Sara Rowbotham can't bear to hear about the Rochdale grooming scandal anymore
She was feted for her role blowing the whistle on abuse, and was played on TV by Maxine Peake. Now she wants to escape the endless horrors and criminal trials
Dear Millers — what a week we’ve had. On Wednesday we announced we had raised some funding from a series of longtime Mill readers and supporters, including the former BBC director general and just-appointed CNN chief executive Mark Thompson. Our inboxes are full of messages from Millers and also from journalists around the country, and we’ll be catching up with those all weekend.
Today’s story is about Sara Rowbotham — one of the very few people who came out of the Rochdale grooming scandal with her reputation enhanced. She was the sexual health worker who blew the whistle on some of the dreadful offences that happened in the town, and who should have been listened to much earlier. After the most recent grooming trial in Rochdale came to an end, we’ve spoken to Rowbotham about the incredible psychological toll the past years have taken on her. She told Jack: “it makes me ill. I’m ill.”
If you’re a Mill member you can read that story below, and you can get Mollie’s recommendations for the weekend too.
Fundraise update: The Guardian covered the story first, and it’s since been picked up by Press Gazette, who remarked on our “star-studded list of individual investors,” and The Business Desk, which quoted Thompson’s reason for joining our funding round.
I’m backing The Mill because of the exceptional quality of its journalism and because it’s such an interesting and encouraging initiative. Britain’s cities need great commercially-sustainable journalism to inform the public and hold powerful institutions to account. That’s what The Mill and its sister publications were founded to do, and what they are consistently achieving.
Local newspapers in the UK have been fighting for survival for years, with job cuts and dwindling resources becoming the norm in newsrooms across the country. One local news outlet that has managed to buck the trend is the Manchester Mill, a small media company that is providing high-quality, deeply researched reporting to its readership. It is now preparing to expand across the UK after being valued at £1.75m by a group of investors including the former New York Times boss Mark Thompson.
Big thanks to everyone who has written in and shared the news. It’s been particularly nice to see tweets from journalists who see this as a hopeful, promising moment — a hint that there are reasons to be positive about the future of this difficult industry. “There is hope on the horizon...” tweeted the West Yorkshire-based writer Jessica Bradley, and journalist Craig Lewis said: “This is fantastically good news for local journalism and journalists. The more Manchester Mills, seeking to tell news properly and challenge authority, the better. Long may it continue.” The London-based writer Tomo Curren tweeted: “This is so validating and makes me so happy. There's a future for this profession and it's a rejection of the model that has suffocated quality for so long. We keep going.”
If you’re not a member yet, there’s no better time to jump on board the Mill train. We’ve got backing and momentum and every new member we get increases that. Most of the money we raised will be spent backing other journalists in cities across the country — we’ve spoken to several brilliant reporters on the phone already. Our editorial operation here at The Mill in Manchester is still funded by readers and our growth here will be funded by membership growth, so hit that button if you’re not already in the community.
On the back of this week’s news, we are able to beef up our central operation a bit — particularly with two senior hires who will work across Mill Media Co, our company that publishes The Mill, The Tribune in Sheffield and The Post in Liverpool.
Please take a look at the job ads below and get in touch if you have any questions.
Your Mill briefing
An interesting update for those of you who were interested in Mollie’s rare interview with the new chairman of Peel Group last week. Our story described how last year, the founder of the giant property and development company, John Whitaker, started to consider stepping back from the company and began succession planning. It was decided that the former CEO of Peel Ports, Mark Whitworth, would be brought in as the new chairman to deliver significant changes, including most recently, a “modest” restructure that laid off dozens of staff. In the days since publishing, another ex-staffer has contacted us to give us more context about what’s changing at Peel. “John Whitaker is still pulling the strings,” they said, describing the founder of Peel as a “grandfather” figure who was well-liked by junior staffers and gave the office culture a tightly-knit family feel. By contrast, that same ex-staffer describes Mark Whitworth as someone who gave “cringeworthy” speeches about how “people didn’t matter, only the business matters” and shifted the dial on the culture at Peel. “That entire atmosphere, that great place to work, has changed dramatically,” they added.
A 62-year-old man has been jailed for running a fraudulent meet-and-greet parking service at Manchester Airport. Mohammad Isaq collected cars from the airport between August 2017 and February 2018, promising customers their vehicles would be stored in a secure location. He charged up to £70 for the service, then left the cars on a field or just parked on nearby streets. Multiple victims of Isaq’s fraud say they came back to find their cars damaged or, in some cases, with another 700 miles on the odometer. Isaq pleaded guilty to fraudulent trading and was sentenced to 17 months in prison.
ICYMI: Miami Crispy, the hugely popular chicken shop famed for its secret spicy sauce (Mills passim), has become the subject of a local dispute. The shop’s rising success, mostly driven by TikTok, has been reflected in more traffic, parking issues, littering and rats, say residents. "The seagulls wake you up because they're all fighting for the food,” one told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
Worth a read: The FT’s Jen Williams spent the last year charting the struggles of Newman RC College, a secondary school in Oldham, as its faculty and students have dealt with the rising cost of living. Williams met regularly with the school’s head, Glyn Potts, and recounts in painful detail the difficulties faced by some of his students.
And finally, check out this excellent report by Michael Taylor on The Business Desk about the ongoing stadium issue at Salford Red Devils Rugby. He writes: “Salford City Council’s avowedly socialist Mayor Paul Dennett believes in the principle of public ownership of infrastructure and assets and wants to acquire the stadium, a plan the club supports.”
Sara Rowbotham can't bear to hear about the Rochdale grooming scandal anymore
By Jack Dulhanty
Sara Rowbotham MBE has had enough. The whistleblower, sexual health worker and councillor — who stood down as deputy leader of Rochdale council last May — played a pivotal role in the exposure and conviction of grooming gangs in the borough. The evidence she gathered while leading her local crisis intervention team helped secure the convictions of nine men in 2012 and has informed multiple trials since.
The latest came to a close this month — on trial were eight men arrested under Operation Lytton, the vast investigation into non-recent sexual offences in Rochdale that started in 2015, the existence of which was first revealed by The Mill. In total, the men were charged with 82 offences committed against two teenage girls between 2002 and 2006. Five were found guilty and convicted of 22 offences. They were the first of five cohorts of suspects arrested as part of the investigation.
If you don’t know Rowbotham’s name, you may have seen her depicted on screen. She was played — brilliantly — by Maxine Peake in Three Girls, BBC’s gripping three-part drama about the Rochdale grooming scandal, which first aired in 2017. “Only sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham comes out well in this first instalment,” one Guardian review noted. “She sees what is going on, records it and reports it, despite the reluctance, ignorance, blindness and fear of everyone else.”
This month’s trial was the eighth Rowbotham has attended that relates to sexual offences committed in her hometown 20 years ago. She met the victims of these crimes when they were teenagers trapped in a web of manipulation and abuse, and she knows them personally today. “I can’t move away from the first time I met those children when they were 13, and hearing what happened to them,” Rowbotham told me when we spoke on the phone recently. Speaking about how the memory of that time takes its toll, “it makes me ill,” she says. “I’m ill.”
Rowbotham lives in the Middleton house she was born in. She started work at the British Pregnancy Advisory service when she was 19, where she assisted women seeking termination of pregnancy. Occasionally she would be spat at on the way to work by anti-abortion protesters. She wasn’t phased. “It was very feminist,” she remembers, and she had always been political; her parents were socialists, and as a child she was taken to support miner’s strikes.
She left the Pregnancy Advisory Service to work as an HIV specialist social worker in Bury before moving to the crisis prevention team in Rochdale. “In 2003, Tony Blair said we were in a sexual health crisis,” Rowbotham explains. Money was put into local authorities to help address rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. This mostly entailed “throwing pills and condoms at children”.
While that kind of thing had its place, Rowbotham didn’t feel it did enough to address unhealthy sexual behaviour. “I was able to convince people that you do loads of education, you address attitudes, you address self-esteem. You work with an individual about relationships, about trust, those kinds of things, and you do that on a one-to-one basis.”
She was given a team and they visited schools all over Rochdale. They also opened a drop-in service in a nondescript portacabin in the centre of town, providing sexual health screenings and pregnancy tests. It became popular and gained the trust of local kids, who began to share more about their lives.
The two girls whose abuse was investigated by Operation Lytton were referred to Rowbotham’s team in 2004. They were amongst the first to tell her about the town’s grooming gangs, before the girls whose stories became known via the first Rochdale grooming trials and shows like Three Girls.
When they shared the abuse they suffered — plied with alcohol and drugs before being raped and sexually assaulted — Rowbotham made referrals to social services and the police. But nothing happened. Social services said they only dealt with neglect and abuse within families, the police said they needed a victim or a perpetrator, and the girls were too scared to report their experience to the police out of fear for their safety. “So we were left in limbo,” Rowbotham says. “And that went on for years and years.”
It changed in 2011 when Nazir Afzal, then the new CPS chief prosecutor in the North West, took over the case and overturned a previous decision not to press charges against the grooming ring (read our interview with Afzal about that decision, including a cameo for now-Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer). The failures of local services were made public by Rowbotham at a Home Affairs select committee in 2012, where she outlined how regularly she alerted the police and social services to the traumatic circumstances suffered by the victims.
“I went to parliament and grassed everybody up,” is how she puts it now. She told the committee that, between 2004 and 2012, she made 181 alerts to Children’s Social Care that went unheeded (a report later commissioned by the Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board contradicted that figure, saying that there were fewer than half that many alerts, but it’s hard to unpick how much of that difference comes down to semantics and the definitions of an alert).
The ensuing scandal saw public resignations, far-right protesters — the grooming gangs were mostly made up of British-Pakistani men — and massive media attention. It was also a reputational nightmare for the town that still lingers. At the recent trial of the eight men arrested as part of Lytton, one defence barrister said Rochdale had become “synonymous with grooming”.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Mill to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.