THE WOMAN ON A MISSION TO EXPOSE SEXUAL ABUSE
When film-maker Anna Hall found out about the exploitation of girls in Telford, she had to bring the evidence to a wider public
Anna Hall is nothing if not patient. It was 17 years ago, over a cup of coffee in her adopted home city of Leeds, when she first heard that some British Pakistani men were grooming, raping and trafficking young white girls. She immediately knew she should bring the evidence to a wider public, yet it took three years for the film-maker to win a commission from Channel 4 and many more to make three harrowing documentaries, culminating in The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Gangs, which will air on Channel 4 this Thursday.
Hall, born in Scotland, was working for a group of commercial radio companies in Leeds as a social action producer when she first heard of the abuse while chatting with Barnardo’s staff. “They had documented a pattern, now all very familiar. They knew exactly what was going on,” she says.
Barnardo’s staff were working with police but they seemed powerless to catch them, let alone gain convictions. “I thought, I don’t care what race these guys are, a group of men are being allowed to violate young girls and get away with it.”
This was the start of emotionally draining investigations, which she kept up while having twins and a third child. For Hall, the initial breakthrough only came in 2002 when she gained access to nearby Bradford social services child protection team, for her first observational documentary,Edge of The City.
“A senior divisional figure said to me: ‘Of course everyone knows it is happening but you’ll never get anyone to go on the record.’ That was the red rag for me.”
In neighbouring Keighley she worked with two mothers. “One had three daughters. Both older daughters had been groomed. She was terrified it would happen to the youngest, aged 12. She moved away from the area after we finished the film.” The other had a daughter who was sent away to a secure unit, only to return to her abuser’s clutches. Neither felt they could do anything to protect their children.
Ahead of transmission, Channel 4 was asked by West Yorkshire’s chief constable to delay the documentary in May 2004, because it was three weeks before local elections and he feared riots. Local BNP candidates still managed to get hold of the film and use it as propaganda.
When her documentary was broadcast in August 2004 it was watched by 1.8 million people but, in Hall’s words, “nothing happened”. “We raised some awareness [but it was] almost the case that the film was swept under the carpet. I really wondered if I had done the right thing. I knew at the bottom of my heart I wasn’t racist.”
In the following years, while continuing to work as an independent television maker, she noticed the police starting to use trafficking laws to gain convictions. The legislation helped with the problem of consent, an issue because defence lawyers would sow doubt in juries’ minds by claiming the girls were complicit because they didn’t say no.
In 2009 came another opportunity: she negotiated access to Operation Chalice, an investigation run by Telford police. “The problem with this abuse is that it is very hard to explain the level of psychological manipulation. I thought this would be a way forward in helping people to understand what a complex crime this is.”
But the documentary is only now ready for broadcast four years later because the original trial, which stemmed from Operation Chalice, collapsed in September 2011, making all the footage sub judice.
In the meantime, Hall changed tack by making Britain’s Sex Gangs, broadcast in November 2012, in which she spoke to members of the British Pakistani community. It included a Keighley-based Muslim imam and youth worker Alyas Karmani holding a workshop on the abuse: “We found 35 guys in a room; they all said they wanted to be on camera, it was so important, making a stand against this.” But the encounters also explained the cultural pressures on some young British Pakistani men, often forced into arranged marriages.
Now, 18 months later, the defendants in the Operation Chalice trial have been taken back to court, and reporting restrictions are lifted. Seven men were jailed last year. The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Gangs is essentially the programme she prepared 18 months ago.
One of the critical things now is learning how to treat psychological abuse, says Hall. “The film makes the point that in other countries they’re much better, helping with a place of safety. We don’t have proper psychological counselling. I know lots of girls – one is so damaged – you really, really wonder how they are going to make it into adulthood.”
“Why do the girls keep going back if they are being gang-raped? They are terrified of what is going to happen – threats against parents, their brother. Young people believe what they are being told. One of the things is that they are just gullible 12-year-old kids. I look at my 12-year-olds now and they would not have a clue how to deal with this situation.”
“Child sexual exploitation is nowhere on the agenda in schools,” she adds. Another key solution is acting as soon as a child goes missing. “It’s a massive indicator. In the past, they were naughty children who ran away, or were seen as wayward girls wanting to have sex with these guys. Lots of these girls are doing really well at school, aged 12, then suddenly they are not; they become massively withdrawn, then start truanting. That is the way forward. That is how we are going to get better at it.”
• The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Gangs is being aired on Dispatches on Channel 4.