Journalist of the Year Amelia Gentleman has said the Government made a “shameless about-face turn” when it apologised for the Windrush scandal after nearly six months of silence over her reports bringing it to light.
Gentleman took the top prize at Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards on Monday night, winning for her work exposing the plight of Caribbean migrants facing deportation despite living in Britain for decades.
Her stories led to the resignation of then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd and an official apology from the UK Government under Prime Minister Theresa May.
Speaking to Press Gazette, Gentleman said she was “very happy” to have won the award for her work on the issue because “it took quite a long time before [it] triggered any response at all”.
The Guardian journalist said she began work on the Windrush scandal in November 2017 after a tip-off from Wolverhampton charity the Refugee and Migrant Centre, which she had previously worked with on a story.
“The first story I thought was really shocking – a grandmother [Paulette Wilson] who had been sent to Yarl’s Wood [Immigration Removal Centre] for a week who hadn’t committed any crimes.
“She had been in Britain for 50 years, since she was ten, and was on the brink of being deported back to Jamaica.
“That story in itself was so shocking I thought we would publish that and there would be some political unease – there wasn’t any and the Guardian and I continued to write stories right through until April [this year] and it was really only in April that there was any kind of political response.”
The day before it emerged that May had rejected an official diplomatic request to discuss the issue with Caribbean diplomats at an upcoming meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government.
Prior to that, Gentleman said it had been a “quite a lonely six months writing story after story – saying this is a real problem, really seriously bad things are happening – to no effect at all.”
Gentleman said she knew the Windrush story was important because “really straight-forwardly, it was a complete outrage”.
“There were these people who had been living in this country for 40 or 50 years who were suddenly being told that they were illegal and losing their jobs, sometimes their homes, sometimes being threatened with deportation and [it was] happening on a really large scale with thousands affected.”
But she said that, despite the first few cases being “really bad – people who had done nothing wrong being locked up in detention centres”, the scale of the issue was not immediately obvious.
“That’s why it was such an exciting thing to report on,” she went on.
“Because it was really a process of scratching away and seeing that there was a much bigger picture. That bigger picture was obvious to me by the end of January or February [this year] and it was beginning to become obvious to a few Labour MPs, but still the Government made no response.
“It was really galling I suppose on 16 April when suddenly, within the space of 24 hours, the Government went from saying this wasn’t an issue that they cared about at all to saying that they were heartbroken by the stories, very upset by the terrible stories and that they wanted to change things.
“It was a really shameless about-face turn around.”
Rudd stepped down as Home Secretary at the end of April after the Guardian published leaked memos that showed she had known about targets for removing illegal migrants from the UK, despite her denying it.
Gentleman said she felt “a bit ambivalent” about Rudd’s resignation – “I think she didn’t handle it brilliantly” – but said it was May who was “really responsible for all of those policies” when Home Secretary to David Cameron, “who came up with the hostile environment policies”.
Gentleman revealed she was writing a book about the Windrush scandal, which is expected to be published late next year, and had taken a step back from reporting over the last couple of months to focus on writing it.
But, she said she continued to be contacted by those affected by the Government’s treatment of the Windrush generation.