When you think of child sex abuse scandals, you might think of Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford, Newcastle, Keighley, or now, Telford. An inquiry found yesterday morning that over a thousand young girls had been sexually abused in Telford over generations due to systemic, wholly avoidable failures by police and local councils.
Yet the reaction to the story has been strangely subdued. While many outlets wrote about the inquiry, within hours the stories were no longer on the homepages of The Guardian, The Independent or The Telegraph. None of these sex abuse scandals have generated the level of outrage you would expect given the harrowing realities behind them. Ever since the news of the Rotherham child exploitation scandal, described as “biggest child protection scandal in UK history”, broke in 2012, the media and establishment has been tiptoeing around the issue. For years these awful atrocities have been exposed, one after the other, yet there has been no national conversation, no social media movements, no calls for heads to roll for neglect of duty. Even though they are ongoing scandals on a scale that eclipse other #MeToo controversies like the abuse of the USA gymnastics team, they have received a fraction of the coverage.
We live in strange times when there is more media focus on whether a politician touched a journalist’s knee or whether Stanley Johnson smacked a woman’s bottom than the fact that authorities failed — on multiple occasions — to investigate an extensive network of paedophiles who were often hiding in plain sight.
The pattern is familiar: young girls in Telford were groomed, lured with ‘gifts’ and false affection, and then assaulted, drugged, raped, and threatened by men who were mostly Muslim and of Pakistani origin. Authorities were discouraged from reporting signs of abuse; exploitation was not investigated because of nervousness about race and religion; agencies blamed the children, not the criminals. A review has led to ‘recommendations’ and vague apologies, but no police officers, social workers or councillors have been fired for their incompetence, carelessness or decision to prioritise political correctness over moral instinct.
Just like in other cases, the victims were continuously dismissed by police as ‘troublemakers’, ‘silly girls’, ‘lovesick teenagers’ and ‘little tarts’ for whom having an ‘older Asian boyfriend’ was a ‘fashion accessory’ that they would ‘soon grow out of’. They viewed them as ‘child prostitutes’, despite the fact that children cannot be prostitutes because they cannot consent to sexual acts.
This institutional indifference should dominate the national press, but it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s because the Telford girls were the ‘wrong’ kind of victim, or the grooming gangs were the ‘wrong’ kind of perpetrator. Or maybe the repetition has made readers strangely numb, or an ongoing hesitancy around ‘inflaming racial tensions’ means that the story is not spotlighted by politicians or those in power, who could call for more than just indefinite promises that ‘lessons will be learnt.’
Classism, misogyny and heightened sensitivities around the perpetrators’ ethnicity and religion created a dangerous environment where child sexual exploitation could thrive. Yet the crisis is far from over: in the first six months of 2020 Telford police received 172 referrals alone relating to child exploitation. The relative silence from the establishment in the wake of this inquiry suggests that we are no more comfortable having difficult discussions about where these men’s cultural attitudes come from than we were before the investigations.
As long we continue to tiptoe around these conversations for fear of being branded racist, the harder it will be to condemn the many, many people who wilfully turned a blind eye, and chose to protect rapists, abusers, drug dealers, traffickers — and themselves — rather than children and teenage girls. How can we stay quiet about that?