How to stop agitators such as Tommy Robinson exploiting child grooming trials

Together, our courts and our press should make sure that justice is not only done, but seen to be done. 

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The first time Amere Singh Dhaliwal raped “Girl A”, she was 13 or 14 years old. Along with two other British Asian men, he approached her and her friends at a bus station in Huddersfield and offered them alcohol.

Girl A cannot remember which of the men she lost her virginity to, weeks later, but she does remember that when Dhaliwal raped her, he told his girlfriend and others that she had been the sexual aggressor. His girlfriend and her friends then beat up Girl A, breaking her nose. He passed her round his friends, who would take girls up to the moors and threaten to leave them there.

Girl A had an abortion, and after getting pregnant again, the gang dropped her. She suspects that, at 17, she was too old for them.

You cannot begin to understand a crime until you hear the fine details of it. The grit and the texture; its particular signature. There are many features of the Huddersfield grooming trial – which ended on 19 October with the convictions of 20 men for attacks on 15 girls – that demand careful consideration. The way that many of the men worked in the informal, night-time economy, at a taxi firm. The way they used Asian girls to approach the houses of the white girls, asking them to come out for the evening. The way that violence was meted out early on (as it was to Girl A) so that the threat always hung over the victims – a classic form of abusive control.

The reason I know the details above is because of the reporting of Stephanie Finnegan, who covers Leeds Crown Court for the Huddersfield Examiner. She was there when the gang were jailed for 221 years. “The ringleader has been jailed for LIFE with a minimum of 18 years,” she tweeted. “Or as I like to think of it, at least an entire childhood.”

I want to give credit to Finnegan because court reporting in Britain has been hollowed out. Forty local papers shut in 2017 alone, according to Press Gazette. The legal system itself is creaking, thanks to years of cuts – spending on legal aid has shrunk by £1bn in five years. Even in high-profile cases there has been no legal aid. The parents of Charlie Gard, a child whose doctors recommended the withdrawal of medical treatment against the family’s wishes, did not receive it. Together, our courts and our press should make sure that justice is not only done, but seen to be done. Yet the economic conditions in which both are operating make that harder.

The vacuum is being filled by agitators such as Tommy Robinson. His arrest for filming on the steps of the court  – and encouraging his Facebook followers to share the video – is a reflection of a system where justice is not being seen to be done. Yes, he exploited the echo-chamber of the American alt-right, failing to mention that Britain has strong laws on court reporting. But Robinson was aided in building his narrative by the lack of everyday reports on such grooming cases. There is little attention paid to child sex abuse unless it is “newsworthy”. (That’s code for “unless the perpetrators are Asian or Muslim”, in case you’re wondering.) “A few weeks after the Rochdale case, we dealt with a case of ten white men in North Yorkshire who had been abusing young girls, and they were all convicted and they got long sentences,” Nazir Afzal, the prosecutor of the Rochdale gang, said in 2014. “It didn’t get the level of coverage.”

That is what the case of Charlie Gard has in common with the Huddersfield grooming trial. In both, a kernel of truth was nurtured by online conspiracy theorists, with poisonous results. Charlie’s parents felt that they were denied access to justice by the British courts – and their grievance was jumped on by the American pro-life movement, which was intent on proving that socialised healthcare, also known as the NHS, inevitably leads to “death sentences”.

In the Huddersfield case, yes, there is a racial element. It does matter that the defendants were British Asians, because they all were. All 20 men also knew each other, had access to cars and cash through the night-time economy, and they shared an ideology that allowed them to treat other people – women – as things.

Ah, comes the snap answer. You mean Islam? Too glib. The ringleader, Amere Singh Dhaliwa was a Sikh and the other perpetrators were hardly model Muslims: remember, their first offer was to get the girls to come drinking with them. They were, however, guilty of racially charged misogyny – a shared excuse that white girls were “slags”. (That said, it’s worth noting that one of the Huddersfield victims, as with other gangs, was Asian.)

Successive trials have shown us that child sex abuse exists among every community and ethnicity in Britain. The TV presenter Rolf Harris. The football coach Barry Bennell. The publicist Max Clifford. Father Paul Moore, a Catholic priest from Ayrshire  jailed earlier this year.

Think of it like a virus that causes different symptoms in different patients, as each type of perpetrator finds their own rationale for their actions – and the same structures of power and prejudice prevent their victims being believed. In Bristol, British-Somali men told girls it was their “culture and tradition” to share sexual partners. In Oxford, eight men, mostly of Pakistani descent, alternately plied girls with drink and drugs, then threatened them with violence. In Newcastle, a report found, police considered “deterrent punishments” – for the victims, to try to stop them going back to their abusers. In Peterborough, where the ringleader was of Roma descent, a teenage victim was targeted because she had learning disabilities.

Nothing will get Girl A her childhood back. But we can make sure that the likes of Tommy Robinson don’t get to define the debate on child sex abuse. That’s why justice has to be done, and seen to be done. 

Update: This column originally stated that Dhaliwal concerted to Sikhism in 2013. In fact, he was born in a Sikh family and only started to practise in 2013. The text was amended to reflect this on 25 October.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 26 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash