Too many of my posts seem to start with: ‘many years ago…’. So in this instance I shall nominate a year: 1975.
I was then the News Editor of a local radio station, when one of my journalists told me he had met a young man who claimed to have deserted from the army after being forced to take part in the torture of IRA detainees in Northern Ireland. Intrigued, I interviewed the man myself. He certainly had a good story, but there was something not quite right about him, so I asked the reporter to hold off while we checked. Neither the Defence Ministry nor the regiment he named claimed to have heard of him. It didn’t prove he wasn’t telling the truth, but I junked the story for lack of corroborating evidence. Call it ‘editorial instinct’.
Shortly afterwards, there was an investigation sparked by the journalist Paul Foot into child abuse at the Kincora boys’ home in Northern Ireland, and among other allegations involving senior security officers the name of ‘a senior Tory politician’ was being privately bandied about, but nothing ever came of it. A decade later, there was another scandal involving abuse at a children’s home in North Wales, and a number of care workers were gaoled. Rumours then began to circulate about a wider paedophile ring linked to the abuse at the school, alleging the involvement of senior police officers as well as politicians. It was Kincora all over again.
Last week, as the result of yet another furore over what seems to have been systematic abuse in hospitals and on BBC premises by the DJ, Jimmy Saville’, a man came forward who claimed to have been abused at the home in North Wales and in a local hotel, by a group of men including a ‘senior politician’. He claimed that he reported it to the police, who roughed him up and called him a liar, and again tried to raise the matter at the judicial inquiry but was told his evidence was inadmissible. Interviewed on BBC 2’s Newsnight last week, he claimed there had been a longstanding cover-up because of the involvement of the police themselves, and this ‘senior politician of the Thatcher era’. The claim resonated with the current hysteria over paedophilia, so no one had reason to doubt him.
I watched the interview very carefully, and was not entirely convinced the man was a credible witness. No attempt was made to check or balance his testimony, however, which seems an extraordinary breakdown of standard reporting procedure. And, strangest of all, apparently no-one higher up the food chain in BBC News was even told the story was being run*; although, in the still blazing light of the Saville affair, you would think it was an absolute given that the DG himself should have had the final decision to run it.
It is what happened subsequently that is surely at the heart of the controversy. The programme did not come anywhere near naming anyone as an abuser, yet a name was apparently tweeted, that then went viral. The programme has subsequently been blamed by everyone, including the higher-ups at the BBC, for ‘identifying’ the suspect. One envisages enormous damages being paid to the innocent party**. But why was he named in this way?
Well, smoke, fire, but the interview went out, the old rumours began circulating again, and thus became ‘fact’ – we now have the internet to make these unattributed insinuations instantaneously global – the individual (being still alive) furiously denied it (incidentally, he is not the same unnamed ‘senior politician’ about whom speculation was rife over the Kincora abuse) and, when his photo appeared in print, the witness ‘realised this was not the man’ he claimed had abused him and rushed to issue an immediate denial and apology.
The porous nature of the internet makes it virtually impossible to put cats back in bags and a lot of expensive damage had already been done to the elderly party in question. As a result, the Director General of the BBC was first made to grovel, then subjected to a humiliating 16-minute ordeal on-air by the Torquemada of the Today programme, the tendentious old humbug, John Humphrys; and soon after lost his head, on which the BBC crown had sat for less than two months. His predecessor, Mark Thompson, on whose watch much of the Saville abuse had happened, was left merely as a fading grin hanging in the trees.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister himself had heard the witness’s story and immediately ordered the setting-up of two more inquiries, one into the police handling of the original abuse allegations and the other into the judicial inquiry itself. Now, however, we find that we cannot trust the word of the witness, making the inquiries possibly irrelevant. Was the Prime Minister not guilty of precisely the same rush to judgement as the editor of the Newsnight programme, on the basis of one man’s flawed testimony? If so, is one panic reaction not contingent upon another? Was the BBC not panicking because of criticism of its failure properly to investigate the Saville abuse claims***; and is the Prime Minister not panicking because, less then a month previously, he had to get up in the House and apologise for the official cover-up that a report (21 years too late) had revealed took place in the wake of the Hillsborough football ground tragedy?
Somewhere, either on earth or in hell, there is a ‘senior Tory politician of the Thatcher era’ who knows that he will now never be held to account for his past actions, whatever anyone says. No editor would risk another such cataclysmic reaction. And those newspapers whose headlines today gleefully and with much schadenfreude hail the ‘meltdown’ of the BBC might lift their sights a little to note the ‘meltdown’ of more great British institutions than just the BBC, but of the police, the judiciary and Parliament itself, mired in corruption scandals and allegations of cover-up and incompetence seemingly without end. Not to mention the press itself.
If anything emerges from this general ‘meltdown’, it will hopefully be a new alloy that can stand the tests of time and the internet. The British public deserves better.
*It has since been claimed by BBC sources that senior managers were aware of the item going out. This makes it even worse.
**£185,000, in the event. The money was donated to charity. The offended party has since died.
***As of June, 2014, Saville’s ‘victims’ are thought to number in excess of 500. It has emerged, too, that he succeeded in bullying his way into positions of control over the senior management of institutions, such as the Broadmoor mental hospital, where he was able to secure access to young patients of his choosing. We ought as a society perhaps to be more actively aware of, and concerned about, the extraordinary power of celebrity.