The call was coming from inside the house

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
UK policy
a heart-shaped leaf on a gravel path

Normally I wouldn’t waste my time reacting to churnalism – the adage about getting into a fight with a pig comes to mind – but the other day I saw an example of the genre which not only hit rock bottom, but then proceeded to dig. It related to UK internet regulation, which until last year was my line of work. And it’s Scottish, so I have to step up.

It came in the context of a “story” published in the Daily Record, which is the main tabloid here in Glasgow. I put “story” in quotes because it was an NSPCC-placed story given a bit of editorial treatment by a Record journalist.

“Trigger warnings” come in for a lot of criticism these days, but this story really does require all the flags that exist. The story, relating what happened to a Scottish woman in her thirties when she was a teenager, describes the most horrible combination of physical, emotional, online, and offline sexual abuse that it’s possible to roll into one, compounded several times over. When I showed the story to the pals I was with, they physically recoiled. If you’re not emotionally capable of reading the piece, do not click on the link. If you are able, it’s here.

If you’re not able to read the full piece, you do need to know an essential detail to understand this blog post, which I’ve put here:

Click here for detail

The important thing to know for the context of this post was that, to paraphrase the horror movie trope, the call was coming from inside the house. In this case, the teenager’s online groomer turned out to be her parent. Her father, using a sock puppet identity, was grooming his own daughter into performing sexual acts for him online. The abuse then became real-life.

But the point of the piece was not to share her story. The point, of course, was to stick words in her mouth to push support for the UK’s raft of internet legislation:

“Annie recently signed a letter from dozens of sexual abuse survivors, families and child safety experts, urging companies to engage with survivors to assess child safety risks, including end-to-end encrypted messaging services. […] Meanwhile, Annie wants to see far tougher restrictions around the creation of social media accounts and more ID checks in place. She said: ‘I’d like to see social media companies blasted with fines every single time a child is groomed or has some kind of trauma initiated on their platform. I think that’s the only way they’re ever going to change.'”

And that wasn’t even the lowest point of the story. Rock bottom was this, just casually tossed out there as a detail:

“She went to police when she was 23 but her dad was never interviewed or prosecuted.

He now lives in another country.”

She went.

To the police.

Her dad.

Was never interviewed.

Or prosecuted.

And then he was offski.

And after you stop reeling from that, you do the maths which the story provided: it said she is 36 now and she was 14 when it happened.

That means the abuse happened in 2001 and she went to the police in 2010.

And in 2023, somehow, the Online Safety Bill is apparently the solution to that.

Well, I mean, there is indeed a massive story there. Unfortunately it flew straight over the Daily Record’s head.

The Record is not a thinking person’s paper. Basically, it’s the Old Firm, celebrities, and also some news. They write for a readership that is very traditional Scottish, meaning highly deferent to patriarchal systems of vertical authority. People in this country don’t question that, they don’t know how to question that, and they don’t know how to question how that deference has bludgeoned their critical thinking.  They really don’t.

So let me point out what the Record failed to note in its copypasta.

One, there is a sexual predator who got off Scot-free (where did you think the term came from, after all?) because the police let him get away with it.

Why didn’t they question that?

Why didn’t they follow up on that?

Why didn’t they ask Police Scotland for comment? (I did. Crickets.)

Two, there is a sexual predator who’s been out there for twenty two years and god knows how many other girls he’s abused in that time.

Why didn’t they push for details on that?

Why didn’t they ask where he is now?

Why didn’t they ask for a real name to run through their archives?

And three.

Three is that child advocacy organisations aren’t acting like organisations that just won the fight of their lives. In this example, in fact, they’ve exploited a vulnerable woman, and ripped open her old wounds, for clicks and campaign KPIs.

Seeing campaigning organisations stuffing words into the mouths of victims is nothing new. (I know this may seem hard to believe, but Scottish Highland abuse victims don’t normally sound remarkably like London policy teams and London PR agencies collaborating on a Google doc.) Seeing “account managers” at these agencies going so far as to create composite character victims isn’t new either, even when that tactic actually diminishes the harms that real victims went through.

But with this story, the INTERNET BAD!! dogma that has hijacked the UK’s national dialogue about children’s safety and wellbeing – the one which newspapers, Thinking Of The Children, are all too happy to join – has sunk to an absolute nadir.

It’s done so by giving a woman who went through complete and utter hell a false sense of importance and a false sense of hope. It’s done so by co-opting her pain into the promotion of policy solutions that would not have helped her in any case, and still won’t help her now.

And most shamefully, it’s done so by brushing off the apparent failure of law enforcement to even talk to the abuser as a side detail that doesn’t fit a campaign objective.

As for “her” campaigning asks that “she said” about what “she thinks”:

“urging companies to engage with survivors to assess child safety risks, including end-to-end encrypted messaging services”

The service she was groomed on, Faceparty, doesn’t encrypt chats, they require identity verification, they check user registrations against the sex offenders list, and they use a third party image scanning service.

Annie wants to see far tougher restrictions around the creation of social media accounts and more ID checks in place.

The entire focus of the Online Safety Bill’s restrictions on the creation of social media accounts was about parental controls. They control the creation, the account verification, and the content. Spot the problem here?

“I’d like to see social media companies blasted with fines every single time a child is groomed”

Me, I’d like to see her dad extradited to the Bar-L, and I’d also like to see a couple of senior polis dragged off the golf course, long before I see American companies that didn’t even exist when she was abused scapegoated to protect the polis.

The fact that she herself does not feel the same – or more to the point, that her media handlers have decided that it is not in their interest that she should feel that way – show that a desperately fragile woman is still being exploited for kicks and clicks, by both campaigning organisations and their media enablers.

How can anyone who hasn’t become everything they ever hated call that an age-appropriate duty of care?

Don’t ask how it happens to girls like her, don’t ask why no one believes girls like her, and don’t ask how men like her father get away with it and jet off smirking. You’ve just seen exactly how it does.

Annie, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re doing okay, but you need to get away from these guys. They’re not helping you and they’re not on your side. You’re going to get the justice you need. But not like this.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.