- Heywood, Rochdale (Photo by Peter Byrne/PA)
- A provisional multi agency report into the scale of sexual abuse of young girls in Rochdale published today admitted there were issues about the legitimate sexual “consent” of 13 year old girls that the authorities failed to tackle. When did it become politically incorrect to question why 13 year olds were having sex with a range of much older men? Or was it evidence of deepseated attitudes to poor and challenging girls?
15 years ago the renowned filmmaker Peter Kosminsky made No Child of Mine, a controversial drama about a teenage girl in care who’d ended up being passed around by men for sex. The phenomenon was called “conveyor belt grooming”. The script was based on the experience of a real young woman.She was played in the film by Brooke Kinsella. It won a BAFTA in 1998 for best single drama, but the TV company which had commissioned it, threatened not to show it and there was a huge row about its content, with tabloid newspapers expressing outrage. The same papers which, after the conviction of the Rochdale gang, were outraged by the scale of such abuse. I asked Kosminsky how he felt about the revelations from Rochdale.
You made No Child of Mine in 1997. How do you feel seeing the Rochdale case about large scale conveyor belt grooming?
I think it has always gone on. Occasionally, events occur which demand public attention but generally it continues in its sordid, vicious, destructive way, ignored by almost all of society. Some men feel protective towards the vulnerable. A minority respond with cruelty, greed and violence. Guy Hibbert drew attention to this with his script No Child of Mine in the 1990s and the film caused controversy in part because its message was deemed so surprising. But it ought not to have been. Before that, there had been the Kincora Children’s Home scandal in NI. And who knows what Squeers and his friends got up to at Dotheboys Hall?
What sense did you get at the time of how victims were perceived?
PK: When we were researching No Child of Mine, the victims – those that had the guts to speak up – were viewed with skepticism, ignored or accused of making false allegations to discredit individuals against whom they had a grudge. The woman behind No Child of Mine was publicly branded a liar. One national newspaper attempted to name her, in contravention of the strict anonymity guaranteed to rape victims. And yet the research suggests that children very rarely invent such dreadful things. It takes enormous courage to report an abuser despite the threats made against their family and themselves. When they manage to do so, they should be protected, supported and, as a first response at least, believed.
What was the reaction from the authorities — media executives and social services?
PK: An incoming executive told me “We don’t want this muck here” and promptly fired me. But No Child of Mine quickly found a home with Meridian and ITV. The execs there were incredible, (Vernon Lawrence, John Willis, Simon Lewis, Sue Hogg), brilliantly supportive both to their film-makers and also to the woman on whom our programme was based throughout the weeks of controversy. Social services were defensive, imagining we were making a Jasmine Beckford-type exposé of social services failing. But No Child of Mine was really more about the tragedy of conveyor-belt abuse than the shortcomings of any specific social services department. And we had enormous support and encouragement from Childline, The Children’s Society, NCH-Action, Barnados and the NSPCC.
In May the conviction of a Rochdale child abuse ring of Asian men who’d groomed and raped mostly white teenage girls focussed attention on the race of the abusers. While an MP, Ann Cryer campaigned relentlessly against the misogynistic abuse of young women — Asian and white — either in forced marriages or sexual grooming cases, it suited her political party, as much as council officials to play it down, for fear of being labelled racist or anti-Muslim. It seems the girls were worthless not just in the eyes of their abusers. Or at least, not as important and worthy of protection as good “community relations”. The Ramadan Foundation, to its credit, has been prominent in criticising the complacency and denial of “Muslim elders”. As in Ireland — where it recently emerged Cardinal Sean Brady chose to cover up testimony from a number of children who had been abused by the Catholic church’s most prolific paedophile priest Brendan Smyth — abused children were the least valued people in the scandal.
Julie Bindel in The Guardian, came closest to pinning down British society’s problem with the abused girls in Rochdale: a sweeping, unofficial assessment of such children as “troublemaking slags”. In that sense, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police has a partial point when he claimed the rapists did not target the girls because they were white. It was because they were worthless. In a hypersexualised culture in which footballer Ched Evans raped a comatose drunk 19 year old while a friend filmed it, it was the victim who has been publically demonised on social media. We have see St Trinian’s films about sexy school girls being remade within the past few years.
While acknowledging that young people’s consensual sexual relations have changed in the past 20 years, is it time to question the role of the state in normalising very young sexual activity? The NHS made the decision just weeks before the Rochdale convictions, as the result of successful pilots, to roll out contraceptive pill programmes for 13 year olds. One wonders how many of the Rochdale abuse victims got given contraception to stop them getting pregnant, and maybe STD tests, but no one thought to challenge the idea that they were having sex at that age. This is a social environment of our own making. Perhaps it’s time to put morality back into our thinking about “safe sex”.
The key difference in the successful prosecution of the 9 British Pakistani men in Rochdale appears to have been the determined attitude of the new chief crown prosecutor for the North West, Nazir Afzal, who reopened the case. His own experience as a teenager of police indifference to racism, and his track record on tackling “honour” based crime proved highly relevant.
If the latest convictions prompt a genuine social enquiry into why so many young girls are so vulnerable to exploitation and why so many ordinary men seem so unbothered about abusing them it will be a start. But it will be at least 15 years over due.
The Rochdale Observer newspaper website –includes interviews with relatives of the convicted men
Interview with Peter Kosminsky about his career, including about No Child of Mine (Doc House Festival 2007)
You can follow Peter Kosminsky on Twitter @KosmoSFL