I was looking through an old contacts book the other day (something that sad ageing hacks find themselves doing) and found that a number of people I used to call are now in prison.
There was old Abu Qatada’s mobile number: I’d interviewed him in 1999 for The Observer when he was first named as a terror suspect. He outlined then what became the standard line for Islamist apologists:
‘Why do we hate America, why are we enemies of America? This is a question that should be addressed to America. Islam is the enemy, you say it, the West says it. And by America's action it made us the enemy.’
Man of God or Man of Violence, we wondered and it seems the British justice system is having difficulty deciding too.
In the same book is a number for Abu Hamza, who has just lost his fight against deportation to the United States, the classic Bond-villain and a gift to any journalist. I’d first written about him in January 1999, when he was named as part of a plot to kidnap tourists in Yemen and bomb British targets. Omar Bakri Mohammed, the ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’ is in there too, but then everyone had his telephone number.
Looking at these names made me think how long it was before any of us took the problem of British-based Islamic extremism seriously. At the time, the intelligence services were famously briefing that Abu Hamza and Bakri Mohammed were ‘clowns’. But to be fair, those of us who heard the blood-curdling tales of jihadi training camps direct from the clowns themselves were pretty sceptical. How wrong we all were. In the end liberal Britain just didn’t know what to do with dissidents from the extreme right of the political spectrum.
In the same book is a number for Steven Messham, the man forced to apologise to Lord McAlpine for falsely naming him as his abuser. I’d talked to him about the North Wales child abuse inquiry and his concern that the full story had not been told. His anger was understandable then. How much deeper it must have taken root over the course of a decade. This terribly damaged man did the right thing to apologise. But the abuse that went on was real enough.
I also found contact details for Operation Nevada, the police investigation into abuse at Lancashire children’s homes, one of over 20 inquiries into institutionalised child abuse across the country.
Soon after I stopped using this contacts book, the first stories emerged about Wonderland, the American-based paedophile web network that uncovered abusers across the world, including hundreds in Britain. At first when police talked of tens of thousands of images being found on suspects’ computers it was hard to credit. When detectives from Operation Ore swooped the scale of the abuse was quite simply staggering.
Then last month I found myself at a school reunion with an old friend, who had spent time with his siblings in a Bristol children’s home. He was one of the care system’s success stories who’d gone on to win a place at Oxford to read French and German. He was still in shock from the Savile story because the BBC’s licensed paedophile was a regular visitor to his home. ‘I just thought he was raising money for us.’ We now know that the reality is that Savile toured the country praying on vulnerable children.
By revisiting my contacts book I am struck by the similarities between these two sets of stories. In both cases we didn’t want to believe the truth until it was too late because the reality was too horrible to countenance. I wondered how long it would take for people to wake up to the scale of child abuse in this country. Jimmy Savile has provided us with the paedophile equivalent of 7/7.