The Truth Shall Make You
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.