Why did the BBC fawn over a Syrian child rapist?

A Newsnight report smeared his 14-year-old accuser as a sexually promiscuous racist.

Lauren Smith

Topics Politics UK

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Back in 2016, BBC’s Newsnight produced what was supposed to be a heartwarming documentary about a family of Syrian refugees. ‘To Hell and Back’ followed the Badreddin family over the course of 11 months, following their journey from war-torn Syria to their new life in Newcastle in the UK.

Halfway through production, however, there was a hitch. One of the Badreddins, 18-year-old Omar, was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl shortly after arriving in the UK. Two other men were charged with sexual assault as part of the case, one of whom was alleged to have molested a second girl.

The BBC decided to press on with the documentary, even though Omar was now the subject of a criminal investigation. At first, this decision appeared to have been vindicated. Omar’s case was thrown out after a two-week trial. This was, in large part, due to translation errors that were made during police interviews (Omar was unable to speak English at the time).

As far as the BBC report was concerned, Omar had narrowly escaped an appalling miscarriage of justice. He was the victim of a racially motivated false accusation. This was a story that seemed too good to pass up: here was a man who had fled the most unimaginable violence in Syria, only to be greeted by xenophobia and prejudice here in the UK.

Following the trial, Newsnight interviewed Omar and his family about the case. He said that his accuser ‘didn’t want foreigners in this country and that is why she made up the whole story’.

Not only did the BBC not challenge this view of the girl ‘making up’ the allegation for racist ends. It also decided to subtly shame the girls at the centre of the case. ‘The Syrian men, in many ways, appeared less sexually experienced than the girls they were supposed to have attacked’, said the voiceover by former Newsnight journalist and current BBC News media editor Katie Razzall.

The tone of the documentary was overwhelmingly sympathetic towards Omar. His mother claimed that he could never have assaulted anyone, because ‘this behaviour is forbidden in our religion’. Again, this wasn’t challenged. In a follow-up article for the BBC, Razzall wrote about the family’s struggle with the legal proceedings. ‘In Syrian culture’, she explains, ‘this type of accusation is so damaging to their reputation, that even though Omar Badreddin has been cleared, they fear the stigma of it will stick’. The implication of all this is that Omar’s faith and Syrian background made it almost inconceivable that he would have even contemplated committing such a crime.

Now the truth about Omar has been exposed. Earlier this month, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was found guilty of five counts of rape and violent disorder against a 13-year-old girl. The victim says that, between August 2018 and April 2019, she was raped, tortured and threatened with being killed or taken to another country by Omar, his brother and two other men. The gang, she says, made her childhood a ‘living nightmare’.

The BBC has since come under fire for its overly sympathetic interview of Omar. Tory MP Neil O’Brien has accused the Beeb of ‘remarkably poor editorial judgement’ with its ‘fawning’ documentary.

The BBC has tried to defend itself by arguing that it ‘can only report on the facts as they stand at the time, which is what we did in 2016’. But is that what it really did?

Of course, the BBC could not have been expected to have known what Omar would go on to do two years after the Newsnight documentary. But ‘reporting on the facts’ at the time surely did not have to involve smearing Omar’s 14-year-old accuser, in effect, as a sexually promiscuous racist. It did not have to involve airing unchallenged claims that Omar’s ‘Syrian culture’ made him unlikely to be a sex criminal. It was abundantly clear that the BBC was not simply telling the cold, hard facts of the case. It was unwittingly constructing a narrative that steered audiences into believing not only in Omar’s apparent innocence, but also in the accuser’s supposed wickedness.

Of course, Omar’s recent rape conviction does not necessarily vindicate the first set of allegations. But the way the BBC handled those follows a familiar pattern we have seen play out in the myriad grooming-gangs scandals across the UK. When countless working-class girls were sexually exploited by groups of men of mainly Pakistani heritage, the authorities either ignored the plight of these girls or actively sought to cover up the crimes. In part, there was a fear that drawing attention to these crimes would either appear racist or might stir up the far right. Equally common was a perception that, despite being underage, these working-class and vulnerable girls were ‘sexually mature’, to adopt the phrase used by the BBC to characterise Omar’s accuser in 2016.

In the age of #MeToo, we are usually told to ‘believe women’, to accept all allegations of sexual assault as fact, regardless of the actual evidence of each case. This is problematic on its own terms, as it erodes the presumption of innocence. Yet worse still, we now know that this rule only applies when there is the ‘right’ kind of victim and the ‘right’ kind of perpetrator. When a middle-class woman accuses a white man, then it’s case closed. But when a working-class girl accuses a migrant of assault, she will likely be disbelieved, or at least regarded with more suspicion. She becomes the villain and him the victim.

This is the grotesque path that identity politics has brought us down. Clearly, the BBC saw what it wanted to see in the case of Omar Badreddin – a tale of an ‘innocent’ migrant abused by the supposedly ‘racist’ British working class. In truth, it is the BBC’s grim prejudices that have actually been exposed here.

Lauren Smith is a staff writer at spiked.

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