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Can we morally justify rape dramas like the BBC’s Three Girls?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives.

Last week, over three consecutive nights, the BBC aired Three Girls: an unflinching drama based on the 2012 Rochdale Grooming Case, which exposed and prosecuted nine men for the trafficking, prostitution and rape of children. It is, of course, a terribly bleak story – one that is important not to shy away from. And yet when I first heard about the docudrama, it made me instinctively uncomfortable. TV has a wider social purpose beyond sheer enjoyment, but is the repeated rape of children appropriate material for primetime entertainment?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives. Child abuse, too, is something our society condemns but has an uncomfortable obsession with reading about in detail - you only need to walk into your local Waterstones to see a true life section crowded with children’s sad faces staring up from bestselling misery memoirs. I’ve written before, at length, about our cultural fixation on murdered, abused and kidnapped women and young girls, and the ethical questions they raise. Do we want to know the specific brutalities of this case because it is important to reckon with the reality of the situation, or because the shock factor fascinates us? Is it inherently unethical to treat the real traumas of children as spectacle? Aside from general distastefulness, what impact does making a drama about these assaults have on the real-word victims? What function does this particular story – with its narrative of the police officers too afraid of being labelled racist to bring the criminals (who were mostly of Pakistani descent) to task – serve in the current political climate?

Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who first exposed the Rochdale case and spent years facing its horrors head-on, had concerns over such a topic being turned into television. “When I first heard that the BBC had commissioned a docudrama, my initial shock that the corporation would choose to tackle such a controversial subject was swiftly replaced by wariness,” he explains. But his concerns were not that such a programme would become voyeuristic. “I feared that innate squeamishness would result in a sanitised exercise that shied away from uncomfortable realities.”

“More fool me. Three Girls pulls no punches. It tells a raw, harrowing story in a way that makes for searingly compelling drama,” he goes on, adding that the writers succeeds in turning “such bleak misery into three hours of gripping television drama”.

Norfolk, of course, has first-hand knowledge of the show’s source material, as well as the experience of trying to open the public’s eyes to unspeakable crimes. Viewers will never have this. As someone removed from the reality of the Rochdale case, those familiar words “gripping” and “compelling” make me squirm, especially when paired with such unimaginably damaging experiences for the real life young victims.

The first episode of Three Girls explores the actual abuse at the centre of the Rochdale case. It follows Holly, who meets the headstrong Amber and her vulnerable younger sister Ruby, and starts hanging out with them at a take-away shop, where an older man known only as “Daddy” plies them with free food and vodka to gain their trust. It’s not long before we witness Holly being raped in a grim, long scene. We then see her assaulted again, before watching her perform a “prozzy dance” for her horrified father. It’s unbearably sad watching.

It’s certainly true, then, that Three Girls is “harrowing”, but why is “harrowing” as a concept read as automatically valuable? The Daily Mail called it “spellbinding”; many other outlets saw the first episode’s brutality as “brave”. Some headlines were far more discomfiting: the Huffington Post rounded up the “most disturbing moments” from the drama in a sensational listicle, while the Telegraph and extreme right-wing sites took the opportunity to push their politics with headlines like “How poor white girls were sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism” and “BBC’s Muslim Rape Gang Drama Skirts Religion Issue”.

But the makers of Three Girls seem more aware than most of the troubling potential for sensationalism a drama about Rochdale might have. In a blog post for the BBC, Head of Drama Hilary Salmon explains how they justified their decision to explore the violence of this particular case due to the story’s capacity for social change.

“There are many true stories that an audience might be interested in reliving through drama but the ones that really resonate and arguably deserve to be made are those which can change an audience’s perception of the victims because, for all the media noise, their true voices haven’t yet been heard.”

“The voices of the children abused and exploited in Rochdale had not been heard,” Salmon continues. “How did they feel while all this was happening to them and how do they feel now?”

She adds that public perception of the young victims was disappointingly regressive:

“[Whistleblowers] worked tirelessly to change the perception of these young girls in the eyes of the authorities just as we have tried to do for audiences through the drama. A perception that the girls were simply displaying a lifestyle choice and didn’t need or want protection. Never mind that they were 13, 14, 15 years old at the time and had such low self-esteem that free chips and alcohol would turn a grubby room at the back of a kebab shop into the equivalent of a clubhouse.”

The first hour of Three Girls asks the audience to confront the realities of the assaults on these young victims. Then it puts its most shocking moments to good use. The following two episodes explore the aftermath of the case: how a culture of disbelief silenced the victims at its centre, and how forcing the children to repeatedly relive the acts, only to be ignored, traumatised them as they became adults. How victim-blaming attitudes saw abused children officially declared criminals, and the babies they bore taken away by child protection services. How it was a culture of demonising working-class teenage girls, rather than the fear of racism, that saw the victims belittled and dismissed again and again.

We see explicit discussions of all these complex problems. The adult moral hearts of the show, NHS sexual health worker Sara and police officer Maggie, constantly condemn the culture of misogyny and classism that allowed this abuse to flourish. There are whole scenes dedicated to exploring how the race of the perpetrators does not reflect Muslim culture as a whole. And, most importantly, the perspectives most frequently and sensitively explored are those of the victims themselves, retrospectively giving them a voice. The script manages to do this without veering into preachy public service announcement territory.

Three Girls a masterclass in how to explore violence against girls without objectifying the victims - an area in which other modern TV series and films are lagging depressingly behind. (I’d still advice viewer discretion in watching the first episode, but the more brutal scenes in the programme serve a specific purpose.) I only hope other writers can hold the same aims. Three Girls shows how you can move beyond just “gripping” and “compelling” to find stories that shift social narratives by changing audience’s beliefs, before they’ve had a chance to look away.

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Now listen to a discussion of the show on the New Statesman's pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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