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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-05-07

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Football abuse 2016

The Guardian Is

Daniel Taylor’s stories about the abuse of children by football coaches who took advantage of their access to young players revealed the ugly side of the game. Owen Gibson recalls how one man’s account of being abused by a serial paedophile spiralled into a reckoning for thousands of people When Clive Sheldon QC published his 700-page independent report into 35 years of sexual abuse in English football and the thousands of lives ruined, earlier this year, the very first line referred to former Crewe player Andy Woodward as the catalyst. “On 16 November 2016, Andy Woodward’s interview with the sports journalist Daniel Taylor was published in the Guardian newspaper under the headline: ‘The former professional footballer, who is now 43, is finally able to talk publicly about the horrific abuse he suffered from the age of 11 by one of his coaches, in the hope that others will come forward too.’” Woodward had been abused hundreds of times by Barry Bennell, a paedophile who had used his position to target boys across three decades. And come forward they did. Almost all of them cited Woodward’s decision to break his silence as the impetus for their decision to go public. Taylor, then the Guardian’s chief football writer, later said it was the only time in his career when he felt besieged by phone calls and emails. As colleagues helped with the burden of following up leads, editors put in place plans to ensure the momentum didn’t sag. Woodward appeared on the sofa of the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show alongside other victims. Within a year, a total of 839 alleged victims had come forward, with 2,094 incidents reported and 334 different clubs named. Some victims fell prey to depression or alcoholism or, in the most heartbreaking cases, took their secret to the grave after taking their own life. It was a scandal that had been hiding in plain sight for years. It took the determination, resources, momentum and global reach provided by the Guardian to bring it to the surface. Gary Cliffe, another hugely impressive individual who later stood on the steps of the court alongside his fellow victims after Bennell had been convicted of 36 sex offences in 2018, later explained why Woodward’s interview had been so important to him – it made him realise he was not alone. “If it wasn’t for all the initial coverage, since the Guardian story went global, I might have gone under the radar and carried on as I was – because in that situation you do think you are on your own,” he said in an interview with Taylor in 2018. stories we had missed. Seen from a distance of a decade, the WikiLeaks stories blur into each other. But for weeks after the publication of the embassy cables it felt like one of those scenes in a movie about some impending global calamity where we see a frantic montage of people in global capitals reacting. The world was talking about a Guardian story, there were revelations about corruption in assorted countries, about how states were scheming against each other, and perhaps most compellingly, what the US really thought about various world leaders and wannabe leaders. In years to come there will doubtless be numerous doctoral theses written on what impact the WikiLeaks disclosures had. Some argued they lit the touchpaper that started the Arab spring. Whatever their impact on the countries they touched, they ushered in a new form of journalism based on massive data leaks such as the Snowden disclosures and the Panama Papers. They also pioneered the idea of multiple news organisations around the world collaborating on a major story, a model that has since become commonplace. Assange, meanwhile, still languishes in Belmarsh prison, awaiting the result of the US government’s appeal against a British judge’s decision that he cannot be extradited to face charges of espionage and hacking US government computers. Whatever your view of him, he has paid a very high price for throwing open Chelsea Manning’s cache of secrets to the world.

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