It was 2012, and I was fresh off a second round of maternity leave – that is to say, I wasn’t fresh at all. I was beyond sleep-deprived. I may as well have been a ghost. Except I was a journalist in a frantic London newsroom.
Disturbing reports were trickling in of paedophile rings operating in plain sight in the northern towns of Rotherham and Rochdale. Tales of vulnerable children plied with treats in order to service the whims of dozens of older men. The information was radioactive – almost all the perpetrators were of Pakistani Muslim origin, fanning every flame the far-right could light. The police, some politicians now allege, kept this fact a secret, fearing exactly what happened when then-BNP chief, Nick Griffin, rallied his crowds with tales of ‘Muslim rape gangs’.
Hideous as they were, these were local stories, and they seemed to drop off even the national radar almost as soon as they’d popped. I didn’t understand why and was too tired to work it out. And my workplace was an international newsroom, CNN’s regional hub – events needed either to have an international angle, or be able to stand up to an international lens.
But I never forgot. So when I finally swapped news for fiction – exhausted from juggling journalism and three small children – it felt like there was no other place my imagination could go.
It is testament to the peerless investigative reporting by Andrew Norfolk and his management team at the Times that so much of what really happened in Rotherham and elsewhere is now in the public domain. The now-famed testimonies from social workers speak to the reluctance of the authorities to investigate what happened in those towns. Playing catch-up, the CPS was said to have listed a victim as an accomplice on the charge sheet so her evidence could be included – the only way to effect a successful prosecution. I still find that especially unimaginable. A child, herself the victim of repeated sexual abuse listed as an accomplice to the crime?
Until Andrew Norfolk refused to turn away, however, what really happened in those towns was in danger of being mothballed in the name of the national interest. Without him – and journalists like him – the truth of what happened might still be spoken in whispers. Yet we live in an age where journalists are targets simply for doing their jobs, where world leaders describe facts as alternative, where cyberspace is manipulated at state-level to proliferate speculation and lies.
I paused working in news because I was tired. I thought it was the tiredness of three small children and an unpredictable full-time job. But what I was really tired of was this: the insidious demeaning of my profession. The devaluing of accurate information. The notion that scrutiny can never be truly objective. And the open abuse of truth, the consequences of which are untold.
As I set out on my career as a novelist, the question in my mind was this: if fiction has any moral responsibility, surely it is to explore what cannot be explored in reality? If no one wants to listen to the journalists, then isn’t it time for the novelists to have a go? I was damn well going to try to create a fictional world that would make people value journalists again.
I chose to do a Masters in Creative Writing to get myself started, spending two brilliant years shuttling back and forth to Cambridge University. By the time the course was over I had finished the first draft of The Source and was well on the way to acquiring representation via the excellent advice I’d been given. It took a few more drafts with my brilliant agent – Jon Wood at RCW Literary Agency – before the manuscript was ready to send out. Letting it just disappear into the ether was unsettling, but I was enormously fortunate to get a TV deal almost immediately, which made the wait to secure publication a lot more bearable.
Newsroom fiction is notoriously difficult – both on screen and on the page. Journalists are not a lovable species. We let our families and friends down all the time – dashing off to cover stories at a moment’s notice, more often than not in the less glamorous of locations. Amongst ourselves, we journos make light of some of the most appalling things, if only to help us process them internally. We find it harder and harder to relate to people who haven’t been through what we have, and as such become arrogant bores. We also invade people’s privacy and act sometimes unethically in the belief that there is a higher purpose at stake.
Put all this together, and it becomes a real challenge for writers to make newsroom settings both authentic and compelling, as they are often a real turn-off – for all the above reasons. With police or legal settings, it’s easy to grab an audience. The cops and the lawyers are going to catch the baddies and then put them away for life. The journalists, we’re just going to tell everyone about it. And audiences feel no compunction to stick with a story just because it’s a worthy one. It’s either emotionally engaging or it’s not. And if it isn’t, there are plenty of other stories that will be.
I haven’t set out to right the wrongs of Rotherham. I couldn’t even begin to try. Plenty of brilliant journalists already have tried, only to find deaf ears at most turns. But if I can remind just one reader about the true worth of journalism, then fiction has done its job. As while my story is a fiction, its themes are profoundly true. Versions of it appear in our societies every day – victims telling their truths to a soundtrack of being muzzled in the first place.
Because that’s the real value of the press: unmasking the truth. My story is about one journalist turning to fiction to tell it. As once they come for the journalists, there will be no one left to listen.
(c) Sarah Sultoon
About The Source:
A young TV journalist is forced to revisit her harrowing past when she’s thrust into a sex-trafficking investigation in her hometown. A startling, searing, debut thriller by award-winning CNN journalist Sarah Sultoon.
One last chance to reveal the truth…
- Essex. Thirteen-year-old schoolgirl Carly lives in a disenfranchised town dominated by a military base, struggling to care for her baby sister while her mum sleeps off another binge. When her squaddie brother brings food and treats, and offers an exclusive invitation to army parties, things start to look a little less bleak…
- London. Junior TV newsroom journalist Marie has spent six months exposing a gang of sex traffickers, but everything is derailed when New Scotland Yard announces the re-opening of Operation Andromeda, the notorious investigation into allegations of sex abuse at an army base a decade earlier…
As the lives of these two characters intertwine around a single, defining event, a series of utterly chilling experiences is revealed, sparking a nail-biting race to find the truth … and justice.
A riveting, searing and devastatingly dark thriller, The Source is also a story about survival, about hopes and dreams, about power, abuse and resilience … an immense, tense and thought-provoking debut that you will never, ever forget.
‘A brave and thought-provoking debut novel. Sarah Sultoon tackles a challenging and disturbing subject without sensation, and her sensitive handling, tight plotting and authentic storytelling make for a compelling read’ Adam Hamdy
‘A stunning debut … a powerhouse writer’ Jo Spain
‘A powerful, compelling read that doesn’t shy away from some upsetting truths … written with such energy’ Fanny Blake
Order your copy online here.