It was 11pm on Sunday when Amy Fenton realised she needed to leave Barrow-in-Furness – and fast. She woke up her five-year-old, grabbed a few toys and bundled her in the car to flee the Cumbria town she has called home for the last 12 years. A police officer had called to say they had assessed dozens of threats made against her over the previous few days and thought there was now a credible risk to not just her life but her child’s too.
As chief reporter for the Mail, Barrow’s daily newspaper, Fenton, 35, had made a few enemies over the years. People would usually rather she wasn’t sitting on the press bench when they were found guilty of drink driving or beating their wives. She became hardened to the abuse, even when a local man, Leroy McCarthy, was jailed for 20 weeks in February for threatening to rape her, after she wrote about the Muslim convert’s terrorism conviction for threatening to blow up Furness general hospital.
But she was not prepared for what happened last week after the Mail published her report about a 19-year-old woman from Barrow charged with lying about being abused. Just 279 words in length, the story said the woman had appeared in court charged with seven counts of perverting the course of justice. The charges related to seven allegations of rape, sexual assault and sex trafficking made against five different men between 2017 and 2019.
The woman – whose name and partial address the Mail published, as it always does when someone appears in court unless reporting restrictions apply – was remanded in custody to await a crown court trial and sent 100 miles away to Wakefield prison.
By this point most of Barrow had already heard the woman’s name. She had become the subject of a huge social media storm last week after a long and distressing Facebook post in her name detailed abuse she is said to have suffered this month and for years at the hands of Asian men in towns across the north of England. The Mail had already reported her claims, albeit anonymously.
Two days later, she appeared in court, charged with breaching her bail, imposed after she was charged with perverting the course of justice back in March.
Legally, that is all the Guardian (or indeed anyone) can say about the woman’s case. As it is now “active”, under the Contempt of Court Act, no one is allowed to publish anything that could prejudice jurors at her trial.
The law applies to everyone, not just journalists, but many of the people who started threatening Fenton for her reporting on the case do not understand this, she said. They have alleged she is in bed – sometimes literally – with the men the 19-year-old accused. They were incensed after she wrote a piece last week interviewing an Indian takeaway owner who said they had to temporarily close their business after receiving death threats following rumours of an Asian grooming gang in Barrow.
Some of those threatening Fenton suggested that because she is from Blackburn-with-Darwen, Lancashire, which has a large Asian population, she is “in” this rumoured gang. Yet Cumbria police says it conducted a year-long, independently peer-reviewed investigation and found no evidence such a gang existed.
In a video statement, Ch Supt Dean Holden said he had to be “very careful … because I don’t want to undermine any judicial processes” but “what I would say is when the question is asked, ‘Is there an organised gang of Asian men in Barrow conducting abuse and exploitation against individuals?’ – our investigation has shown that has not been corroborated or otherwise evidenced.”
In addition, the force said it was investigating a new allegation that “circulated on social media concerning reports of physical and sexual abuse committed against a woman, aged in her late teens” in Barrow.
Fenton, now holed up in a secret location outside Cumbria, says she and her colleagues have reported more than 100 threats against her. Cumbria police confirmed it was investigating and on Thursday – as a crown court judge refused the 19-year-old’s application for bail and Barrow’s Labour and Conservative councillors put out an unusual joint statement appealing for calm – the fire service was fitting anti-arson letterboxes to her and her ex-husband’s homes, she said.
She says she wants police to use the “full force of the law” against those who have threatened her family. It was when people began to involve her daughter – with one person suggesting she pimped her out to paedophiles – that she decided she wanted them to be prosecuted. “For the last two or three years, I took the stance that I was happy enough if the police just went round and spoke to people and told them it’s not acceptable, but that is not enough now. If people don’t feel the consequences of this behaviour, it won’t stop.”
Earlier in the year Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, responsible for media policy, wrote to Fenton after hearing about the abuse she had suffered, before this alleged grooming scandal blew up.
She wants the government to crack down on those who threaten journalists: “This to me is the last straw that highlights that there is such little protection for us journalists. Up until the guy who threatened to rape me [McCarthy] the consistent message from the police when I reported it was that they had to balance these individual’s balance to freedom of speech and expression with my right to be safe. In my mind, this wouldn’t happen if the threats were made against emergency workers. Something needs to change to give us better protection.”
The National Union of Journalists has issued a statement condemning threats against her, and Fenton insists she will not be cowed from doing her job. “Nothing is ever going to stop me wanting to be a journalist, ever. It was my dream from the age of about eight and I love my job.
“I love the way we are in a position to help people. It’s not just reporting court cases and when bad things happen. I love that we can champion people’s causes and fight for decency and morality and fairness, even though there is never anyone fighting for us.”