It was presented to us as another Fritzl-like horror, involving three ‘enslaved women’, at least one of whom had ‘spent her whole life in captivity’ and had ‘never seen the outside world’. Or it was Britain’s own version of the recent Cleveland, Ohio case, in which Ariel Castro kidnapped three women from the streets and shackled them to immoveable objects in his house where he abused them for 10 years. In fact, it was worse than Cleveland, suggested the Mirror, because where those American women only suffered for a decade, these British-based women went through a ‘30-year nightmare of captivity, servitude and unimaginable brutality’. It was, in a nutshell, the worst-ever case of hidden human enslavement, the papers told us. ‘No known victims have spent so long in captivity being brainwashed, beaten, manipulated and terrorised’, one said.
We now know that these claims about the so-called ‘Brixton slaves’ are, to use the only term that will suffice, bullshit. Everything that has subsequently come to light, everything that has unfolded in the six days since these ‘slaves’ were ‘rescued’ from some kind of one-time Maoist commune, has called into question the initial claims made by the police, the highly dramatised narrative imposed on these events by the media, and the hyperbolic descriptions of the case by politicians desperate to appear as modern-day William Wilberforces combatting the evils of ‘slavery’. Indeed, the key question that must now be asked is not ‘How did three women end up in a grim commune?’ (let’s leave that to the police), but rather: ‘Why did the entire British media and the political class, along with campaigners and the Twitterati, so willingly and gullibly buy a horror story that was not true?’
Bit by bit, the story attached to the discovery of the ‘Brixton slaves’ has proven baseless. Consider the claims made about the youngest inhabitant of the house, a 30-year-old woman called Rose. Initially, the police told us that she had ‘no contact with the outside world’. She has ‘spent all her life in the house and has never seen the outside world’, police told the media. Not surprisingly, the media went wild over these claims, immediately comparing this case to the Fritzl horror. ‘30-year-old had never seen outside world’, said a heading in the Guardian. ‘She was born into captivity and allowed no contact with the outside world’, media outlets informed us.
We now know this isn’t true. First, the police subtly changed their claims, telling us the 30-year-old had ‘no contact with the outside world that most would consider normal’ (my emphasis), and then saying she had ‘some controlled freedoms’. So she had left the house, after all; claims that she hadn’t were untrue. We are now told that Rose went shopping - neighbours often saw her ‘walk[ing] to the local Tesco supermarket’. She also wrote love letters to one of her neighbours. Initially we were told that not even her birth had been registered; now we know that it was. Far from ‘never seeing the outside world’, it has now been reported that the local ‘social services [and] education and housing departments all had contact’ with Rose and the other inhabitants of the house. Social services never visited Elisabeth Fritzl; housing officials never called in on the three women chained to radiators in Cleveland. Clearly what happened in Brixton was not remotely like those cases.
Many other parts of the ‘slavery’ story also don’t add up. It was revealed at the start that the Metropolitan Police’s Human Trafficking Unit was working on the case, giving rise to media rumours about foreign women being ‘trafficked’ to Britain to work as slaves; yet later the police said, ‘We… do not believe the victims were trafficked into the UK’. Indeed they weren’t. Two were immigrants here, one from Ireland and one from Malaysia, and the other was born here. We were also initially told police were trying to ‘obtain accounts’ of the ‘physical, sexual and emotional abuse’ the women might have suffered, and that the case had originally been referred to the Met’s Sexual Offences Exploitation and Child Abuse Command. Inevitably this gave rise to articles discussing the ‘Brixton slaves’ in the same breath as other alleged ‘sex slaves’. Yet later we were told that ‘there is no evidence of sexual abuse’.