The Truth Shall Make You
Robert Black: the mistakes, the man and the “monster”.
The serial child killer Robert Black, who died in Maghaberry prison, Northern Ireland this week, was one of only 62 prisoners – 60 men and two women – serving a “whole life tariff”: an order made in cases of where an offender is deemed to be irredeemably dangerous to society.
Robert Black was unquestionably that: he was convicted of the kidnapping and sexually-motivated murder of four children, the kidnapping of a fifth child and the attempted kidnapping of a sixth. All his victims were girls, between the ages of 5 and 11.
Black was also devious and calculating. He was the prime suspect in a series of other unsolved child abductions and murders. In each case there was very strong circumstantial evidence that he was responsible. Yet for more than two decades, long after he knew he would never be released from prison, he refused to discuss these cases with detectives. As a result they remain officially unsolved and the children’s families have never seen justice done. Nor, as we shall see, was he averse to using public money to suppress – or at least to attempt to suppress – information about his lifelong obsession with the abuse and death of children.
But the story of Black’s lifetime of offending – it spanned 35 years – also highlights fundamental problems in the way we have historically policed (or not) sexual crimes against children; and how effectively (or not) we deal with those who commit them.
From 1986 onwards I worked closely with a remarkable man called Ray Wyre. For twenty years, until his death in 2008, we wrote books and made documentaries together. Ray was a former probation officer who had, almost by accident, discovered a very effective ability to unpick the tangled strands of motivation which lead men (and some women) to sexually abuse children. He did so in the unshakeable belief that if these offenders (and the rest of society) could be helped to understand what drove their behaviour – and its impact on the victims – at least some of them could be prevented from continuing it.
It was, particularly in the climate of the times, a very brave decision. His residential programmes for offenders certainly worked – I witnessed this, first hand – but they were deeply unpopular in the neighbourhoods in which they were situated. One was fire-bombed out of existence.
In 1990 Ray was the most prominent expert on sex offending in the country. That year Robert Black was arrested near the village of Stow, Scotland. He had been seen bundling a child into the back of his van. When police stopped him they found a six year old girl gagged and tied up in a sleeping bag. The girl was the daughter of the officer who searched the van: he had not known she was missing until that point.
Black was charged, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Shortly afterwards his solicitors asked Ray to assess him with a view to mounting an appeal against the sentence. Ray’s subsequent report was uncompromising: it said that Black was unquestionably dangerous and that the sentence was appropriate.
As a result Black’s appeal was abandoned. But despite this, Black asked Ray to visit him again in prison to help him try and understand his desire to abduct and abuse children. There would be no payment for doing so, but Ray agreed, with one proviso: that their sessions would be tape recorded and that Ray would be free to use the material to further public understanding of such extreme offending. Black signed a formal agreement to that effect.
Ray quickly realized that the interviews were very important – not least because Black was then under investigation for the abduction and murder of what were then known as ‘The Big Three’ unsolved child killings: Susan Maxwell, Caroline Hogg and Sarah Harper. He brought the audio recordings to me and we agreed that we should jointly make a documentary and write a book.
The contents of those tapes were harrowing, to say the least. Black’s childhood and early life was bleak and provided very clear clues about the reasons for his subsequent sex offending. However, they also clearly highlighted a succession of blunders by police and the courts. In what was – even in the early 1990s – becoming a familiar pattern, the failure to grasp just how dangerous this man was stretched back to the 1960s and allowed him to continue offending through to 1990.
Black was plainly tortured by the knowledge of what he was doing. He genuinely wanted to understand what drove his obsession with inflicting appalling abuse on young girls and then causing their deaths. And he was also willing – at least in part – to give hints about other crimes he had committed. Ray patiently explored all this with him as the tape recorder rolled.
The result was that together with the police task force set up to investigate whether Black was responsible for a string of unsolved child killings, we were subsequently able to show – often using his own words – that he was the most likely suspect. One of these cases – that of Jennifer Cardy in 1981 – would eventually be formally laid at Black’s door. In 2011 he was sentenced to 25 years for her murder. But there were at least eight other cases for which he was never prosecuted. Perhaps the most famous was the abduction and (presumed) murder of Genette Tate
in August 1978. Genette was 13 – though she looked several years younger – when she was snatched in broad daylight from a country lane near her home in the Devon village of Aylesbeare. She had been doing a paper round on her bicycle. The photograph of her bike, seemingly abandoned in the middle of the road, became an iconic and haunting image of our inability to protect children.
In his interviews with Ray, Black came close to admitting that he had abducted Genette. But although he dropped hints and talked in such a way that Ray became convinced of his guilt, Black never quite confessed.
When Black was charged with the murder of Susan Maxwell, Caroline Hogg and Sarah Harper, he ended the sessions with Ray. His new lawyers were, understandably, nervous about tape recorded interviews with their client.
Ray and I took the material to Channel 4 and to Penguin Books. The former commissioned a documentary, the latter a book. Neither was to be published until after the conclusion of Black’s trial for the Big Three. Indeed, as we all well knew, the law of contempt made it illegal to publish while the case was on-going.
Despite this, Black obtained public money from the legal aid fund to take out an ex-parte injunction against Channel 4 and both Ray and I. This sought to suppress the tape recordings of the prison interviews. It was an entirely spurious action: not merely was there a very real public interest in the contents of these recordings, but Black had signed a release form authorizing their publication. It took several months, several appearances at the High Court and a substantial bill for legal costs before the injunction was quashed. The film, titled The Murder of Childhood, was transmitted on the night that he was convicted of the Maxwell, Hogg and Harper murders. It can be viewed on the films page of this website. The book, which carried the same title, was published some months later. An extract can be viewed on the books page of this website.
Both the documentary and the book highlighted the blunders which had allowed Black to abuse, abduct and kill for so long. Most crucially, these involved a repeated failure by several police forces to share intelligence or even the record of Black’s growing criminal record.
But what was even more shocking was the discovery that several years after his first life sentence (for the abduction in Stow) – and decades after his first recorded sexual crime – the name of Robert Black was still not logged on the most important national database of paedophile offenders.
That record was maintained (at least in theory) by the National Criminal Intelligence Service. As the documentary showed, the paedophile index at NCIS was grossly underfunded. It had, at the time, just three officers permanently staffing it; by contrast in the adjacent office there were at least 11 officers dedicated to running the football hooligan database. The documentary clearly shows the embarrassment of the NCIS spokesperson about the failure to log Black on its paedophile index.
In 2006 NCIS was merged with the newly-created Serious Organised Crime Agency. SOCA was not noticeably more successful than its predecessor – at least in the running a national intelligence system covering known paedophiles. In 2013 it was folded into yet another new organization, the National Crime Agency.
Is NCA any better than NCIS or SOCA ? It’s impossible to know. Newspapers regularly describe this lead organization in the fight against all forms of organized crime – and that includes paedophiles – as “Britain’s FBI”. Yet unlike that American law enforcement institution, NCA is immune from public scrutiny: it is specifically excluded from requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
Yesterday broadcasters covered the death of Robert Black extensively. I was interviewed and asked whether the institutional failures which enabled him to carry on killing for so long had now been rectified. It was be pleasing to think so. But the honest answer is that, as a result of this secrecy, we cannot know.
What I do know is that yesterday much of the press and media coverage of his death used dumb and unhelpful clichés. Black was a “monster’, he was “evil”.
Revisiting the tapes of Ray Wyre’s interviews with the man reminded me of the great lesson Ray wanted to teach. He never minimized or excused the appalling nature of the crimes committed by the men he worked with: but he knew that categorizing them as “monsters” was simply counter-productive.
Robert Black’s crimes were monstrous – no question about it. But he committed them for a reason. The lesson which has never been learned is that unless we spend the time and money to uncover and understand those reasons we will never protect children from men like Black. And calling them “monsters” is a sure way to prevent such vital understanding.