Adam Johnson’s historic sentence shows our victim-blaming culture is decades out of date

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 24 March 2016

Thousands of people appear in court every day and many of them go to prison. But few trials get reported so widely as that of Adam Johnson, the former England footballer who has just been sentenced to six years in jail.

For once the massive coverage is completely justified. Not because of who Johnson is, but because his case is a landmark in this country’s treatment of sexual offences against children.

Earlier this month, when Johnson was convicted of carrying out a sex act on a 15-year-old girl, he was warned by the judge that he faced a sentence of between four and ten years. Even so, I’m sure his six-year tariff for that offence and two others, which he admitted on the first day of his trial, is now causing shock waves.

So it should. For far too long, people have defended people like Johnson, trotting out hoary old excuses for adult men who use their fame and status to target vulnerable victims. ‘She looked older than 15,’ they say, even though it is clear that Johnson knew the girl’s age and even made online searches about the age of consent. ‘It’s not his fault if girls chase him,’ they say, as though a man of 28 is entitled to be excused the standard of moral responsibility required of less famous mortals.

Well, that’s all over now.

The law doesn’t make excuses for fame or wealth; when someone is convicted, it looks at the damage that’s been caused and reflects it in the sentence. In this instance, the damage suffered by Johnson’s victim was set out in court in painful, forensic detail, and should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about how she continues to suffer.

That message needs to be seen by all those people who have abused the girl online, blamed her for what happened or broken the law by revealing her identity. It also needs to be heard by those Sunderland fans who responded to news of Johnson’s arrest last year by pumping their fists in the air and singing, ‘Adam Johnson, he shags who he wants’. They were crass, callous and above all wrong, as his conviction demonstrates.

A great deal has been said and written about the role of professional football in all this, and it’s certainly the case that the country’s leading clubs need to think about how they treat their pampered stars. Football is a very lucrative business and clubs put up with dreadful behaviour off the pitch, as long as their celebrity players bring home the trophies. Most of those players are working-class lads, often without much in the way of education, who suddenly find themselves earning jaw-dropping sums of money and being treated as minor deities.

All of that is true but the significance of this case goes way beyond football. At its core, it is about attitudes towards men and sex – assumptions of male entitlement, in a nutshell – which are years out of date. In a society based on equality, it is simply not acceptable for men to groom under-age girls, gaining their confidence in order to persuade them to perform sexual acts when they are not mature enough to understand the consequences.

More to the point, it is against the law, which is sometimes ahead of public opinion and exists in part to protect vulnerable individuals from predators. This is a landmark case precisely because it has done what the law is supposed to do - which is put aside fame and the other excuses made for men who believe they can do what they like.

They can’t, and this sentence speaks volumes about the importance our society now places on the protection of children.

Feminism shines a light on a world darkened by sexual slavery, mass rape and misogyny

Who would have predicted, when this column began, that a whole series of terrorist organisations was about to emerge, incubating a pathological loathing of women?

Independent on Sunday, 20 March 2016

In 1997, when I began writing a weekly column for The Independent on Sunday, Labour had just won a landslide election victory. I wasn’t a fan of Tony Blair, an antipathy that appeared to be reciprocated when I turned up at a party at No 10 a few years later, but Labour’s success changed the appearance of the House of Commons out of all recognition. There were suddenly 120 female MPs in the lower chamber and the vast majority (101, to be exact) belonged to the Labour Party.

That was still less than a fifth of the House, but back in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became the country’s first female prime minister, the figure was only 3 per cent. Labour’s 1997 intake was patronised as “Blair’s Babes” but it began to feel normal to see MPs who weren’t men in suits speaking about matters which affected half the population. If progress since then sometimes seems painfully slow, last year’s general election lifted the proportion of women MPs to a record 29 per cent, thanks in part to the success of the SNP.

It’s essential to record these milestones because the world in 2016 sometimes appears to be a very dark place, and especially so for women. The late 1990s, when Sex and the City sparked conversations about everything from the pleasure of sex to coping with sexually transmitted diseases, now feels like a lost moment of innocence. Who would have predicted, watching Carrie Bradshaw and her friends roam New York in four-inch heels, that a whole series of terrorist organisations was about to emerge, incubating a pathological loathing of women?

I knew that Japanese soldiers had forced thousands of foreign women to work in military brothels during the Second World War, but I didn’t expect to see sexual slavery being practised in my lifetime. It is impossible to feel anything but horror as Yazidi women who have escaped the clutches of Islamic State (Isis) talk about mass rapes and being sold as sex slaves. Something similar has happened, I assume, to the schoolgirls kidnapped from a school in northern Nigeria by fighters from another Islamist organisation, Boko Haram. With the second anniversary of the mass abduction approaching next month, more than 200 girls are still missing and their desperate families can only guess at what might have happened to them.

The deliberate targeting of women and girls by terrorist organisations isn’t just a resurgence of barbarism. It flies in the face of a belated recognition by the international community that sexual violence, far from being an accidental by-product of war, is a deliberate and unacceptable feature of conflict. In 2001, a war crimes tribunal sitting in The Hague ruled that the mass rape and enslavement of women are crimes against humanity, a charge second in gravity only to genocide; in a landmark judgment, three Bosnian Serbs who had been convicted of the rape, torture and enslavement of Muslim women in the Bosnian town of Foca were sentenced to a combined total of 60 years in prison. I can only hope that the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is said to have repeatedly raped Yazidi captives and the American aid worker Kayla Mueller, one day meets a similar fate.

Two decades ago, no one talked much about female genital mutilation (FGM), even though it has been illegal in this country since 1985. Now, thanks to campaigning by young women such as Nimco Ali, founder of the anti-FGM organisation Daughters of Eve, it has moved close to the top of the political agenda. While there has yet to be a successful prosecution in this country, police in Bristol last month used new powers to prevent three girls who were considered at risk of mutilation from being taken abroad. FGM protection orders were introduced last year as part of a raft of measures to stop the practice, which is now widely recognised as a form of child abuse. Last week an Australian judge sentenced three people – a retired nurse, a mother of two girls and a community leader – to 15 months in prison at the end of the country’s first FGM prosecution. The victims were just seven years old when they were cut.

None of this would have happened without feminism. A generation of women and men whose mothers were feminists, including the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, are relaxed about applying the word to themselves and calling publicly for greater gender equality. That’s why I think feminism is robust enough to weather attacks from some trans activists, who seem unable to disagree with distinguished figures in the women’s movement without trying to turn them into hate figures. I disagree with Germaine Greer on various issues, including prostitution, but The Female Eunuch remains an intellectual challenge and an inspiration. Personal attacks and calls for “no-platforming” have no place in one of the world’s great human rights movements.

The world we live in today is far more polarised than I could ever have imagined in 1997. A couple of weeks ago, on a trip to Paris, I saw soldiers on the streets and was reminded that the city has suffered two devastating terrorist attacks – one of them against journalists – in less than 12 months. Writers, liberals and women are targets of choice for people inspired by reactionary ideas, which often turn out to have misogyny at their heart.

I have tried to challenge those ideas in my columns for The IoS, and I want to thank the paper’s readers for staying with me for almost two decades. Not goodbye, I hope, but au revoir.

EU referendum: who cares what the Queen thinks about Brexit?

We now know her intervention in the Scottish referendum was planned to the last detail

Independent on Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Queen is a meddler. She’s better at it than her eldest son but that just means she’s smarter than the Prince of Wales (not hard) or has better advisers. Crucially, she knows she doesn’t have to say anything incriminating because most of the press can be relied on to “interpret” her remarks in the right way, while repeating the lofty fiction that the monarch is politically neutral.

Nothing could be further from the truth, which is why The Sun’s story about the Queen supposedly expressing strong Eurosceptic views over a lunch in 2011 sounds plausible. The Palace has complained to the press regulator IPSO on what appears to be a rather technical ground, claiming that the “Queen backs Brexit” headline was inaccurate because the term hadn’t been coined at the time.

But the more interesting question is why someone broke ranks and passed on the Queen’s allegedly critical remarks about the EU at this point in the referendum campaign. The Queen has survived as long as she has, with her reputation mostly intact, because of the omerta that surrounds her conversations. It’s unusual for her political views to be repeated in public, which may be why she offers them without apparent reluctance or hesitation. When I heard her say at a Buckingham Palace party that she didn’t want Turkey to join the EU for a long time, she didn’t seem remotely anxious about offering a political and indeed unconstitutional opinion in front of numerous witnesses. If it really was the first time she had been so forthright at a social event, it’s a remarkable coincidence that she did it in front of a committed republican.

By contrast, the Queen’s public interventions are so subtle that they might best be described as gnomic. Thus she never actually said, at a key moment in the Scottish independence referendum, that she wanted the Scots to stay in the UK. She didn’t have to: she simply made some anodyne remarks to “well-wishers” outside Crathie Kirk, the parish church where members of the Royal Family worship when they stay at Balmoral, four days before the ballot. Her entire utterance amounted to 11 words – “Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future” – and avoided any mention of the referendum. The Daily Mail swung into action, as it was supposed to do, reporting her remark as a “stark warning” about independence.

Was the Queen planning a similarly sphinx-like intervention close to the EU vote in June? Thanks to The Guardian, we now  know that her intervention in the Scottish referendum was orchestrated to the last detail after No 10 went into meltdown at the prospect of a “yes” vote. The wording was decided during negotiations between the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, it was designed to make her support for the union clear without actually saying so.

I can’t help wondering whether last week’s leak to The Sun, if that is what it was, amounted to a pre-emptive strike, designed to prevent the Queen taking sides (in a non-partisan way, of course) in the crucial week leading up to the EU referendum. At the same time, I also can’t help thinking that this way of doing things – political interference with zero accountability – is profoundly inimical to democracy. It offers the monarch boundless influence without ever having to justify herself or engage in anything as low-rent as a debate, which carries the risk of upsetting people. She never has to commit herself to anything in public, a privilege denied even to candidates for parish councils.

That she is allowed to get away with it is in some degree a habit, stretching back to a time when most of the country showed automatic deference to authority figures. But it’s also a reflection, I think, of a corrosive cynicism towards elected politicians, who are at least open about their allegiance and even, on occasion, willing to risk offending voters. The result is a credulity that leads people to put their faith in individuals who belong to the much-derided Establishment, even when their opinions are no more deserving of respect than those of someone sitting next to you on the bus.

Barely had the furore over The Sun’s “Brexit” headline begun to subside when another self-appointed opinion-maker entered the fray. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who shares with the Queen the privilege of holding a constitutional position without having had to do anything as vulgar as stand for office, explained in an interview with The House magazine that there is no “correct Christian view” on the EU referendum.

Even if you believe the UK is an imperfect democracy, the answer doesn’t lie in giving oracular status to the Royal Family and religious leaders. We need more accountability, not less, and the number one target should be the Queen’s clandestine political influence.

Protecting children means telling them about the world as it is

The government has rejected calls for compulsory sex and relationship education, but denying children essential knowledge puts them at risk

The Guardian, Thursday 10 March 2016

The myth of childhood innocence dies hard. Many parents hope that their kids won’t have to deal with the complex world of sex until they are in their teens, keeping childhood as one of the last places untouched by adult desires. But such hopes seem illusory in the face of evidence that the scale of child sexual abuse in this country is much greater than we previously believed, and is increasing due to technology.

A rise in prevalence, as opposed to reporting, is the development that everyone working in the area dreads. Following the exposure of Jimmy Savile, police forces were inundated with reports of rapes and sex attacks, almost universally believed to reflect a greater willingness of victims to go to the police. It was widely welcomed, not because a woman revealing that she has been raped is ever good news, but because confidence in the criminal justice system is essential to stopping rapists.

Now, though, one of the country’s most senior police officers is saying something very different about the increase in recorded cases of child abuse. Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, believes that technology has made it easier for predators to search for victims online, driving an increase of more than 30% in recorded cases last year.

According to the NSPCC, a total of 45,456 child sexual offences were recorded in the UK, with some victims aged five or under. Shocking though that is, the figure is low compared to estimates contained in a report last year from the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield. It suggested that there had been between 400,000 and 450,000 victimsof child sexual abuse in England alone between 2012 and 2014.

There is always resistance to such estimates, which are based on different types of evidence including surveys of adult survivors, while the apparent mishandling of historical allegations against some well-known individuals has led to claims of a witch-hunt. But the NSPCC’s figures represent recorded cases of child sexual abuse and Bailey says that the police are seeing “exponential increases” year-on-year. He doesn’t believe that there has been a rise in the proportion of the population with a sexual interest in children, but technological advances have vastly expanded opportunities for paedophiles.

No one would argue that it is possible or even desirable to keep children away from the internet. But we are already living in a different universe in terms of child sexual exploitation: in 1990 it was estimated that there were approximately 7,000 indecent images of children in circulation in the UK and predators had to take enormous risks in order to share them. In 1978 a former diplomat, Sir Peter Hayman, was investigated by the police after he left a package of paedophile material on a London bus.

Now it is believed that there may be as many as 100m indecent images of children in circulation. There is so much material, in fact, that the police have been accused of unacceptable delays in getting round to interviewing people who have been flagged up as suspects. In 2014, Essex police were criticised for waiting nine months to question a deputy headteacher from Southend, who was later discovered to possess more than 400 films and still images of children undressing at his school and a local swimming pool.

Children cannot possibly be expected to anticipate this kind of behaviour from someone in a position of trust. That is why they need to be told about warning signs, making sure they know what to look for and who to tell if they are worried by someone’s behaviour. The obvious place for that to happen is in schools but a vociferous lobby exists, dedicated to opposing every attempt to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education on the ground that it would unnecessarily “sexualise” kids.

The truth is the opposite: denying children knowledge about the world puts them at risk from paedophiles who may inflict lifelong damage. But the present government flatly refuses to make personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) mandatory. Last month the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, rejected another call for compulsory PSHE, despite a campaign by MPs, peers and a coalition of 100 concerned organisations.

I regularly sit in meetings with senior police officers who deal with the horrors of child sexual abuse on a daily basis. They can’t say so publicly but they are tearing their hair out over our society’s failure to teach children how to spot predators. I’m afraid that childhood innocence may be something we can no longer afford if we’re serious about protecting kids from dangerous people.


Adam Johnson: men like the disgraced footballer rely on misogyny to operate

The no-holds-barred condemnation of the former England international feels like an unconscious attempt to compensate for past ambivalence – to put it mildly – towards the player and his sexual history

Independent on Sunday, 6 March 2016

Every time a public figure is exposed as a sexual predator – and it seems to happen with alarming frequency these days – the condemnation that follows is swift and merciless. Men such as Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile have been transformed overnight from popular entertainers into “perverts” and “paedophiles”, heaped with as much as calumny as they previously received plaudits. The latest big name to undergo this process is Adam Johnson, who was characterised as a “Paedo in his Speedos” on the front page of The Sun last week, next to a picture of the disgraced footballer in a pair of swimming trunks.

Whether it was an appropriate image to publish the day after Johnson was convicted of a sex offence against a 15-year-old girl (he was cleared of another charge) is another matter. The former Sunderland winger and English international has been warned by the judge to expect a “substantial” custodial sentence after pleading guilty to two lesser charges at the beginning of his trial. He faces going to jail for between four and 10 years for grooming the girl, kissing her and for sexual activity in his car.

It is not clear whether the use of an explicit image was intended as mockery of Johnson’s pride in his physique or a reference to his reputation as a stud. But as is often the way, today’s no-holds-barred condemnation of Johnson feels like an unconscious attempt to compensate for past ambivalence – to put it mildly – towards the player and his sexual history. I am not defending Johnson, who was described by his own QC, Orlando Pownall, as “immature, arrogant [and] promiscuous”, but not for the first time I am disturbed by an inexplicable (to me at least) tolerance of predatory  attitudes towards women and girls.

Sunderland AFC’s officials dealt with Johnson every day. “The only time he had to fend for himself was on the field, cheered on by thousands of adoring fans”, Pownall said during the trial. Didn’t the club notice his immaturity and arrogance, especially where sex was concerned? And weren’t they worried by the vile misogyny of some Sunderland fans, who responded to news of his arrest in March last year as though it was a tribute to his sexual prowess? Just days later, they were filmed, fists pumping, singing “Adam Johnson, he shags who he wants”.

Sunderland suspended him for all of two weeks, then allowed him to go on playing (and earning almost £3m) for the best part of a year. Only days before his trial, he was photographed signing autographs for young fans at the club’s Stadium of Light. Johnson wasn’t sacked until the first day of his trial, when he pleaded guilty to the two lesser offences.

Officials say that was the first they knew of his intention to put in the guilty pleas, but Durham police insists the club’s chief executive was told at the time of his arrest that he had allegedly texted and kissed the under-age girl. The club knew a year ago about the serious nature of the charges and it knew that Johnson had a devoted following, including very young girls. “I absolutely idolised Adam,” his victim said in a statement after the trial.

Few teenagers are mature enough to understand that hero worship can be dangerous, which is why organisations such as football clubs and the BBC have a safeguarding responsibility towards fans. When Dame Janet Smith’s report on Savile’s crimes at the BBC came out 10 days ago, there was much talk of different times, as though his activities would not be tolerated today. But Savile was never arrested, and Sunderland’s support for a star who had been charged with serious sexual offences suggests things have changed less than we imagine.

The other thing that hasn’t gone away is victim-blaming. Johnson’s victim has been viciously attacked on social network sites; she has been described as a “slag” and a “slut” and accused of trying to make money out of the player. In her statement, she talked about the effect of the “horrible” names she had been called, saying she sometimes felt “broken”. It’s very similar to the abuse heaped on the woman assaulted by Ched Evans, the former Sheffield United player and Welsh international who was convicted of rape four years ago. Evans has always maintained his innocence and his case has just been referred back to the Court of Appeal, but nothing can excuse the shrill misogyny of the campaign against his victim.

What lies behind all this, I think, is an inexcusable tolerance towards attitudes that demean women and are distasteful to more thoughtful, modern men. Bragging about the size of your sexual organ, as Donald Trump did in a TV debate last week, isn’t illegal and it doesn’t make someone a sexual predator. But the fact that it didn’t instantly destroy his credibility as a presidential candidate shows that primitive versions of masculinity appeal to alarming numbers of people. When macho attitudes are so widely tolerated, no wonder some men think they can get away with behaving extremely badly.