Rotherham and why we need bloody-minded reporters

Summer is traditionally the silly season for journalism but, as has been noted several times lately, August this year was the cruellest of months.

Gaza, Ukraine and Iraq dominated the headlines throughout until last week, when the Jay report was published and laid bare a child abuse scandal in Rotherham so horrific it eclipsed even the looming threat of Europe’s war with Russia.

The tragedy of Rotherham and the organised grooming and trafficking of children as young as 11 by men of Asian origin had been the subject of official inquiries before, but the findings went unheeded for reasons of cultural sensitivity which seem utterly inexplicable.

In fact, it was the work of a journalist, The Times’ Andrew Norfolk, that first brought it to the attention of the country and helped force the ‘authorities’ to take notice this time.

In a series of reports he wrote about a pattern of crimes across northern England and the Midlands in which groups of ‘street children’ were being systematically abused. Then in 2012, he revealed how confidential police reports and intelligence files had identified offenders but that nothing had been done to bring them to justice.

He had blown the lid off a story that the police and virtually everyone else who held the levers of power in that region cruelly ignored.

Norfolk won the 2013 Orwell Prize for his work and his pursuit of the story is a textbook example to young journalists of how campaigning energy, bloody-minded persistence  and good old-fashioned working your contacts can produce fine journalism which changes people’s lives.

Other journalists in recent years who have performed similar public service include Heather Brooke (MPs’ expenses), Camilla Cavendish  (child protection) and Shaun Lintern.

Lintern, now of Health Service Journal, was a local newspaper journalist in the West Midlands when he helped to uncover the Mid-Staffs hospital scandal in which hundreds of patients had been the victims of cruel neglect.

When he spoke to MA students here at CBJ last year, he recalled how a colleague had taken a call from a woman about “something at the local hospital. The colleague wasn’t interested but I was desperate for a story that day and I thought there might be something in it so I rang her back,” he said.

The woman was Julie Bailey, calling her local paper to blow the whistle on the scandal of high death rates and poor care at Stafford Hospital and to give Lintern a story that would take over his life for the next seven years and change the NHS forever.

It was coincidence that put Lintern in the newsroom that day but, as with Norfolk, it was dogged journalism that helped to drag another vitally important story into the light.


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