TRUMPING NORTH KOREA
Yesterday afternoon (Washington DC time), President Donald Trump took to Twitter to articulate (in so far as that is possible) his latest stab at foreign policy.
“North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”
Having already dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group to the seas around the Korean peninsula, Trump followed up his tweet by giving an interview with Fox Business Network.
“We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.”
Trump’s bellicose threats ratcheted up tensions in the single most dangerous potential flashpoint on the planet. In North-east Asia five of the world’s biggest military-spending nations – America, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea – face each other across the South China sea. The region is ground zero of a largely US-driven an arms race which has been spiralling out of control for almost a decade.
Given the unique seriousness of this global threat, you might assume that western attitudes to North Korea – more formally known as the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) – are based on profound and empirical knowledge. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. North Korea has become a lazy journalistic – and political – shorthand for despotic cruelty and eye-watering craziness. Remarkably, as we shall see, many of those those pumping out these crude stereotypes have never been to what they insist on calling “the hermit kingdom”.
There are four main sources for the information – in the loosest meaning of the word – about North Korea relayed by newspapers and television.
The first is its own state news service, KNCA.
The second is South Korea, and in particular the Seoul government’s National Intelligence Service.
Reports by respectable human rights organisations provide the third, supplemented by often-sensational stories from those who have either escaped or defected.
And the fourth source of information is the output of “expert” think-tanks – mostly based in the US.
The problem is that three and a half of those four “sources” are grossly and routinely unreliable: often the “news” they provide is completely false.
Following the official DPRK news feed on Twitter can be a surreal experience: yesterday it posted a photograph from Star Wars and advised its 180,000 followers that the “creature known as ‘Yoda’ is denounced for philosophical and moral deviations from Juche teachings of Great Leader Kim Il-Sung”. So far, so nutty.
On the other side of the 38th parallel, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has been responsible for equally outlandish claims. In June 2015, for example, it “reported” that Kim Jong-un had disposed of one of his senior advisors, General Hyon Yong-chol, by shooting him with an anti-aircraft gun. This story was quickly published around the world as evidence of the bestial cruelty of Kim’s regime. Rather less well-publicised was the NIS’ subsequent correction: that Hyon might not have been killed at all, let alone blown to pieces by heavy artillery.
(This sorry tale followed a familiarly dishonourable pattern of South Korean claims about the North. In August 2013, Kim was alleged to have had his pop-singer girlfriend, Hyon Song-wol, publicly executed with a machine gun for making pornography – a lie that ran round the world before the truth got its boots on. Curiously few journalists subsequently reported Ms. Hyon’s live appearance on state television a year after her supposed execution.)
There is no doubt that North Korea is a repressive, single-party state with a sorry record of human rights abuses. Reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN have all clearly documented the plight of political prisoners and the existence “re-education camps” for dissidents.
Unfortunately, these solid, serious investigations can be overshadowed by what amounts to an metaphorical arms race in exaggerated claims – ever more grotesque allegations of torture, mass starvation and cannibalism – by defectors seeking to grab the attention of sensation-hungry western media. In January 2015, Shin Dong-hyuk, a (self-identified) survivor of North Korea’s prison camps , admitted that some parts of the shocking story told in his widely-promoted book, “Escape from Camp 14” were “inaccurate”.
What makes these over-sold exaggerations most worrying is that they find their way into the thinking and output of ostensibly-reliable western experts and think tanks. In October 2010 I had personal experience of the reality of their attitudes and expertise.
I was asked to be part of a panel at the London Frontline Club. The subject under discussion was Kim Jong-un, who had just emerged as the man most likely to take over from his father, Kim Jong-il. (He did so just over a year later). The reason for my presence was a documentary I had recently made inside North Korea. (“Dirty Little Secrets”: Al Jazeera, March 2010 – viewable on the films page of this website).
My fellow panelists were an academic North Korea expert, a UK-based South Korean human rights worker, the American director of a major think-tank, and a BBC World Service editor. I was somewhat surprised to discover only I and the BBC journalist had been to North Korea. I was rather more astonished by all the other panelists’ bluntly-stated hostility to visiting the country and doing their own investigations.
The academic, Aidan Foster-Carter –Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Leeds University and Mark Fitzpatrick, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies angrily denounced the suggestion that this was necessary, while on behalf of the BBC, Charles Scanlon (who said his total experience of North Korea amounted to half a day spent at Panmunjon, the border village tourist site) pronounced that it was often unhelpful actually to visit the countries on which he reported.
By contrast to my colleagues that night, I made no claim to be an expert. I could – and can – only report my experience of making a documentary inside the DPRK. But that experience could – and possibly should – have been instructive
That hour-long film investigated North Korea’s long-standing allegations that during the Korean War United States forces had used biological weapons, spreading anthrax, typhus and bubonic plague. It took me four years of patient requests to gain filming permission from Pyongyang. And, as the documentary made clear, we were dependent on the regime for transport (we traveled all over North Korea), on the ground translation and the choice of interviewees, including eye-witnesses to the alleged germ warfare. We had no way of independently verifying the identity of these elderly men; but the callouses and dirt deeply ground into their hands did appear to support their claims to be ordinary farmers rather than political bureaucrats.
One of the other interviewees we were required to film – an official state historian – was, however, even more intriguing. There was little doubt that his statements had been rehearsed with, and cleared by, the regime’s leaders. When I asked him what it would take to repair the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington, he said slowly and firmly that if the United States was prepared to admit having used biological weapons then North Korea could begin serious discussions.
At the time there was no official dialogue between the two countries, nor any effective mechanism for this to happen. In the previous decade, both had used US-based North Koreans as a back channel. It seemed to me (and to my senior colleagues back at Al Jazeera) that the historian’s statement amounted to an attempt by Pyongyang to send a message to the new Obama administration. I duly tried to pass it on to the State Department.
Two things evidently prevented State from listening. The first was the fact that the Korean War has never official ended (there was a truce, but no armistice in 1953) and as a result both sides continue to view each other as enemies. The second was that Obama had not then turned his attention – nor that of his State Department – to the Korean peninsula.
Fast forward to January 2017. The outgoing President had taken the time to consider Korea: he left the new and completely inexperienced occupant of the Oval Office an urgent warning. North Korea, Obama advised Trump, was the most important national security problem facing America.
President Trump is not a man given to in-depth reading, and has repeatedly denigrated his predecessor. This makes it unlikely that he will heed Obama’s warning – much less put in the detailed forensic study required to sift fiction from fact about North Korea.
The real danger is that his ignorance, short-attention span and need for perceived “success” will lead him to rely on bullet-point versions of the already-shoddy sensationalism of lazy journalism and soi-disant experts. Truth, as ever with Trump, will be a casualty. But if he baits North Korea – or, more likely is baited by it – into military action, the most unstable and geo-politically dangerous place on earth is likely to be engulfed by a terrible, possibly nuclear, war.
 This is a viewpoint repeatedly depressingly often by people who ought to know better. In the introduction to his book, The Korean War, Max Hastings, one of Britain’s most celebrated newspaper editors and authors, was not ashamed to boast that he “made a decision from the outset to make no approaches to Pyongyang” because it would be impossible to get any worthwhile insights from “a society in which the private possession of a bicycle is considered a threat to national security”. One insight he might have obtained, had he ventured into North Korea, is the enormous number of bicycles ridden by its citizens.
 I hold no brief for North Korea. I deplore its human rights record. But it is an uncomfortable fact that the western nations who hold Pyongyang’s feet to the flames routinely turn a blind eye to exactly the same – though vastly larger – abuses by China. Double-standards are deeply unedifying, especially when shouted from the moral high ground.
 Subsequent filming in the US – including with an elderly US Air Force veteran – seemed to support the North Korean claims
PIE AND THE INDEPENDENT CHILD ABUSE INQUIRY
But such an investigation will be held within the framework of IICSA’s examination of “allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster”.
On Wednesday, I e-mailed IICSA, asking whether it planned to follow up my evidence concerning the failure of the Metropolitan Police and Home Office to investigate or monitor PIE members (see blog post below for this submission). Today, the Inquiry’s legal team today sent the following e-mail.
“Any issues related to the Paedophile Information Exchange are likely to fall within the ambit of the Inquiry’s investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse and exploitation involving people of public prominence associated with Westminster.
“As explained in the Inquiry’s internal review report, the Inquiry expects to invite applications for core participant status in relation to the Westminster investigation during the third quarter of 2017. A preliminary hearing will be held following that at which an update in relation to the investigation is likely to be provided. As the investigation is ongoing it would not be appropriate, at this stage, to provide further information about matters that are, or are not, being considered as part of that investigation.”
This apparent in principle undertaking to investigate PIE – the first such commitment by IICSA, as far as I’m aware – is very good news. As my evidence to the Inquiry showed, several men who were on PIE’s 1984 membership list held by the Metropolitan Police were convicted of a succession of child sex offences years later. The Met’s senior management must be asked to explain why it failed to protect their victims during the intervening years by doing nothing with the PIE list.
But IICSA’s decision to frame its PIE enquiries within the alleged Westminster and VIP paedophile investigations is distinctly odd. There is very little evidence that any MPs or famous people were members of PIE: certainly, there are none shown on the 1984 membership list I obtained and which I passed on to IICSA.
There is, by contrast, strong prime facie evidence which raises questions about the conduct of at least two government departments – the Home Office and the Attorney General’s office (detailed in my submission to IICSA).
Will IICSA investigate these ? I hope so. The report of its internal review, carried out after Prof. Alexis Jay took over as Chair, and published in December last year, contains this statement about its existing enquiries into “allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster”:
“We have requested and obtained documents and statements from political parties, individuals and the Home Office. We have inspected documents held by the Cabinet Office and the security and intelligence agencies.”
For now IICSA is maintaining a not unreasonable secrecy over its exact plans. We must wait until the autumn to see the scope of the proposed PIE investigations. Until then, two small, cautious cheers, and a guarded welcome for the Inquiry’s very important commitment to examine PIE, its members and its actions.
Mark Frost, 70, one of Britain’s most prolific child rapists today pleaded guilty to 45 historic sex offences against young boys in the UK and Thailand.
His case raises serious questions about the failures of the police and Home Office in dealing with the Paedophile Information Exchange in the 1980s.
Frost, previously known as Andrew Tracey and a former teacher and Scout movement volunteer, was first convicted in 1992 for possession of child pornography. Further convictions followed in 1993 and in 1998: in the second case he was sentenced to 12 months in prison for indecently assaulting a young boy. In 2002 he moved to Guernsey, where he was investigated for paedophilic offences, but left the island before he could be charged. He then travelled freely in Europe and the Far East. In Thailand he sexually abused boys aged between 7 and 13, recording the offences on video.
But the Metropolitan Police knew that Frost/Tracey was a paedophile at least eight years before his first conviction. Andrew Tracey’s name and address appeared on the Paedophile Information Exchange membership list held at New Scotland Yard in 1984. His membership number was 268.
I obtained a copy of this list in October 2015. I wrote then (blog post dated October 29, 2015 – scroll back to find it) that an analysis of the names on it showed that several had been convicted some years later of serious offences involving children. It appeared the police and the Home Office had failed to appreciate the threat these men posed. Mark Frost, aka: Andrew Tracey, is merely the latest example of this.
In July last year I submitted a detailed dossier of evidence to the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse. It highlighted the cases of a number of PIE members who – despite being on the list held by the Metropolitan Police – had been left free to commit child sexual offences in the UK and abroad for many years. I urged IICSA to include the Met’s failure – and the Home Office’s remarkably relaxed approach to PIE – in its investigations. I attached the PIE list to my submission. (See blog post dated August 5, 2016).
Other than an acknowledgment of receipt, I have heard nothing from IICSA.
Today, Ogheneruona Iguyovwe, from the Crown Prosecution Service described Frost/Tracey’s crimes as “one of the most serious cases that I have dealt with as a prosecutor and one of the most serious cases of child sexual abuse”.
The IICSA should no longer ignore the evidence of repeated – but desperately belated – prosecutions like Frost/Tracey’s. Members of the Paedophile Information Exchange posed a threat to children: the failure of the Metropolitan Police and Home Office to accept this in the early 1980s led directly to the subsequent abuse of large numbers of young children in Britain and overseas.
IICSA must now publicly commit to investigating this historic failure. In case it has mislaid my original evidence, I am re-posting it here.Submission to the IICSA - redacted version
JUSTICE FORGOTTEN – 70 YEARS ON FROM NUREMBURG
On October 1, 1946 The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg handed down its last verdicts against the 24 surviving leaders of the Nazi state.
The Nuremberg Tribunals were a unique and ground-breaking attempt to create a system of international justice: a court in which those who committed war crimes , crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace could be tried by proper legal standards.
Seventy years later the successor to that brave attempt – The International Criminal Court – is struggling. Today, South Africa, one of the 124 nations which have signed up to be bound by the court, became the latest country to announce that it was pulling out. The announcement – and the reasons for it – are a depressing indictment of the failure to learn the lessons of Nuremburg. And that indictment stretches far beyond Pretoria.
The framers of Nuremberg – America, Russia, France and the United Kingdom – agreed (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) that the end of World War Two should not be marked by traditional victors’ justice. In place of a wall and a firing squad, the men who had ruled the Third Reich were to be afforded the legal due process that the Nazi state had denied so many of its victims.
They were provided – free of charge – with lawyers to represent them, given access to the prosecution’s evidence and allowed to defend themselves as they saw fit. Three of them were acquitted by the court.
Nuremberg was a temporary tribunal. But its creators envisaged the future establishment of a permanent court which would enforce (albeit retrospectively, as all courts do) the most important international laws: those prohibiting war crimes, crimes of aggression and crimes against the peace of the world.
It took another 57 years for this to happen. The Cold War was responsible for some of this delay. But much of it was caused by opposition from countries which should have known better. Seven nations voted against the Treaty which established the court: five – China, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Qatar – had the sort of oppressive or dictatorial governments which made their hostility predictable. The other two were Israel and the United States: democracies both.
The International Criminal Court began work in 2003. Since then it has opened 10 investigations, indicted 39 people and issued arrest warrants for 31.
It is one of those defendants – Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir – who has caused South Africa to announce its withdrawal. Not because there is no evidence to justify al-Bashir’s appearance at the Hague – there is a miserable abundance of evidence to support the court’s indictment of him for genocide and war crimes – but because South Africa is putting good relations with its continental neighbours above the principle of justice.
Why – aside from the anniversary – does this matter now ? What relevance does this have to anyone on the bus or tube home tonight ?
Sadly, South Africa’s tawdry decision is part of a wider international retreat from justice. And Britain and its closest ally, the United States, are at the heart of this. America first.
Successive US governments have refused to ratify the Treaty which established the International Criminal Court. Their argument has been that American soldiers, fulfilling their country’s call to be a de-facto world police force should only face trial for any misdemeanours in American court rooms.
US soldiers have repeatedly committed many of the same crimes which brought Nazi leaders to the gallows. But they are rarely brought to justice. And if the United States, the sole surviving military superpower, won’t join the Court it’s hardly surprising that other countries are beginning to desert it.
Britain’s position is a little different. In theory, at least, Her Majesty’s government remains committed to the idea that those who perpetrate the worst crimes in international law should be brought to justice. But on October 4, Prime Minister Theresa May fundamentally undermined this principle. She announced that her government plans to immunize British soldiers against the provisions of another international law – the European Convention on Human Rights. This, she announced, would suspend human rights laws on the battlefield and prevent victims of military crimes from suing soldiers.
“What we’ve seen is human rights legislation being used to generate all these vexatious claims and troops finding themselves in some difficultly in worrying and concerned about the future as a result of that. We need to stop this industry of vexatious claims which has grown up, with lawyers appearing to chase around to see anybody who will bring about a claim about our troops.”
Brigadier Telford Taylor was one of the prosecutors at Nuremberg. Twenty-five years later he published a slim book in which he outlined clearly America’s retreat from the legal principles which underpinned the Tribunal and the way this had enabled its military to commit crimes against humanity in Vietnam.
That book – Nuremburg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy – should be at the top of the reading list for South Africa’s President Zuma. But on the 70th anniversary of Nuremburg, it is also an moral indictment of the United States government – and of Mrs. May’s grubby little proposal.
KNAVES OR FOOLS ? THE HOME OFFICE AND IICSA
The Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse is under sustained attack.
It is under attack from outside – by MPs and (in particular) the press; and from the inside, by a steady stream of anonymous leaks emanating apparently from some of its senior staff.
There is a pattern to these attacks, and – followed closely – it points to a fundamental problem at the heart of the Inquiry. That problem is the Home Office.
On September 5, the former Inquiry chair, Dame Lowell Goddard, sent a nine-page letter to the Home Affairs Committee. In it she attempted to explain the issues which led her to resign from her post. I am posting it below.
Godard letter to HA Committee
Little or no attention has been paid to that letter: instead, the focus has been on allegations, leaked by someone from within the Inquiry leaked to The Times, that Goddard made racist comments and was abusive to Inquiry staff. No actual evidence has been adduced of this alleged misconduct – merely the fact that the Inquiry secretary John O’Brien had reported them to the Home Office – and Goddard has vehemently denied the allegations, calling them “falsities”, “malicious” and part of “a vicious campaign”.
True or not, they have – once again, led to calls for the Inquiry to be closed down.
The Home Office is central to this fiasco. Ostensibly, it has no involvement in the Inquiry, other than being the department responsible for paying for it. As Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the House of Commons yesterday:
“It is an independent body, established under the Inquiries Act 2005. The Home Office is the sponsor Department, and I am responsible for the terms of reference, appointing the chair and panel members, and providing funding … The appointment of staff and the day-to-day running are matters for the chair.”
The reality is somewhat different. More than 30 members of the Inquiry secretariat are Home Office staff. John O’Brien, the Inquiry secretary whose passing on of unsourced allegations about Goddard was leaked to the Times, is the Home Office’s “Director of Safeguarding”. His “SCS2” staff grade has an annual salary of up to £162,500.
Why does this matter ? Is it not both reasonable and sensible for the Home Office to second its staff to an Inquiry under its financial control ?
There are two reasons why the answer has to be ‘no’.
The first is that the Home Office is itself the subject of serious allegations involving organised paedophilia and child sexual abuse. In August I posted on this blog the written evidence I submitted to IICSA which detailed the failures of the Home Office and the police to act on very clear evidence of paedophile activity in the 1980s and 1990s. At least part of that activity – an office of the Paedophile Information Exchange – was on Home Office premises.
I am re-posting below my IICSA submission. It sets out evidence which shows that the Home Office has serious questions to answer about its actions, its policy decisions, its record-keeping and its alleged funding relationship to PIE. All of these should fall squarely within the Inquiry’s remit, and should clearly disqualify the Home Office from playing any part in the Inquiry’s operation.
Submission to the IICSA - redacted version
Goddard herself set out the second reason. Her letter to the Home Affairs Committee highlighted the problem which Home Office involvement has caused IICSA. She wrote:
“The administrative arrangements made by the Home Office as the inquiry’s sponsor meant that in the recruitment of staff priority was given to civil servants and any non-civil service staff had to become civil servants unless they were employed on contract through the Solicitor to the Inquiry. In practical terms this meant that the skills and qualifications of many recruits did not fit the tasks which they were called upon to perform, as none of the secretariat or senior management team had previous experience of running an inquiry of this nature.
Therefore they did not fully understand or appreciate its organisational and operational needs. Their approach has been bureaucratic and the Inquiry’s progress has been impeded by a lack of adequate systems and personnel, leading to critical delays. I felt as Chair handicapped by not being given a free hand to recruit staff of the type that I judged to be essential.”
Since that letter, the Home Office has done nothing to address this fundamental flaw. Goddard, however, has been subjected to an unpleasant campaign of character assassination. She, rather than the department which appointed and then allegedly obstructed her, has been portrayed as the problem. She has also been criticised for not publicly explaining her abrupt departure from the Inquiry (notwithstanding her detailed letter to the Home Affairs Committee). But is she contractually allowed to do so ?
Goddard’s resignation was formally enacted in a severance agreement. Much press outrage has been expended on the pay off this allegedly gave her. Severance agreements – particularly of this size and pubic importance – usually come with a non-disclosure, or “gagging” clause which prevents either party from speaking publicly about it. Yesterday I asked the Home Office whether it had negotiated the severance agreement, and if so whether this included a non-disclosure clause. Its spokesperson, Richard Mellor, referred me to IICSA.
“This question is one for IICSA. I’m told it will be able to answer”.
The IICSA, however, refuses to answer either of those questions. Its chief spokesperson, Debbie Kirby, said:
“As with any organisation, all HR issues are confidential and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment. This should not be taken as confirmation or denial of any questions, simply that all employees have a right to expect confidentiality in relation to all HR matters.”
Ms. Kirby’s LinkedIn profile shows that amongst her previous posts were stints at the National Crime Agency (proprietor: the Home Office) and the Ministry of Justice. I asked her how the simple question of which organisation – IICSA or the Home Office – negotiated Goddard’s severance deal could possibly be construed as an encroachment on anyone’s confidentiality. She refused to explain or expand on her previous statement.
Is this incompetence or something less benign ? Is it wilful obstruction, or does it form part of the pattern of Home Office mismanagement which has blighted the Inquiry ? Either way, Goddard’s letter spelled out the problems caused by the failure of Kirby’s department to operate effectively.
“Another difficulty is that the huge amount of hard work the Inquiry has been putting in over its first 16 months has not been sufficiently visible or communicated widely enough. During my tenure the communications capacity of the Inquiry was never adequate for the formidable and important function of interacting with the public and I suggest that capacity in that regard needs to be radically strengthened for the future.”
Evidently that lesson has not been learned. Until it is – and above all until the Home Office removes itself from any involvement – the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse will lurch from crisis to crisis.
JOURNALISM ISN’T DEAD, BUT IT’S NOT FEELING WELL
There is a sickness eating away at the slowly-rotting cadaver of British journalism. It’s not the recent malaise of tabloid phone hacking nor the older plague of cheque-book journalism. It is the creeping disease of ‘Columnism’.
Most of what were once called broadsheet newspapers (forget the tabloids) now fill their middle pages with the scribblings of famous, or semi-famous columnists, who – so the theory goes – enlighten the rest of us with their profound insights and deep thinking.
Two problems here:
- They don’t. What they deliver is all too often a recitation of their own prejudices. Which are published without the benefit of fact checking or even basic research.
- Their output is considered serious journalism – and thus both enters and influences public opinion. (There’s no other reason for their columns to exist.) But THEY ARE NOT JOURNALISTS (upper-case shouty emphasis deliberately added).
The winner of today’s prize for egregious, opinionated and utterly ill-informed nonsense is Dominic Lawson, son of the Thatcherite chancellor, brother of ‘celebrity chef’ Nigella. His (habitually fact-free) Sunday Times column – positioned next to the paper’s own editorial comment – castigates investigations into allegations of child sexual abuse by celebrities.
This is neither a surprise nor a problem: Lawson has previously made clear his opposition to the investigation of historic CSA allegations. And he’s perfectly entitled to his opinion.
Unfortunately, he supports his argument with a reference to the “so-called Satanic abuse cases of Cleveland and Orkney”. And for good measure he claims that children making disclosures in Cleveland “were actually manipulated by professionals with a doctrinal attachment to lurid and fashionable theories”.
These are statements of alleged fact. And both are utterly false.
There were absolutely no claims of satanic abuse in the 1987 Cleveland child abuse crisis. None. And the official inquiry report (Butler-Sloss, 1988) contained nothing to support his entirely false allegation of professionals “manipulating” children into disclosures. (For the record: not merely was there absolutely no evidence of this, but many of the affected children were pre-verbal and so could not have been manipulated into making false allegations.)
I have e-mailed Mr. Lawson and the Sunday Times to point out these mistakes. When – if – either replies, I’ll post the responses here. However, readers are advised that breath-holding is contra-indicated in such cases.
In the meantime, perhaps someone could suggest a new collective term for “columnists” (along the line of a flock of sheep). An Ignorance, perhaps ?
 “In this rush to believe abuse claims we destroy both justice and lives”. (Article behind paywall)
HELPING WITH INQUIRIES …
“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”.
The Importance of Being Earnest: Oscar Wilde
Last weekend I submitted detailed written evidence to the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). The Inquiry was set up in July 2014 by then Home Secretary, Theresa May, to examine alleged failings by government departments, police forces, churches and other relevant organisations in the protection of children from sexual abuse.
The 37 pages of evidence which I submitted detailed my personal knowledge of historic failures by the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office to assign sufficient importance (and thus resources) to information concerning known British paedophiles.
It also raised serious questions about the integrity of the Home Office’s commitment to a full and open understanding of the historic (and, indeed, current) problems of organised paedophilia and the allied trade in child pornography. It concluded with a series of suggestions for the Inquiry to follow-up.
Last night the Chair of the IICSA, Dame Lowell Goddard QC, resigned. She is the third Inquiry head to leave the post in the two years of its existence.
To adapt Lady Bracknell’s withering remark: ‘To lose one Chair may be regarded as misfortune; to lose a second smacks of incompetence. To lose a third – in the absence of any evidence to the contrary – suggests that there remains a serious problem in the government department responsible for the Inquiry’ . That department is the Home Office.
Because of this – and because it is unclear how (or whether) Lowell Goddard’s resignation will affect the IICSA’s progress – I am publishing below the evidence I submitted last weekend.
It is a long read. It names names and asks serious questions. I can only hope that whoever takes over from Lowell Goddard follows up the evidence and the questions I put forward.Submission to the IICSA - redacted version
 Only two pieces of information have been redacted. One is the website where my 1987 documentary film on child pornography may be viewed: the reason for this redaction are the (post 1987) laws on data protection. The second is the name of an investigator assigned by the Home Office examine allegations concerning its relationship with PIE. The version of my submission sent to the IICSA was unredacted and contains this information.
A PETARD HOISTED
Appropriately, given the persistent grumbling of this blog, I have been (correctly) taken to task for my own inaccuracy.
The reference to Exaro shareholder “Tom Pendry” in the previous post (“Exeunt Exaro”) was, as Mr Pendry has pointed out, wrong: his name is actually Tim Pendry.
My apologies to Mr Pendry and to readers. A petard of my own making, on which I have been hoisted fair and square
The demise of the investigative website Exaro (tweeted by its former “Editor In Chief”, Mark Watts) is not a cause for celebration.
I have been deeply critical of Mr. Watts, and of Exaro’s wildly inaccurate – and profoundly irresponsible – claims of VIP paedophile rings. For two years Exaro energetically promoted sensational allegations that some of Britain’s senior politicians and military officers took part in the sadistic sexual abuse and murder of children. Those allegations derived primarily from interviews with three alleged abuse survivors. Exaro adduced no independent evidence for the claims, nor did the survivors’ accounts corroborate each other.
Despite this, Exaro – and specifically Mr. Watts – consistently promoted these single-sourced allegations as facts. Exaro marketed its “witnesses” to a succession of newspaper articles and television programmes. Mr. Watts himself gave numerous interviews in which he pronounced the allegations to be “undoubtedly the biggest political scandal in post-war Britain”.
More seriously still, Exaro pressured the Metropolitan Police into setting up extensive and expensive major investigations into the claims. Exaro’s own accounts – published on its website – boasted of having “helped” or “sparked” these enquiries.
Those police investigations ended earlier this year. They found no evidence whatsoever to corroborate the allegations made by Exaro’s witnesses. Two of these men subsequently claimed (publicly) that Exaro had either pressured them into identifying alleged abusers or had distorted their accounts.
By any standard of genuine journalism, Exaro behaved with gross irresponsibility. To use an analogy (coined by a US Supreme Court judge as the limit of free speech), it ran into a crowded theatre and shouted “fire” – without ever checking whether there really was one.
I and others concerned about the detrimental effect of this dangerous behaviour on the investigation of genuine child sex abuse – both current and historic – repeatedly asked Mark Watts to provide either justification or corroboration for his claims (Blog posts passim: “Six Questions for Exaro” etc). His response to such enquiries was to suggest that we were spies and police stooges, or to refuse to answer questions because Exaro was “too busy holding power to account”.
The Metropolitan Police has instituted an internal enquiry, led by a former judge, into the major investigations which Exaro’s claims gave birth to. Meanwhile, the Goddard Enquiry slowly continues its government-ordered work into the way child sexual abuse was handled historically.
Mr. Watts should be summoned to give evidence to both – and under oath in Goddard’s case at least.
It is every journalist’s job (though rarely performed today) to “hold power to account”. But this is not a one-way street: journalists also exercise power and all of us who practice this trade must be held to account for the way we use it. Mr. Watts may proclaim himself (in tweets today) to be the victim of “an act of vandalism” by Exaro’s shareholders. But, as a previous blog post on here pointed out, power without responsibility is no more than the prerogative of the harlot.
Despite all of this, Exaro’s demise is no cause for celebration. Its original mission – to create a new forum for public interest investigative journalism – is as valid today as it was then. The need for good, forensically careful investigative journalism is – if anything – greater now than ever before: certainly the former powerhouses which broadcast vital enquiries into matters of genuine public interest – ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC – have largely abandoned this responsibility.
One of Exaro’s founders, Tom Pendry, today blogged that he hoped (against any real hope) that someone would pick up the ruins (created – though he did not explicitly say so – by Mr. Watts and his irresponsibility) and resurrect the platform. I share both that hope and Mr. Pendry’s sad scepticism.
And so, I come not to bury Exaro, but to praise its original aims and ambitions and to mourn the loss of a noble idea.
And should Mark Watts – now presumably free of pressures on his time – choose to provide the answers previously (and repeatedly) sought from him, I will be only too happy to post them here.
AN ANTIDOTE FOR ANTI-JOURNALISM
“Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”
Mark Twain (allegedly)
The months of July and August are, by journalistic tradition, the silly season: the time when Parliament goes on its long summer holiday, and newspapers and television focus on whatever nonsense is the year’s version of skateboarding ducks. This year is very different. This past fortnight has, by any standard, been an extraordinary one for news. Unfortunately, it has also been a lousy one for journalism.
Twain’s (alleged) aphorism has been worn as a metaphorical a badge of, er, honour by journalists for as long as I have been in the trade (38 years). It has been used to convey an image of a business which is happy to indulge in gentle self-mockery.
But Twain (or whoever really coined the phrase) was speaking in an age long before 24 hour rolling news, Twitter, Facebook and the obsession that being first with a story is more important than being accurate. Today, more effort is expended on the delivery of “instant news” than on checking the facts. Result: never let the facts get in the way of a rolling story.
A couple of choice examples, from a depressingly crowded field.
Exhibit One: “Brickgate”. On July 12, the day after Angela Eagle announced that she would challenge Jeremy Corbyn for leadership of the Labour Party, a brick was thrown through the window of her constituency office.
Within hours, the conclusion being explicitly drawn was that this was an attack by sinister “Corbynistas”, bent on intimidating anyone who dared to oppose the Labour leader.
The Labour MP, Tom Blenkinsop tweeted: “Angela Eagle’s office window bricked. Barriers erected outside Labour HQ in prep for intimidation of NEC by demonstrators. Labour under Corbyn”. While in the Commons, Speaker of the House John Bercow warned: “If people think they are going to get their way by violence, threats and intimidation, they will soon find themselves wrong.”
This line was then taken up by journalists as further evidence for their oft-repeated line that Corbyn’s supporters are out of control, and that he is either unable or unwilling to control them. The Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges (Twitter handle: @DPJHodges) tweeted, for example: “How many bricks were thrown through windows at the start of the Tory leadership contest. How many death and rape threats were issued.”
And yet the facts are that no message – political or otherwise – was attached to the brick by the thrower, no-one has claimed responsibility for chucking it and the police have yet to identify any potential suspect, much less establish a motive. At the moment there is simply absolutely no evidence that this was anything other than petty vandalism.
Exhibit Two: “Tridentgate”. On Tuesday, the House of Commons voted by a substantial majority to renew Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system. For anyone who cares about good (for which read: “real”) journalism – let alone about the need for Britain to have nuclear weapons – there were two depressing aspects to the reporting of this.
The first was Theresa May’s pronouncement that more than ever before Britain faced “extreme threats” which made Trident (and its replacement) vital weapons in the country’s armoury.
There was one, simple question which needed to be asked of Ms. May: ‘Could you please identify – by name – any one of these threats which might be deterred by the fear of a nuclear weapons response ?’. Not a single journalist put this question to the Prime Minister (or indeed anyone voting for Trident renewal). The claim was simply reported, unchecked and unexamined. And yet the fact is that none of the threats which Britain genuinely faces can be addressed with nuclear weapons.
How do we know this ? Because that’s what some of the country’s most senior retired generals have explicitly stated. In 2009, the former head of the armed forces, Field Marshall Lord Bramall (backed by several other equally experienced officers) wrote to a letter to The Times explaining that:
“Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism …Our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant, except in the context of domestic politics.”
The second depressing aspect of the reporting of the Trident debate was the description of Labour MPs voting for renewal as a “rebellion” or a “mutiny” against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Since Corbyn had explicitly given Labour MPs a free vote – to follow, as he did, their own consciences rather than obey a party line – it is simply impossible for this to be a rebellion or a mutiny. And yet this is how almost every mainstream news outlet reported it: the facts were not allowed to get in the way of the story.
This is not journalism – or at last, not as I know it. Instead of careful, responsible fact-checking it is the mis-informing – by omission or commission – of the public. How does this happen ? It’s time to talk about “the top line”.
The contents of news broadcasts and newspapers for any given day are decided in regular news conferences within each organisation. Here stories are pitched, discussed and either given the go-ahead or rejected. Talk (privately) to any journalist involved in this process and before long he, or she, will talk about “the top line”. This is, in essence, the existing narrative and how any proposed new story fits into that. So, for example, the “top line” about Corbyn’s supporters is that they are out of control and, at times, abusive. Any new story has to fit within those established parameters: if it doesn’t, it most likely will not get a green light.
But the factual accuracy of the existing narrative itself is never questioned, and the evidence for it is never assessed. In this way it becomes unchallenged and unchallengeable – even when it is simply wrong.
This is not strictly a new phenomenon. It was, for example, the driving factor behind the utterly incorrect public perception of the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis in 1988 [my documentary about this can be viewed on the films pages of this website]. But rolling news ‘reporting’, and the perceived need to be first, has turned what was once an occasional aberration into the most dominant factor in today’s bad journalism. It no longer matters whether a statement or a comment is factually correct. It is enough that it has been made: as such it ‘must’ be reported.
There is a solution to this – an antidote to this anti-journalism. Most obviously it involves closing down the BBC’s rolling news output – television, radio and Twitter. The BBC’s isn’t the only such operation, of course: but it is the most widely consumed and thus the most influential. The money saved could usefully be spent on real journalism.
But just as importantly, all news organisations need to embark on a major re-think of their output. Look at any newspaper and the line between fact and opinion has been almost completely eroded. News stories are light on fact and heavy on comment.
Broadcasters have followed this trend by instituting live ‘chats’ with their specialist editors and correspondents. At Westminster, Laura Kuenssberg for the BBC or Robert Peston for ITV are routinely asked to give their opinions on the top line of a political story, rather than reporting the facts. Outside the Parliamentary bubble, reporters on location are now habitually asked for their “sense” of what “the mood” of those involved in or affected by the story. No facts are ever invoked and, as often as not, this “sense of the mood” has been decided on not by the reporter on the ground but by the news conference in London. The correspondent on location is simply told to tell the viewers what the unseen editors back at base have decided.
(Lest anyone doubt this, I have witnessed it at first hand. While making two independent investigative films for Sky News in 2005 and 2006, I saw the channel’s Washington DC bureau chief repeatedly receive e-mails from London giving him – chapter and verse – the contents of his supposedly first person ‘reports’ on events in the United States. He dutifully ‘reported’ these from the top of the bureau building in what was cheerily known as ‘rooftop journalism’. In truth it was no more than the promulgation of established narratives – the top lines – made to appear as if it was genuine reporting.)
This matters. It matters because journalists have a duty both to present to the public factually accurate information, and to hold up to serious scrutiny the lies which those who rule this country – whether in Parliament or in business – try to get away with. Once both of these duties were the norm. Today they are the exceptions rather than the rule. And the public is being deceived.
As Mark Twain also wrote: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed”.
 Appropriately for this post on accurate reporting, there is no reliable evidence for the popular belief that Twain ever said this.
 In today’s infantilized media landscape, every controversy must be tagged with the suffix “–gate”. Readers of this blog are warned that it may contain heavy irony.