Coverage of 'predatory' 13-year-old sex attack victim exposes failings of mainstream news organisations

When a man pushing 40  has sexual contact with a girl of 13 there is one person who is absolutely in the wrong. And it isn't the girl.

She can look as vampish as Mata Hari, pout and prance like Lady GaGa and slink as sinuously as Gypsy Rose Lee. But underneath she remains a child.
Neil Wilson failed to obey the rule and is lucky not to be in jail.

As you may know, Wilson was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence at Snaresbrook Crown Court last Monday after pleading guilty to sexual activiti with a child and to being in possession of extreme pornography.

The prosecuting counsel, Robert Colover, told the court that the girl was "predatory in all her actions",  "sexually experienced" and that she had forced herself on Wilson. Passing sentence, Judge Peters also used the word "predatory" and said that the "facts" showed that she had "egged Wilson on".

The language was brought to the attention of the Ending Victimisation campaigners and a petition was set up on Tuesday morning, asking Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, to investigate. By Thursday evening 45,000 people had signed, and Mr Colover had been suspended from handling sexual abuse cases for the Crown Prosecution Service. He was also suspended by his chambers, which removed his profile  from its website. His choice of words was censured by the CPS, by Mr Starmer and by David Cameron.

Yesterday Wilson was back in front of Judge Peters – but only to deal with a technicality. Community orders imposed for the possession of indecent and pornographic images could not run in tandem with a suspended sentence. They were therefore rescinded and the jail term increased to 12 months, still suspended for two years.

It's a troubling case in many ways, but partly because mainstream journalists seem to have been behind the curve all along.

Only scant details of the court case have been published in the national papers, with most focusing on the petition and the general outcry by various charities and individuals over the word "predatory".
 

The Independent gave the story the most prominence, splashing on Wednesday with the intro:

Equality activists have condemned a judge for letting a man who admitted having sex with a 13-year-old girl walk free on the grounds that his victim was sexually "predatory".

The story then goes into the DPP's promise of a review and comments from assorted campaigners before returning briefly to events in court on the page four turn. The judge, it said, had accepted the suggestion that the girl was complicit in the abuse and had told Wilson:

"You have come as close to prison as is imaginable. I have taken in to account that even though the girl was 13, the prosecution say she looked and behaved a little bit older. On these facts, the girl was predatory and was egging you on."

The next paragraph gives the terms of  the suspended sentence and mentions almost in passing that  Wilson had eight images of child sexual abuse and eleven involving horses and dogs on his computer.

The article then turns its attention back to the protesters, including one woman's account of her own experiences of abuse, before closing with confirmation that the Attorney-General would be examining the case to see if the sentence was unduly lenient and a statement from the CPS condemning the barrister's language.

But while this was by far the most prominent coverage of the story, it was flawed. The pair did not 'have sex', nor did anyone say that the girl was sexually predatory. Wilson was, in fact, charged with one count of sexual activity with a child, two counts of possession of an indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child and five of possession of extreme pornographic images.

The reader is left in complete ignorance as to what happened, why it happened, how it happened, where it happened – indeed how it ever came to court.

The Telegraph which had been the only paper to report the case on Tuesday,  made the story a top nib on Wednesday -focusing on the key Colover quote and the CPS response. It would have been a perfect update had the reader been given the full story the day before.  
       

The Times has its own child abuse agenda and with serendipitous timing, its award-winning Andrew Norfolk had come up with a splash about a plan to hand-pick judges for sex abuses cases (shame about the juxtaposition of  Petra Ecclestone in a bondage-style dress). The Wilson story made a basement on page 4 under a backgrounder. Again, the text was restricted to the abbreviated quotes from the judge and barrister, the voice of protest and the official response.

So what's the problem then? Sex abuse cases are two a penny, this one's different only because someone made a fuss about the victim-blamey language and now the top brass are taking a look.

But didn't it strike anyone as odd that this description of the child as being "predatory in all her activities" was put forward not by the defence in mitigation but by the prosecution? Indeed, Mr Colover went to far as to say:

"There was sexual activity but it was not of Mr Wilson's doing. You might say it was forced upon him, despite being older and stronger than her."

The Court News UK service recognised that it was unusual, and sent out this tweet at lunchtime on Monday, while the hearing was proceeding: "Prosecution describe girl,13, as 'predatory' after stripping for adult man even though he said not to. There's a first for everything…"

Once sentence had been passed, the service sent out this follow-up: "Child abuser walks free as prosecution describe 13 year-old victim as 'predatory in all her actions."

And it posted a link to this story:

 

 
By 5pm on Monday Court News UK had made available more quotes, some detail of the circumstances of the offence and the fact that a friend of the girl had gone to the police.
 
The agency and Jane Fae had both shown surprise that it was the prosecution who suggested that the victim was in some way culpable. So did End Victimisation.
 
Jo, the group's founder, told SubScribe that they had come to expect that sort of language from defence lawyers, but not from prosecutors. She said they had checked the facts carefully while simultaneously working with Change.org to prepare a petition. It went live on Tuesday morning. 
 
But newspapers, whose job is supposed to be to point up the unusual, weren't interested. The Telegraph's  single-column story on Tuesday  was pretty much the same as the Court News UK version, but nobody else touched it.  Even the local paper – the Romford Recorder – didn't post it online until Tuesday afternoon, 24 hours after sentencing (as did Metro).
 
By Thursday 45,000 people had signed the End Victimisation petition and won a promise of action from Mr Starmer, who wrote:
 
The language used by the prosecution counsel in this case was inappropriate. In particular, the use of the word ‘predatory’ to describe the 13-year-old victim is of great concern to me…I will be reviewing this case to decide what action is necessary.” 
Almost all the national newspapers had by now woken up – although they were far more interested in the outrage than the event that provoked it (a too-common failing). The scant detail from the hearing did readers a disservice as they were in no position to reach their own conclusions beyond their personal prejudices.
 
Why had Mr Colover apparently sought to absolve the man he was prosecuting? Was there a defence lawyer in court? What did he or she have to say? What was the justification for saying the girl was "predatory in all her activities"? Had she entrapped Wilson? Was she perhaps planning to blackmail him? Had anyone on any newsdesk gone back to the agency to ask for more information – or was everyone so caught up in the protest movement that they didn't care about the case itself?
 
 
The Daily Mail showed why, for all its  faults, it is still the slickest paper in the game with this spread pulling together the Snaresbrook and the Times stories. The Wilson story was split into two, with the lead focusing on the row and the second using all the material available from Court News UK to give the most complete account yet of the court case. The right-hander has a swift catch-up on Andrew Norfolk's story and a retrospective of the dreadful treatment of abuse victims in other courts.
 
At last we learn that Snaresbrook Crown Court was told that the girl had been cadging cigarettes in Romford town centre while playing truant on 6 March last year. Wilson bought her a whole packet, they got talking and she went with him to his flat. Over the next two weeks, Wilson was said to have bombarded her with phone calls and texts and they met several times at his home.
 
On 20 March she again went to the flat and Wilson claims to have told her that they had to stop seeing each other. He said that her response was to ask if she could change out of her school uniform. Wilson said that he had left the room and when he returned she was sitting on a sofa wearing only a T-shirt. She had then started kissing him and touching his genitals, but he had pushed her away.
 
These were the "facts" of the case which were agreed by the prosecution and defence and which led to Wilson's guilty plea. The girl and her friend were interviewed by the police, but the court was told that the girl did not want to make a complaint and she took no part in the court proceedings.
 
Having been alerted by the friend, the police visited Wilson's flat and found the indecent images.
 
By reading all the tweets, blogs and various newspapers, it becomes possible to piece together some of what happened – but most of the country is still in the dark. Why on earth would a prosecutor say such a thing and almost exculpate the defendant? Why would a judge reinforce the view?  Are our senior lawyers still stuck in the 18th century? We have also yet to hear from the (official) defence. Maybe with such a sympathetic prosecutor it doesn't matter. But it does.
 

Crime stories pour into newsdesk computer feeds like rain and journalists have always had to be sharp-eyed to spot those that are going to have wider ramifications. In this case the pressure groups were swift to react to the almost jokey initial tweet from Court News UK. But not even the local paper was on the ball, let alone the nationals.

 
Understandable, perhaps, given the mountain of stories about bullying, abuse, suicide. We can't publish only gloomy news. And this screen grab shows how fast the stories flow, even in August:
 
 
 
All this serves to demonstrate that newspapers are not only struggling to set the agenda – they are also struggling to keep up when someone else sets the bandwagon rolling. Politicians, film stars, musicians, scientists have all realised that they can reach directly to the public – and interact with interested people – without having to issue press releases or subject themselves to newspaper interviews. Special interest groups are also catching on fast. They can spot a gap, set themselves up and build a reputation fast. 
 
As SubSist noted last month, Jo had the idea for Ending Victimisation in May, started building the website on the 21st and went live on the 24th. Less than three months later she was able to muster 45,000 supporters and secure a promise of action from the DPP in less than three days.
 
Should we celebrate that, or worry about kneejerk politics? Should we despair that most of our newspapers have still told us only half the Wilson story or say 'it doesn't matter, he's just another two-bit paedophile'?
 
There is much resistance to the Twitter society. It is ridiculed as a middle-class playground. Newspapers loved the trolling story, yet consistently failed to make the link between what was happening to the feminists and what has been happening to vulnerable teenagers for the past five years.
 
This isn't Facebook. It is public and it has astonishing power to get people motivated, for good or ill. 
 
Old-fashioned news organisations know that Twitter is important – reporters and online staff are required to tweet out puffs and links to their work constantly –  but they don't 'get' Twitter. If they did, they would by now have recognised that their newsrooms are inadequately staffed if they do not have a Social Media Correspondent.
 
Have you seen such a byline yet?
 
No, neither have I.
 

 

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