Sunday, 16 November 2008

'Something evil had happened . . . I had to go on' - Jersey in the Sunday papers

Sunday 16 November; last revised 20.40pm, 19 November

PERHAPS THE MOST telling feature of the coverage of the Haut de la Garenne story in today's Sunday papers is just how little of it there is. The revelation last week that one of the biggest child protection stories in the history of the British media was based on the delusions and confusions of a senior police officer was extraordinary.

Given that journalists on both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers had, week after week, accepted unquestioningly the pronouncements of Lenny Harper, and continued to do so even after evidence that he had misled journalists had been placed squarely in the public domain, one might have expected a little soul-searching and and even a little self-criticism from some of our more reflective journalists. Yet, unless I have missed something, this is almost entirely absent from today's papers.

To give credit where at least some credit is due, the Guardian managed to run a brief piece on this subject by Nick Davies on Friday, which did make at least some of the points which needed to be made.

The Sunday papers, however, are almost completely free of such self-criticism. The only detailed report which carries the story forward in significant respects is, as might have been expected, by David Rose in the Mail on Sunday. His substantial article, 'How Lenny lost the plot', appears in the Review section of the paper. It provides an excellent summary of the main points of the Haut de la Garenne saga for which one can only be grateful. Indeed, given the grave implications of the story which he relates, it is both astonishing and depressing that none of the broadsheet Sunday newspapers has even attempted to run a similar investigation.

It should be noted, however, that not all the 'revelations' made in this piece are as new as Rose suggests. Some of the most important were in fact made by Diane Simon (in outline at least) in the Jersey Evening Post in the middle of April and the fact that this has not been acknowledged actually distorts the story Rose is seeking to relate. His account, though, does fill in many crucial details which were previously missing.

It also includes an extraordinary and genuinely new revelation concerning a confidential email in which Harper, in an attempt to maintain the credibility of his investigation in the eyes of his political masters, effectively misreported an entire forensic report.

So far at least there can be no doubt that Rose's is the best piece of journalism about Haut de la Garenne which has emerged since last week's press conference and it is all the more valuable for being without any serious competitors.

Meanwhile in the Observer, Catherine Bennett has produced one of the most interesting reflective pieces which has appeared in the wake of last week's news conference. Although her account of my own contribution is not strictly accurate and she greatly underplays the culpability of journalists, she does at least fleetingly acknowledge the possibility that they might have acquitted themselves better. She also recognises (as Nick Davies does not) that the entire saga has been driven forward by our enduring appetite for evil. At the same time she implicitly recognises that a fascination with evil conspiracies tends almost invariably go hand in hand with extreme forms of credulity.

The forces of evil

THIS BRINGS US to an article which appears in the newspaper which has been one of Harper's most fervent supporters throughout the Haut de la Garenne saga - the News of the World.

In the video clip carried on the paper's website (click here and scroll down), although he talks bravely, Lenny Harper, almost for the first time, seems to have lost the ebullient confidence he once displayed when addressing the world's media. But he does say one thing which bears repetition. In attempting to explain why he continued digging relentlessly, when all the signs would have indicated to a rational observer that his quest was fruitless, he told the News of the World reporters that 'There was something evil going on at Haut de la Garenne and I felt I had to carry on my inquiry.'

It would seem that my own suggestion that at the heart of the entire story there lies a battle with forces that are imagined as evil is something with which Harper himself agrees. The problem with all such battles, however, is that the invocation of evil is too often used to justify all manner of shortcomings on the part of those who crusade against it. Because, in our own culture, we seem to have adopted child abuse as our ultimate evil, the assumption is frequently made that actions which are less than entirely scrupulous can be justified so long as they are aimed at defeating this evil.

In the case of Haut de la Garenne it would be all too easy to seek to excuse the various misrepresentations in which Harper has engaged by invoking the nobility of the cause in which he has been fighting. One of the many reasons for resisting this argument is the seriousness of the consequences that have flowed from his actions. In the first place there has been a huge waste of police time and huge expense, running into millions of pounds, has been unnecessarily incurred.

Even more importantly, a great deal of damage has been done to the cause of child protection by the promotion of unfounded claims. These will inevitably undermine the credibility of those who make genuine allegations of child abuse and it is at least possible that they have jeopardised prosecutions which would otherwise have been soundly based. At the same time, because of the credulous response of journalists, the newspaper-reading public in Britain - and indeed far beyond - have been encouraged, over a period of many months, to become caught up in what amounts to a massive collective delusion.

How Lenny Harper himself should be dealt with is a matter ultimately for the police and the authorities on Jersey. Whatever conclusion is ultimately reached with regard to Harper, however, it should not be allowed to distract us from an issue which is just as important – the culpability of journalists. For the journalists who have covered the Haut de la Garenne story, and the editors who have relentlessly published and broadcast the ill-researched or unresearched stories they have written, do bear a huge responsibility for what has happened in Jersey over the past year.

It is a responsibility which, on the evidence of the stories which have appeared – or which failed to appear – in today’s papers, they seem markedly reluctant to shoulder.

To read responses to this post - or to leave a response yourself - click on the comments link below. Expressions of agreement are always welcome; so too are dissenting views.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Journalism, Jersey and the idea of evil

THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF THIS POST, which appeared here on Wednesday morning (12 November 2008) was re-published in a slightly different form by Spiked the next day under the title 'Jersey: the fruitless search for modern evil' . I have now replaced my version with theirs. What follows therefore includes their introduction and two final paragraphs which I added to set my paperback postscript in a larger context. I have also added a few links which do not appear in the Spiked version.


From Spiked, 13 November 2008

Richard Webster, the Orwell Prize-nominated author of The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt, has been asking awkward questions about the Jersey children’s home scandal for the past year.

His essay ‘The truth about the Jersey skull’, published on his own site [as 'The Jersey skull fragment, the police and the facts that changed'] and on spiked in April, was the first piece to raise serious questions about the police investigation in Jersey. It led directly to the revelation that a ‘skull fragment’ found in the former home was actually a piece of coconut. Now that the Jersey police say there is no evidence that murders took place at the home, Webster reports on his feelings of ‘quiet vindication’ and asks: why didn’t journalists behave more sceptically?

Yesterday, Graham Power, the chief officer of Jersey’s police force, was suspended after the new deputy chief officer, David Warcup, and Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell (who has been seconded from Lancashire CID) held an extraordinary press conference. During their briefing they made it clear that in their view there had never been any evidence that murders had taken place at Haut de la Garenne – the former children’s home on the island of Jersey, in the UK, which has been the subject of sensationalist media coverage over the past year – and that previous press briefings given by Warcup’s predecessor, Lenny Harper, had been misleading and inaccurate.

(For news coverage of this development see, among many, the articles which appeared in the Telegraph, and on the BBC website here and here.)

Although the news imparted at yesterday’s press conference has been treated by much of the media as a revelation, the conclusion reached by Warcup and Gradwell could in fact have been reached by any journalist who had sceptically studied the evidence about Haut de la Garenne already in the public domain.

Some two months ago, at a time when Mick Gradwell, the new senior investigating officer in the Haut de la Garenne case, had barely arrived on Jersey to take up his post, I put the finishing touches to the postscript to the paperback edition of my most recent book, which is due out in January. The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt is an investigation of the North Wales children’s home scandal which shows that, during the 1990s, Bryn Estyn, a former children’s home in Wrexham, North Wales, effectively became the focus for a massive collective delusion. This happened largely because a number of broadsheet journalists, some of them very distinguished, promoted the idea that Bryn Estyn had been in the grip of a paedophile ring and that children had been systematically raped and abused throughout North Wales children’s homes. The only problem was that this evil conspiracy, like the parallel conspiracy which has been located in Haut de la Garenne, did not in fact exist.

In the postscript to the paperback edition of my book, I set out to explore some of the parallels between what happened in relation to North Wales more than 15 years ago, and what has been happening recently in relation to Haut de la Garenne and Jersey. I have to confess that when, some two months ago, I committed to the hard cold finality of print my own conclusion that there was no indication that any murders had taken place at Haut de la Garenne, I did so with a small tremor of apprehension lest evidence to the contrary should emerge before the paperback of my book appears. Yesterday that tremor of apprehension was replaced by a feeling of quiet vindication.

What follows is the first section of the postscript (with the addition of two final paragraphs which seek to place the Jersey story in a longer perspective by relating it to earlier journalistic failures). The full version of the postscript will be published separately as a pamphlet when the paperback of The Secret of Bryn Estyn appears at the end of January 2009.For details, click here. To go to the Orwell Press website click here.)

Journalism, Jersey and the idea of evil

MORE THAN THREE YEARS have now passed since The Secret of Bryn Estyn appeared in hardback but this paperback edition is still necessary. For although the book is an attempt to write history, the problem at its heart is far from being a historical one. Indeed, as this new edition appears, we are in the middle of a new children’s home scandal.

The scandal in question, which first came to widespread attention on the weekend of 23-24 February 2008, has attracted even more media coverage than was given to the Bryn Estyn story during the 1990s.

The Jersey ‘skull fragment’

ON SATURDAY 23 FEBRUARY 2008, a team of police officers and forensic experts made a discovery which would transform an obscure police inquiry in a picturesque corner of Jersey into a global media frenzy. The discovery took place inside the main building of the former Haut de la Garenne children’s home. It was reportedly made not by the officers themselves but by a trained sniffer dog which had previously taken part in the search for Madeleine McCann after her abduction in Portugal. Almost immediately the police issued a press release saying that they had found ‘what appears to be potential remains of a child’.

A press conference was held and the effect on journalists was electric. News of the discovery rapidly shot to the top of radio and television news bulletins. That evening the BBC website headlined its story ‘Child’s body found at care home’. It went on to say that ‘parts of a child’s body’ had been discovered and that the remains were thought to date ‘from the early 1980s’. Deputy Chief Police Officer Lenny Harper was quoted as saying that detectives ‘think there is the possibility they may find more remains’.

Within 24 hours this gruesome story spread around the globe amidst talk of a possible paedophile ring. The Guardian reported that ‘half a dozen bodies’ might be found and quoted Harper as saying: ‘There could be six or more. It could be higher than that.’ Journalists descended on Jersey from all over the world. Massive resources were poured into what rapidly became a multi-million pound inquiry, and teams of experts were brought in from all over the UK. Meanwhile both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers carried reports of cover-ups, of sinister political machinations, of the involvement of prominent Jersey politicians and of allegations which in the past went unheeded.

Almost every one of the motifs which had emerged in the North Wales story seemed to be present again. The only significant difference was that the publicity in this case focused not so much on sexual abuse as on the idea that former residents of children’s homes had been secretly tortured and murdered after being raped by those en-trusted with their care.

There was only one problem. This was that practically every element of the initial story, as relayed by the media, was untrue.

In fact, no child’s body had been discovered. Nor had the police found anything which could reasonably have been described as the ‘remains of a child’. All they had found was a small object, which was later said to be a skull fragment, and which was about the size of a 50p piece. There was no evidence to suggest that this fragment belonged to ‘the early 1980s’ and nor was it clear that it had ever been reliably identified as belonging to a child.

Although the police initially gave prominence to the carbon dating tests to which they had submitted this ‘skull fragment’, the eventual announcement of the results of these tests was muted and revealed only that it had proved impossible to carbon date the bone fragment accurately because of an absence of collagen from the sample.

At this point a little journalistic digging of my own sufficed to establish that the Oxford scientist who had conducted the carbon dating test had serious doubts about the ‘skull fragment’ he had been asked to date. When David Rose eventually interviewed him it transpired that the fragment was, in the opinion of the experts, not a piece of bone at all. It was, in their view, either a piece of wood or a fragment of coconut shell.

Although he had known about this finding for many weeks, Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper, who was leading the Haut de la Garenne inquiry, had continued to refer to his find as ‘a skull fragment’. When the view of the experts was made public by Rose in an article in the Mail on Sunday, it seemed entirely possible that a sensation-driven investigation in which press publicity had prompted more than a hundred complainants to come forward, and had identified more than 180 suspects, would collapse.

In fact the new development in the story seemed merely to test the narrative skills of the officer leading the investigation. Having announced the discovery of more ‘bone fragments’ and a large number of milk teeth, he promised the press a ‘bone by bone analysis’ – which was never in the event delivered. He then went on to construct, on the basis of no accurately dated evidence at all, an extraordinary scenario.

According to the press report which now appeared, ‘Innocent children were raped, murdered and their bodies then burnt in a furnace at the Jersey House of Horrors, says a top-secret police report into the scandal.’ The article went on to relate that, having discovered strands of blue nylon in sifted rubble, police had concluded not only that these came from a broom, but also that this putative broom had been used to sweep human bones into the soil floor where they had supposedly been found.

The only paper to carry this entirely speculative story, which appeared as a front-page lead on 13 July 2008, was the News of the World. But subsequent coverage was by no means restricted to this sensation-seeking paper. On 31 July, for example, still without any reliable evidence, the BBC Radio 4 news and the Today programme led with the claim that the remains of five children had been found at Haut de la Garenne.

As is always the case with such stories, it is important to acknowledge that, given the huge time span which was under investigation in the Jersey case it is improbable that there would not be some cases of abuse – quite possibly serious abuse. But, if reports of the Haut de la Garenne inquiry are studied carefully, then it is clear that there has never been reliable evidence that any murder was committed at the home. The tiny fragments of bone and the numerous milk teeth which were found were not evidence of foul play; they had no demonstrable link with the time the building had been used as a children’s home and could well have been imported from elsewhere; even the police concede that one of their crucial bone fragments was probably 350 years old.

The only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that the major factor which was in play throughout the saga was a deep psychological need for a narrative of evil – a need which journalists seem to feel they have a professional obligation to satisfy.

Note added 13 November 2008

In the postscript I go on to develop this idea. Here it will perhaps suffice to note that the complicity of the media in the Jersey scandal did not come from nowhere. Over the past 20 years, too many journalists, on both the broadsheets and the tabloids, have accepted at face value unsubstantiated stories about paedophile rings and even Satanic ritual abuse. Even ostensibly critically-minded journalists have willingly become part of this modern search for evil. For example, Nick Davies, who earlier this year won critical acclaim for his exposé of journalistic falsehood, Flat Earth News, wrote two long, credulous reports about the Bryn Estyn panic. In these Guardian reports, which appeared in 1997, he made a parallel between the alleged events at Bryn Estyn and the Holocaust, describing the tribunal of inquiry into North Wales’ care homes as a ‘little Nuremberg’. Davies wrote that ‘for years the muffled sound of scandal has been leaking from the closed world of Britain’s children’s homes’, and ‘now, finally, for the first time, the truth is pouring out’. Sir Ronald Waterhouse himself, the retired High Court judge who oversaw the tribunal, was moved to comment on the Guardian’s ‘highly coloured reporting’; he wondered, upon reading the Guardian’s accounts, whether ‘they were reporting the same tribunal that I have been attending’.

From Bryn Estyn to Jersey, the search for narratives of ‘evil’ almost inevitably threatens the lives of innocent people – in this case the innocent people among the 180 former Jersey care workers against whom a sensation-seeking police investigation had succeeded in collecting allegations.

As in the case of Bryn Estyn, such narratives almost inevitably threaten the lives of innocent people – in this case the innocent people among the 180 former Jersey care workers against whom a sensation-seeking police investigation had succeeded in collecting allegations.