Tim Tate

Author, Film-Maker & Investigative Journalist




The Sunday Times reports today that Amazon, the world’s largest on-line marketplace, is taking action against those who post bogus positive reviews of products on its site. It is to sue these fakes “for the manipulation and deception” of Amazon customers.


Amazon might like to begin this admirable process by pursuing someone who has recently and publicly admitted getting his friends and family to post fraudulent reviews of his work – and doing so in the hope of better sales.


On April 21st 2014, the high profile journalist and commentator David Aaronovitch told the readers of his regular column in The Times:


Sometimes though, even good people (ie: me) have to do questionable things, because the system makes us. Take my last book debunking conspiracy theories …


Something like half of all book sales are now made through Amazon, and when you find a book on Amazon it is accompanied by reviews from “readers” who give it a 1 (lowest) to 5 star rating. 

So, almost before my book was published, the first 1-star reviews started to appear, from people who had never read it. After a week, even I wouldn’t have bought it.


There is only one thing you can do in this situation. You ask every friend and family member to go onsite PDQ and 5-star your baby. You get your frauds to balance off their frauds. Ce n’est pas magnifique, mais (grâce à Amazon) c’est la guerre.


This casual admission of “fraud” was – to me, at least – shocking. I have published 13 non-fiction books: I have never once felt tempted to encourage or commission fraudulent reviews intended to persuade potential readers to buy my work.


I am prepared to accept Mr. Aaronovitch’s assertion that other people practice a similar dishonesty. In 2010 the academic historian Orlando Figes admitted using a false name to post favourable reviews of his own work on Amazon (as well as uploading critical reviews of books by his rivals)   But following a very public controversy Figes apologised for his actions, describing them as “foolish errors”. Mr Aaronovitch, by contrast, seems cheerfully unrepentant.


But aside from exposing his remarkable lack of integrity (or honesty), when examined in detail Mr. Aaronovitch’s admission of fraud also reveals much about his own lax journalistic standards. The “justification” he claimed for perpetrating his fraud was that “almost before my book was published, the first 1-star reviews started to appear, from people who had never read it”. A careful analysis of Amazon suggests this is untrue.


His book, Voodoo Histories, was published on May 7, 2009. The first 1 star review is dated June 8 – a full month after publication. It was followed by a handful of other 1 star reviews from July onwards.


By contrast, two 5 star reviews are dated May 7 – the very day of publication. A further six 5 star reviews appeared before the first critical 1 star review was posted.


If Mr. Aaronovitch can’t even be accurate when confessing to dishonesty it makes me (as a fellow journalist) wonder how much reliance should be placed on the rest of his writing.


And beyond this, that The Times continues to employ a man who, by his own account in its own pages, has attempted to manipulate and deceive – for personal financial gain – consumers on the world’s largest retail platform, suggests that honesty, accuracy and integrity are no longer deemed important requirements for ‘star’ journalists.

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For a self-styled serious journalist, Mark Watts can be remarkably slippery when put on the spot.


He rarely answers questions from other journalists (myself included) about either the stories his website, Exaro, publishes or the rigor with which it might – or might not – have sought any form of corroborative evidence before rushing into print.


I believe strongly that journalists have a duty to be open and transparent. This means being able and willing to back up incendiary claims which will inevitably lead to public money being spent on investigation into their accuracy.   Mr Watts evidently disagrees. Last week he was pinned down by Newsnight in the wake of Panorama’s programme about the VIP child sexual abuse (and murder) allegations which Exaro – to use its own word – “exposed”.


Lest we forget, Exaro also claims credit for the enormously expensive police enquiry – Operation Midland – which ensued.   Yet Mr. Watts declined to answer a succession of perfectly straightforward and reasonable questions about what due diligence he and his staff had undertaken before promoting the sensational claims of its stable of survivors – “Nick”, “Darren”, “Andrew” and Esther.


But Mr. Watts’ elastic relationship to evidence and openness appears to extend beyond evading the questions from other journalists.   Today, the man who has funded Exaro’s activities (to the tune, so far of more than £2 million) published a statement explaining his support for the business.  Dr. Jerome Booth, a wealthy financier, explained that he had discussed this week’s criticism of Exaro’s behaviour with Mr Watts. He was, apparently reassured, stating that Mr. Watts and his team were only doing what any other journalist would do: reporting the fact that police are making enquiries.


From my reading of the website, Exaro has always been very clear it is reporting on allegations that are under active investigation by the Metropolitan police.


Sadly, this is untrue. Exaro has, in fact, pronounced that the allegations from its complainants are “undoubtedly an enormous scandal”. In other words, in Exaro’s view they are accurate.


This ringing endorsement of the allegations made by its stable of complainants was contained in an e-mail to me in July last year. I had written, politely, asking Exaro either to provide evidence for a story which I knew to be false, or to withdraw it.   Here’s the highlights of the response.


Your e-mail did make us laugh here at Exaro, in light of recent events.   We stand by everything that we have published … You are an embarrassment to journalism.


Having had enormous success in forcing the issue of organised, child sex abuse in relation to a range of institutions in the UK onto the national agenda, culminating in a critically important overarching inquiry, we prefer to continue to focus our efforts in exposing – often in conjunction with other media outlets – what is undoubtedly an enormous scandal.


Hubris and self-importance aside, the antics of Exaro over the VIP abuse allegations are the polar opposite of good journalism.   They, instead, are that toxic mixture of power without responsibility. And that, as a former Prime Minister (Stanley Baldwin) once noted, has been “the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”.



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In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their first volume of fairy tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen.  Tale Number 30 told the story of The Louse and The Flea.


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).


The broad thrust of “Nick’s” claims is alleged by Exaro to have been supported by a man known only as “Darren”, and a woman (who has waived her right to anonymity) called Esther Baker.


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 ?


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On December 22 last year, listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme heard the presenter, John Humphrys, take to task a man who had endured child sexual abuse: his ‘offence’ was to call himself a survivor.


In that interview with Peter Saunders, chief executive of the charity NAYPAC (National Association For People Abused in Childhood), Mr. Humphrys grumbled:


I have some difficulty with the word survivor and I think perhaps others do as well.  But anyway, let’s call them victims can we? Can we agree on the word victims at any rate ?


As the heated public controversy over historic child sexual abuse has become ever more politicised (note the small ‘p) and polarised, the use of the word “survivor” has become a lightning rod for the anxiety of journalists and commentators uneasy about the ever-growing list of official investigations.


To some, it wrongly appropriates a term previously most associated with victims of the Holocaust. For others, such as the barrister and vocal critic of current child abuse investigations, Barbara Hewson, it exemplifies what she denounces as “the ideology of victimisation”. Writing in Spiked (online) Magazine in December 2013, Ms Hewson complained:


Victims/survivors are praised for their courage, and enjoined to recover. The language of recovery is permeated by the doctrinaire religiosity of the 12-step movement, pioneered by the founders of AA in the US. This may explain why some victim-advocacy groups can sound cult-like, with their own jargon (‘grooming’, ‘trafficking’, ‘mind control’) and their disdain for non-believers.


Ms. Hewson (and those like her) attack from an entrenched position. Historic abuse is – in their view – either a chimera or a dangerous obsession with what Ms Hewson has termed “stale claims”. And the increasing self-identification of victims as “survivors” seems to these critics to embody all that is wrong about a “moral panic” over child sexual abuse. (Ms. Hewson has argued that the age of consent should be reduced to 13).


This weekend, in a small airless room in London’s Inner Temple, I heard the clearest and most compelling enunciation of why Ms. Hewson and Mr. Humphrys have got it wrong. And why the words we use matter a very great deal.


For two days the UK Child Sexual Abuse People’s Tribunal heard testimony from those who had endured rape and molestation in childhood. UKCSAPT is a unique volunteer-based attempt to examine cases of institutional child sex abuse.  It runs in parallel (and in some contrast) to the official enquiry led by Justice Lowell Goddard: it has none of that body’s inquisitorial powers, nor its vast budget. But it is nonetheless carefully organised on sound legal principles and has the benefit of expert advice from a reputable firm of solicitors. Its panel of judges include a former UN War Crimes prosecutor and a highly experienced clinical psychologist specialising in child protection. Their findings will, in time, be presented to the Home Secretary.


I was privileged to be asked to film the Tribunal’s proceedings, to make a record for future understanding, of the testimony given by its witnesses.   On Saturday afternoon, one of them explained why the word “survivor” matters.


The witness – like all those giving evidence she was guaranteed anonymity – endured many years of sexual abuse as a child. In time, one of her abusers was convicted for at least of the offences he inflicted on her: she was therefore unquestionably victimised.   But she told the judges that she is not a “victim”. These are her words.


A victim is someone who won’t let go [of the abuse]. A victim is someone who is still living through it. Survivors are people that fight back and who won’t let the past ruin their future. We have to be able to distinguish between the two.


A lot of people want to be known as victims. But most want to be known as survivors.


This quiet articulation, from a quietly determined middle-aged woman, puts the lie to the hostile denunciation of survivors as members of a self-pitying “cult”. The reality is almost exactly the opposite: by using the word “survivor” they are – very deliberately – renouncing self-pity.   To criticise them for this is – at best – lazy; at worst it is ill-motivated.


I was asked to film the Tribunal because I have a long history (as a journalist) of investigating organised child sexual abuse. As I packed up the camera, lights and microphones it dawned on me that the witness’ statement about the importance of choosing the right word to describe those had suffered sexual abuse in childhood has a parallel in the labels used to refer to the adults who commit these offences.


For (too many) years – decades – the visual record made by abusers of their offences was called “child porn”. It was a phrase guaranteed to minimise the brutal truth: “porn” is perceived as naughty or titillating, rather than cruel and vicious, and it was no coincidence that for far too long there was no law prohibiting the possession of what is no ore and no less than a visual record of child sexual abuse. When I made a film about the problem in 1987, followed by a book in 1990, I insisted that it be called Child Pornography – never porn. Today, simple possession is illegal and the material itself is (rightly) termed Indecent Images of Children.   Words matter.  They have power.


They matter, too, in the way we use them to describe offenders. Too often, too many of my colleagues (and some police) lazily label all those who abuse children as “paedophiles”.   But paedophilia is a precise term: it defines those who have a sexual interest in pre-pubescent boys or girls. Those with a sexual preference for post-pubescent adolescents are actually hebephiles.  Given that both fixations, if acted on, are illegal why does this distinction matter ? Because the methods for investigating and then (with luck) treating the offenders differ radically between the two. Incorrect labelling can hinder both prosecution and rehabilitation. Words matter.


Exactly this same importance applies to the word used to describe those who have endured child sexual abuse.   We ignore or dismiss it at both our peril. And theirs.

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On Tuesday next week (September 29) the United States Court of Appeals (Tenth Circuit) will hear a case which has huge importance not only for the safety of anyone who gets on a commercial aircraft, but for consumers of products of all Government-regulated industries.  It will determine, just one week after the Volkswagen scandal surfaced, the extent to which consumers of almost any (theoretically) regulated product or service are forced to place their entire trust in those government regulators – even when their actions suggest that trust is not deserved.


The case to be heard in Denver on Tuesday bears an unusual-sounding name: United States of America ex. rel. Taylor Smith, Jeannine Prewitt and James Ailes v. The Boeing Company and Ducommun Inc. Nor is it solely the title which makes this law suit extraordinary.


The hearing will be the culmination of a 10-year battle by three very brave whistleblowers (and their lawyers) to expose potentially “catastrophic” construction flaws which may affect the quallity and safety of more than 1600 of the world’s most commonly-used passenger planes.   It has been, from the outset, a David v. Goliath battle. Or rather a David v. two Goliaths.   Boeing is a $90-billion p.a. behemoth: it is the world’s second-biggest aircraft manufacturer and for much of its recent history has been the second largest defence equipment supplier to the United States Government.


The three whistleblowers – Taylor Smith, Jeannine (‘Gigi’) Prewitt and Jimmy Ailes all once worked for Boeing in Wichita, Kansas. They are not rich: both Ms. Prewitt and Mr. Ailes no longer have jobs.   Their lawyers have worked for a decade without financial support or payment for their time: they do not have the vast resources available to Boeing. What both the whistleblowers and the lawyers should have behind them is the United States government. Unfortunately, it has failed to support them; worse it has actively – and disgracefully – worked to undermine their case.


The story is long and – understandably, since it focuses on highly technical aspects of aircraft production – complex. In 2010 I made a one-hour investigative film about it for Al Jazeera: that film painstakingly examined the whistleblowers’ allegations, and uncovered some extraordinary – and unquestionably improper – behaviour by the US Government regulator, The Federal Aviation Administration. The film can be viewed here.


In essence, however, the underlying story is straightforward. In the late 1990s Boeing assigned Smith, Prewitt and Ailes to carry out an audit at one of its sub-contractors – AHF-Ducommun Inc. – based in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardenia. Ducommun was a key supplier for Boeing’s (then) fairly new range of passenger aircraft: the 737 New Generation (NG). Amongst the parts it supplied were chords and bearstraps.


Chords are the most fundamental part of any aircraft: vast semi-circular ‘ribs’ which lock together to form the plane’s skeleton. Bearstraps are vital re-enforcing panels which bolt on and around the weakest points in the fuselage – the exits and other openings. Both are officially described by Boeing’s own  repair manual as Primary Structural Elements; it warns that if these fail it can lead to the “catastrophic failure” of the aircraft.


When it was designed in 1994, the 737NG was to be a highly advanced new type of aircraft. Before it could go into production Boeing was legally required to submit to the US Federal Aviation Administration precise details of exactly how it planned to manufacture the new aircraft’s component parts.  Once those plans are submitted to the  FAA – the regulatory agency for all new US aircraft manufacture – FAA regulations require that they be followed.  To the letter.


Boeing’s detailed plans for the 737NG explicitly required the parts to be cut, shaped, formed and inspected by state of the art computer-controlled machinery.  This new technology ensured that parts would be produced to extraordinarily fine “tolerances” – margins of deviation from designed dimensions. These fine tolerances (less than the thickness of two sheets of normal paper) meant that the 737NG was authorised to fly higher and under greater pressure than previous 737 models which had “hand-formed” parts: such “hand-forming” means individual parts are much less accurately made and typically requires the gaps in airframes to be packed with filling material and “shims”.


Based upon these much publicized new design and manufacturing techniques Boeing was able to charge higher prices for the new 737NG airplanes than for its previous models of 737s; it was also able to compete effectively with new airplane designs being marketed by its rival, Airbus.


Boeing ordered the Ducommun audit because parts the LA-based company supplied, including chords and bearstraps  delivered to the 737NG assembly plant in Wichita, were frequently found to be badly made: some were too small, some were too large, others had assembly holes drilled in the wrong place. A sample internal Boeing Discrepancy Report confirms this.


The audit team discovered the reason for these discrepancies. Instead of using the planned and contractually required  computer-controlled manufacturing process (which was very expensive), Ducommun had instead been “hand-forming” the parts. In some cases this meant workers drawing the outline by hand with a magic marker and then cutting it – again by hand – using an angle grinder. The auditors even produced photographic evidence of this (below).




They also discovered that Ducommun had kept two sets of “books”.  One – the official account – purported to show that all the parts were computer-manufactured; the second told the true story – that the parts had been hand-formed.


The auditors reported their findings to Boeing.   The first page of the Boeing Internal report – August 21, 2000 shows that it was sent to the company’s most senior managers and officers. But instead of acting on it, Boeing told the auditors to keep quiet. The defective parts – illegal under the FAA’s Type Design Certificate for the 737NG – continued to arrive at Wichita, where they were forced into shape using hammers, shim fillers and by drilling additional holes.  These improper manufacturing techniques are dangerous, and can seriously damage the structural integrity of the fuselage.


Smith, Prewitt and Ailes did not keep quiet, and despite threats from Boeing approached the FAA, who promised to investigate, and to keep the whistleblowers’ identities secret. Neither promise was fulfilled. In time all three would lose their jobs.


The lawsuit they then initiated – the one which will (after more than 10 years) reach the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday – is a classic whistleblowers’ suit. It is brought under the US False Claims Act: this legislation, dating back to the American Civil War, means that the plaintiffs (termed ‘Relators’) sue on behalf of the American people.   This limits the law suit to the specific 737NG aircraft which were bought by the US government – a small sample of the entire commercial 737NG fleet.


The case began in 2005. The twists and turns it has taken since then are labrynthine and bizarre. For many of those years it was in the hands of a judge who had been appointed by President Kennedy: when he died – still in charge of the case – Judge Wesley Brown was 104 years old.


But it is the behavior of the FAA – the US government agency which is meant to protect consumers and regulate the industry – which has been most disturbing. Most of the half a million internal Boeing documents handed over to the whistleblowers during discovery have been locked away under court seal. But those which are public show that the FAA handed to Boeing “designated authority” to police itself. Boeing then handed this self-regulatory authority on to Ducommun.


What did the FAA do to investigate the whistleblowers’ evidence – evidence which suggests that many 737NG aircraft were built with non-conforming Primary Structural Elements and are therefore illegal (because they breach the design requirements in the engineering drawings) and potentially “catastrophic” ? Almost nothing.  Freedom of Information Act documents indicate that  in 2003 and 2005 the FAA  cursorily looked at submissions Boeing made in response to the whistleblowers’ claims –  and pronounced itself satisfied.  It never held a formal investigation, much less any public hearing.   There is no indication in the public records that the FAA has ever meaningfully investigated this matter; instead, it appears to have handed the investigation off to Boeing – and thus that Boeing may have been allowed to investigate itself.


Worse still, in 2010, when the case was nearing its first full court date, the FAA’s chief scientific and technical advisor, Robert Eastin, gave Boeing an affidavit, essentially giving the company and the 737NG a clean bill of health on the Ducommun parts.  (Boeing Exhibit 749).  He did so despite having failed even to look at the FAA’s own database of Service Difficulty Reports which clearly showed that  serious cracking and corrosion had been observed in the 737NG structural parts produced by Ducommun. (You can view the SDR  files here.)


But who had written the Eastin affadavit ?  During cross-examination at his pre-trial deposition hearing it emerged that this vital document had been drafted for him by Boeing.  On page 56  of the transcript of this deposition 15015EastinRobert727)  Mr Eastin admits that Boeing wrote its own exoneration – and theFAA’s most senior safety officer simply accepted that:


As I recall the first draft came from Mr Koh [Boeing’s lead external counsel].  And when I reviewed it I did not change that.


The federal district court heard opening submissions last year: it was presented with overwhelming expert witness testimony from engineering, manufacturing, and quality assurance experts who have unimpeachable credentials, and documentary evidence which supported the whistleblowers’ allegations.   To test that evidence against Boeing’s denials, the court should have set the case down for a full trial. It did not.  Instead the district court decided that the FAA “investigation” (such as it was), carried out by unknown persons done several years before Boeing was required to disclose the most crucial documents in the court proceedings – an”investigation” quite possibly even done by Boeing itself – was the final word.


Most disturbingly, the judge ruled that courts cannot exercise oversight when a federal agency has regulatory authority – in this case the FAA. Despite the fact that it was unknown what the FAA had done, and there had not been any public hearings, and there was no reviewable record of the FAA investigation, the district court decided that the regulator was, essentially, the court of last resort, and because the regulator chose to do nothing and took no action, the problem simply could not exist.


Bill Skepnek, the whistleblowers’ long-serving and dogged lawyer sums up this Alice in Wonderland view:


The bottom line is that the judge found significant evidence of factual disputes between Boeing and the Relators that are amply supported by Boeing’s own internal documents, but found those disputes are not “material” – of legal significance – because if they were the FAA would have done something.


This makes a dangerous mockery of both all consumer protection by US government regulators – and of the courts as the correct place for important issues of public safety to be judged. According to Bill Skepnek:


If Boeing convinces a jury it told the truth about its manufacturing process then so be it: public trust is then affirmed.  But the system needs transparency.  Meanwhile this case has been dismissed because unknown persons, reviewed unknown documents and/or performed unknown tests, on unknown parts, in unknown places, at unknown times, to reach their conclusion.


US regulators are calling for transparency about the Volkswagen scandal: yet this case involving Boeing is hopelessly opaque.   Why should Boeing be treated differently ?  For the FAA, does its role as a cornerstone of US military provision make it a sacred cow ?   The old axiom of the integrity of governance is: We do what we say, and we say what we do.   For US regulators – and courts –  does that principle apply to German companies, but not to American companies – even when the products of those American companies fly millions of passengers around the world every year ?


On Tuesday, the whisleblowers’ will present their argument to the Court of Appeals. If it shuts its ears to them not only will justice have been denied, but vital questions about the safety of the most commonly-used passenger jet in the world will never be properly, or publicly, examined.


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The six-year hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper was marred throughout by systemic and individual failures within West Yorkshire Police.   Two official investigations (paid for by the public purse) heavily criticised the force; in 1982, the then Home Secretary, William Whitelaw told the House of Commons that he hoped the police would learn lessons.


Thirty-three years later that hope remains significantly unfulfilled.  And the Ripper case remains shrouded in a disturbing official secrecy.


In June this year, my colleague Chris Clark and I published results of a three-year-long investigation into 23 unsolved murders (and numerous attempted murders). Our book – Yorkshire Ripper: The Secret Murders – presented a clear and detailed case that Peter Sutcliffe was the most likely perpetrator. Together with his proven victims, these additional cases would bring his tally to 36 murders and 16 attempted murders, making him Britain’s second worst serial killer, behind Dr. Harold Shipman.


Chris is a former police intelligence officer. He has devoted a substantial part of his retirement to re-investigating cold cases. His patient digging unearthed compelling evidence that the Sutcliffe had the means, motive and opportunity to carry out these attacks. He was able to place Sutcliffe at or near the scene of the crimes around the dates and times when they happened.


Our book also showed how the methodology used in these unsolved killings and attempted killings matched many of the hallmarks of the proven Ripper murders.   In each case there was not just one match, but several: too many for them to have been a coincidence.


There were two other remarkable aspects to this disturbing list of long-cold cases. The first was the sheer scope of the attacks: they took place all over England – in London and the Midlands as well as the known Ripper killing grounds of Yorkshire and Manchester); they dated back to the mid-1960s; and two of the victims were men.  Put together this presented a radically different version of the conventional Yorkshire Ripper story.


But that conventional story, spun by West Yorkshire Police and Sutcliffe himself back in 1981, has always been distinctly implausible. And in that implausibility lay our second remarkable discovery.


Much – too much – of the Yorkshire Ripper story has been shrouded in secrecy. Much – far too much – of it has taken place behind closed doors and away from public view.


From the outset there was a shabby deal made by the police, the Director of Public Prosecutions and Sutcliffe’s defence lawyers to accept his unsupported claims to have heard voices instructing him to kill prostitutes. Only the intervention of the trial judge ensured that a jury decided whether the Ripper was mad or bad. They decided he was bad.


Three years later the prison service decided to ignore this finding. It transferred him – in secret – to the relative comfort of Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital, where he has remained (at almost ten times the annual cost of keeping him in a regular prison) ever since.


But it was the subsequent actions of the Home Office and the police which have most cynically undermined the concepts of justice being both done and being seen to be done.   Three separate official investigations have warned that Sutcliffe almost certainly carried out many more attacks than those for which he was committed.


In October 1981, an internal report by Colin Sampson then Assistant Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, pointed at Sutcliffe as the likely perpetrator of “a number of similar attacks on women since 1966 in west Yorkshire [which] remain undetected”.  The report was suppressed, with only a redacted version eventually emerging. Today it remains secret


By the turn of the year, Lawrence Byford of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary delivered the results of his enquiry to the Home Secretary. It stated baldly:


“It is my firm conclusion that between 1969 and 1980 was probably responsible for many attacks on women, which he has not admitted, not only in West Yorkshire and Manchester but also in other parts of the country.


Byford’s report – paid for by the taxpayer – was kept secret until 2006. Even when this suppression was lifted, the details of these other unsolved Yorkshire Ripper attacks and murders were redacted. They remain under official lock and key.


West Yorkshire Police knows exactly who these victims were. In the 1990s, its then Assistant Chief Constable (later Chief Constable) Keith Hellawell painstakingly investigated 78 unsolved cases from all over the country. He finally decided that 22 of these should be laid at the door of Peter Sutcliffe.     Sutcliffe eventually admitted two of them. But the Director of Pubic Prosecutions decided it was “not in the public interest” for any further charges to be brought.  The DPP’s office has never explained how it reached this conclusion.


Hellawell’s report, like those which preceded it, was never published. Today, it sits in the filing cabinets of West Yorkshire Police: the Force resolutely refuses to release its details.


Chris devoted three years to uncovering those unsolved crimes. Using surviving public records and dogged detective work he was able to identify the victims. In many cases he spoke with those who had survived and the families of those who were murdered: each said the same thing – they wanted a full and publicly transparent police investigation and for Sutcliffe’s guilt or innocence to be established once and for all.


By contrast, West Yorkshire Police refused every single request submitted under the Freedom of Information Act. It was determined not to release any information.


Our book was serialised in the Daily Mail; we also gave a succession of radio and television interviews detailing its findings.   We challenged West Yorkshire Police – which maintains a stranglehold on all Yorkshire Ripper casework and investigation – to dispute our findings: it did not give any interviews.


Instead it issued a press statement, claiming that it was “continuing with an on-going process to review ‘legacy’ (historic) documents including material relating to the Yorkshire Ripper”.


But what exactly does that mean ?   In August I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request asking how many officers have been involved in this “on-going process” over the past 12 months; how many new interviews with eye-witnesses, relatives or alleged survivors had been carried out; and how much this had cost.


West Yorkshire Police refused to provide answers to these questions. It claimed that to do so would take more than 18 hours: the Freedom of Information Act allows public bodies to refuse requests on this basis.


It did, however, offer to state how many new interviews had been conducted. But when I re-submitted that request, the Force reversed the previous offer and refused even to confirm whether it held the information. It claimed that:


“To confirm or deny whether we have or haven’t conducted new interviews with eyewitnesses, relatives or alleged survivors could directly jeopardise West Yorkshire police’s ability to sufficiently review a high profile case, which would hinder the prevention and detection of crime.”


Secrecy is, apparently, still the order of the day.


But is West Yorkshire Police genuinely attempting to re-investigate these unsolved cases ?   Some of the victims and relatives who have received visits from its detectives say that whilst the Force wrings its hands, apologises for all the mistakes made in the past and accepts that there is evidence pointing to Peter Sutcliffe as the likely perpetrator, it also holds out no hope of ever bringing new charges.


Our book details 23 murders and seven attempted murders. All of them bear the hallmarks of the Yorkshire Ripper. All of them were investigated by Keith Hellawell: his evidence and conclusions are held by West Yorkshire Police.   It has all the evidence it needs to prosecute.  If it won’t do so, it has no business keeping this information from the public who paid for it, much less denying it to those who suffered at his hands.


There is simply no excuse for the continuing secrecy surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper and these unsolved cold cases. There is no legitimate reason for the Sampson, Byford and Hellawell reports to remain secret.


West Yorkshire Police, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Home Office all have long and tawdry histories of suppressing this evidence.  The entire prosecution and trial record, held at the National Archives, is closed until at least 2045. As the law stands there is little or no prospect of forcing them to come clean.


Worse, the politician who put the Freedom of Information Act on the statute book now argues that this was a mistake: In his memoirs Tony Blair called the Act one of his biggest regrets because of its being used not by “the people” but by journalists who use it as a “weapon”.


In July David Cameron’s government announced a review of the Act to decide whether it is too expensive and intrusive.     For government and official bodies that is – not for the people who pay for them and in whose name they govern.


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes ? *    Those who rule and those who police us would like the answer to be:  no-one.



* Translation: “Who will guard the Guards themselves ?” Satires by Juvenal, 1st Century Roman poet

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There is a moment in Alan J. Pakula’s film adaptation of “All The President’s Men” – the tale of how two dogged newspaper journalists pursued an investigation which would help bring down the President of the United States – when Ben Bradlee, their editor editor at the Washington Post, dismisses one of their early stories with a terse instruction:


“Get some harder information next time.”


One of the most striking aspects of Woodward & Bernstein’s book (on which the movie was based) is just how many off the record interviewees were quoted throughout their Watergate investigation. This was often a story peopled by anonymous informants and exemplified by the ultimate secret source – “Deep Throat”.


But look a little closer.   For every damning – but non-attributable – allegation “Woodstein” had at least two sources.   Or supporting documentary evidence.   Single anonymous sources were conspicuous by their absence.


For journalists of my generation, Watergate set the standards for investigative reporting.   Whether in newspapers, radio, television or books, no editor would countenance a serious allegation to be made on the word of a single, anonymous source.   And references to “rumour” were banned outright.


Which brings us to the excitable news coverage about Ted Heath.


There is not a journalist in Britain who can prove whether Heath was – or was not – a child abuser.   There could be victims of, or eyewitnesses to, such abuse: but if they exist you can take it to the bank that no journalist is amongst them.


And yet over the past week yet there has been an acre of newsprint and hours of broadcast time devoted to allegations that Heath was a paedophile.


“Allegation” is a powerful and important word and journalists need to use it sparingly. Anyone can make an “allegation” about anyone: any professional hack can (and often will) gossip cheerfully about unsourced claims that have washed up on their desks, phones or e-mail accounts about any number of politicians, judges, rock stars and minor celebrities – not to mention other journalists.


The vast majority of this swill of the information age goes no further than the tap room or dinner party. It is disregarded (save for the selfish pleasure of gossiping) and goes utterly uninvestigated.   It also never makes it into the public arena for the very good reason that it is no more than rumour which has never been examined for any foundation.


For the past two years the genuine and very important problem of uninvestigated historic child sexual abuse has led journalists to abandon the fundamental tenets of our trade. Newspapers, television and – in particular – tweets on social media have been swamped with allegations about VIP paedophiles in politics.   Rarely, if ever, have these claims been sourced to an identified – and therefore checkable – source.


In Heath’s case, the saga originally began in 1998 with David Icke, who published allegations from an unidentified alleged victim. Then sometime-barrister Michael Shrimpton (before his conviction for making false claims about a bomb threat to the Olympics)  announced on Bristol Community Radio  that Heath had abused and murdered boys on his yacht anchored off Jersey.


I interviewed Shrimpton over several days and asked for his evidence: he regretfully said that he couldn’t disclose his sources.


Anonymous sources would be fine – pace Watergate – if there were more than one for each published specific allegation (ie: not a collective validation of the general tenor of the story) and if these sources were independent of each other.   Unfortunately that vital principle has too often been abandoned.


This reached its nadir with the announcement by Exaro News  (and republished by the Evening Standard) that Guy Marsden, the nephew of Jimmy Saville, has alleged that a friend of his once told him that Heath had sexually abused him.


For absolute clarity: that is one source (identified) making an allegation about what he had been told (hearsay) by a source (who he did not identify) about an alleged incident he did not witness.


Did Exaro trace the person who had (allegedly) told Marsden about the (alleged) abuse ? I asked Exaro this question. It did not reply: not for the first time, it declined to answer queries about its reporting on historical abuse allegations.


This matters. I have spent a lifetime – almost 30 years – investigating organised paedophilia and campaigning for better child protection. Last year I wrote a heartfelt plea for responsibility in reporting: I warned then – and I repeat here – that there is a backlash growing amongst those who seek to deny the existence of widespread child sexual abuse.


If you doubt this, you have only to read the rabid bile pumped out by Spiked magazine and its supporters in the London “Commentariat”, Barbara Hewson and David Aaronovitch (to name but two). The thrust of this argument is that alleged historic abuse should be consigned to, well, history. More disturbingly, Ms. Hewson – a practicing barrister – advocates a statute of limitations for abuse investigations.


Every piece of careless, sensational or irresponsible reporting empowers this backlash. Brick by brick it will – I guarantee this because I have lived through previous backlashes which did exactly this – dismantle the weak and inadequate defences which have been erected to protect children from sexual abuse.


I repeat: I don’t know if Ted Heath was a paedophile. I don’t know if he sexually abused children on Jersey or anywhere else. I do know that in 2013 I spent several days interviewing – on film – several genuine victims of sexual abuse in its care system, as well as Graham Power, the police chief who supported them (and who was essentially run off the island for his pains). Not one knew anything about Heath other than that he was rumoured to have regularly sailed to Jersey.


But neither does any other journalist know whether Heath had a sexual interest in children. Those who pronounce that they DO know and who thus seek to influence public opinion, on the basis of (at best) a single anonymous source are being grossly irresponsible.


Likewise those who – with nothing more than instinct or prejudice to support them – assert that Heath was unquestionably not a paedophile: it is wrong and playing with fire to denounce the perfectly proper police investigations into allegations against him.


Whichever side of the trenches in this war they fire from, pronouncements of definite guilt or absolute innocence are wild, dangerous and – above all – very bad journalism.   Journalists need to recognise that what we publish can – and often does – have an effect on public policy.   We do not have the right to dish out unchecked anonymous claims or prejudicial personal opinions and then shrug our shoulders when these cause harm.


As Ben Bradlee (allegedly) told Woodward & Bernstein when rejecting their story. “Get some harder information next time.”




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“We are not in a position to answer …”


The Independent Public Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse says it is “not in a position” to answer questions about whether it plans to examine evidence into allegations surrounding the former Home Secretary, Leon Brittan.


On Monday I submitted a list of seven questions to the Inquiry’s press office. All related to information given to me in April 2014 by a senior detective in Operation Fernbridge, the Metropolitan Police team investigating allegations of historical “VIP “ child sexual abuse. These were detailed in yesterday’s blog – The Long, Strange Saga of Leon Brittan.


The questions I put to Inquiry press office were:


  1. Has the Inquiry yet established direct contact with Operation Fernbridge ?
  2. Will the Inquiry be examining documentary evidence held by Operation Fernbridge concerning its investigations into the late Baron Brittan ?
  3. Specifically, will the Inquiry secure from Operation Fernbridge copies of all such documents including, but not limited to, formal statements made under caution, officers’ notebooks, internal memoranda and historical documents acquired during its investigation into the late Baron Brittan ?
  4. Does the Inquiry plan to require public testimony from the current head of Operation Fernbridge, AND its former senior investigating officer, [NAME REDACTED HERE] concerning the late Baron Brittan?
  5. Does the Inquiry plan to require public testimony from the former Customs and Excise officer Maganlal Solanki who gave evidence to Operation Fernbridge concerning the alleged seizure of child pornography from the late Baron Brittan ?
  6. Does the Inquiry plan to take evidence from the US Marshall formerly attached to Operation Fernbridge in connection with a visit he made at the request of Operation Fernbridge to a suspected victim of Baron Brittan ?
  7. Does the Inquiry plan to publish the documents acquired and/or generated by Operation Fernbridge during the course of its investigation into Baron Brittan ?


Inquiry spokesperson Charlotte Phillips replied by e-mail this lunchtime.   She declined to answer a single one of the questions.   She wrote:


I’m afraid the questions you are asking are ones we are not in a position to answer at the moment. They are very detailed / specific questions about something that could potentially form part of the Inquiry.


Your last one – regarding making documents public – on a general note the Chair made clear in her opening statement that the Inquiry would be conducted in an open and transparent way and that at the appropriate time as much as possible would be published. 


It seems odd that an Inquiry which has – in its various incarnations – been in existence for a year cannot yet say whether it plans to examine the key witnesses to widely-reported allegations concerning one of the central figures in this murky saga.


Even discounting the two false starts with Baroness Butler-Sloss and Dame Fiona Woolf  Justice Lowell Godard was appointed in February: she has had almost six months to make plans.


The allegations concerning Leon Brittan are both detailed and central to the Inquiry’s remit to investigate (inter alia) the very department – the Home Office – which established it.    If there is evidence that a former Home Secretary – the man who (lest we forget) had responsibility for policy towards the Paedophile Information Exchange as well as being the recipient of a missing dossier which allegedly named paedophiles in high office – had a sexual interest in children, then surely the Inquiry’s job is to uncover that evidence ?


And if the transparency which Ms. Phillips promises is to mean anything, surely the Inquiry needs to reassure an increasingly suspicious public (which is footing the substantial bill) that, whatever it shows, this evidence will be thoroughly examined and will be published ?

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Over recent months two separate police forces have been carrying out enquiries into a snippet of 30-year-old gossip about a dead man. The Met and North Yorkshire Police have been interviewing people who, in the early to mid 1980s, heard a rumour that the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan had molested a young boy at a weekend retreat. I am one of them.


There are a number of oddities to this story, and, together with the rest of the strange saga of Leon Brittan, they shine a light on the frustratingly opaque progress of historic child sex abuse investigations. They also provide a litmus test for Lord Justice Goddard’s Independent panel Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.


The rumour first.   In the early 1980s I was a researcher on Roger Cook’s BBC Radio 4 investigative programme, “Checkpoint”.  The editor of the series had a source inside 10 Downing Street who was in the habit of passing on juicy titbits of scurrilous gossip about members of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet.


Why he did this was something of a mystery: “Checkpoint” was a fine programme, but it rarely strayed into political investigations. I never met the source, but according to our editor, he simply enjoyed gossiping over drinks at a private club both belonged to. To my knowledge, nothing had ever been done with the tittle-tattle he related.


The Brittan story, though, was different. According to the source, Brittan had been attending a weekend house party somewhere in North Yorkshire (he was initially MP for Cleveland & Whitby, then Richmond, N. Yorks): at some point he was supposed to have molested a young boy.   Local police allegedly attended, but very quickly were ordered off the case by Special Branch officers. There were no details of where exactly this happened, nor what exactly Brittan was supposed to have done.


Despite the sketchy nature of the rumour – and perhaps because I still lived in Yorkshire and had some relevant police contacts – I was instructed by my editor and the BBC’s (then) assistant director-general, Alan Protheroe, to make some discreet enquiries.


Over several weeks I spoke to a succession of contacts within the police. All said they knew nothing. Finally, I approached an officer in the neighbouring West Yorkshire Police Special Branch with whom I had an occasional, if slightly uneasy, working relationship. He agreed – reluctantly – to make some enquiries: very quickly thereafter he told me he was not going to pursue them.


And there our own investigations stopped. We told Alan Protheroe that we could find no evidence to support the rumour and I went back to work on more regular “Checkpoint” stories.


We were not, of course, alone in hearing this rumour. Private Eye had also picked it up and subsequently ran a short piece suggesting that members of the security service were trying to smear Brittan with false child abuse allegations.

Private Eye - Brittan - 1984

Over the next decades I made a succession of films and wrote a number of books, investigating child sexual abuse and paedophile networks. But I rarely gave any thought to the Brittan allegations until claims about paedophile parties at the Elm Guest House in south-west London surfaced in late 2013.


A  report on the Exaro news website, repeated in national newspapers and over the internet, claimed a video tape had been seized by Operation Fairbank (later known as Fernbridge),the Metropolitan Police’s unit investigating allegations of historic “VIP” child sexual abuse.  According to Exaro the tape showed a senior former Tory minister – plainly Brittan, though since he was still alive he was not named – in compromising circumstances at the guest house.


I had a contact in Operation Fernbridge,   Immediately after the story appeared, I met up with him: he denied absolutely – and vehemently – that any such tape had been seized. But because no official denial was issued by New Scotland Yard, the story fed into the growing public rumour-mill about ‘paedophile politicians’.


Two further issues quickly emerged which further inflamed the mood. The first was the mystery over what had happened to a dossier given in 1984 to Leon Brittan (while he was Home Secretary) by a back-bench Conservative MP, Geoffrey Dickens. Newspapers at the time had reported  that this dossier – which stemmed from Dickens’ earlier attempts to have the Paedophile Information Exchange proscribed – named a number of high-profile active child abusers.


In dealing with enquiries (in 2013) about what had happened to the Dickens material The Home Office did not exactly cover itself in glory: it initially claimed that it could not find 11 files, some of which included the dossier; then was forced (after a succession of Freedom of Information Act requests and demands by the Home Affairs Select Committee) to disclose that it had discovered the remnants of not 11, but 114 files relating to correspondence from Dickens or other MPs about alleged paedophiles and the prosecution of child sexual abuse.


The Home Office had also maintained in 2013 that the files themselves had been destroyed in line with “applicable document retention policies” at the time. Yet a year later it was forced to admit in response to my FOI request that it didn’t actually have a copy of this policy: it did not explain the apparent conflict between the absence of this policy and its previous assurance that the child abuse documents had been properly destroyed.

29875-Tate letter 28 Aug 2014 Final-1


Leon Brittan, for his part, was initially unable to recall the Dickens’ dossier before later remembering that he had passed it on to his officials who had in turn discussed it with the Director of Public Prosecutions.


The second incident was a story in the Express and on the Exaro News website alleging that in 1982 a Customs Office called Maganlal Solanki had seized child pornography films or videotapes sent or brought to the UK by Russell Tricker, a convicted British paedophile living in Amsterdam: one of these allegedly showed a former Tory cabinet minister sexually abusing children.   Once again, Brittan was not named, but there were clear hints in the stories that he was the politician in question (in 1982 he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury).


Mr Solanki had unquestionably seized the tapes and films referred to. An official 1982 notice in the London Gazette recorded the seizure and his name was shown as the Customs officer responsible.


lb customs seizure 1982


This did not specify the exact nature of the material – child pornography was then not legally defined, nor indeed was simple possession of it specifically illegal: the notice simply stated that the films and tape were indecent.  Crucially, though, it listed the title of the video as “LB”. [Note: in the 1980s there was a commercially-produced series of child pornography films entitled “Loverboys”.]


The coincidence of these initials with those of Leon Brittan led the Express reporter to doorstep Mr Solanki at his home in Leicester. The reporter recorded the conversation. The Express and Exaro claimed that during the interview the now-retired Customs officer confirmed clearly that the seized material showed the politician sexually abusing children.


I obtained a copy of the recording and transcribed it. Far from confirming the Express/Exaro claims, this clearly showed that Mr Solanki had repeatedly refused to confirm the reporter’s allegations that Leon Brittan was shown on the tapes. The most he appeared to concede was that the ex-minister was “involved” somehow with a tape: but he made clear that he was not at liberty to talk and told the reporter to speak to H.M. Customs.


However, the story had another twist in it.   In April 2014 I met with the senior Operation Fernbridge detective with whom I had previously spoken. Over the course of a two hour, off the record interview he told me that his officers had also interviewed Mr Solanki. The former Customs officer had, according to the detective, insisted that he couldn’t remember anything about the 1982 Tricker seizure – much less having viewed the tape and films. (Mr Solanki is in his 80s and somewhat infirm).


But what he said next was even more potentially explosive. He told the officers that he clearly remembered stopping Leon Brittan on another occasion – he could not recall the year, but it was at some point in the 1980s – when the politician came into the port of Dover from Europe. Mr Solanki recalled that he was on normal duty, working in a two-person team with another officer.   Mr Solanki observed the driver of a car behaving suspiciously: he pulled it over and the two officers discovered video tapes inside.   Mr Solanki told the Fernbridge detectives that he took the tapes away to his office, viewed them and saw that they were child pornography.   The detectives asked what exactly was on the tapes: Mr Solanki was embarrassed, but said they depicted boys and girls, clearly under 12, having sex with each other.


How, the detectives asked, did he know the man he stopped was Leon Brittan ?   Mr Solanki explained that he had asked to see the man’s passport. Additionally, Brittan had described himself as “an MEP”.


This posed a problem. Leon Brittan was never an MEP. He went from being a government minister to the backbenches following the Westland Affair, before being knighted and appointed European Commissioner For Competition in 1989.  The detectives eventually decided that Mr Solanki was telling the truth as he recalled it, but that he had most likely misheard (or misremembered) the phrase “MEP”, when in fact Brittan had said “MP”.


Mr Solanki also told the detectives that he had seized the tapes, sent Brittan on his way and referred the incident to his superiors. He indicated that the videotape seizure would have been recorded in the log book kept by Customs officers at Dover. The senior Fernbridge detective was making plans to look for these when we spoke. He was also trying to locate the date on which – according to vaguely remembered details – late one evening in the 1980s the Westminster press lobby gathered, at short notice, outside Downing Street, apparently having been briefed to expect an announcement concerning Leon Brittan.


Meanwhile, he was simultaneously following another two lines of investigation concerning Brittan and child sexual abuse.  The first was the old rumour about him molesting a boy at the weekend house party. In the intervening years, the incident now had two separate alleged locations: North Yorkshire and London.   But Operation Fernbridge had been unable to trace anyone who had any first hand knowledge: most importantly no alleged victim could be found in either place, and the detective now believed that the story was something of an urban myth which had probably arisen out of the mysterious late-night gathering of press in Downing Street.


The second lead was very much firmer – and very much more disturbing.   It involved Elm Guest House in south-west London.  In 1982 the Metropolitan Police had raided the guest house believing – correctly – that it was being used for (adult) male prostitution. The officer in charge of the raid had alerted the local social services department that there was a possibility at least one child might be on the premises and that, if so, a social worker and a temporary place of safety would be needed.


The police did indeed find one child – a boy of around eight years old – in the guest house. He was taken to a local children’s home and, according to a document the Fernbridge detective found in the council archives, was jointly interviewed by a detective constable and a social worker.


Fernbridge tracked down the (now-retired) officer in question.   He was interviewed and described the boy as being the most sexualised child he had ever seen. He also said that the boy described being sodomised by nine adult men at the guest house, but seemed somewhat surprised that the police were concerned. He told his interviewers that “Uncle Leon” would take care of the problem, and that “Uncle Leon” worked up at “the big house”. The former officer said he had understood this to be a reference to Parliament and had realised that Uncle Leon was probably Leon Brittan.


All of this should have been recorded in a statement. But the Fernbridge team was surprised to discover that although a statement of sorts did exist, it was not signed by the boy; nor did it make any mention of “Uncle Leon”. They questioned the retired constable: he explained that it was late at night when the boy was questioned and he had taken a joint decision with the social worker that the statement could be signed after the boy had got some sleep.   But next morning the boy had “acted out” and refused to sign.


The Fernbridge officers also questioned the retired officer about why he hadn’t recorded the “Uncle Leon” information in the (unsigned) statement: he then apparently became uncooperative, giving the distinct impression that he was concerned about either disciplinary proceedings or a potential threat to his police pension.


Fernbridge went on to track down the boy – now a man in his early 40s and living in America. A US Marshall, previously on secondment to the Metropolitan Police, went to see him. Although the man initially seemed willing to speak, he later refused to do so.


Shortly after the Fernbridge detective gave me the above information, he left the unit. I have not spoken with him since and do not know whether he was ever able to progress the investigations into Leon Brittan.


What I do know is that he was absolutely convinced that there was prime facie evidence that Brittan had a sexual interest in children; and that – unless he was lying to me (which I doubt) – Operation Fernbridge holds documentary evidence suggesting that Brittan was involved in either the attempted importation of child pornography, or the sexual abuse of a young boy. Or both.


In November 2014 a separate Metropolitan Police investigation – Operation Midland – was established to examine claims of historical child sex abuse and murder at the Dolphin Square apartment block near Westminster. Exaro News claimed the credit for this, alleging that its reporting of allegations by two men it called “Nick” and “Darren” had forced the Met to open the inquiry.   The men claimed that their abusers had included two former Conservative MPs, one of them a former Cabinet Minister.


Leon Brittan (who had been ennobled as Baron Brittan of Spennithorne in 2000) died in January this year. Within a week Exaro named him as the former Cabinet Minister being investigated by Operation Midland.


In February, the Sunday Times columnist Dominic Lawson (son of former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson) defended his father’s former Cabinet colleague. He attacked the Exaro allegations as part of what he saw as a long-standing campaign by “foil-hatted conspiracy theorists who see the Palace of Westminster as nothing other than a cover for satanic rituals”.


The thrust of Lawson’s attack – that irresponsible reporting of anonymous allegations was tarnishing the names of dead men whom he simply presumed to be honourable – was given more life than it deserved by Exaro’s involvement in an Australian television programme in July.   Whilst it unquestionably raised the profile of the story internationally, the 60 Minutes Special presented the claims by Exaro’s stable of complainants as established facts rather than allegations under police investigation.   It named Leon Brittan as an abuser.


I have no means of knowing whether the claims by “Nick”, “Darren” and the other complainants whose cause Exaro has promoted are accurate.   They are very serious allegations and are rightly being examined by the Met.   But in so far as they relate to Leon Brittan, this police investigation poses a problem.


Because Brittan passed away in January this year, there can be no criminal proceedings.  Therefore none of the evidence being collected by Operation Midland – nor the documentary evidence already held by Operation Fernbridge (let alone the enquiries still being made by North Yorkshire and Scotland Yard detectives into the mysterious house party rumour) – will ever be produced in court.


There is only one forum now in which the allegations about Leon Brittan can publicly be examined: Lord Justice Goddard’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.


This week I formally asked the Inquiry’s press office the following questions:


  1. Has the Inquiry yet established direct contact with Operation Fernbridge ?
  2. Will the Inquiry be examining documentary evidence held by Operation Fernbridge concerning its investigations into the late Baron Brittan ?
  3. Specifically, will the Inquiry secure from Operation Fernbridge copies of all such documents including, but not limited to, formal statements made under caution, officers’ notebooks, internal memoranda and historical documents acquired during its investigation into the late Baron Brittan ?
  4. Does the Inquiry plan to require public testimony from the current head of Operation Fernbridge, AND its former senior investigating officer, [NAME REDACTED HERE] concerning the late Baron Brittan?
  5. Does the Inquiry plan to require public testimony from the former Customs and Excise officer Maganlal Solanki who gave evidence to Operation Fernbridge concerning the alleged seizure of child pornography from the late Baron Brittan ?
  6. Does the Inquiry plan to take evidence from the US Marshall formerly attached to Operation Fernbridge in connection with a visit he made at the request of Operation Fernbridge to a suspected victim of Baron Brittan ?
  7. Does the Inquiry plan to publish the documents acquired and/or generated by Operation Fernbridge during the course of its investigation into Baron Brittan ?


The Inquiry has yet to provide a response.


The long, strange saga of Leon Brittan is a litmus test of how rigorous and open Lord Justice Godard’s enquiry intends be. The enquiry must summons – as it has the power to do – Mr. Solanki and the officers from operation Fernbridge to give evidence on oath. It must also obtain all the statements taken by Fernbridge which relate to Brittan.


Leon Brittan was no obscure politician or ordinary Cabinet Minister. For more than two years he occupied one of the three great offices of state: Home Secretary.  Unquestionably, he should have been subjected to positive vetting by MI5 before being appointed: Goddard must insist on seeing those vetting reports.   She must also discover what, if any, subsequent vetting took place before David Cameron appointed Brittan as a trade advisor in 2010.


And, just as crucially, she must reveal all of this evidence to the public which is, after all, paying for the Inquiry.


There remain, too, legitimate and unanswered questions about Brittan’s opposition to proscribing the Paedophile Information Exchange (and indeed about PIE’s alleged involvement with the Home Office itself while he was a Minister Of State there between 1979 and 1981).


The announcement last week that further (and previously undisclosed) Cabinet papers from the era had been located and in some unspecified way referred to Brittan,  make it even more vital for the Inquiry to examine – publicly – the claims that the former Home Secretary was involved in the sexual abuse of children.


If it does not, then the public will have every right to doubt the integrity of the Goddard enquiry – and to question why substantial sums of public money are being devoted to a series of police investigations which will never see the light of day.


And rightly or wrongly the as yet unproven allegations of an overarching Westminster plot to protect a powerful paedophile politician will become entrenched in the public mind as unchallenged fact.








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The Myth of The Happy Hooker

Next week delegates to Amnesty International’s (International) Council Meeting will be asked to endorse a policy aimed at protecting the human rights of sex workers.


Amnesty is a great and important organisation (declaration of interest: I am a past recipient of one of its press awards) and I fully support its demand for the safeguarding of those adult men and women who choose to work as prostitutes. As AI’s carefully worded draft policy makes clear, those who rent out their bodies for sex face risks – of disease, persecution and violence – and should have the same protection as any other worker.


But one part of the solution proposed by Amnesty is wrong – and dangerously so.   It calls for the legalisation of (adult) prostitution.


I spent a year investigating modern slavery for an Al Jazeera documentary series: one programme examined sex slavery. The best estimates from the most rigorous campaigning organisation – “Free The Slaves” – suggests that there are approximately 1.4 million sex slaves in the world today.


This is not statistically the largest group of 21st century slaves – there is an estimated total of 27 million of these – but it is nonetheless a vast pool of people denied their unquestionable human right not to be forced into slavery.


But the research for that series – and for two books I have written on the subject – also showed clearly and unequivocally that one of the biggest causes of sex slavery is legalised prostitution.


Countries where legalisation has been introduced – most notably Holland and Germany – have done so precisely because they believed it would reduce the trade in sex slaves.   The facts show that it has had the precise opposite effect.


Holland, for example, legalised prostitution in 2000. Any woman or man, over the age of 18 and holding a European Union passport, was given the right to set him or herself up as a sole trader selling sex. He or she could rent premises in which to work, could open a bank account for the business and would be required to pay taxes.   Pimping, however, was not permitted: it was – and remains – a criminal offence.


Eleven years later, how had this worked out ?   Badly.


There are at least 8,000 prostitutes working in Amsterdam alone.   Not all work in the most visible sector of the city’s sex trade – the ‘tourist attraction’ of the Red Light District- but even that supposedly-policed shop window for legalised prostitution is shocking evidence of the failure of the Dutch policy.


For s start many of the women (and men and transgendered) on display in the windows come from outside the EU: Africa, South America, and states like Moldova – on the borders of the European Union and probably the nation most plundered by sex traffickers on the continent – are the home countries of a statistically large number of Amsterdam’s sex workers.   No-one asks how they came here, nor how they are permitted to continue working: many don’t speak any European language. Amsterdam’s police force simply turns a blind eye.


They are similarly myopic about the gangs of organised criminals – major pimps and their enforcers – who control the Red Light District. In fact, they are more than myopic: they openly admit that these notionally illegal gangs are in charge – the city warns television crews and journalists that violent thugs prevent anyone from filming the streets they control, for example – but do nothing to stop them.


So who are these human beings behind the neon-lit glass ? Did they choose – willingly and happily – to rent their bodies to an average of 15-20 customers every day ?


Solid, careful, non-partisan studies show that on average 800 – 1,000 women are trafficked into Holland’s legalised prostitution industry every year. Not willing, not free, not happy: trafficked and enslaved.   Other research shows that more than half experience violence or the threat of violence as part of their daily working lives.


When I interviewed him in 2011, the head prosecutor in the Dutch Anti-Trafficking unit – a good and concerned lawyer called Werner Ten Kate – admitted the failure of the legalisation policy.


We thought in 2000 that the more liberal view to prostitution would stamp out trafficking, but that proved to be wrong. Everyone thought that, [it would prevent trafficking] but it worked out the other way round.


Werner Ten Kate is not alone in (now) accepting this. In 2012 a study by researchers at universities in Germany and Britain analysed data from 116 countries to discover the effect of the legalisation of prostitution on trafficking.   It showed that countries with legalized prostitution suffer from higher levels of human trafficking than countries where prostitution is illegal.


Those researchers don’t support the criminalisation of prostitutes – for the very good reason that to do so puts the sex workers at risk and reduces the availability of the protections (health and legal) which Amnesty International seeks.


But there is a smarter alternative to prosecuting prostitutes: it is – as Sweden has shown – to criminalise the men (and it is almost exclusively men) who buy sex.


Prostitution is one of those ‘hot button’ topics which largely attracts fierce argument based on little more than opinion. And in turn those opinions are often the result of soley anecdotal ‘evidence” – the stories of (variously) sex trafficking victims or self-proclaimed happy hookers.


There’s nothing wrong with anecdotal evidence: my books and my films are packed with individual stories. But they are not a solid foundation for policy because they can’t be proven to represent the full picture.


The best and most carefully-researched evidence suggests that in western countries at least, the majority of sex workers have not made free or willing choices to sell their bodies.   There are, to be sure, some women and men who are happy to sell their bodies – but they are not the majority.


Two hundred years ago, when the transatlantic slave trade was still a stain on the world, the social reformer and jurist Jeremy Bentham neatly summed up what should be the basis for laws based on morality:


It is the greatest good for the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.


On that admirably straightforward principle, Amnesty’s call for the legalisation of prostitution is wrong and dangerous.

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