The Truth Shall Make You
THE LOUSE & THE FLEA: PANORAMA, EXARO & THE VIP PAEDOPHILE SAGA
In the tale, a flea and a louse happily share a home until one day the louse dies while brewing beer in an eggshell. What follows is a chain reaction of catastrophe, as the flea and then various household objects get dragged into a downward spiral. This eventually envelops a human child and a stream; finally the water from the stream overflows and drowns the flea, the louse, the child and everything in the little house.
Yesterday, news and social media were swamped by the latest row in the highly politicised saga of investigations into an alleged network of VIP paedophiles. The cause was a much-delayed one-hour Panorama programme which purported to answer the question “What’s The Truth ?”
Panorama sought to examine these allegations – of which more shortly – and, more specifically, how they came to dominate the news, social media and police agendas over the past 18 months. Doing so brought it squarely into conflict with Exaro News – a self-proclaimed online “investigative news service”. Exaro has made most of the running in the VIP paedophile saga and, in happier times, the BBC itself had maintained a working relationship with its journalists.
The BBC programme makers’ decision to investigate the origins of what , lest we forget, is a very expensive police enquiry, produced howls of outrage from Exaro and its supporters. Exaro’s grandly-styled Editor-in-Chief, Mark Watts, took to Twitter to denounce the film (which he had not seen) as a plan “to smear survivors of child sex abuse”; for good measure he accused the Panorama reporter, Daniel Foggo, of having a “conflict of interest” on the extraordinary grounds that as a child he (Foggo) had lived on the same street as Sir Peter Morrison, a deceased Tory MP who unquestionably had a sexual interest in children.
Just as the sequential disaster unleashed by the louse and the flea expanded exponentially, so too did the battle between Exaro and the BBC draw in new players. Exaro reported that the Metropolitan Police has launched an investigation into allegations that one of its officers leaked to Panorama personal information about the key complainants in the VIP paedophile saga; the Met followed this up with an additional statement denouncing the programme for its potential to deter victims of abuse from coming forward. And to cap it all, MPs who had once campaigned for better child abuse investigation found themselves pointing fingers of blame at each other.
Before examining the behaviour of Exaro and the BBC it is worth recalling the key allegations in this tale.
According to a witness known only as “Nick”, he and other under-age boys were abused, tortured and – in three cases – murdered by a group of paedophiles at two addresses in London. Among the men he has named are former Prime Minister Edward Heath, former Home Secretary Leon Brittan, former Conservative MP Harvey Proctor, as well as senior army officers and spies. These allegations are being investigated by Operation Midland. (Mr Proctor, for the record, roundly denounced the allegations at a televised press conference in August).
Beyond Midland’s remit is another police enquiry – Operation Fernbridge (formerly Fernbank). This has was set up to examine (primarily) allegations that in the late 1970s or early 1980s children were taken from council-run care homes to be abused at the Elm Guest House in Barnes, South-West London. In or around 2012 what purported to be a “guest list” of clients at EGH was put up on the internet. It contained a number of famous names including Cyril Smith MP (then deceased and recently-outed as an abuser of boys) and Leon Brittan.
Declaration of interest: in 2013 and 2014 I met and interviewed senior detectives from Operation Fairbank/Fernbridge. I was not the only journalist to do so: the officers were – then – remarkably open and honest about the task they had been set. And it was a very difficult task. From the outset, Fairbank/Fernbridge was hampered by two serious problems. The first was one of resources: its team was very small – just seven officers – and struggled to get the financial resources to carry out its enquiries. The second was Exaro News and the group of informants which had coalesced around it.
Two of the key figures in this were a former social worker called Chris Fay and a deeply-damaged man who, after meeting Fay, had first made allegations about abuse by VIPs at EGH in the early 1990s.
Fay had met Carole Kasir, the co-owner of EGH, in or around 1989 – seven years after the guest house was raided and shut down. After Kasir died Fay began campaigning to expose what he claimed she had told him about politicians and celebrities who abused children at the premises. He claimed Kasir had shown him a list of names: he copied this down and, in time, it would become the “guest list” whose posting on the internet led to Fairbank/Fernbridge. He also alleged that Kasir had shown him photographs of her clients, including two showing Leon Brittan in compromising circumstances.
Unfortunately, Fay has never been able produce these photographs. Worse, he has both a conviction for serious dishonesty, and a habit of associating himself with proponents of extraordinarily wild conspiracy theories (notably the bizarre “film-maker”, Bill Maloney).
Fairbank/Fernbridge detectives interviewed Fay. They quickly came to the (correct) view that the so-called EGH “guest list” had no evidential value, since it was hearsay, not created by a first-hand witness to events and had no reliable chain of custody. They also interviewed the man who had taken up with Fay in the early 1990s. This man – then calling himself “Andrew” – had published versions of his stories on-line. He proved to be a voluble – and volatile – witness. When I first met the officers from Fairbank/Fernbridge they were in the middle of conducting a succession of very long interviews with him at a location several hundred miles outside London. The detectives were convinced that “Andrew” had indeed endured sexual abuse as a child, but were concerned at serious inconsistencies in his statements.
They were also deeply worried about the continuing involvement of Fay and Maloney – and, with Fay’s help, of Exaro News. “Andrew” told the officers that these contacts were unwelcome and being forced on him by Fay. They moved Andrew to a safe house and set up surveillance: the senior officer told me that he if Fay and Maloney turned up he planned to arrest them for attempting to pervert the course of justice. But the surveillance revealed something different. It showed that “Andrew” was inviting Fay and Maloney to meet with him. Not unreasonably, this raised further doubts about “Andrew’s” reliability.
That problem was further underlined by a story in Exaro. This claimed that Fairbank/Fernbridge had seized a videotape which showed an ex-Cabinet minister (although he was not named this was clearly Leon Brittan) in compromising circumstances at Elm Guest House.
I spoke with the detectives the day after this story appeared. Not only did they deny it point blank, they explained how it had come about. “Andrew” had told Exaro that a senior Fairbank/Fernbridge detective had told him that the team had seized the video. Exaro did not bother to check this claim with the police. It would not be the last time Exaro published unchecked or downright false stories about the VIP paedophile enquiries.
Exaro’s journalists were contacted by “Nick” in 2014. The news website began running a series of stories based on his claims. At that stage it had no corroboration of any sort for the allegations. I – and others – have repeatedly asked Mark Watts whether it attempted any sort of due diligence investigation before publishing. He has never replied. However, the website’s journalists have dropped hints that there was a corroborative source: the man known as “Andrew”.
Doubts about Exaro’s methods were re-enforced by two separate events. The first was the long strange saga of Leon Brittan and the Customs Officer. A full account of this can be found on this blog, dated August 4: but in essence, Exaro published a story claiming that a retired Customs officer had been recording telling a journalist that in 1982 he had impounded a film and/or video which showed Brittan in sexual circumstances with a child.
The story was simply and pitifully untrue. When the recording surfaced, it showed clearly that the journalist (working for the Express) had tried but failed to get the ex-customs officer to confirm this allegation. He did not do so. Exaro’s reaction to being challenged on this (and on its other ‘scoops’) has been to denounce those who ask questions as “spies” or “useful idiots” for the intelligence services. For good measure it pronounced me to be “a disgrace to journalism”.
The second event was the arrival in the sage of a man known as “Darren”. The stories he told were similar to those of “Nick”, and involved some of the same perpetrators and locations. Exaro duly decided that even though (by “Darren’s own admission) the abuse he endured took place a decade later than “Nick’s”, this provided corroboration of Nick’s claims of abuse, torture and murder.
How much due diligence did Exaro devote to checking “Darren” out ? Mark Watts does not reply to such questions, but had he or his staff done any research they would have discovered that “Darren” has a conviction for a bomb hoax and has previously made false confessions to rape and murder. This does not automatically mean he cannot be believed: it should, however, raise questions about how much reliance can be placed on his evidence. Despite this, Exaro arranged for “Darren” and others in its stable of complainants to take part in an Australian television programme on the VIP paedophile alegations. That film presented their claims as established fact and was the worst piece of reporting on child sexual abuse allegations (a crowded field) that I have ever seen.
If, pace the Grimms, Exaro is the louse in the story, what of the BBC ? Despite the outraged denunciations of the past two days, the Panorama programme was actually something of a damp squib. It provided very little new information, merely repeating the widely-published facts about Mssrs Fay, Watts, “Nick” and “Darren”. And had it confined itself to that tepid ‘once over lightly” it might not have been drawn into the spiral of calamity begun by the lousy efforts of Exaro. Sadly, it did not.
Firstly, it conducted an interview with “Andrew” (now re-christened as “David”) in which he said that he had never intended to name Leon Brittan, but that the name had been suggested to him by Fay and others. In purely procedural terms the Panorama team did everything right: it shot “David/Andrew” in semi-silhouette and used an actor to re-voice his words so that there could no fear of identifying him. It also – rightly – reported at least some of his lamentable history of unreliability and (again righty) wondered aloud whether this invalidated his testimony. And there lies the problem: Panorama relied on what it acknowledged was a highly unreliable witness to demolish the foundations of Exaro’s equally questionable stable of complainants. The flea was dragged into the louse’s spiral.
But Panorama’s worst offence concerned Brittan himself. It wheeled out testimony from former colleagues of the late politician to portray him as a man terribly and wrongly traduced as a paedophile.
Yet as Panorama knows (or should know) there is strong evidence to indicate that Brittan had a sexual interest in children. As I have reported elsewhere, tucked in the files of Operation Fairbank/Fernbridge is a formal 2014 statement from the ex-customs officer. This, of course, denounces Exaro’s bogus story about the 1982 videos and films; but it also contains the startling – and detailed – account of how at a later date the ex-customs officer stopped Brittan as he arrived at Dover. A search of Brittan’s car yielded a child pornography videotape which, even 30 years later, the contents of which the ex-customs officer was able to describe.
In seeking – quite rightly – to hold the Exaro/Chris Fay-generated stories of abuse torture and murder up to the light, Panorama fell into the trap of dismissing all the clear and unequivocal evidence of VIP or politically-protected paedophiles (Cyril Smith, Peter Morrisson, Sir Peter Hayman to name but three).
This, as I and others have warned previously, is precisely the polarisation and entrenched shouting match which will lead to a backlash: a spiral of catastrophe which will engulf all those around the louse and the flea, and drown out the voices of those who have been genuinely abused.
It is a cliché to say that one of the biggest problems of modern Britain is its media. In the particular case of child sexual abuse that cliché is horribly, miserably true. In the feverish atmosphere of claim and counterclaim, patient and forensic sifting of evidence is abandoned. Indeed, those of use who try to do so find themselves denounced by those who see only black and white as “running with the hare, while hunting with the hounds”.
I do not know whether the claims made by “Nick”, “Darren” Esther, or “Andrew/David” have any factual basis. They are – quite properly – being investigated by police. What I do know is that the vicious ideological trench warfare being conducted by my fellow journalists (who likewise do not know what is true and what is not) can only hinder quiet, patient enquiries and ultimately damage the efforts of those whose job it is to protect children.
Flea and louse, louse and flea: tell me – what, really, is the difference ?