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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.