Why local journalism has to keep challenging authority — no matter how tough the obstacles in our way
JOE THOMAS of the Liverpool Echo, Society of Editors Scoop of the Year winner, talks about the story that earned him the award.
Being a journalist is a privilege.
The insight into how the world works, the access you get to those machinations and the understanding of those processes that you pick up along the way is fascinating.
But the real honour is the opportunity it gives you to meet, laugh and cry with the communities you work with.
And the position you have, walking both the streets of your patch and the corridors of power, only has value if you use that privilege as a platform to fight for those who can so often be left without a voice.
Sometimes that means working with a mum, a dad, a campaigner, a victim of crime — often people just like you who have suffered to a point beyond comprehension but are determined to stop others from going through the same.
Sometimes that means taking a step back, putting together the knowledge and experience gathered over time and thinking: ‘Hold on, something isn’t right here.’
The latter was the case in my work on the Rajenthiram brothers and their abuse of vulnerable girls from the Merseyside newsagents in which they worked.
The main story was essentially how the two, Ilavarasan and Vinothan, groomed teenagers for their own perverted and sexual desires and were ultimately each handed double figure jail sentences for their crimes.
That story would have been told whether or not I had been involved in its coverage.
Yet it was only one part of a much bigger story.
The ECHO first became aware of the investigation when my colleague Lorna Hughes was in court as the Birkenhead shop in which they worked was temporarily closed down.
The brothers had not been charged at that point and we were prevented on reporting the case.
What little information we did have formed the basis for more exploration though.
Through a combination of contacts and delving deep into Wirral Council’s archives I was able to get a sense there was more to the circumstances than just the criminal investigation.
That suspicion was also based on several years of scrutinising the authority.
From 2013, when I joined the ECHO to cover Wirral, my attention had repeatedly been drawn to questions over the department that oversaw adult and children’s services — typically by frustrated and worried parents left disappointed by their dealings with the authority.
In certain cases their concern was backed up officially, but the resulting articles never seemed to spark the reform many hoped would follow.
As I developed through the ECHO, the experiences of the families I had tried to help remained on my mind, and my questions grew as I collated further examples of possible failures through the work of myself and the ECHO’s brilliant court reporters, Neil Docking and Jonathan Humphries.
Those experiences were crucial in forming the backdrop to the Rajenthiram investigation.
My suspicion was there. It appeared to be backed up by preliminary research into the case.
Establishing it was true — in a case that was not about social services — would prove harder.
It was made more difficult by the decision to place reporting restrictions on the trial that followed the charging of the brothers.
A trial that lasts months presents a lot of difficulties to a newsroom.
For all the good intentions to cover a case, allocating resources to something that cannot be written about at the time is tough.
I was desperate to ensure that concerns over how the Rajenthirams had been able to continue their crimes for so long would face public scrutiny though.
Their exploits had not just deeply affected their eight victims but the many more who were exposed to their actions along the way.
What followed was several months of me being granted time to drop into the trial when possible, or when I happened to be in the courts for other cases and, at times, taking days off work to sit in on evidence or going into night shifts having spent the day in court.
I had to be there for the times when the involvement of outside agencies was discussed, or get my hands on court documents to show what was said.
The result was harrowing and devastating.
By pleading not guilty, the brothers put their victims through the ordeal of having to give evidence in court.
The exploration of their offending also led to the revelations they could have been stopped far earlier.
As a result of 15 months of work, I was able to show that:
- Wirral Council was made aware of fears one of the brothers was grooming girls as early as 2011 (the offences ran between 2010 and 2016)
- Later on, another vulnerable teen, this time in the authority’s care, was able to contact her abuser despite a dramatic age difference between the pair
- Social workers made official warnings that contact was sexual, but despite the victim being underage no complaint appeared to be made to Merseyside Police
- While the victim was still deemed vulnerable enough to need care, but had just turned 16, she was repeatedly allowed unsupervised contact with her abuser even after fears had been raised they had been having sex while she as underage
While I had been working on the case an Ofsted report branded the authority’s children’s department “inadequate”.
Highlighting a series of concerns, inspectors condemned “widespread and serious failures in the services provided to children who need help and protection in Wirral”.
Yet while it served as further evidence to back up my fears, it did not reveal the horrific results of those problems.
The Rajenthiram case was key to showing the tragic extent to which the failings had ruined the lives of others.
Combined with other cases I had compiled, and the Ofsted report that gave a broad overview of wider concerns, I was able to demonstrate how years of failings had led to some of the borough’s most vulnerable not just being placed at risk, but actually suffering at the hands of criminals.
Sentencing of the brothers started on a Friday and finished the following Monday.
Had the ECHO solely turned up at the end, there would have been a shocking story to report on.
But the horrific nature of the circumstances would not have been made public, and public pressure for improvements may not have followed.
On the Friday of the sentencing it became clear the reporting restrictions would be lifted once the case was completed — meaning the ECHO would be able to publish the damning findings.
That Friday also saw the resignation of the authority’s Director of Children’s Services. It was said this was because it was deemed the “right time” to step aside after overseeing an overhaul of the department following the Ofsted report months earlier.
On the same day it was also announced the cabinet member for children and family services would lose his role in a political shake-up.
Before the conclusion of the case I spoke with one of the victims of the Rajenthirams.
I was left in awe of her bravery, strength and determination. She had stepped forward, like so many others, to tell how the predatory brothers had groomed and manipulated her.
Finally she had justice.
Sometimes you speak to those who have been let down or exposed to hardship at the beginning of an investigation.
Sometimes it comes at the end.
What matters is that journalists continue to use their privileged position to ask the questions of those in power, to fight for their communities and give a voice to those who may not otherwise have one.
It is what the local press does best, and must continue to do best in the face of the challenges faced by the industry.
You can read more on Joe’s coverage here:
Freebies and flattery: How shop worker predators groomed and manipulated teenage victims