Reputations shouldn’t be trashed without reason
For those of us who have watched the pendulum swing back and forth on child abuse over the years, there was a grim inevitability about the Carl Beech scandal.
Operation Midland, the over-zealous Metropolitan Police investigation into high profile figures sparked by Beech, a fantasist and paedophile known as ‘Nick’, was as damaging as it is possible to imagine. The failure to adequately test his allegations before carrying out police raids on the homes of prominent politicians, or to back down when his credibility was shot, left the lives of several innocent men in tatters. There cannot be many worse fates than that of Leon Brittan, who died with false claims hanging over him.
It is natural that Harvey Proctor, whom Beech accused of child murder, should feel enraged by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) report. It cleared five officers of misconduct despite an independent review by High Court judge Sir Richard Henriques finding the search warrants had been illegally obtained. It is natural, too, that he should wish to see some kind of retribution meted out to Labour MP Tom Watson, who piled pressure on Scotland Yard to act.
And yet, without diminishing the consequences, it is easy to see how it all unfolded. In 2014, when the news agency Exaro picked up on Beech’s claims, the country was reeling from the worst child sex-abuse scandal it had ever experienced.
Jimmy Savile, it was clear, had been a prolific paedophile operating ‘in plain sight’. Rumours about his behaviour had been rife, accusations made, complainants dismissed as ‘unreliable’, investigations launched and then dropped. Savile was protected by power and patronage, and also because some of the things he was alleged to have done seemed too grotesque to be true.
The UK is prone to moral panics, particularly over child abuse. There’s an all-too-familiar cycle. A spate of cover-ups, finally exposed, will be followed by a backlash, as seen in the removal of hundreds of children from their homes in Cleveland in 1987 and Orkney in 1991. Indeed, the late 80s/early 90s saw an obsession with so-called Satanic abuse (alleged to involve the ritual slaughter of children) for which not one shred of evidence was ever produced.
Post-Savile, the UK was ripe for another moral panic. All the ingredients were there: politicians eager to head up a crusade, police forces desperate to prove they weren’t cowed by the rich and famous, Exaro, trying too hard to live up to its strapline, ‘holding power to account’.
Into this febrile atmosphere wandered Beech with his tales of being taken out of school; of being abused by powerful men in an apartment in Dolphin Square, London; of child killings.
With hindsight, those claims seem outlandish. But immediately post-Savile, what police officer would have called him a liar? With hindsight, his testimony should have been challenged and Scotland Yard should have been more circumspect when making public statements about its veracity.
But then the prevailing orthodoxy was that accusers should be believed. The force was, at least initially, reflecting current thinking.
Now, it, and we, must learn from those mistakes. I do not believe those accused of sexual assault should be granted anonymity, but evidence must reach a certain standard before suspects are named and search warrants sought. No more reputations should be trashed without reason.
At the same time, however, I am uncomfortable with the level of condemnation being expressed by some commentators, who are hungry for scalps.
Those officers who failed to scrutinise Beech’s testimony, and hounded those he accused, were driven not by malice, but by a fear of being accused of failing to do enough. This fear was generated by public fury over previous cover-ups. And so it goes on.
The danger is that the kind of outrage expressed by the likes of Simon Jenkins, who compared Operation Midland to McCarthyism, will cause the pendulum to swing again: towards powerful suspects and away from victims.
You can already see the fault-lines. For example, Henriques’ report describes Beech’s account as “riddled with inconsistencies”. But the accounts of highly traumatised victims are often inconsistent, especially if the abuse was carried out when they were very young. Are we going to go back to the days when complainers were discredited because they were befuddled over dates and times?
For every action in the public sphere, there appears to be an equal and opposite over-reaction. Or to put it another way – we make misjudgements because we can’t stop fighting the previous war. We went into Iraq because we didn’t go into Bosnia and Rwanda; we didn’t go into Syria because we went into Iraq.
Beech – a fake – was believed because so many of Savile’s genuine victims were dismissed. My plea is that we don’t respond to Beech, now serving an 18-year sentence, by ignoring others. Operation Midland was a disaster. The reports have made that clear. But this time round, let’s dispense with the hysteria. Instead of playing the easy blame game, let’s think about where the pendulum should actually be; and let it rest there.