC’s coverage of the war in Syria. In recent months, Oliver has appeared on online shows run by Richie Allen, who is an associate of David Icke, and Shaun Attwood, who is a fan of Icke and Alex Jones.

Footnote

1. Some people on social media have referred to a quote attributed to Nazir Afzal, the well-regarded former Chief Prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service who pursued the Rochdale grooming perpetrators. The quote was apparently provided to the BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on 19 October 2018 (at 34 minutes, although no longer online) and was transcribed by a site called AltNewsMedia. According to this transcription, Afzal said:

You may not know this, but back in 2008 the Home office sent a circular to all police forces in the country saying ‘as far as these young girls who are being exploited in towns and cities, we believe they have made an informed choice about their sexual behaviour and therefore it is not for you police officers to get involved in.

Obviously this was not meant to be a direct quotation of the circular, but so far no-one has been able to identify which document this refers to. Someone even did a freedom of information request about it, which drew a blank. Home Office circulars are public documents that remain hosted online by the National Archives, and as such this difficulty in pinning the document down is mysterious.

“Celebrity Psychologist” Draws Fire Over “Manipulative Meghan” Article

From Mail Online:

Manipulative Meghan knew Harry needed a strong woman in his life after Diana’s death and exerted control by capitalising on events that hit his self-esteem, writes psychologist JO HEMMINGS

…He always seemed vulnerable, but rarely weak, but she has convinced him over a relatively short period of time, to relinquish his close relationships, his family ties and take a leap of faith into a new life with her.

Not exactly coercive behaviour, but on the surface seemingly quite manipulative.

…We also have to remember that other than her mother, Meghan has no family members she is close to – quite the reverse in fact – which would suggest that she is very driven by fulfilling her own needs and may be quite narcissistic in nature.

The article has not been well-received on social media by those who sympathise with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and the question has been raised as to whether it was ethical for someone who claims professional credentials as a psychologist to have offered an assessment that appears to psychopathologise both their relationship and Meghan’s personality. What struck me, though, was the banality of the bog-standard punditry. Among many others, the likes of Piers Morgan (a spurned and bitter would-be confidant) and Eamonn Holmes have already opined along tediously similar and predictable lines; psychological expertise here supposedly makes Hemmings’s article value added, but the theorising and speculation are parlour-game stuff that anyone can engage in.

On the ethical question, Hemmings is associated with the British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) and with the British Psychological Society (BPS). Her day-to-day work also involves what she calls “coaching”. However, she does not claim medical expertise, and “narcissistic” in her article should be understood as a descriptor rather than a diagnosis – although it’s doubtful that general readers will understand such nuances. Professional peers are not impressed: a joint complaint is being made by two special interest groups within the BABCP (Women and Gender Minorities Equality, and Equality & Culture), and a comment from a clinical psychologist named Eleanor Johnston is representative:

Whatever you think about Meghan and Harry, any ‘Psychologist’ who claims they understand how another person’s mind works without ever even meeting them is being dishonest. Ofc there are hypotheses, based on research, e.g. Meghan may feel x,y,z BUT these are hypotheses, not fact!

It has also been pointed out (by me, among others) that Hemmings has only graduate membership of the BPS, which is open to anyone with a 2:2 or above in psychology. She does not have charter membership, which the BPS describes as “reflect[ing] the highest standard of psychological knowledge and expertise” and as “our gold standard”, and which entitles members to use the legally protected term “Chartered Psychologist”. The Mail Online article bills Hemmings as a “celebrity psychologist”; recent articles have introduced her as a “behavioural psychologist” (The Times and the Guardian); a “body language expert” (the Sun); a “relationship expert” (Metro) and a “consultant psychologist” (the Telegraph). This is based on a psychology degree from Warwick and then “further training” at an unspecified college of the University of London. She has also produced some popular works, including a sex manual.

Hemmings has responded to criticisms on Twitter by liberal use of the “block” function; she has also clarified that “I didn’t write that dreadful headline”, although when the article went online she quoted it to advertise her piece without any misgivings (Tweet later deleted, but noted by others and screengrabbed). She has also expressed the view that “Part of my work is to explain behaviours on a daily basis. No ethical code broken. My views were considered and far less unkind than certain ‘professionals’ now trolling me”. As well as this, she has RTed supportive comments from journalist associates, so in all likelihood we can look forward to future articles framed along the lines of “expert commentator abused by vile trolls” or similar.

Last month she lent her name to Hive, a “smart home provider”, with comments about the benefits of “restoring order in your home” for a press release that found its way into the Sun via a “survey” hook (a lame but regularly successful PR strategy).

UPDATE: A forensic psychologist named Kerry Daynes, who has also has a media profile, says that “I’ve been asked by various media to write/contribute to articles accusing Meghan Markle of manipulation, coercive control, exploiting Harry’s mental health struggles etc. I say no to this🐴$&!£. Shame others don’t.”

Giles Coren Exits Twitter, Blaming Owen Jones: Some Notes

From Times columnist Giles Coren:

Yesterday morning, after eleven mostly unhappy and pointless years, I left Twitter.

… a piece in The Times carried a quote from me about a Labour activist and Guardian writer called Owen Jones, whom I didn’t know was gay, that Jones declared on Twitter to be homophobic. He has a million followers. They agreed with him. They piled on.

… But over the weekend Jones’s followers tweeted “we’ve found your address” and yesterday morning a group of them went round to my house, while I was at work, and started haranguing my wife and children.

Thus in one bound, the criticism that Coren received from the target of his “joke” is conveniently re-framed as harassment. The victim narrative has been taken at face value by many on Twitter, with one of Paul Staines’s minions, writing as “Media Guido”, announcing that “Giles Coren has left Twitter after a posse of Owen Jones followers turned up at his house to abuse him and instead found only his wife and children to harangue”.

Taking this as their cue, others now accuse Jones of having orchestrated criticism that apparently escalated into harassment. Toby Young (previously blogged here) Tweeted in reply to Media Guido that “The reason I’m setting up the free speech union is, in part, to protect people like Giles from being bullied and harassed by outrage mobs for making ‘inappropriate’ jokes.” How this “protection” will work in practice is unclear, but presumably it will involve inhibiting the targets of celebrity commentators (whether a rival public figure or a member of the public) from answering back – an indicator of the bad faith behind Young’s pose.

The joke was published in The Times on 31 December; Coren had imagined Jones “becoming a fat old lord… chasing young researchers with tight bottoms up and down the corridors”. Men and women can both have “tight bottoms” that some may find attractive, but Jones is well-known as being gay and it was reasonable to interpret Coren’s focus on this particular anatomical feature as a stereotypical description of predatory and rampant gay lechery. Jones wrote:

Not exactly subtle homophobia being printed by @thetimes, is it? (1) Expect a lot more like this. The election result is being interpreted as a mandate to say anything and everything about minorities – or to end the “yoke of the woke”, as one “moderate” columnist put it. (2)

Others agreed, not because Jones had “declared” this, but because that would seem to be the context. However, as well as saying that he did not know that Jones is gay, Coren also stated on Twitter that his joke was “an old trope about lecherous peers pinching researchers’ arses”. He added that “I’ve never made a homophobic comment in my life”. If we take Coren at his word, then, it was a joke that misfired due to circumstances about the target that were unknown to the joke maker. Fair enough, but Jones has every right to feel aggrieved, even though the “Free Speech” crowd apparently believe he should have kept it to himself rather than use his free speech to respond.

Looking through Twitter, Coren received a number of condemnatory and critical remarks (some of which were crudely abusive) in response to people becoming aware of his public writing, but it was hardly a deluge. One person, a man in Liverpool with 325 followers, Tweeted that “Someone’s published your address”- as far as I can see, this Tweet, which did not get any RTs or “Likes”, appears to be sole basis for the alleged link between Twitter critics and whoever it was who went around to Coren’s home. We know nothing of how big this group was or what the alleged “haranguing” involved, although one right-wing online commentator (the ludicrous Jay Beecher) framed the story as “OWEN Jones Supporters Target Journalist’s WIFE AND KIDS – Vile Left-Wing Thugs Lay Siege To Family Home”.

Jones has since responded to Coren’s new column, stating:

If people went to Coren’s house that’s unacceptable and he should report to the police with my full support. I will never condone intimidation or harassment, and it’s not done in my name. But I won’t apologise for calling out media homophobia or the targeting of minorities. 1/2. Legitimate criticism is not the same as incitement or bullying, and we should all call out bigotry where we find it. 2/2

This is unlikely to appease those who find it useful to amplify Coren’s narrative, and some opponents will deploy a popular obtuse rhetorical pose in which it is asserted that the use of the conjunction “but” following a statement should be understood as indicating that the statement was not really meant, and is about to be qualified away into a more ethically ambiguous position.

Writing on Medium, Jones further notes

Abuse is conflated with ‘politicians being challenged over policies they’ve implemented which affect millions of people’ and ‘journalists having their work scrutinised’.

…I’ve experienced this myself: I’ve been accused of orchestrating ‘pile-ons’ for defending myself against a homophobic ‘joke’ of a Times columnist or sharing the work of an investigative journalist highlighting the links between a pro-water privatisation MP and the private water industry (one twitter user compiled an amusing list of examples, ranging from me challenging someone for celebrating me being abused by fascists to literally just replying to defend myself against bizarre quote tweets, a common occurrence). 

Footnote

It is relevant to note that Coren has a history of constructing victim narratives that involve distorting what other people have written about him. Earlier last month, his Times column was a justification of crude abuse he had previously hurled at the Guardian‘s Michael White (who wasn’t named) on Twitter, including a grotesque paedo-smear; thus behaviour that is normally condemned in newspapers as the mark of the “vile troll” was here presented as a reasonable reaction when a celebrity is offended by what other people have written about them.

White, as a newspaper diarist, had made several teasing comments suggesting that Coren owes his position in public life to the fact that his father Alan Coren was famous, and this seems to have hit a nerve. Giles Coren framed this as “a man I’d never met, full of rage that I have work at all, blaming it all on my increasingly long dead father”. Coren also referred to

a newspaper article asserting that I had had sexual relations with Ruth Kelly, then the transport secretary, a woman of devout Catholic belief.

However, when I checked the source I found the following:

Someone else tells me that Ruth Kelly went out with Giles Coren, the youthful hereditary humourist, when they were both pupils at Westminster School…

There is no “assertion” here, and “sexual relations” in Coren’s version is obviously meant to imply an adult sexually consummated affair rather than teenage dating. Such a deliberate distortion indicates we should regard his claims of mistreatment with caution.

An Unnamed Labour MP and an Allegation against a Chief Constable

A bit of unfinished business from autumn 2017:

We were all in the Strangers’ Bar [in the Houses of Parliament]. The young victim was holding a phone and looking through pictures online, looking for someone else. Suddenly s/he screamed, dropped the phone and stood there shaking and crying, saying ‘it’s him, it’s him!’ The picture on the screen was that of a serving Chief Constable. It was a very real and spontaneous reaction.

This a quote that was attributed to an unnamed MP in a story run by the left-wing website The Skwawkbox. The incident had apparently occurred in January 2017, nine months before the story ran, and the Skwawkbox story followed a Tweet from the journalist (and advocate of Carl Beech) Mark Watts stating that “I can reveal that a chief constable has been interviewed under caution icw allegations of sexual abuse of a child.” The accuser is described as “a young adult who had suffered sexual abuse since childhood”, and the context implies that he or she had for the first time identified someone encountered years before. I discussed the account here.

Since then there has been no follow-up, although Watts drew an adverse inference from lack of progress a year later, writing “In Britain, the authorities are far more worried about a chief constable’s explanation for a broken mobile phone than another chief constable’s alleged role in child sexual abuse” – this was a reference to the disciplinary action taken against then Chief Constable Mike Veale for lying about how he came to smash his mobile phone (discussed here).

Given that it is now three years since the incident in Parliament, it is reasonable to assume that the allegation against the unnamed Chief Constable has been dropped as unsubstantiated; perhaps it has even been debunked, although it is often difficult to positively disprove a vaguely formulated historic accusation. If there were any loose ends, presumably Watts would have made an issue of them. Some people, of course, may suspect that a Chief Constable accused of child sex abuse might enjoy corrupt protection, but the fate of Gordon Anglesea is evidence against drawing such a conclusion.

The question here, though, concerns the MP. There is something off about an MP using their status to amplify a dramatic allegation with serious implications for public confidence in the integrity of the police, yet being unwilling to put their name to it. It is reasonable to assume from the Skwawkboxs politics that the quote was provided by a Labour MP, and their identity is of some continuing public interest given the upcoming Labour Party leadership contest. This is something the candidates ought to be asked about.