The FGM Detectives: Channel 4’s documentary was horrifying for all the wrong reasons

One would fully expect that a Channel 4 documentary entitled ‘The FGM Detectives’ would be horrifying and shocking, and so it transpired.  The horror and shock, however, were mostly not found in the details of genital mutilation or the stories of young women’s tortured bodies and ruined lives, but in the scandalous incompetence and professional malpractice of the officers attempting to force through the country’s first successful prosecution for FGM-related child abuse.

This, it is safe to say, was not the story the documentary makers wanted to tell. I suspect it is not even the documentary that they thought they had made, but it is quite clearly the one I watched. Let me spell out the basic facts.

The documentary, narrated by Cathy Newman, spent two years following Avon & Somerset Constabulary’s specialist FGM investigation team in Bristol. It began with a report from a FGM-prevention charity worker who had been in a taxi and (presumably as part of standard taxi driver so-what-do-you-do-then type chatter) the driver said something about how while some people ‘cut away the whole vagina’ he had just given his own daughter a little nick. The charity worker reported this as a suspected Type IV FGM case and so the investigation began.

The alleged victim, a six-year-old girl, born in England to Somali heritage, was interviewed at school. This interview was of course not televised, but she was reported as having given a muddled account of once seeing a ‘different lady doctor’ who had let her listen to her own heartbeat through a stethoscope and then did something to her genitals but the girl wouldn’t say what because it is “disgusting.” (It’s an aside, but worth noting that medical professionals are now obliged to check on  and report concerns about possible FGM cases, and – particularly given the details about playing with a stethoscope – this snippet of detail sounds much more like a description of a kindly GP checking for signs of FGM than it does like a description of a little girl being held down and butchered. But who knows.)

The girl was then given a medical investigation at which photos were taken. Those photos were then sent to a doctor described as ‘the country’s leading expert on FGM’ who sent them back saying they were blurry and entirely useless.

The documentary makers glossed over this detail, no discussion of how or why this had happened, but please pause and consider it for a moment.  This little girl has been put through the presumably terrifying, degrading, hugely embarrassing experience of being separated from her parents, having strange medical practitioners open her legs, prod around in her genitals and poke a camera lens in there to take pictures, and they cannot even bother to get their camera in focus. When we were casually informed of this by the voice-over I had to pause the TV and simply gawp slack-jawed for a few moments. How could this happen? I seriously want to know who was sacked for this fiasco, because someone damned well should have been.

The investigators were not to be deterred, however. They called in a second doctor, made the little girl undergo a second intimate examination. This doctor reported back that she could find no evidence of any damage or scarring to the girl’s genitals, no evidence that FGM had ever taken place.

One might imagine that would be the end of the story, but no. In her detailed report, this second doctor mentioned that it is just possible that Type IV FGM had been performed but that the damage was so minor that it had entirely healed without leaving any evidence.  (Many people don’t appreciate that a Type IV FGM procedure can be as little as a pinprick or nick with a scalpel to draw just a single drop of blood.)

This medical caveat was considered sufficiently relevant by the police to proceed with a prosecution. They referred the file to the Crown Prosecution Service who, for reasons best known to themselves, decided that there was a realistic prospect of conviction and sent the case to trial.

Last week, at Bristol Crown Court, the case went to trial. The judge lambasted the police and CPS for the lack of any evidence that any crime had ever taken place. He heard the witness testimony from the charity worker who had made the original report and described it as “contradictory” and possibly compromised by his sincerely held motivations and personal involvement in the issue. There was no other evidence. The judge ordered the jury to find the defendant not guilty.  

In trailers for the programme, Channel 4 hinted at a documentary about the courageous police officers who defy accusations of racism and delve into closed communities to protect innocent children from horrific abuse. They actually showed us a documentary about a small team of obsessive investigators chasing unicorns in a desperate, even farcical scrabble to find someone – anyone – to prosecute for female genital mutilation.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised, given some of the initial quotes to camera from the officers themselves. In the first few minutes of footage one of the officers says:

“I’ve done it before, I’ve had to make a decision to let a family go on a plane where there was nothing that presented to me as suspicious that FGM might take place, but you just never know, do you? She was a beautiful little 7-year old-girl and I didn’t sleep very well for a few nights after that I can tell you.”

Break that down and consider what he is saying. He had no reason whatsoever to be suspicious that a family was planning FGM, and yet he “had to make a decision” to “let” a family catch a plane. He is not describing police investigation there. He is describing racial profiling.

There were other moments in the documentary which invited similar concerns. Much was made of a phone number for a ‘circumcision doctor’ being found on the mobile phone of the alleged victim’s mother. It was presented as a key piece of evidence. Then the parents responded that this was about their son, who had been circumcised. The ‘evidence’ was never mentioned again, so presumably this story checked out.

As the trial is about to commence, there is dark, sinister talk of an impending demonstration of 300 Somali men who may have been “doing their own research” into the case, and there were concerns expressed that they might attempt to intimidate the key witness. Again, there is no suggestion that either of these things ever happened, but the prejudices were given a full airing nonetheless.

Similarly, the intended star of the documentary, DCI Leanne Pook, was describing Type IV FGM, what it involves and why it happens. Her exact words:

“I think practising communities understand that they have to adjust their practices to evade law enforcement, it’s about making sure people don’t get caught.”

There is in fact lots of evidence that practising communities adjust their practices when they move to the UK or other non-African countries. They adjust their behaviour by declining to mutilate their girls. I won’t go over the same arguments again, but the ONS now collect data on survivors of FGM identified within the NHS. Around 99% of them were born outside the UK and in the vast majority of cases will have been cut before they moved to the UK. Where there is data on where the procedure was performed, in around 98% of cases it was outside the UK. Yes, there are certainly cases of girls born or settled in the UK who are then subjected to FGM (either here or being taken abroad to be cut) and every single one is a victim of a horrible crime, but all the evidence is that such cases are incredibly rare. Of 57 new cases of FGM found conducted in the UK last year, 50 were Type IV which, as even the Daily Mail almost gets right, can (in at least some cases) be perfectly legal and consensually performed genital piercings on women over 18.

And the irony is that right there, on the documentary screened in front of us, is the reality of FGM in the UK. In between the shambolic scandal of the so-called investigation, we saw migrant women’s groups, parents’ groups, refugee groups holding meetings, discussions, workshops and demonstrations against FGM. Perhaps the greatest failing, the greatest blind spot of the political and media discussion on FGM in the UK is that we completely ignore this evidence, that in fact there are huge numbers of (mostly) women doing incredible work right now in their own communities or with their neighbours and wider society, informing people about FGM, educating people about FGM, fighting against the practise. And as far as I can tell from any of the available evidence, it is extremely effective. With very, very few exceptions, families who settle in the UK from cultures and communities that practise FGM in their countries of origin willingly abandon the practice once living in the UK.

We have had twenty years of the Islamophobic right wing demanding to know why there have been no prosecutions for FGM offences committed in the UK or against UK citizens and residents. And we have had twenty years in which we have ignored the answer which screams at us from all the available evidence – that such crimes are in fact much, much rarer than we commonly believe. This should have been the moral of the story in last night’s documentary – it was actually a good news story. Where there had been suspicions of a horrible crime against a small child, it simply hadn’t happened.

Sadly, I fear this is a lesson that no one has learned.


{Footnote: I have another, mostly unrelated problem with some of the things said in the documentary, but those belong in another post. I will aim to continue with a Part 2 tomorrow.)


  1. jane Wood says

    the Avon and Somerset are incompetent on just about every issue. Sue Mountevens the elected commissioner had to force the last Chief to resign as he had porno images on his work phone- imagine what the leadership is like in the force. Essentially they are a rural force, (their patch covers Jacob Rees Moggs and Liam Fox’s constituencies – so think on their voters!) who just happen to have the south west’s largest city on their margins and the cultural mix that goes with it.

    Bristol needs a city force.

  2. Dr Sarah says

    ‘this snippet of detail sounds much more like a description of a kindly GP checking for signs of FGM than it does like a description of a little girl being held down and butchered.’

    It also sounds very plausibly like a GP having to check a child’s genitals due to some minor concern that had nothing whatsoever to do with FGM. I’m a GP, and I occasionally get small girls brought to me with complaints of itching or soreness that I need to check out. As you say, this is extremely poor evidence.

    ‘The girl was then given a medical investigation at which photos were taken. Those photos were then sent to a doctor described as ‘the country’s leading expert on FGM’ who sent them back saying they were blurry and entirely useless.’

    In addition to the problem with this that you so well point out, I’d also like to know why on earth it was necessary to send photos to a separate doctor anyway. There must have been a consultant available in the locality with the knowledge needed to check this girl’s genitals for any abnormal scarring. All right, there might not have been someone available who could identify any scars seen as being characteristic of such-and-such a type of FGM, but, since the girl was found not to have any scars, that seems to be a moot point.

    Thanks for an excellent post.


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