Date Published 24th June 2017
- The Betrayed Girls offers stark accounts of the abuse suffered by under-age girls
- It also faces down the fact the girls were all white and the men all Asian
- Documentary exposes the levels of cultural division that exist in Rochdale — and how ingrained prejudices have led to the destruction of young girls’ lives
A young woman is speaking quietly on camera. It’s hard to tell what she looks like because we never see the whole of her face, just fragments: her lips, her eyes, her fingers as they hold a cigarette.
The lens zooms in close, so close you can see the pores on her skin, the flecks of mascara on her eyelashes, the tiny red veins in her eyes. It’s unsettling, both uncomfortably intimate yet at one remove from the viewer.
Her voice has a soft Pennines burr, the sort that brings to mind wet hillsides and steaming cups of strong brown tea.
She is describing something that happened to her when she was 14, the same age as my own daughter now.
‘I was with these men,’ she says, ‘there was a lock on the door. I was drunk and vomiting over the side of the bed. They were laughing. One of them had a razor blade. He kept coming up to me, holding it up to my throat, telling me he was going to slit my throat.’
Her eyes flicker from side to side, emotion pooling at the corners. She describes what happened next. ‘One of them pulled my trousers down. I was in the middle of being sick.’
She pauses. ‘He inserted himself while the guy with the razor has the blade up to my throat. The other guy said to the guy with the razor blade “Just hold it there,” and he kept trying to put himself in my mouth. The whole time the guy at the bottom of the bed was raping me. I thought I was going to get my throat slit.’
This shocking testimony is just one of many unbearable moments in a documentary almost too painful to watch.
The Betrayed Girls, which goes out on BBC One on July 3, offers not only a truly stark account of the level of abuse suffered by under-age girls at the hands of ruthless gangs of older men; it also faces down the most complex and politically sensitive factor in the case: the fact the girls were all white and the men all Asian, all but one from Pakistan.
The above was just one of the testimonies that helped secure the 2012 convictions of Shabir Ahmed (known as ‘Daddy’) and eight accomplices, many of them taxi drivers, for the systematic sexual abuse of vulnerable underage girls in Rochdale, Greater Manchester.
Between them, they received a total of 77 years in prison — although only Ahmed, 64, who was sentenced to 22 years, and Mohammed Sajid, 40, who was jailed for 12, remain behind bars. Incredibly, four of them are engaged in taxpayer-funded attempts to resist repatriation to Pakistan.
But that, scandalous as it may seem, is not the story here. Because what this documentary exposes, in unflinching detail, are the levels of cultural division that exist in Rochdale and similar towns — and how ingrained prejudices and attitudes combined with the systematic failure of social services, the police and prosecutors have led to the destruction of young girls’ lives.
Of course, we’ve seen their story told very recently, in the three-part drama Three Girls, in which Maxine Peake played sexual health councillor Sara Rowbotham and Lesley Sharp was DC Maggie Oliver, both of whom were instrumental in putting together the case against the men. A standout drama though it was, it was still a fictionalised account.
This is a far more raw affair, featuring the real Rowbotham and Oliver as well as others — including journalist Andrew Norfolk, former Labour MP Ann Cryer, the father of one of the girls and Nazir Afzal, Chief Prosecutor for the North-West of England between 2011-15.
Without their bravery in standing up to both a liberal-minded media desperate to portray all members of immigrant communities as incapable of doing wrong and a fiercely protective Pakistani culture, these men would never have been exposed.
What I hadn’t realised until I watched this documentary is that the existence of Asian grooming gangs targeting white girls, many — not all — from vulnerable backgrounds, had long been known about by the authorities in Greater Manchester, as far back as 1989.
But the first concrete evidence appears to have emerged more than a decade later, in 2003, following the death from a drugs overdose of a 15-year-old called Victoria Agoglia.
Victoria, described as troubled but ‘funny, bright and engaging’, had left behind a letter, written when she was just 13, confessing to having been abused by so many older men she couldn’t even remember how many she had slept with. All were Asian.
DC Oliver was asked to look into the issue. But with community relations high on the agenda and a sense that drawing attention to the cultural nature of the abuse would be unnecessarily inflammatory, it was nigh on impossible for her findings to gain any traction.
What is abundantly clear is that when it came to addressing the reality versus the fantasy of multicultural Britain, too many were both too naive and too politically correct.
It’s a notion Andrew Norfolk, the journalist who led The Times investigation into the affair and who confesses to having had serious misgivings about exposing the abuse, articulates very clearly. When he heard the stories about what was going on, he initially took the decision not to investigate, fearing the racial aspects would be incendiary.
‘I allowed my liberal fear about giving succour to the BNP to act as a brake on doing my job,’ he says.
In 2010, when a separate prosecution of Asian men targeting under-age girls came to light, he had no qualms about re-opening his investigation. His piece ran on the front page of The Times and instigated two public inquiries.
There are three key questions here. The first is why these men, trusted members of otherwise law-abiding communities, targeted white girls.
The second, why the girls were such easy pickings? And the third is why the authorities were so reluctant to bring prosecutions, despite the weight of evidence against them?
It is imperative to say that Ahmed and his associates were sexual predators. Such individuals exist in all societies.
Their behaviour is no reflection on the behaviour of the wider Asian community in Britain; indeed, it was a British Muslim, Nazir Afzal, who so assiduously pursued these men through the courts.
But the fact that they originated from rural Pakistan — a place where the Taliban have long held sway and where the treatment of women is often medieval and where notions of sexual equality are rare — cannot be discounted.
*In 2012, Shabir Ahmed (known as ‘Daddy’) and eight accomplices, many of them taxi drivers, were convicted for the systematic sexual abuse of vulnerable underage girls in Rochdale, Greater Manchester
Nor, sadly, can the men’s religion, Islam, which suffers not only from wilful misinterpretation by those who see themselves as duty bound to carry out a bloody jihad against all non-believers, but is also frequently misconstrued in its approach to women and, in particular, Western women.
The foul notion that non-Muslim women are impure, promiscuous and therefore unworthy of respect, finds its expression all too often in the behaviour of Islamist terrorist organisations such as ISIS and Boko Haram.
The idea that they somehow deserve to be punished seems to be a recurring theme wherever Islamist terrorism is involved.
Just remember the words of Jawad Akbar, who trained with ISIS in Pakistan and who, in 2007, was convicted of conspiring to blow up a London nightclub.
In secret recordings made by MI5, he was heard telling his friends no one could ‘turn round and say “oh they were innocent”, those slags dancing around’.
There was something also about that attitude in the recent attack on the Manchester Arena, where thousands of girls the same age as the ones who were so cruelly abused in Rochdale had gathered for an Ariana Grande concert.
Killed for daring to express themselves, for failing to demonstrate sufficient levels of piousness, humility and subservience.
During the Rochdale trial the gang’s leader, Ahmed, claimed the girls were ‘prostitutes’, and accused the whole trial of being ‘white lies’. The notion of white girls as ‘easy meat’, as Jack Straw put it so controversially, runs all the way through this case.
But while all these are difficult questions the British Pakistanis and the wider British Muslim community at large must face, it would be wrong if other questions were not asked, too.
Tough questions, such as why are vulnerable 12 and 13-year-olds allowed out on the streets at night? Why is there such an open culture of under-age drinking and drug-taking among such girls? Why are they allowed to run wild when they don’t have the maturity even to begin to comprehend the dangers to which they are exposing themselves?
The answer is also, in part, the answer to my third question, of why it took the authorities so long to wake up to what was going on in front of their very noses.
Political correctness. The kind of political correctness that does not question a 13-year-old when she asks for an abortion; that does not address the wider causes of drug-taking and drinking for fear of pushing the victims away; that takes such a non-judgmental, non-interventionist approach to the work of social workers that they may as well not bother.
If we as a society don’t have the moral courage to address these issues, if we don’t offer our young people the guidance and protection they need as minors, is it any wonder that uneducated men from more socially archaic parts of the world think it’s acceptable to abuse them?
That is not to justify what these men did, or to excuse it in any way. It is simply to say that this is a problem that does not have its origins only in the villages of rural Pakistan, but in decades of progressive liberalism — espoused and promoted right here in Britain — that has slowly but surely undermined our own core moral values.
A liberalism that silences all dissent by smearing critics as racists and bigots and pursues its politically correct agenda relentlessly through our schools and other public institutions.
Britain is not, on the whole, a racist country. For most people, particularly my generation who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, there is almost no greater crime than discriminating against someone for their colour or culture.
As young people, we were every bit as passionate about civil rights then as today’s students are now.
We drank at university bars named after the heroes of the civil rights movement — South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, Jamaican-born black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey — and danced to The Specials’ Free Nelson Mandela.
From our privileged perspective as educated, white, middle-class kids, we embraced the idea of a rainbow nation. But having never experienced racial discrimination ourselves we did not, perhaps, fully understand the complex reality we faced.
We assumed that all we had to do was open our hearts and homes to other cultures, to understand different traditions, to extend the hand of generosity to other nations — and all would be well.
A multicultural Utopia would emerge that would erase the oppression of the past, wipe out the sins of slavery and lead us into the light.
It was a genuine sentiment, but it was a naive one. Because in our haste to signal such virtuous intentions, we overlooked one fundamental thing: there is bad in all societies, regardless of culture, religion or ethnicity.
Evil doesn’t distinguish between black and white. It can exist in the most outwardly well-intentioned of settings, from Catholic care homes to BBC TV studios, which played host to Jimmy Savile.
And while immigrant communities have every right to be made welcome here, every right to live as equals, to enjoy all the opportunities this country has to offer, they do not have the right to do wrong. Just being a minority does not make you inherently good.
There have been at least 14 major trials involving abuse by Asian men of young white girls: in Rotherham, Oxford, Derby, Leeds, Aylesbury, Telford, Banbury, Middlesbrough, Dewsbury, Carlisle, Burnley and Blackpool. And there are many more ongoing.
Up and down the country, similar prosecutions are being pursued. Between 2013 and 2016 the number of child sexual exploitation offences in Greater Manchester increased fivefold. Some 1,732 youngsters are currently identified as victims of exploitation or at risk of grooming — almost treble the 2015 figure.
An ongoing inquiry in Rotherham — which is expected to run until 2018 — has already identified 300 ‘predominantly’ Asian suspects.
Years ago, after the killing of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent botched investigation into his death, the Metropolitan Police — following a courageous campaign by this newspaper — was forced finally to admit a charge of institutionalised racism.
Not all Met officers were bad, of course, but enough were, and something had to be done about it. There is a similar case for self-examination to be made among some Asian Pakistani communities in Britain, for as the philosopher Edmund Burke said: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’
Inspirational leaders, such as chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal and Mohammed Shafiq of the Manchester-based Ramadhan Foundation — which aims to help young Muslims and foster inter-faith dialogue — who also appears in this documentary, must encourage the vast majority who are good, law-abiding people to work together to put an end to the depravity of a small minority.
They must encourage those in their communities who cling to outdated cultural notions to fundamentally alter their attitudes to British society and our long-held and cherished liberal values.
Only then can we call ourselves a truly multicultural society. Only then can the prejudice — and suffering — end.
- The Betrayed Girls, BBC One, Monday July 3, 8.30pm.