There is an awful lot going on at present. But there is something that happened recently that I should like to return to. Not least because I get the sense that so many people involved would like everyone else to forget about it.
I refer to the appalling case of Carl Beech – the convicted liar, fraudster and paedophile who made unfounded claims against numerous public figures and was sentenced in July to 18 years in prison. Beech’s crimes were not harmless. They included the most disgusting lies made against two D-Day veterans. Heroes of this country. The wife of one of those men – Lord Bramall – went to her grave without knowing that her husband would be fully vindicated and his accuser imprisoned. Another of Beech’s victims was the former MP Harvey Proctor who was fired from his work and made homeless on the basis of Beech’s allegations. At one point Proctor – now in his seventies – was reduced to living in a shed.
At the time the Beech allegations came out there was a real witch-hunt in Westminster. The atmosphere was unmistakable. Those pushing the lies were praised for their bravery, while those even raising an eyebrow were treated as though they perhaps had some particular reason for wanting to protect powerful paedophiles.
As I wrote at the time, Tom Watson MP attempted to make himself the witch-finder general and used Parliamentary privilege to spread the most despicable lies. In a febrile atmosphere The Spectator was the first publication to call ‘bullshit’ on the whole thing, with Rod Liddle, myself and others taking the view that however low our opinion of our politicians might be, we did not think it likely that they occasionally gathered in private, with other public figures, to rape and murder children. Everything about the claims made by the man then known as ‘Nick’ (who we now know to be Carl Beech) failed the most basic sniff-test. Everything about it was off.
Well, we all make mistakes of course. And we all get things wrong. But jumping into that witch-hunt several years ago was a pretty big mistake. It ruined lives. And it was entirely possible to avoid.
Among the politicians who have still not been held to account for their outrageous behaviour at that time is Tom Watson. But I should like to focus for a moment on the journalist who more than any other pushed these lies and libels. I refer to the radio talkshow host James O’Brien.
Perhaps I should say at the outset that I do not know James O’Brien and have no special animus against him. On the few occasions I have got into a cab and the driver has been listening to his show I have asked for it to be turned off. I am not a huge fan of talk radio and am particularly not a fan of shows where the presenter invites people to call in only for him to then berate them for not agreeing with him.
In any case, after Carl Beech went to prison in July, O’Brien tweeted the following:
“'Hate the Carl Beech story. We gave his allegations against dead politicians a lot of coverage on the show & it turns out he was bullshitting everyone. But from Rotherham to Westminster to the BBC, telling abuse survivors that they'll be believed still seems the right thing to do.'
It’s an interesting tone, that. Nothing about Lady Bramall. Nothing about Harvey Proctor, or the victims and families of the victims of Carl Beech’s lies. Instead the message appears to be in equal thirds: ‘Poor me for having been misled by an obvious and palpable fraudster’; ‘Could have happened to anyone’ (it didn’t); and then that same move that Tom Watson made after the Beech conviction: ‘Sorry, not sorry, but real sexual abuse victims will suffer if you criticise me too much.’
But I return to this not because O’Brien was typical, but because he was in this case exceptional. Exceptional in the attention and promotion he gave to Beech’s allegations and exceptional in the way in which he whipped up these false allegations. The intermediary between Beech and O’Brien was the then editor of the now-defunct organisation Exaro. This ‘journalism’ organisation was the entity that most pushed Carl Beech’s claims. And the head of that organisation – Mark Watts – would himself credit O’Brien as being outstanding among his peers in being willing to give airtime to Beech’s claims. Indeed he was.
Here are some examples of how O’Brien whipped this all along. In November 2014 O’Brien used his LBC show to play a recording of ‘Nick’ (aka Carl Beech, speaking through a voice distorter). O’Brien says he ‘He sounds, albeit with a distorted voice, Mark Watts, he sounds quite together which, of course, in the context of abusees, of survivors, is quite rare’. This raises the question of how many times O’Brien had previously interviewed known abuse survivors, how often he had listened to people who were erroneously claiming to be abuse survivors and what made him qualified to make any such judgement. But Mark Watts agreed with O’Brien’s psychological assessment and stressed that at Exaro:
“'Our view is he's absolutely to be taken seriously, despite the extraordinary things, this extraordinary story he tells, and that's our view. We've obviously done a lot of work over many, many months – if you like, a due diligence exercise. And I can I think I'm not revealing too much to say that the police share our view.'
“'Although, of course it does add weight to the to these suspicions – they're becoming much more than suspicions – of high-level conspiracy. The higher the level of the criminal, the higher the level of the conspiracy it goes.'
O’Brien promises that much of the detail of the allegations is not suitable for broadcast because it is so appalling. But he promises that people can hear more on the Exaro website. Along with making a set of other claims, alleging financial bribes and establishment cover-up, O’Brien cannot help lavishing praise on his guest:
“'My guest, Mark Watts, whose organisation Exaro News have been, I think I can say, schooling some of the better-established media organisations in how to pursue this sort of story.'
O’Brien presents himself as bewildered that other people are not joining him in his own credulous journey. He says:
“James O’Brien: There's a sense, this overused phrase in the modern world, of 'the mainstream media', but but it does... does it surprise you that that the momentum still, it still sort of needs injections of of enthusiasm from outside? It still isn't dominating front pages or securing splashes, so to speak?
Mark Watts: Well, yeah, that's right. Of course, it has had a lot of attention. But it clearly should be getting more because this, I mean, I've been in this studio before and said to you in my view, this is Britain's biggest political post-war scandal.
James O’Brien: And every time you come in, it's got bigger.
Mark Watts: Exactly.
James O’Brien: And we will continue to do so Mark Watts. Well, I hope you will continue to visit us and share the fruits of your sterling, sterling work. I really do. Exaro News is the website you need to visit to find out more about what they're doing and indeed to hear more from the absolutely heartbreaking encounter with Nick. You’re listening to James O’Brien on LBC.
O’Brien is back at it in January 2015, telling his listeners:
“'It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see many other areas of the media now devoting something like the amount of attention that should have been devoted to these accusations and allegations from the very start.'
Watts is on again, once again assuring O’Brien that the police are on his side, and agree about the credibility of his source. For O’Brien it is all the irresistible scoop of a lifetime:
“'David Cameron has agreed to open the records of the Conservative whip's office to let investigators hunt for evidence of historic child abuse because if I think if I had to pinpoint the sense or the kicking off point for many of us thinking “Crikey maybe this is actually one of those stories that sounds like a conspiracy theory but turns out not to be...”’
Or perhaps it is one of those cases that sounds like a conspiracy because it is. If that thought occurs to O’Brien he does not let it detain him.
Instead, O’Brien gives Watts an opportunity to dilate on the claims of other people accused of crimes against children. On one occasion O’Brien expresses a suspicion that a paedophile conviction had perhaps deliberately been arranged for 23 December so that it got lost in ‘the news agenda’ that was ‘focused on the festivities rather than perhaps the sentencing’. This was ‘all a bit convenient’ according to O’Brien, who reins himself in only slightly by saying that this ‘may, I don’t know, be a conspiracy too far.’
But the idea of any conspiracy being too far-fetched soon disappears. At one point, O’Brien talks about the bravery of a child-abuse survivor coming forward given ‘the risks that he clearly runs’ at the hands of ‘people who would rather he stopped’.
Who are these people? Are they generals? Politicians? Former Prime Ministers? Controllers of the BBC and other ‘mainstream media’? O’Brien does not say.
But gosh does he feel contempt for the ‘mainstream media’ for letting these high-level paedophiles get away with it all. Take this exchange, when O'Brien reads out a text from a listener which says:
“James O’Brien: ‘‘With all the manpower and facilities at the disposal of organisations like the BBC and Sky why has it taken a relative minnow to expose this evil in the establishment? Surely this speaks volumes about the mainstream media." Could briefly answer that, if you want – you're the minnow.
Mark Watts: Well it's a very good question and you know this scandal raises questions about a lot of institutions in Britain. Basically every institution you can imagine – central government, the Home Office... local government, the police, the criminal justice system and, yes, the media. It raises big questions about each and every one of them.
James O’Brien: I hope that constitutes an answer. I really do… "It's horrendous that you are the only news outlet to be championing this investigation, I salute you."
O’Brien’s saluting continues in March 2015, when O’Brien once again gives Watts an opportunity to perpetuate his tales:
“James O’Brien: Just if you would and you don't have to of course share your thoughts on the conversation we were having just before you joined us about the Home Affairs Select Committee and their call for anonymity to be extended to people accused of sex crimes in the same week in which it's become increasingly likely that MPs past or present or both may well find themselves accused of the sex crimes you've been investigating. Is it to you a complete coincidence this?
Mark Watts: Well it's certainly a coincidence, and journalistic nous tells you not to believe in accidental coincidences. It raises enormous questions indeed. Of course parliamentarians, MPs and Lords, former MPs and so on are under the spotlight on this story. And it is remarkably convenient that this argument has been reheated.
Watts claims that there is an ‘anti-victim prejudice’:
“Mark Watts: What we're doing really, we at Exaro is we're gradually and slowly, bit by bit as you say, banging the hammer against the dam, exposing the truth. And part of that is trying to force the system to work, try and make the criminal justice system do what we all outside of it might think it's supposed to be doing. And I think it's important to realise that in the same ways there are journalists who try their best despite you know much of the... much of the institutional problems of mainstream media. The same applies elsewhere it applies in the police.
And we get this nugget about the threat that anyone telling the truth within ‘the establishment’ is now likely to be under:
“Mark Watts: They [former police/special branch officers] are worried about being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.
James O'Brien: Losing their pension. Losing their...
Mark Watts: Losing their liberty losing their, you know, losing everything basically but their lives perhaps, or maybe even that.
O’Brien has no problem with this. To be clear, his guest is claiming that the murderous establishment paedophile network at the heart of the UK establishment is so great that if a special branch officer were to blow the whistle on it, then they could well be murdered. This is febrile stuff. And O’Brien happily whips it along. When Watts suggests that the police were involved all along in covering all this up O’Brien simply responds admiringly:
“'It's like a Pandora's box.'
O’Brien seems filled with admiration, and delight, that finally people are ‘waking up.’
“'If you're just waking up, as hopefully the prime minister is, who described it not that long ago as a conspiracy theory, everything you needed to avoid making an idiotic intervention like that can be found at the Exaronews.com website.'
In the interview, O’Brien praises Watts and Exaro for ‘Just chipping away at the carapace of denial and obfuscation surrounding allegations of so-called VIP child sex-abuse now for the best part of two years. We’ve had the privilege of catching up with Mark on a relatively regular basis and we enjoy that privilege once again today.’
Watts is back in May 2015, O’Brien introduces him:
“'We turn our attention next to a story that thankfully no longer feels as though it's, this is one of the few areas where it's getting the attention it deserves. And if I feel like that, having discussed it with you at length over the course of the last 18 months, goodness knows how Mark Watts feels - the editor of Exaro News – who at one point seemed to be the only people paddling upstream against the accusations of conspiracy theories and false allegations when investigating child sex abuse at the very highest levels of our society. Mark is kind enough to break off from his investigations and join us on a fairly regular basis to discuss developments.'
Once again O’Brien and his guest pretend that allegations against a high-level public figure are being deliberately hidden from public view by being placed in the news cycle at a time that ensures the story gets lost. Something which would require cooperation and complicity at the highest levels. Sure enough, O’Brien accuses the then Director of Public Prosecutions – Alison Saunders – of making a decision that a judge should have taken. According to O’Brien this is unprecedented. Laying out what he – James O’Brien – insists is the normal procedure in such cases he then says that on such occasions a judge would decide:
“'But not, not on this occasion.'
He proceeds to claim that:
“'Again there seems to be a whiff of, well, at the very best obfuscation and avoidance, Mark. I mean words like “cover-up” spring to mind. Words like “conspiracy” spring to mind, but certainly the absence of transparency is clear.'
“James O’Brien: It's the first time perhaps that clarity has emerged on on... because I've spent a lot of time when you're not here asking people why or how these cover-ups, if that turns out to be the case, could occur. And of course the answer's always been because it potentially goes so high. So in terms of why would anybody now not want to shine a light into this because if it was being undertaken by such prominent people then it's not just a question of covering up the alleged crimes, it's the covering-up of the cover-up of course which explains why in the modern world people would be reluctant for the truth to come out. Because you know someone who covered up in the 1970s in a department that was still there in the 1980s ended up being a mentor to someone there in the 1990s, they’re still there now. It would take such epic effort to keep a lid on a scandal like this that it does implicate for want of a better word, an or the establishment.
Mark Watts: Basically what we are witnessing here is the wheels coming off the British establishment.
O’Brien seems disappointed that the case against the late Prime Minister Edward Heath appears not to be going anywhere. But Mark Watts insists that:
“'It goes very, very high, clearly, and it's very, very extensive in terms of the number of people in positions of power who are part of this. And it is an extraordinary cover-up that has been sustained on this.'
O’Brien expresses his irritation that Norman Tebbit has cast doubt on the accusations against his old nemesis Edward Heath. But O’Brien simply sees this as more evidence of ‘powerful people closing ranks’ and ‘putting people off coming forward.’ Deepening the conspiracy, O’Brien suggests that in ‘strange corners of the media’ there are attempts to ‘apply a brake of sorts’ to the stories propagated by Carl Beech, Exaro and indeed James O’Brien of LBC. Mark Watts continues to say:
“'Well I think at root here there are people in the establishment who realise the wheels are coming off and they really want to stop this process of the discovery of the truth of what's gone on. I mean bear in mind that just look at Exaro. There is overwhelming evidence that serious crimes were covered up by the state, perpetrated by people in positions of power. There is no doubt about that. And of course there are people whose interests are served by stopping that, by deterring further witnesses from coming forward for example…
The fact is I am absolutely sure that the public is in a different place here. The public wants the truth and it has to be said the media overall has failed to deliver it for decades.’
But James O’Brien reckons that he, Exaro and Carl Beech have managed to change all that.
“'What you stumbled upon was a cogent, cohesive victim, prepared to go on the record and make complaints.'
Mark Watts is delighted:
“'Well I think one of the things about this scandal as more and more emerges as inevitably it will because I think the dam is broken. One of the parts of the establishment quite frankly that will be in the dock is the mainstream media because it collectively failed to uncover this at the time, although I know that there were journalists here and there, even very senior journalists who were making some attempts to do that. But overwhelmingly there was a failure and more recently, as I say, when Exaro came on the scene and as we started to uncover evidence we found there was resistance still in a lot of mainstream media outlets.'
O’Brien invites his guest ‘to speculate’ on why this might be. But for O’Brien the problem with getting Carl Beech’s allegations out there is one part huge establishment cover-up and conspiracy and one part human error. At one point O’Brien allows himself to expound upon his own grand-scale view of things:
“'We’re a fickle species, us humans. We are easily distracted and while it's clear that feelings on this issue run very, very deep, people hoping that they go away still have a dog in the race. I mean there's still a kind of a chance of things grinding to a standstill especially when you see parts of the establishment now engaging in this narrative of witch-hunt, narrative of smearing the reputation of a man who's not here to defend himself which is effectively saying to accusers “Shut up and know your place”.'
Later O’Brien and Watts attack the people who might claim that people like ‘Nick’ are simply seeking attention, or compensation, or otherwise making it all up.
“James O’Brien: You know I could get the phones to ring on that. People ringing in to tell me they think that these people are looking for compensation, they're just seeking attention, they're just looking for...
Mark Watts: They may think that...
James O’Brien: It's a bizarre place to arrive at though. It’s a strange thought to have when you're studying these sort of stories when you're looking at these sort of issues and prominent newspaper journalists still columnists still end some of their coverage of this by saying 'and Jimmy Saville is still dead' as if that means that the children he raped don't deserve to have their stories heard.
Mark Watts: Well I mean if you're the kind of journalist that thinks that the truth of this should be left hidden well I mean quite frankly you're an idiot. Why on earth are you a journalist?
James O’Brien: I’m not going to argue with you. I am however going to have to call time on the conversation, Mark Watts. Once again I feel we could have carried on for days. But you’ll be back. You're one of the very tiredest men in journalism at the moment I think. The sleep of the just.'
It goes on. But this is just a taster of what James O’Brien used his LBC show to promote over the course of many months.
He promoted claims that the British ‘establishment’, from former Prime Ministers and ministers to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the legal profession, the police and the entirety of the British media were involved in a conspiracy to cover up the rape and murder of children. Along the way he expressed more than contempt for the ‘mainstream media’ who were not willing (like him) to believe Carl Beech’s lies wholesale. He did not simply express contempt for the media. He accused them of being part of the cover-up.
As I mentioned, this would ordinarily require more than a slight ‘sorry, not-sorry, but in any case everyone else fell for it too’ apology. Most of the media was wary of promoting Carl Beech’s lies because they sensed that they didn’t stack up. O’Brien had no such qualms and dived straight in, pushing and promoting the conspiracy-theories, lies and libels which the month before last finally saw Carl Beech sent to prison. Perhaps the sole happy outcome of this whole sorry affair is that while Beech serves out his sentence, his most prominent megaphone in the British media can be giving lectures on subjects including ‘How to be right’ and ‘How to expose falsehoods’.