I don’t carry a brief for Tom Watson. I have attacked him in the strongest terms for his part in spreading a fake child abuse scandal that wrecked the lives and reputations of innocent men. (The headline on my piece, ‘Why a deserved downfall beckons for Tom Watson', gives a flavour of the way my argument went). But I, and I hope you, retain a good enough nose to smell a rat.
It suits the interests of the police and supposed ‘investigative’ journalists to say the deputy leader of Labour party was responsible for promoting a ludicrous conspiracy theory about a VIP child abuse ring. Shifting the blame helps them escape the charge that they should have known that ‘Nick’s’ story of rape at the hands of, among others, Lord Brittan, former chief of the defence staff Lord Bramall, Edward Heath and former Tory MP Harvey Proctor was provably false.
Any competent detective or journalist could have discredited it in a day and saved £2 million in public money but a great deal of needless misery.
Arguments about whether to believe the ‘victims’ of abuse miss the point. Honest investigators neither believe nor disbelieve: they look for verifiable facts. This morning, former High Court judge Sir Richard Henriques condemns in the Daily Mail the ‘lamentable’ failure of the Independent Office for Police Conduct to carry out a professional investigation into five Metropolitan Police detectives before clearing them of responsibility for the grim fiasco. Professional failure has been there from the start, as Sir Richard knows because he also reported on the Met’s conduct.
The Exaro News site began broadcasting ‘Nick’s’ allegations in 2014. If it had checked his story, there would never have been a scandal. ‘Nick,’ who turned out to be a fraudster and paedophile called Carl Beech, described how his family moved to Kingston upon Thames in 1979. His elite abusers would collect him from his school in ‘a black car,’ he told police. They warned him not to make friends with the other pupils. Beech defied them. He befriended a boy named Scott, and a terrible punishment followed:
‘It was May, June, or July in the summer term and we were walking, when I heard a car engine, Beech told the Met. I turned round and saw that the car had hit him and he was thrown up in the air and everything stopped and he just lay there. It was silent. I went over to him but he wouldn't wake up and didn't move. There was a lot of blood. I had blood on my hands. I was dragged away and put in the back of a car.’
Exaro and the national journalists who followed its lead, had a fact to verify. There should have been evidence of a boy being killed in Kingston upon Thames in 1979. It was an easy enough story to check, as reports of the shocking death would certainly have made the local papers. The Kingston History Centre keeps back copies in its archives. The British Library helps run the British Newspaper Archive, which has scanned 40 million newspaper pages, so journalists don’t even need to slog through hard copies or squint at microfilm. Checking would have spoilt a story that played to every paranoid fantasy but it could and should have been done.
Instead, we had to wait until real journalists from the BBC’s Panorama looked at what they rightly saw as a scandalous investigation, and asked the obvious question: where is the evidence of murder? They could find no news report of a boy being mowed down in a Kingston street and his friend being abducted.
Panorama had the resources to go further and track down boys at Nick’s school, who predictably cast further doubt on his story. My point, however, is even a journalist from a cash-strapped news agency could have worked out that ‘Nick’ was lying by putting in a minimum of effort, as could all the media figures who piled in.
The police, of course, had more resources still. In his report on the Met, Sir Richard lists its failures to look for evidence. As well as checking whether the hit-and-run attack had happened, it might have asked Nick’s mother whether he had ever been taken out of school or returned late at night out of his head on the drink and drugs the imaginary sex ring fed him.
Instead of checking at once, it waited six months before interviewing her. Met officers might also have looked at Nick’s medical records for evidence of abuse, or asked him to take a medical examination or inspected his computer.
An ex-con friend of mine, who developed a jaundiced view of the criminal justice system while being detained as a guest of Her Majesty, told me, ‘The police love historic child abuse inquiries, and want to keep them going. It’s a 9-to-5 job, Monday to Friday. Guaranteed lunch breaks. No unsocial hours.’
They still have to be done, but surely after this operation done better. The fashion of automatically calling anyone who claims to suffered abuse ‘a victim’ or ‘survivor’ has to be tackled if we are to see just results. Until a defendant has been convicted, they are ‘alleged victims’ and ‘alleged survivors’. If you say otherwise, you undermine the presumption of innocence for the accused on which the criminal justice system is based.
In his report, Sir Richard says ‘the instruction foisted upon investigators to believe a “victim” perverts our system of justice and attempts to impose upon a thinking investigator an artificial and false state of mind’.
All you should expect of the police – and by extension the press – is that they take accusations of abuse seriously and check them out. Tom Watson behaved terribly, as Sir Richard’s report makes clear. Nevertheless, the scandal of the VIP sex ring that never was is not a political scandal. It is not the job of politicians to investigate crimes. That is work for police officers and journalists. Their failure to meet basic standards allowed abuse of the criminal justice system to flourish.