Do we really want a succession of Ian Blairs as Met Commissioners (see here, here, and here)? His attention seemed to be largely focussed on pleasing politicians. He spent inordinate amounts of time on cases/issues that he thought might interest them. Hogan-Howe on the other hand is a proper policeman. I believe him when he starts quoting the number of major cases he has to keep an eye on, with Operation Midland just one of them. He is interested in all of them, so making his life miserable and pushing for him to resign because of mistakes in one (Operation Midland) is completely unreasonable.
A brief recap. As the full horror of Jimmy Savile’s activities gradually became apparent, everyone started to worry what other paedophiles had been operating decades ago. In passing, I my view is that we need a statute of limitations on criminal cases except perhaps for the most serious – murder and maybe a tiny handful of others. Sex with girls aged 15 would not come into that category for me. Sure, it is illegal, but the limit of 16 is something of a cultural matter, it is hard to see it as an objective standard. Sex with children under the age of say 10, I would have no difficulty in making an exception. Where the dividing line should come I am not sure.
But whatever the category of exceptions, the other problem is that it is hard to get a reliable conviction for anything that happened decades ago. All sex crimes pose evidential problems at the best of times, but it becomes really difficult for a sex crime alleged to have happened long ago. It is easy to forget that convicting the innocent is worse than failing to convict the guilty.
Inevitably the pendulum swung too far. The police decided that traditional approaches to dealing with complaints of sexual abuse of children were wrong, because they were too off-putting for the complainant. As often happens in such cases, ACPO appointed someone to take the lead on policy, in this case Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk. He set up a “coordination hub” called Hydrant and produced the “Operation Hydrant SIO Guidance” for dealing with historic cases where well-known public figures were suspected of abuse (SIO is police jargon for the senior investigating officer on a particular case).
The full guidance is not publicly available, but it later emerged that it required SIOs to believe complainants, which (if followed) was more or less guaranteed to end in disaster.
Meanwhile several historical investigations were launched. Operation Fairbank focussed on claims that boys were sexually abused and groomed during parties of gay men at the Elm Guest House. It was about 7 miles from Parliament in a row of terraced houses in Rocks Lane, which runs North from Barnes station through Barnes Common. In the early 1980s it was raided by police following complaints that it had become a gay brothel, and it closed in 1982. The manager, Carole Kasir, was convicted of running a disorderly house. Later in 1990 she died aged 47; the inquest verdict was suicide by an overdose of insulin.
The precise story at this point is getting difficult to follow, because all sorts of documents once on the internet seem to have been taken down and I lack the inclination to search diligently for them on wayback etc. But a key player seems to have been Chris Fay (now 70), a former Labour councillor and social worker who worked for (and set up?) NAYPIC (National Association for Young People in Care, a child welfare charity). He appeared to claim that all kinds of photos and other documents had been shown to him by Kasir which proved that 4 MPs, led by Leon Brittan, the former home secretary, had been involved in abusing children at Elm House. All these (alleged) photos and documents had subsequently disappeared.
[a lengthy interview with Chris Fay by a sympathetic anti-child abuse activist and filmmaker]
He tried to interest a freelance journalist, who lost interest when he was unable to get any corroborating evidence. But all the allegations seem to have been passed to the Met, who also dropped them after failing to find anything to make them sufficiently credible.
The really curious can spend an hour watching the video above (from Oct 2013). Initially, at least, Fay comes across as low-key and credible. But at 28m (and 31m etc) we have the interviewer ranting on about how terrible child abuse by top people is. He is right, child abuse is terrible. But the questions are: did these particular individuals abuse children; and is there enough evidence to convict in court? Halfway through that video I began to see clearly that we could be in either of two situations: some powerful people covered up some terrible things, or we are in danger of re-running a modern version of the Salem witch trials.
The problem is that the internet is full of material by people who have not looked at the evidence available to them at all carefully, or even at all, but instantly react with violent emotion and want vengeance. Worse, it soon gets tangled up with all kinds of other agendas, like a visceral dislike of Tory politicians and policies.
Chris Fay tried to interest various people in his allegations, including Tom Watson (currently the elected deputy leader of the Labour Party). On 24 Oct 2012 (Hansard col 923) he asked at Prime Minister’s Questions:
The evidence file used to convict paedophile Peter Righton, if it still exists, contains clear intelligence of a widespread paedophile ring. One of its members boasts of his links to a senior aide of a former Prime Minister, who says he could smuggle indecent images of children from abroad. The leads were not followed up, but if the file still exists I want to ensure that the Metropolitan police secure the evidence, re-examine it and investigate clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No. 10.
He got a fairly non-committal reply from Cameron:
The hon. Gentleman raises a very difficult and complex case, and I am not entirely sure which former Prime Minister he is referring to. What I would like to do is look carefully in Hansard at the allegations he has made and the case he has raised, and look carefully at what the Government can do to help give him the assurances he seeks.
But, of course, the question was broadcast live and attracted a good deal of attention, including presumably in the Metropolitan Police who were apparently being accused of grossly failing in their duty. Some years later in 2015, Fay was interviewed as part of a BBC Panorama programme.
[last shown just over a year ago, no longer on BBC iPlayer, but still unofficially on youtube]
I wasted a good deal of time failing to make up my mind. On the one hand, Fay is claiming a large-scale cover-up, apparently masterminded by the security services. He also has a fraud conviction. On the other hand, he is not an obvious fantasist. So has there been a careful and successful cover-up, which has left little hard evidence beyond the odd witness whose uncorroborated evidence would be unlikely to stand up in court, or is he a fantasist?
My meanderings through various links quickly led me to things like Chris Spivey‘s blog. He is an angry campaigner who finds it really hard to attribute anything but bad motivation at every turn to senior Tory politicians. Eminently sane, he has a strong and powerfully-expressed point of view. Then I ran into Brian Heap who claims persecution over a period of several years by a substantial cast of characters (including the police) all because he sacked a teacher for child abuse when he was a headmaster.
As I read through the pages of his “Chronology” I started thinking what an awful time he had had. Then we moved on to his sectioning under Mental Health legislation. Most stories of paranoia are indeed induced by mental health problems, but occasionally they are true. Few people (including consultant psychiatrists) bother to look into such stories carefully, they just take a few salient features of such stories as clear hallmarks of mental illness.
Neither of those two individuals turned out to be relevant (as far as I could see, despite being only a link or two away from the Operation Midland case), but I began to grasp the real difficulty of investigating these “historical cases”. Many of the witnesses who come forward are clearly most unlikely to appear sufficiently credible – for a variety of reasons – in a court case where guilt for a specific crime by a specific person has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt.
The real trouble came when Nick put forward his claims:
Operation Midland arose from claims by “Nick”, a man aged in his 40s who was a child at the time of the alleged incidents. Having written of his abuse, Nick was contacted by Exaro, a short-lived investigative journalism website funded by Jerome Booth. Exaro sold stories to newspapers about the alleged incidents, and a reporter from Exaro accompanied “Nick” to meetings with police.
Nick claimed the VIPs had not stopped at child abuse, they had murdered three children.
Operation Midland’s investigations into these allegations resulted in several VIPs being effectively named and shamed, despite the fact that the Met were unable to find any solid evidence to support the allegations, which later appeared to have been made by a wild fantasist.
Realising that Operation Midland had had a bad outcome, Hogan-Howe commissioned Richard Henriques, a retired High Court judge, to look into it. At the end of October Henriques submitted a lengthy 500 page report. Earlier this month, Hogan-Howe made public the 68 page summary.
The summary is hard-hitting and spells out clearly and forcefully why Simon Bailey’s Hydrant guidance is seriously flawed. Similarly, he spelt out that not only is “believing victims” wrong, so is calling them “victims”. They should remain “complainants” until the allegations are proved. He then went into detail about the Met’s policy on releasing information to the press prior to suspects being charged, and explained clearly why this policy did not work for well-known public figures, whom the press could easily identify from the limited information released.
The summary is clearly and forcefully written and closely argued. I imagine it will be persuasive in changing police practice.
But poor Hogan-Howe is now being criticised for not releasing the full report. This is ridiculous. Some of those under his command quite properly followed ACPO guidance on how to conduct a particular type of case. Hogan-Howe noticed that the case had had a bad outcome and commissioned an enquiry. He published the hard-hitting (and fairly lengthy) summary a few days after he received it. All that seems exactly what we should hope for in a Met commissioner. We really must stop treating highly competent professionals unfairly. Do we want a politicised police force?