When I first meet Andrew Norfolk outside a Leeds coffee shop he seems an unassuming figure – bespectacled, grey-stubbled, dragging on a cigarette – but he can rightly claim to have changed British society. In January 2011 the investigative reporter, now 52, published an article in The Times exposing the sexual abuse of mostly white girls, typically aged around 12 or 13, by gangs of middle-aged men, mostly of Pakistani origin, in Rotherham.
The girls were initially befriended, given free food and alcohol, then repeatedly raped, beaten and coerced into having sex with countless men for money. “I came up from London as The Times’s north-east correspondent in 2003 and over the years became increasingly concerned by what seemed to me to be a pattern of offending that wasn’t being recognised,” says Norfolk. “And every time there was a prosecution of two or three men, for what seemed like very similar offending, it was always treated as a one-off.”
His ongoing campaign in The Times uncovered similar cases across the north, the Midlands and eventually as far south as Oxford. It also revealed what seemed to be an almost perfect storm of catastrophic inertia by local councils, police forces and social services, who had failed to act against known gangs for fear of being thought racist, or because they thought the girls – many of whom were from chaotic households or in children’s homes – consented to their abuse. Eventually, Norfolk’s work led to a complete rethink of the way such crimes, and particularly their victims, were treated.
One of the first cases to be reopened after his 2011 story involved a gang operating in Rochdale, which the Crown Prosecution Service had decided not to proceed against in 2009, ostensibly because of doubts that the young female victim would be believed by a jury. This case is the subject of a three-part BBC1 drama, Three Girls, written by Nicole Taylor (The C Word) and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (Call the Midwife). It was created with the full cooperation of three of the Rochdale gang’s victims and their families, although their names are changed in the script to protect them.
Norfolk reported on the Rochdale trial that resulted in the conviction of nine men on charges that ranged from rape to trafficking for sexual exploitation. When Nicole Taylor asked to speak to him as part of her research for Three Girls he was glad that an issue so long ignored should continue to have traction, but concerned that the racial angle would be either sanitised or sensationalised. (Many abuse cases, including Rochdale, became inflammatory political grist for the likes of the BNP and the English Defence League. Norfolk and The Times were regularly accused of racism during the campaign, by fellow journalists as well as Muslim groups, but he also received letters from far-right supporters “expressing the hope that I would die” for not emphasising the racial dimension enough.)
It is to the credit of Taylor, Lowthorpe and producers Simon Lewis and Susan Hogg that Norfolk’s concerns proved groundless. Three Girls is a heartbreaking, lucid and nuanced account of an awful case, which begins when Holly Winshaw, a bright girl from a loving family fallen on straitened circumstances, is arrested for vandalising a kebab shop and tells a yawning detective about the process of grooming, assault and enforced prostitution that led to that moment. Although the drama contains superb performances from Maxine Peake as a combative sexual health volunteer, Lesley Sharp as a sympathetic police investigator, and Paul Kaye and Lisa Riley as anguished parents, the focus is rightly on the younger players.
The first two episodes tell the story through the eyes of Holly (played by Molly Windsor) and two sisters, Amber and Ruby Bowen (Ria Zmitrovic and Liv Hill). Holly is a bright girl from a loving, working-class family lately fallen on hard times, prompting a fractious relationship with her father. Amber and Ruby are daughters of a single mum and ride roughshod over her attempts to impose authority. They are curious about boys and booze, rebellious, wilful, and stroppy – difficult, in other words. Taylor chose to focus on these three because of the light their stories threw on the complexity of the case.
The real-life Amber was forced to act as an enabler in the recruitment of younger girls, and was therefore listed as an accomplice rather than a victim at the trial so that her evidence could be included (it was feared the other girls would blame her and dilute the focus on the men if she were put on the witness stand as a victim). Ruby, who has learning difficulties, became pregnant at 13 and had an abortion; the foetus was seized by police and would later provide DNA evidence against one of her rapists, whom Ruby continued to regard as her “friends”. The third episode covers the trial, including the outbursts of ringleader Shabir Ahmed from the dock – he claimed that the girls were “prostitutes” running a “business empire” and that the trial itself was an example of “white lies” – and some of the aftermath.
“What is very difficult to do when you’re writing this kind of story, which is also the task that every prosecutor and every witness had – and that’s to get the jury, or in this case the viewer, into the mindset of a 13-year-old girl,” says Norfolk. “To understand the confusion between the initial excitement and the adventure and loving the thrill, and then the process by which they get sucked into a world where they are out of their depth and horrible things start to happen. And to realise – as the police and so many professional services didn’t realise for so many years – that however complicit, however consenting, they may seem, these are children who are being brutally sexually abused.”
Norfolk recalls the testimony of the real-life Ruby in court. “Here was a 13-year-old girl who had been made pregnant by a 42-year-old man, who didn’t see anything wrong about it at all. She thought the men were her friends, even then. The jury was listening in horrified fascination as she talked in a blasé way about being phoned up by ‘randomers’ – as she called them – and told to go and stand in an empty supermarket car park. Then a car would turn up with people she didn’t know and she was taken – not just around Rochdale but to Bradford, Leeds and Manchester – to chill with a bottle of vodka in a bedroom and it made her feel good. Then, yeah, they would have sex with her, but they were her friends…”
Actually, “sex” is too bland a term to describe what was done to many of the girls: I make the mistake of asking Norfolk about the worst thing he heard in his investigations and he tells me things that make my flesh crawl. It was the very inhumanity of the actions that enabled the extreme right to make political capital out of the Rochdale trial. Norfolk says he initially shied away from writing about the Pakistani grooming gangs because “I didn’t know how to tell it without saliva dribbling down [BNP leader] Nick Griffin’s chin”. Griffin had already been prosecuted (but cleared) for “making speeches saying this was part of a global Islamic plot to impregnate every white girl and spread the caliphate”.
But the racial angle is important – and complicated. The drama includes a scene where a far-right protestor outside the Rochdale courtroom shouts “You’re going down, you p*** bastard” at Nazir Afzal, the crown prosecutor who brought the case. It also includes an actor playing Norfolk, talking about the racial dimension of the case: “It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it.”
In person, Norfolk reiterates an important point. “The vast majority of child sex offenders in this country are white men, nearly always acting alone, and the vast majority of it happens in the family,” he says. “With institutional abuse, whether it’s in the church or schools, again and again it’s white guys.” But when he researched his original story on Rotherham he found “17 cases in 13 different towns in the north and the Midlands, where 56 men had been convicted. Three of them were white, 53 were Asian, and 50 of those were Muslims, the vast majority of them from the Pakistani community.” The 2013 report of the independent inquiry by professor Alexis Jay stated that 1,400 children had been abused by men, predominantly of Pakistani origin, in Rotherham since the late 1990s, although people of Pakistani origin make up only 3.1 per cent of the town’s population.
Norfolk makes the further distinction that many of the abusers came from the Mirpur region of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, where it’s culturally acceptable to marry a girl at a young age. The clash of these ultra-traditional values with “British society and what is seen as its decadences, the clothes girls wear and the fact that on billboards, movies, films, sex is everywhere” leads to a confusion of culture with religion in which the teachings of the Koran become twisted. “Stuff becomes permissible with a non-Muslim girl,” as Norfolk puts it.
Although there have been cases where grooming is carried out by habitual criminals, “in Rochdale it was a former teacher in a mosque, a former schoolteacher, a couple of defendants who had been given glowing character references by Rochdale Council… This was a shared activity with friends, or with relatives, or work colleagues, where having sex with a 13-year-old girl was not seen as wrong, not seen as child sex abuse. These guys do not regard themselves remotely as paedophiles.”
Norfolk believes that “middle-class social workers” may have practised a similar sort of doublethink, based on the backgrounds of many of the victims: “They seemed to accept things happening to those sort of girls that they would not have dreamt of as acceptable for their own daughters.” The police, paralysed by fear of accusations of institutional racism, were possibly also eager to write the girls off. “These are bloody difficult crimes to investigate as they are not easy kids to work with, often,” says Norfolk. He acknowledges his own reluctance to write about the issue represented another facet of the same attitude: “Shame on me.”
Born in Kent to a family of teachers, Norfolk worked for the Scarborough Evening News and The Yorkshire Post, joined The Times in 2000, became north-east correspondent in 2002, and since 2011 has been writing pretty much fulltime about child sex abuse. He believes that being out of the “London loop” helped him pick up on the story and praises The Times for allowing him to concentrate on an issue “that doesn’t help sell copies”. Certainly, it was the dedication of this old-fashioned newspaper campaign that led to the change in attitudes surrounding child sexual abuse: it’s hard to imagine online purveyors of bite-sized news being so persistent.
But on more than one occasion over the years Norfolk “begged the editor of The Times to let me stop” because writing about the issue exacted a heavy psychological toll. He doesn’t have a partner or children, and says his main distraction from work is watching Tottenham Hotspur. But until he wrote about sexual abuse “all my career, no matter what the story, how grim, how upsetting, I had never not been able to drop it at the end of the evening”. He is now, finally and gladly, working on a new investigation “totally unrelated to child abuse”.
“Undeniably there were times where I really did almost despair for humanity,” he says. But such feelings were balanced by admiration for the girls and their parents who fought for justice for so long, and for the brave, lone individuals, like sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham in Rochdale, who helped them. And any personal cost to him must be weighed against the changes in attitude he helped to effect.
“It all seemed hopeless for so long,” he says. “But men who do this are less likely to get away with it now. And girls who begin to get sucked into this world are far more likely to be met with understanding and support than they were five years ago. So never despair.”
Three Girls is on Tuesday 16 – Thursday 18 May at 9pm on BBC1