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‘The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Traffickers’

by on September 1, 2010

The opening instalment of Channel 4’s three-part documentary The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Traffickers last night was plagued by dodgy research and an apparent complete inability of its makers to question the world around them.

C4 publicity pic: Their mission: to boldly wear ill-fitting M&S suits that had never been worn before

Its opening words produced the first gaff : “In the first operation of its kind…”

For Pentameter 2 – the combined operation by the UK’s 55 police forces whose story it purports to tell – was not the first operation of its kind.

The original Pentameter began in 2005, with its operational phase between February and May 2006, discovering 88 trafficked ‘sex slaves‘.

For God’s sake, this is a simple question of fact.

The gaffs were to continue, notably when the off-camera female narrator announced that it is believed that 80% of the women in Britain’s brothels are foreign, a statistic once attributed to London’s brothels alone and generally accepted as being way, way above the national average, which is currently placed by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), no less, at a rather generous 60% and by TAMPEP, the organisation of outreach, day centres, clinics and other professionals working with sex workers at closer to 40%.

In the hurly burly rush of putting a daily paper to bed, such mistakes can perhaps be understandable. But there can be little excuse in a documentary series based on footage of an operation that finished on March 31 two years ago, which should have given Channel 4 time to deliver a copy to every household in the nation with every frame hand painted in oils.

The age shows. During a briefing, police are told there are an estimated 4,000 trafficked sex workers in Britain. At the time of Pentameter 2, that was the official guesstimate – rightly much mocked by anyone who’d read the rationale (if one can call it that) behind it. But the new estimate for England and Wales is less than 2,600, and even that is questioned by many.

Unquestioning assurances were given that raids were often the only way to discover and prosecute traffickers. No mention of publicly available information that less than one in five UK sex trafficking victims escape as a result of a police raid.

Quote of the piece was from the officer in charge of a briefing, however, who announced to his throng of officers that, insofar as the sex workers are concerned: “we will accord them victim status and treat them as victims as long as they co-operate.”

How were they treated if they didn’t co-operate? Sex workers in brothels commit no crime, only those managing the brothel or knowingly owning it do so. It is not only the traffickers, it seems, who have vays of making you talk.

And what of those who did not consider themselves victims? Did they want victimhood thrust upon them? They were certainly going to get it from this crew.

Two or three foreign women who more clearly fitted the frame of trafficked – or who at least were clearly unhappy in their role – were interviewed, of course, but what of the rest?

An ACPO report has just informed us that 230 out of 254 brothel sex workers they checked recently (210 of them foreign) were not trafficked. What did these sex workers – many of them migrants with non-existent or often poor English – think of Gloucestershire Constabulary (or anyone else’s constabulary) suddenly arriving and closing their workplaces, confiscating the takings and arresting their bosses?

How more vulnerable were they thus rendered?

But oh no, this Channel 4 crew slept through the story.

Meanwhile, the old, stereotyped message is reinforced – young foreign women are uniformly naïve, pretty little things totally incapable of taking care of themselves in the big, wide world, and their proper place is back in their homelands with mum and dad.

And I think I’m right in saying that never, throughout the whole hour of The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Slaves, did the D word crop up. Though many of Pentameter’s “sex slaves” were ultimately either deported or pressurised to voluntarily return home under threat of deportation.

I wonder if the D word will crop up tonight or tomorrow, when Channel 4 is threatening to perpetrate the remaining, remarkably predictable, instalments? I very much doubt it. No mention yet of even the Border Agency, which seemed as fixed to police raiding parties in Pentameter raids as Siamese twins.

Is it me or is there not something distinctly uninvestigative about modern UK TV documentaries when they follow police matters? It’s almost like the early days of black and white BBC TV, when political interviews consisted of charming ladies and gentlemen from Aunty turning up to have tea and crumpets with ministers and their wives and discussing nothing more political than fashion and cricket. Like Steve Scott’s unctious Nightwatch dribble.

Do none-journalists have to be trained to not ask questions, I wonder? Maybe they’re paid by competing channels to sabotage audience figures?

Anyway, we know the outcome of Pentameter 2. By last October, two years after its launch, when award-winning journalist Nick Davies wrote a piece on it, it had failed to result in the convictions of a single trafficker who had forced anyone into prostitution in the UK. So The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Traffickers strikes me very much as Channel 4 making the most of a poor investment.

  1. I think a book written by John Davies could explain why so few forced/coerced/deceived/manipulated prostitutes are found by the police and by researchers. You can download the book here:

    It is called ‘My name is not Natasha’.

    John Davies followed a group of Albanian prostitutes in Lyon for years. The information in the book contains nothing really new, but the level of detail is unique. You’ll discover that the prostitutes are 100% loyal to those who exploit them. I wonder what would have happened if a vice squad arrested these women and asked them to cooperate to denounce their exploiters. If you have read this book you will know for sure that they won’t. And what would they say to researchers who interview them for one hour?

    John Davies has proven that you must follow prostitutes for a long period of time to draw definite conclusions.

  2. Peter Mauley permalink

    Telly documentaries rarely do more than perpetuate the leftist ideology of exploiter/victim across all walks of life. That’s judging by what I read about them, as my telly went in the bin long ago!
    Another very worthwhile post Stephen, thanks.

  3. Pyramus permalink

    I’m surprised you say Stephen that 4,000 was an accurate figure for the number of trafficked women. That’s an old statistic that has been shown to be wrong. Nick Davies wrote 2 articles in The Guardian on the same day in October and one of them showed where this statistic came from. This show is like another show Vice Squad on Five which also pretended that all the police want to do is to rescue vulnerable girls.

  4. Pyramus – quite right, too. Sorry, I’ll amend my wording, it should say that that was the official estimate at the time. For those wanting more on its meaninglessness, I wrote

  5. pete lewis permalink

    Re the proportion of foreign sexworkers:
    It’d be interesting to compare the figures with other service industries, say restaurant catering. Certainly wouldn’t surprise me if 80% of employees are foreign born let alone the 60% lower figure. How about a trafficking investigation there?

  6. Xena permalink

    These estimates of how many sex workers are SO funny. That one figure, 80 000 was just too tempting. I had to search UK tax statistics to verify my suspicions on that. There aren’t enough men in the UK with incomes high enough to feed a force like that.

    That’s where a solid estimate should start, btw. Not with internet ads. You examine the discretionary incomes of the men living in a given area to determine the available resource base, and work in your other demographics info, the most likely age group being between 30 and 60,(for monetary reasons, not health reasons.)The missing number is who WOULD purchase services, and you’d have to do surveys to get a reasonable percentage (and double the figure to make up for the liars). Then you calculate what the girls need per week at the going price to pay their expenses and make a profit, and divvy the available punters up accordingly to get a maximum and a minimum. And assume that the actual number of girls working will be at or below the minimum number. The maximum number would just be to dispel the claims of the doom criers.

    4000 is at least somewhat plausible. 2600 is a much more workable estimate. 80% foreign sounds pretty silly.

    And while we’re on the topic, that post about the anticipated force of 40 000 sex workers invading Germany in 2006 was hysterical. I just thought back to the last concert I was at in 1990. Alice Cooper. Around 40 000 Alice fans cleared the Toronto Skydome in a mob about 15 wide and several city blocks long. A parade of trafficked women with those dimensions would look more like a flippin refugee column leaving a natural disaster.

    Thanks for the tip on what NOT to watch on sattelite. I’ll stick to Colin&Justin, thanks.

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