The big story in the British news media this week is the Rotherham child abuse scandal. This was occasioned by a detailed report from Professor Alexis Jay. This revealed that some 1,400 children and teenagers had been sexually abused from the 1990s by gangs in this Yorkshire town. The perpetrators were largely from the Pakistani and Kashmiri community and the victims were vulnerable white girls, many in care. Council officials and police ignored repeated reports of this abuse. Similar things seem to have been occurring in other northern towns, as well as further south. The revelations have provoked anger.
But instead of trying to understand the implications of this many-faceted issue, most commentators have used it as a battering ram to push forward their own political agendas.
The right wing agenda, promoted by the press, is to blame “political correctness”. This is because the allegations were initially treated as racist, and treated circumspectly for the sake of “community cohesion”. Implicitly they suggest that the problem was the fault of an immigrant community that was not dealt with robustly enough. Behind this lies a distinctly racist, anti-immigration agenda. But this narrative is at best incomplete. One of the main reasons that allegations were not taken seriously was that the authorities had a shockingly low opinion of the victims, who were treated as “sluts” and authors of their own fate. There is nothing politically correct about such old-fashioned, macho attitudes.
The left wing agenda is well expressed by this article by Suzanne Moore in the Guardian. This downplays the racial dimension, which she says is but one part of a much wider problem of powerful men abusing and denigrating powerless women. Perpetrators are from all races, as are the victims. She then goes on to blame the “neoliberals” for running down children’s services – in spite of providing evidence from her own experience that shows the problem dates back to well before the neoliberals got going. And you would hardly describe Rotherham’s council leaders and the South Yorkshire Police as part of the neoliberal establishment.
But while both lines of attack are self-serving, both also have a grounding in truth. The paternalist, we would say misogynist, attitudes of the rural communities from which the perpetrators were descended were part of the problem. And fear of allegations of racism clearly influenced the authorities. Abuse of young girls goes much wider than this ethnic minority, as does a reluctance for the authorities to act. Overstretch in social services hardly helps.
And it is very easy to use the scandal to go after your favourite villains. In my case it would be the Labour elites of northern cities who run their fiefs on a clientalist basis – including with the self-appointed leaders of ethnic minority groups. And weak and incompetent police leadership. There is plenty to go on for such a line of attack.
But that too would be incomplete. I think we owe it to the victims to question our own attitudes and practices, not just those of people we don’t like. A large part of the problem also lay with middle-class liberals. Getting to grips with this problem involved crossing two boundaries that we hate to cross. First is criticism of ethnic minority groups, which we fear will be seized on by racists to stir prejudice. And second, about which comment has been strangely silent, crossing a class barrier. Victims and perpetrators are largely working class, and these formed the power base of council leadership that failed to act. We are reluctant to get involved across the class barrier, and treat working class communities with general incomprehension.
And that is one reason why it took so long for the problem to be taken seriously at national, as opposed to local level. This is clear from an interview given by Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who eventually brought the story to light, on BBC Radio 4’s Media Show . The liberal elites did not want to know, and accused him of racism. This account is backed up by others at the fringe of the story, consider this piece by television journalist Samira Ahmed.
The lesson is this: we are all part of the same, cosmopolitan community. We should not let the barriers of class, religion or ethnic heritage stop interchange and conversation, based on facts. Showing respect is not about treating people with kid gloves and not asking too many questions. We should be open to criticisms of our own values and practices; but we should not be shy of challenging others in an appropriate way. And above all, no individual, of whatever class or ethnic origin, should be treated as “trash”. Even if we don’t like them.