Tuesday 31 August 2021
Grooming gangs, conspiracy theories and the lawless digital politics of Oldham
“Now if you’re looking for the biggest test of electoral opinion since 2019, and the biggest test before the next UK general election, then look no further. We have a bumper crop of results coming in over the next 48 hours or so…”News archive
Basia Cummings, narrating: It’s May… this year. Local election night.
It’s around 9.30pm, and we’re in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in the centre of Oldham, a town to the north-east of Manchester.
And here, the starry Labour leader of the local council – a young, good-looking guy called Sean Fielding – is waiting as the votes are counted.
And in the gaggle of faces that night, Sean is well-known.
He’d grown up in a small town called Failsworth, which is in the borough of Oldham. He was stacking shelves in Tesco when, at 22, he was first elected to the council. And at 28 he became council leader – the youngest in the country.
And during Covid, he’d become even more prominent.
[Clip: News archive Andy Burnham introducing councillor Sean Fielding]
When in the depths of the pandemic, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, went to war with the government over local lockdowns…
[Clip: News archive Andy Burnham speaking during pandemic]
Sean Fielding was right behind him, standing in shot.
He was talked about as a guy who could run for parliament, maybe even become a minister some day.
So, that night, he should have easily been re-elected.
But… Sean wasn’t feeling good.
Sean Fielding: Now… it was busy. It was busy with people that I didn’t recognise. It was busy with people that wouldn’t even look me in the eyes walking in.
Basia Cummings, narrating: At 9.30, he deleted his Facebook account.
Sometime after midnight, he left. He didn’t wait to hear what, by then, he knew was inevitable.
[Clip: Raja Miah speaking on Recusant Nine Election Transmission Livestream]
But this wasn’t a normal election upset…
[Clip: Raja Miah speaking on Recusant Nine Election Transmission Livestream]
… and what happened that night isn’t about party politics.
Sean Fielding: I think that what happened to me in terms of the campaign that was fought against me in the election is very unique in its nature. And the subject matter that I was attacked upon is something that was very emotive and was used in order to incite anger. And it was fabricated.
Basia Cummings, narrating: For 18 months, Sean Fielding had been the target of a campaign waged online. He’d been accused of terrible, terrible things.
Of corruption, and fraud.
The worst, no doubt: that he was protecting paedophiles and gangs of abusers.
And for a while, at least at first, it had seemed like a paranoid internet storm. Something confined to the strange bits of the internet where keyboard warriors do their battle… miles away from the real world.
But that… was a miscalculation.
And it was a miscalculation… not just of the grievances simmering in Oldham, but of one person in particular.
“I am a dangerous man. Because I do not fear them. That’s why I’m a dangerous man…” Raja Miah speaking on a Recusant Nine Facebook Live
I’m Basia Cummings, and in this episode of the Slow Newscast, a dark and twisted tale… about the making of a new brand of… town crier… one peddling stories of paedophiles and voter fraud and shadowy cartels…
With the help of my colleague Xavier Greenwood, and in partnership with The Mill, this is the story of a self-styled truth-teller… who upended local politics, and who foreshadows a bigger political problem coming for all of us.
Basia Cummings, narrating: On the surface, this could be a story about Labour malaise. Sean Fielding was, after all, one of hundreds of councillors who lost their seats in May.
But the story behind that spring evening is unique.
Sean Fielding lost by 191 votes to a brand new, hyperlocal party.
And depending on where you stand, that defeat was either liberating… or terrifying.
Basia Cummings: And why did it catch your attention?
Joshi Herrmann: About a year ago, when I started The Mill, this new website covering Greater Manchester, I got a message on Twitter from someone who didn’t use their name, but they describe themselves as the Oldham Eye. And this was an anonymous Twitter user who claimed to be keeping an eye on corruption and grooming and Oldham….
Joshi Herrmann is the founder and editor of The Mill.
Joshi Herrmann: And they said, quote, I’ve just read your Rochdale article. Nice work. Now that was a story I did about Rochdale grooming gangs and a new police investigation in Rochdale.
Basia Cummings, narrating: Oldham Eye, whoever that might be, sent him in the direction of a website which claimed to have explosive evidence about local council corruption and Asian grooming gangs.
And what Joshi found on that site… well… it slowly reeled him in.
Joshi Herrmann: Here was a guy who was making a series of baroque and sort of sensationalist allegations about Oldham council.
He was calling them corrupt. He was saying that they were so enmeshed with the Asian community in Oldham that they no longer had to care about white voters. That there were Asian cartels controlling politics in Oldham. And, you know, I was a journalist who was relatively new in Greater Manchester. I didn’t know anything about Oldham politics.
I didn’t really have any authority to talk about the allegations. But certainly on the face of it, they looked conspiratorial and they looked strange. And I sort of made a mental note that at some point I’d want to write something about Oldham and about a year later I did.
Basia Cummings, narrating: The man making these claims had become more and more powerful over the course of just a few months.
He was on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube… he was running his own websites.
And he was cultivating a particular personal brand, too.
He called himself a “recusant” – someone who refuses to submit to authority.
Basia Cummings: And who, who’s the main character of the story?
Joshi Herrmann: The main character is a man called Raja Miah.
Basia Cummings, narrating: Across all these platforms, with post after post and video after video, he was cultivating a very particular theory.
“If only the people of the town knew then, what they now know. Do not fear them, do not fear any of them…”Raja Miah speaking on Recusant Nine Facebook Live
Basia Cummings, narrating: A theory dialled directly into bitter local concerns… but one that – to anyone familiar with the brand of politics forged by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, or more recently, by Marjorie Taylor Greene and the paranoid world of QAnon – clearly connects to bigger, global themes, too.
Of the forgotten working class, and of a self-satisfied, metropolitan elite ruling over us all with impunity…
“Aren’t you, Sean? You’re a liar. You can sue me if you want, Sean. I’ve got the paperwork to prove it. You’re a liar… absolute liar.”Raja Miah speaking on Recusant Nine Facebook Live
Raja Miah had identified a potent cocktail of allegations. Had directed them at local leaders. And he was growing a substantial following.
And over time these ideas had taken root in the community, branching out from Facebook groups and YouTube videos onto the streets of Failsworth and Oldham.
And so, with Joshi and Xav, I wanted to understand how we arrived here.
How it was that this angry “recusant” was born.
Because, for Raja Miah, MBE, it wasn’t always this way…
Joshi Herrmann: He works for a while as a youth officer for the Children’s Society. And it’s kind of in his late twenties that he rises to prominence. He founds an anti-extremism charity called Peacemaker. He starts it in the late nineties and his idea is basically that Oldham is sliding into community and racial segregation – that South Asian communities, which is mainly Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants, are not living alongside the white residents of Oldham.
And then in 2001, Oldham was hit by a series of violent rioting in an area of the town called Glodwick that has a large number of Asian residents.
[News archive montage about Oldham riots]
Joshi Herrmann: And I think for Raja Miah that’s a vindication of his hypothesis about the town, because it shows the town does have really deep seated community problems.
And the subsequent government reports about the riots identify segregated communities as the problem. And suddenly the work that he’s doing is in vogue. It’s needed. A few months later after the Oldham riots, we have 9/11, the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and across the States and suddenly the need for someone like Raja Miah, who says that he can reach across community boundaries and he can bring people together and he can counter segregation and counter extremism… suddenly that need is there. And suddenly his work is very prominent in Oldham.
Basia Cummings, narrating: Here was a man who built a successful career from understanding the dynamics of community, and diagnosing ethnic tensions. Who worked to counter extremism… with Prevent, the government’s controversial programme to reach people vulnerable to being radicalised.
Basia Cummings: So you talked a little bit about Raja Miah, but I’m curious to know who he is as he would describe it. Because what he would say he is and what you’ve checked out are slightly different things.
Joshi Herrmann: First of all, he had described himself as Raja Miah MBE, which is an award he got in 2004 for his work countering extremism in Oldham, as part of his Peacemaker charity. He would also say he grew up in a working class, Bangladeshi family in Oldham, and that he understands the South Asian community and the town better than the Labour party figures who run the town.
I think he would say he’s someone who can speak for ordinary people in Oldham, better than Oldham’s leaders can…
“I do this on purpose. I do do this on purpose. I play on my working class roots and my ethnicity and all of that, and I like to reinforce how I’m just an ordinary bloke from… who grew up in Westwood… but there was a time in my life when I advised multiple prime ministers.”Raja Miah speaking on the Recusant Nine YouTube channel
Basia Cummings, narrating: In a place once talked about as Britain’s most ethnically divided town, with a large Asian community; where race relations have been tense, where they’ve bubbled over into violence, you can see why a man like Raja Miah would be a compelling figure.
But dig a little deeper, and the picture is not quite what it seems…
Basia Cummings: So tell me more about Peacemaker, it was a charity?
Joshi Herrmann: This is a small charity that Raja Miah founded. It grows to have an office in Manchester. Staff working on it feel like they are doing really good work that they’re bridging divides in communities that have been really divided, that they are helping young men in particular in the Asian community, not be vulnerable to extremism, but we’ve spoken to staff who worked at Peacemaker, who also flag concerns about how it was being run.
Basia Cummings, narrating: They were suspicious of what was going on with money.
Joshi Herrmann: And the former staff member said, and I quote, he lived a very flash lifestyle. Everything was brand new, everything was very fancy. And I was thinking we’re a really small charity. So that staff members telling us about Raja Miah driving expensive cars, despite the fact that he was running a small charity. So there was a dissonance there.
Basia Cummings, narrating: In 2011, Peacemaker closes with debts of at least £200,000.
Joshi Herrmann: The staff member we’ve spoken to was suspicious about how things ended. This staff member told us at around the same time, Miah had started a different group doing very similar work called Rise.
And that that charity seemed to be fine financially, which was strange. Why close down the one that’s won you the MBE, that’s been praised by the government, that’s done all this creditable work and start something else?
Basia Cummings, narrating: And Rise is an interesting detail in Raja Miah’s backstory.
It appears to be a charity set up to deliver very similar work to Peacemaker – against extremism and radicalisation, but with an added objective: responding to cases of sexual grooming. And that’s important – I’ll come back to it.
But beyond its registration on Companies House, it’s hard to find much evidence of its work at all
In fact, one man we spoke to, who agreed to be on the board as a director of Rise, says he was never invited to any meetings… that he never heard about who any of the other directors were, and that he never even heard of any activities the charity was organising.
He was left… in the dark.
When I put this to Raja Miah, he did not respond to questions about Peacemaker or Rise. But he did say: “I am a Bangladeshi, Muslim with an MBE for services to my community. A community that, to this day, I continue to serve.”
Basia Cummings: And the reason that we’re picking back over this is because of the person that Raja Miah went on to become and, and sort of fact checking his past is an important part of understanding the character that he is now, because he says things that he’s done and, and roles that he’s played. And perhaps it’s not quite as he presents it. So what does he do after he leaves the charity?
Joshi Herrmann: In 2011, the charity Peacemaker closes and the next year. Raja Miah writes a short op-ed column for The Times newspaper announcing a new project, which is a new free school. It’s called the Collective Spirit Free School.
Basia Cummings, narrating: At the time, Raja Miah identified a fear that people had about free schools, and came up with a solution.
In the Times newspaper, he wrote that critics of what he called the “free schools revolution” say they’ll only divide communities. That “hundreds of faith schools will pop up… encouraging an unhealthy self-segregation… that little Muslim girls never meet little Christian boys.”
But his schools would be different, he wrote. His schools would break down the barriers of adversity and segregation.
Parent: When we first got told about it, honestly, it sounded pretty good… a better opportunity for our education.
Basia Cummings, narrating: My colleague Xav spoke to a parent, whose 11-year-old had been at Collective Spirit for a year. They wanted to remain anonymous.
And they said that initially, they had been optimistic about the new school. They liked the sound of it all.
But after a couple of months, things started to look quite different.
The parent told us: there was a high turnover of teachers in and out of the school; that the headmasters kept changing; and the kids weren’t really being kept under any kind of control.
Parent: I mean he’s been in primary for six years, never had an issue with him. Never missed school, never did anything wrong. Teachers always praised him. And that one year he went to Collective Spirit ruined his life.
And there were safety concerns too.
Parent: He had an adrenal condition, which meant his body was making less salts that’s obviously, if he had an injury or something … he could easily collapse. And therefore they would have had to to give him some glucose gel which was all in his paperwork.
The parent gave the school forms.. instructions… so that in case of an accident, staff would know what to do.
Parent: I think the people that were put in place. […] I don’t think they knew how to run a school. To the extent that the secretary of that school lost my child’s paperwork on three occasions. […] The paper that they lost had important medical information on it. Which, if something would have happened to him. He could have, he could have ended up in a coma.
Um, and they lost the paperwork.
Basia Cummings, narrating: You get a picture from all this, don’t you, from Rise and from the schools, that perhaps Raja Miah is more of an ideas man, not the person who delivers.
And this is where Raja Miah’s rather glittering backstory starts to lose its shine.
Very quickly, the school faces criticism from staff and parents.
There are more accusations – of bullying and a ‘dictatorial’ leadership style.
And a pattern of behaviour begins to emerge – similar to the experience of staff at the charities he ran. A teacher described Miah as charismatic, but narcissistic.
That… he doesn’t like anyone challenging him.
Soon, the disarray at the schools attracts the attention of the schools regulator, Ofsted, and of the Department of Education.
Joshi Herrmann: I mean, these schools end up being closed down.
They were shut in 2017 and 2018. So they really didn’t have a very long life. In that short life they have raised concerns from parents, from teachers. The council is onto them. Ofsted is giving them negative reports and then eventually a government investigation is published in May 2019 that finds – and I quote – a number of significant failings in both the governance and financial control arrangements at the schools.
Schools Week, a newspaper, reports that Miah has been, quote, secretly blacklisted from any involvement in schools as a result. So what went on in these schools? Well, one local report said there was no functioning computer network. There were basic safety failures. There was missing financial information. Um, there was a million pounds in debt by the time that the government moved in.
Um, we also know from the government report that the schools paid more than £2 million to multiple companies linked to Raja Miah. So there are major concerns here about the financial probity of these schools, major concerns about their ability to teach children.
Basia Cummings, narrating: When I put this to Raja Miah, he didn’t respond to questions about his time running schools. He did say that it is his belief that I am part of a coordinated campaign of racially motivated harassment and intimidation against him.
And so, after that government report – Raja Miah was being found out.
And he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it one bit.
This was a man who had ambition. Who was, he said, a healer of communities.
But whatever pacifying, peaceable qualities that he had, he started to shed them around this time – 2019.
After the government report into the schools mismanagement was published, Raja Miah starts to transform.
“Do not fear them, do not fear any of them.”Raja Miah on Recusant Nine YouTube Channel
Joshi Herrmann: It looks like in May 2019, when the government’s report came out about his schools, which cast major doubts not only about the schools, but also about him. He starts posting quite a lot on his personal Facebook page. But his posts are pretty low key. They’re about a local mosque in Oldham. He’s alleging that local LaboUr figures, including the leader of the council, are too close to this particular mosque that they’ve been holding political events… We’re talking about a month in which there are local elections across the country, including in Oldham. And yeah, he’s a guy who’s got a seemingly personal vendetta against the council, probably because the council has been involved in flagging some of the issues at his schools. He’s got an issue with this local mosque in the area where he grew up.
But nothing about those posts would necessarily suggest that within months he’s gonna have A Local rabid following.
Basia Cummings, narrating: And it’s important to note what is happening around him at this time.
After years of botched investigation, more and more men were being convicted of the organised abuse of young women and girls, in what was known as the Asian gang grooming scandal.
That year, 2019, six more men were convicted in Rotherham – all of them Asian.
[Clip: News archive Rotherham abuse trial]
And the complex role that race had played in the police mishandling of the problem was well documented.
A report, called the Jay report, published a few years earlier said that council workers in Rotherham were afraid of being accused of racism if they talked about the perpetrators as mostly being Pakistani taxi drivers.
There were accusations that council leaders had looked the other way, or even covered up the abuse. The leader of Rotherham council was forced to step down.
This was all once again coming to a head in 2019.
Maggie Oliver, a former detective constable with the Greater Manchester Police, had just published a book about her role in revealing sexual abuse by Asian gangs in Rochdale.
[Clip: News archive Rotherham abuse trial]
And this, it seems, was influencing Raja Miah.
At first, he had focused his criticism on a local mosque. But this only got him so far, Joshi said.
Joshi Herrmann: So you’ve got these things in the ether. And I think what happens is Raja Miah realises that the previous audience for his Facebook posts, which has members of his own community, where he grew up with these complaints about the mosque, actually, they’re not that into him.
You see a lot of comments under those posts saying, well, you’re a crook. You know, you took money from the schools. It’s like you’re, you’re a disreputable character. You haven’t been living in the community recently.
Basia Cummings, narrating: So, he goes for a different line of attack. Around this time, he began to include Asian cartels and grooming gangs in his posts.
In the summer of 2019, his focus shifts again. To a very, specific, very serious allegation.
Joshi Herrmann: So clearly he doesn’t get the cut-through in, in, in the spring of 2019 by the August, he’s trying something completely different. And the big difference is not just at the allegations are about grooming gangs and Asian cartels. The big difference is his audience is now white people in Oldham, and they seemingly are much more responsive to his needs.
And as, um, some listeners will know, Rochdale is not very far from Oldham. Rochdale also has a high proportion of south Asian residents. And I think when I speak to some people in Oldham, you get the impression that they almost assume there’s a similar Rochdale style street grooming. Because there sort of has to be? It’s like… well, it happened in Rochdale, you know, and it happened in Rotherham and it happened in Telford and it happened in Oxford and those places have big south Asian community. So it sort of has to be happening here.
Basia Cummings: But that’s prejudice?
Joshi Herrmann: Total prejudice. It’s nonsense. But Raja Miah realises that people think that…. he realises that he can tap into something quite rich and something quite deep, which is this feeling that we’re going to be next.
Basia Cummings, narrating: Now, of course, it is possible that his interest in grooming cases came from his time working in charities, and his apparent focus on sexual grooming with his charity Rise.
But what he was saying here was sensational, it was explosive. If what he was alleging is true – it should be investigated.
And various people, his followers, and his critics, urged him to take any evidence he has to the police.
But he hasn’t. And he hasn’t published, either, what he has described as his dossier of evidence.
[Clip: Raja Miah speaking about alleged dossier of evidence about grooming of white working class girls]
Basia Cummings, narrating: Instead of reporting the alleged corruption and abuse, Raja Miah trained his online campaign on three people.
The first, Sean Fielding, who you’ve already met. Who was then, the Labour leader of the Council.
On Jim McMahon, who was the council leader during the free schools fiasco, and is now the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.
[Clip: Raja Miah speaking about cartels and block-voting for Jim McMahon]
Basia Cummings, narrating: And on a woman Arooj Shah, who is now the new leader of Oldham Council – and the first Muslim woman to run a council in the north.
[Clip: Raja Miah speaking about Arooj Shah]
Together, these three politicians were drawn into the increasingly sophisticated and complex theory, rooted in years of suspicion.
In the curdling anger in Oldham, which was not long ago classed ‘most deprived place in England’, a place that certain people felt white people were being left behind.
[Clip: Raja Miah speaking about climate of fear and need to safeguard children from grooming and gangs]
Basia Cummings, narrating: And the thing is – there’s no one around to challenge him. There’s no one to fact-check him.
Oldham is a bit of a news desert – where the local newspapers are run by a tiny staff, the biggest of which is run out of Bolton, 25 kilometres away.
Joshi Herrmann: He brings in loads of really abstruse local information. It’s almost like in a town which has been stripped of all its media and all its newspapers. He is now that evening news. Um, and he tells people what’s going on with the council. And sometimes some of the things he says are true.
Yeah, he identifies as council failings, like not being open about the fact that the council had Shabbir Ahmed from the Rochdale grooming gangs on their payroll.
Not being open about the fact that, you know, a taxi driver got a license despite having a sexual conviction. And if you pull those things together and people already dislike the council because they feel the council hasn’t delivered the regeneration of Oldham, that’s been promised, hasn’t made their lives better, despite them paying some of the highest council tax rates in the country. Yeah. It’s a mix that people find believable.
Basia Cummings: And has a very particular, you know, racial and ethnic makeup and the tensions that come along with that.
Joshi Herrmann: Absolutely. I mean, you know, Raja Miah is sowing his seed in a very particular bed, which is a town that is not only economically deprived, but has had real issues between communities as we saw with, the riots.
And you know, if you go on his Facebook page, the message at the top is: ‘With racism, weaponised and the working classes berayed a network of corrupt politicians now control vast territories across the country.’ He says… supported by their associates in the mainstream media and aided by criminal, Asian cartels these politicians rule in a manner identical to despots from children’s stories, books; it’s almost like he’s taking part in some sort of TV drama. It’s almost like he’s writing a film about his town, this sort of Gothic narrative of secret cabals who are collaborating behind closed doors to screw over the people of Oldham.
It’s like you’re paying a council tax to a council that doesn’t care about you. And it’s conspiring with people to keep you poor and to funnel the money to other causes. It’s all totally unevidenced but I think for a lot of people it’s been quite powerful.
Basia Cummings, narrating: So, Raja Miah the recusant was born.
And soon, there was a professionalism to his online presence.
His audience was growing: he was reaching thousands of people in his Facebook and YouTube posts.
And there were 6 or 7 Facebook groups in particular who were amplifying him. Groups called things like ‘Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth’ or ‘Failsworth Matters’ – some of them open and some of them closed, managed by locals and catering to an audience of around 17,000 people. Here accusations, rumour, intrigue would meet and ferment, and grow into certainty, out of the sight of the people who were being accused – who weren’t invited inside.
Joshi Herrmann: I mean, sometimes I think, oh, this could happen anywhere. Actually, this could happen in any town that’s fallen on hard times and you know, where a lot of people are on Facebook, which is dozens of towns in this country, maybe hundreds. But then I think… how many people are going to be as energetic as Raja Miah?
Like this guy is posting two hour long transmissions on Facebook and YouTube. He’s running a subscription-only blog. He’s got like… branding at the beginning and end. He’s got, like, widgets that allow people to pay him via buying him a coffee. This website, buy me a coffee. He’s putting so much effort into it.
And as you say, he’s very cleverly branded. He has this slogan: do not fear them, do not fear any of them. Which he constantly plays in his videos. He puts it at the end of every post. And what it’s supposed to be saying is don’t fear the leaders of Oldham. They might be evil. They might be corrupt. They might be trying to screw you over, but you shouldn’t fear them. You’ve got to fight back.
I think the output that he puts on Facebook is doing the opposite. It’s saying you should be fearful. You should be terrified because your leaders don’t care about you and they are willing to do anything…
Basia Cummings: … to protect paedophiles.
Joshi Herrmann: To protect paedophiles. They are allowing the town’s children, including your children – our children, he often says – to be raped by paedophiles. So he says don’t fear them, but his whole project is about whipping up fear.
Basia Cummings, narrating: In 2019, Raja Miah published email correspondence between the local MP, Jim McMahon, and a BBC journalist from six years earlier.
It’s an email which had been leaked to him… and it proved to be a key bit of “evidence”, some which he used to bolster his claim that the council and the local Labour party were ignoring Asian grooming gangs operating in Oldham. That they weren’t investigating shisha bars where abuse might be going on.
For Debbie Barratt-Cole, a friend and supporter of Raja Miah’s, those emails seemed like a smoking gun… one fired by Jim McMahon, who was the leader of Oldham Council at the time.
Debbie Barratt-Cole: What he [Raja Miah] did, he exposed it – he exposed that and I put my own interpretation into that.
And I just thought about all these children that was, that was being taken to these grooming bars, these shisha bars. And I’m thinking, hang on a minute.
He’s [Sean Fielding] the leader of the council. He should be telling all the parents in Oldham… keep an eye on your kids and don’t be letting them be going in any shisha bars. He shouldn’t be covering this up in case it creates racial tension. And then I thought hang on a minute. Why will it create racial tension? Oh, hang on a minute. It’s Asian men that are doing this grooming and that’s when it, it just, it was a bit like a red rag to a bull.
He’s really nice. He is a nice guy. He’s got his agenda. Everybody’s got agendas. You’ve got your agenda. Everybody’s got an agenda. Don’t get, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not silly, but I actually do believe that Raja’s agenda is a genuine one.
I think it’s, I think he is trying to save the town. I think he’s trying to actually highlight what’s going on to rectify it to, to get it right.
I’ve done my research. I’ve done my homework and I’ve had people contacting me. So, and, and you know what I’ve had from Oldham council – I’ve had brick wall after brick wall, after brick wall.
Basia Cummings, narrating: Which brings us to the end of 2020. A dark couple of months, as you’ll remember, of lockdowns and surging Covid deaths. A time when lots of people were separated from loved ones, and stuck inside.
And this is when Raja Miah begins to really focus on Sean Fielding.
Sean Fielding: Raja Miah moves around to his most vulnerable target at the time. So prior to the general election, he was attacking Jim on a number of fronts. And that was an attempt to get him de-selected as Labour candidate. When that was unsuccessful and Jim was re-selected and then re-elected as the Labour MP, he started looking for his next most vulnerable target. And that was me…
Basia Cummings, narrating: This is where the two stories of Raja Miah and Sean Fielding really first meet.
Because, Sean Fielding announces he’s standing for re-election, in Failsworth West – a ward in a town sandwiched between Manchester and Oldham, but which had been subsumed into the borough of Oldham in 1974.
Failsworth is a predominantly white community. Oldham has a large Asian population… and this dynamic is important.
Sean Fielding: And whilst people can have legitimate grievances with Oldham council, there is always an undertone because of the ethnic makeup of Oldham and the ethnic makeup of Failsworth of, uh, Failsworth is not happy about being administered from a place that has a large ethnic minority population. And that is, uh, an undertone that runs through much of the, um, discontent and resentment that I used to pick up when I was a local councillor there.
Basia Cummings, narrating: Sean is a local boy, through and through. His dad was a bus driver… and active in the trade union. His mum worked for Manchester City Council.
This was a community that knew him. He’d done a paper round as a kid, he’d played piano at the Christmas concert at the church. He was 22 when he was first elected to the council.
Sean Fielding: And it was just a nice feeling for people to say It’s good to see you and that sort of thing. People I hadn’t seen for a long time.
Basia Cummings, narrating: It was all going pretty well for Sean Fielding.
In late 2018, he took a call from the Labour MP, Jim McMahon. Who said to him – you should go for the leadership of the council.
Sean Fielding: So I thought about it and it was, like I say, it was really late on. And I said, yeah, I’m going to do it. So I contested the leadership election and won by a decent margin in the end.
Basia Cummings, narrating: But local politics is a viper’s nest. And as it is with councillors in every community, not everyone was happy with the work Sean Fielding was doing.
From the get-go, he attracted snide remarks about his age, and his previous job working at Tesco. And then, in October last year, he bought the town’s ailing shopping centre, Spindles, for almost £10 million pounds… in the middle of the pandemic.
He wanted to move the town’s beloved Tommyfield Market from its historic site… and move it into Spindles.
Joshi Herrmann: If you speak to people who grew up in Oldham and the 1950s and 1960s, they are going to mention the market within two minutes of talking, because it was a point of pride.
And like a lot of these markets, it’s been buffeted by forces like online shopping and Amazon… But I think Tommyfield holds this kind of totemic place in the Oldham imagination. And, uh, now it’s coming to an end.
Basia Cummings, narrating: So Joshi and I took a drive. From the centre of Manchester, where Joshi’s office at The Mill is, out and up to Oldham, with its glorious views out onto the moors.
And we went, really, to visit this monument to Sean Fielding’s ambition, or his wastefulness, depending on who you talk to.
Joshi Herrmann: What did it used to be like?
Stallholder: It was really busy. Well you didn’t have time to sit down, did you? Nope. It was great. People milling in and out – all the time.
Basia Cummings: The community, would you say?
Stallholder: Yeah. But it’s just dying. There’s a stall at the back – he retired last week so that’s gone now. There’s just quite a few… it’s sad, cos it was a good little market at one time. But the outside market died, I think, a few years ago.
Basia Cummings, narrating: And just a couple of hundred metres away, stands the Spindles Shopping centre.
Joshi Herrmann: So this building coming up is Spindles shopping center.
And this is the one that the council bought very recently for about £10 million. And you’d be hard pressed to find someone around here who’s delighted about that decision – apart from maybe Sean Fielding, who described it as an absolute bargain.
The council thinks they can regenerate this whole area and make Spindles the sort of centerpiece. But I think a lot of people think, well, you haven’t managed to regenerate much of the town, so we don’t particularly have that much faith in you that you’re going to regenerate it here.
Basia Cummings, narrating: And it’s big, showy local projects like the Shopping Centre that made some people suspicious of Sean Fielding. And maybe you can hear a hint of it in his voice, but this is a guy who’s self-assured, out-spoken.
He could easily rub people up the wrong way – people annoyed by his meteoric rise to power in the community.
Basia Cummings: And so what did you, what did you find out about him [Raja Miah] at that time?
Sean Fielding: Well, I, as I do with any, anybody that kind of starts attacking me online, I just Google them and see what’s their background. And then of course I Google Raja Miah and all this stuff came up about how, uh, Jim had been very critical of, um, the failure of the schools that he was in charge of.
But there were reports of financial irregularities at these schools and allegations that he had pocketed money from them. So when I saw that, I just thought I was quite dismissive of it because I thought it was a guy with an axe to grind and he’s just slinging as much dirt at the council and, uh, anybody associated with Jim McMahon. So that when the law eventually catches up with him, he’s discredited the, um, the, the prosecution that I believe to be inevitable and I believe would take place sooner…
Basia Cummings: So he starts posting, initially you, you were quite bolshy online, right? You sort of, you were quite dismissive about what was being thrown at you in quite a sort of in a way that felt relatable to me because you know, you’re a young guy on social media and you sort of gave back pretty good?
Sean Fielding: So I just looked at, and I thought this is ridiculous. And did the old things, like, you know, where there was Manchester Evening News article about the school being terrible, question marks over money and kids not being fed and all that. And I just put things like “this you?” with a link to the story in an attempt to kind of bat it off.
Um, but yeah, what, what, what became clear was because of the nature of the issues that he was using, the nature of the attacks, the history of Oldham and the things that could give credibility to the things that he were saying, actually, people were more receptive to what he was saying.
And what I was responding with was not neutralising it at all. If anything, I was accused of trying to discredit somebody who was raising legitimate concerns. Right.
Basia Cummings: So you ended up looking like the bad guy.
Sean Fielding: Yeah. Yeah.
Basia Cummings, narrating: Soon the campaign was sprawling out of control.
Not only was Raja Miah attacking Sean Fielding in his weekly live video ‘transmissions’, he was also posting about him these large local Facebook groups, insulting him on Twitter and clearly getting under the young council leader’s skin.
Basia Cummings: At that point were you scared? Were you stressed? Were you, how were you feeling?
Sean Fielding: I didn’t know quite how to deal with it because I thought, even though there’s quite a bit of noise on Facebook, you know, this isn’t representative, people are more sensible than that.
The silent majority can see this for what it is.
But I was still in a place where you like, do you engage with this? Because by engaging with it, do I give you credibility? My tactic became after having tried to be dismissive of it early wrong, when it started to get more traction and more engagement, my tactic was to kind of, just get out, pretty straightforward, clear messages about what I was doing on the platforms where I could get a fairer hearing that if ever I was tagged into anything or asked a question, I could refer to that.
There’s a statement on the council website. Here’s a news article about the councillor’s Ofsted report, that sort of thing. And I thought that that was the way of dealing with it.
Basia Cummings, narrating: And it spilled out onto the street too. One night Sean and some of his friends went for dinner.
He decided to leave his car at home so he could have a drink with his mates. And he was walking to his local tram stop …
Sean Fielding: And probably only a couple of hundred yards from my house, somebody was walking in the opposite direction towards me that I recognised as somebody that lived a few doors down from me.
And he stopped me. He’d clearly had a drink and he said ‘your Sean Fielding who is covering up P***i’s shagging kids’ and then started to be really abusive towards me, and really threatening. Um, and I rang the police after that incident. And that was when I thought this is serious, you know, because people are starting to act in person in the street on the basis of believing stuff that I thought was exclusively online in kind of crank echo chambers.
Basia Cummings, narrating: In 2020, Raja Miah’s focus on Fielding began to intensify. They became more aggressive.
[Clip: Raja Miah speaking about Sean Fielding]
Basia Cummings, narrating: Every week at 7pm, or 1900 hours as he wrote in the description, he was speaking to his fans and followers. In place of a local broadcaster was… the recusant, Raja Miah.
[Clip: Raja Miah saying “do not fear them, do not fear any of them”]
Basia Cummings, narrating: And there’s a particular dynamic to these transmissions.
His followers and fans can comment, live, as he speaks. He often mentions them by name, thanks them for coming. It’s a friendly, warm place – if you’re on the right side.
And it’s making Raja Miah money, too.
We worked out that since December he’s earned more than £6,000 from the website Buy Me A Coffee, where his supporters can donate the equivalent of a cup of coffee.
If you include the money he makes from Patreon and his subscription blogging platform, he appears to earn just over £1,000 a month from his followers.
You can even buy merchandise from his site: t-shirts, hoodies and stainless steel water bottles emblazoned with “do not fear them”… part of his tagline.
“It’s my town, it’s your town – it’s our town. And even if was futile we know how powerful Sean Fielding is. We know how corrupt the council is…”Raja Miah speaking on Recusant Nine Facebook Live
Joshi Herrmann: I think at this point, we’re in December last year, six months before the election, Raja Miah is really zoning in on Sean Fielding….
“This man has committed a crime. In a democracy like ours, politicians cannot be seen to be above the law. They cannot. And if they are…”Raja Miah speaking on Recusant Nine Facebook Live
Joshi Herrmann: It’s like previously he’s been a gunner finding his range and then he zones in. At this point, it’s got to the point where he’s trying to get Sean Fielding arrested. That’s what he’s talking about in this video.
“All we are asking for is the police to do their job and arrest Sean Fielding. They have got to arrest Sean Fielding and question him under caution.”Raja Miah speaking on Recusant Nine Facebook Live
Basia Cummings: So how did that play out?
Sean Fielding: So, um, it, it said that I was guilty of a number of crimes, which it didn’t specify. There were more signatories on it than I expected. […] You know, people, even comments, like he must pay for his crimes and I, oh, what, tell me what crimes I’ve done.
“Not only do we want you arrested. We want you put in prison. And that’s not just me. That’s thousands of us in this town. We want an example made out of a corrupt, paedophile-protecting politician. And we want him put in prison.”Raja Miah speaking on Recusant Nine Facebook Livestream
Basia Cummings, narrating: Then, Raja Miah found an ally. One that could bridge the divide between his world, and Sean Fielding’s world.
A man called Mark Wilkinson, an ex-copper, who decided to run against Sean Fielding in Failsworth West.
Basia Cummings: So talk to me about when you realized that there was going to be opposition to you that were somehow linked to this man that had caused you already so much grief online.
Sean Fielding: So the Failsworth Independence Party and Matt Wilkinson were very, very closely linked to Raja Miah for a long time. Um, and then, and then he appeared in one of these videos, which I was really surprised. I was really surprised that he was so foolish to make his association with Raja Miah so overt.
“We’ve gone into a fight knowing now we’re outmuscled, outgunned. The press were against us, the police were against us. They’d mobilised everyone. And so far we’ve given as good as we’ve got.”Raja Miah speaking on Recusant Nine Election YouTube Transmission
Basia Cummings, narrating: And on that night, the 6th of May, at 9.30pm, Sean Fielding deleted his Facebook account. He was sick of it all. Sick of being accused in closed groups he couldn’t defend himself. Sick of being called a ‘paedophile protector’.
Sean Fielding: I said, I’ve, I’ve lost. And she said, oh, is there no way that it can come back? Is there not like some postal books that have not been counted yet. So I said, there are, but it’s not enough. Uh, and she said, oh, well, you know, you’ve got two options. You can either stop all night and shake his hand and say, congratulations. Or you can write a statement which we’ll issue at the declaration and you can go home. And I said, I’m not shaking that man’s hand. I’m not shaking his hand after all the abuse that I’ve had from his family and supporters.
Um, and after the things that you’ve been sharing online in places where I can’t counter them, I said, I’ll write a statement. I’m going to go home.
Basia Cummings, narrating: Sean Fielding went home that night, and then went on a short mini-break with his girlfriend. He wanted to get away from it all.
Raja Miah was jubilant. If his transmissions and posts are to be believed, he’d won.
When I emailed Raja Miah, with a detailed list of questions, his response was, perhaps, to be expected. He replied that it did not feel right for him to respond to such preposterous allegations. He said he is the victim of a malicious campaign by Labour Party-sympathetic journalists.
He said I was only the latest privileged white liberal to attempt to push a predetermined narrative of intimidation and racially motivated harassment on behalf of the local MP, Jim McMahon.
And he ended it with a threat: “be in no doubt that I will also take action against you personally and report you to the police.”
But things are getting more difficult for him.
At the end of July, he was arrested on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offence and malicious communications.
Basia Cummmings: And what do you think motivates him?
Sean Fielding: I think he’s a sociopath. I think he craves attention. He’s got a very fragile ego, which was damaged with the bad publicity that he got from the schools. And he’s just out for revenge.
Basia Cummings, narrating: But the arrest isn’t stopping Raja Miah.
He says he’s innocent and has not been charged, but he has used it as evidence that he is being silenced.
In the paranoid recusant world that he’s created, everything can be evidence of corruption.
Council mishaps or incompetence, or admittedly dodgy activity – it all bolsters his claim to the people of Oldham that tune in, every week, to his transmissions: that the powerful are working against you, that those people you fear really are doing bad things, and that it’s OK to think so.
Debbie Barratt-Cole: I’ve done my own investigations. And I’ve done me own stuff. And I’m not just listening to Raja Miah but do you know what? He’s talking… he’s talking a lot of sense. The lad is talking a lot of sense. And do you know what? In the one breath, I thank God that he has. But in the next breath, I think I’d rather… do I want to go back to being oblivious? You can’t, you can’t, you can’t put them worms back in that can once they’ve been opened.
Basia Cummings, narrating: Debbie’s right. The worms are out…
And they’re wriggling around, not just in Oldham, but everywhere… in thousands of closed Facebook groups where the angry and forgotten and dispossessed can get together, feel a part of something, and say what they want without consequence.
In fact one of the first pieces Tortoise, the newsroom behind this podcast, ever published, was by my colleague Xav, about how instrumental a Facebook group in south Wales was in overthrowing the Labour council. There is a giddying power in that.
But, of course, it’s important. Because, at its heart, this is a story about what happens when people, unpoliced by truth and without consequence, fill the vacuum created by the decline in local news, and the decline in enthusiasm for political parties.
It’s why Joshi and I found ourselves huddling in a windy corner outside the old, abandoned offices of the Oldham Chronicle.
Without a trusted source of news; news that reflects the place we live in all of its local, minute complexity; without checks on targeted conspiracies and malicious accusations online… Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when someone, like Raja Miah steps in… branded cap in tow, to fill the void.
Thanks for listening to this podcast. It was produced in collaboration with The Mill. It was reported by Joshi Herrmann, Xavier Greenwood and me, Basia Cummings. It was produced by Gary Marshall, edited by Matt Russell, with sound design by Tom Kinsella.