As an investigative journalist you get used to awkward encounters. Even so, the phone call I made 18 years ago counted among the most difficult.
On The Independent on Sunday, we were looking into a claim that the then Lord McAlpine, the former Tory party treasurer and grandee, had abused boys from a children’s home in North Wales. McAlpine was in Venice, where he had a house, recovering from illness. He would not see me but he would take a call. I’d spoken to him before and we vaguely knew each other. When I put it to him, after a pause he replied: “Chris, if you were phoning me about pretty blonde women over 21 I might entertain the claim, but not boys. They’re not my thing, never have been.”
We proceeded to chat about the allegation and how it could have been made and how it was false. He was convincing, and when we investigated further, it fell apart.
Years later, when Newsnight made the same charge, I was Editor of this newspaper, and able to tell the News Editor to leave it well alone. It was not true, I said. If there was any McAlpine connection, it was a different McAlpine but there was scant evidence for that – and besides, that McAlpine, who was not a public figure, had since died.
Witnessing Harvey Proctor, also on Newsnight this week, denying he was involved in a high-level paedophile ring that may have been responsible for the murder of three boys and horrific sex crimes – and accusing the police of engaging in a witch-hunt against him – I was reminded of that conversation with McAlpine.
I am not saying I know that Proctor is telling the truth. In the same way, I did not know whether McAlpine was telling the truth. But what I do know is that the evidence against Proctor appears to be based entirely on the say-so of one witness, whom the police describe as “credible and true”. Called “Nick”, he has told them he was the victim of a gang of senior politicians and others who operated out of Dolphin Square, a block of flats close to Westminster. Now in his 40s, he maintains he was regularly abused in the 1970s and 1980s. How the police can argue his statement carries such weight is not clear. Seemingly, no one else has come forward to corroborate it and none of those accused who are still alive and who have been quizzed have admitted to anything.
Hence the police’s decision to say that if any alleged victims come forward they will be believed. The reasoning behind the police pledge is obvious: sadly too many people who do make this type of assertion are not taken seriously, and find themselves the subject of doubt and interrogation, questioned whether they are, really, wasting police time. Faced with criticism of not taking Nick seriously and conscious of previous cases of cover-ups of accusations against powerful characters, the police decided to act.
Nevertheless, it makes me uncomfortable.
I thought we’d learned lessons from the Chris Jefferies case in Bristol, when the former schoolteacher was hounded by sections of the press for being the key suspect, mistakenly, in the murder of Joanna Yeates. The media, certainly, has heeded the consequences of such behaviour with eight newspapers paying substantial damages to Jefferies. But have the police?
Proctor named himself and eight others at a press conference, so papers were not at fault in identifying him. He said he wanted to “show my face as an innocent man”.
In hailing Nick’s account, the police do appear to have gone too far. Without any supporting detail, they seem to have made up their minds; effectively they’ve done the job of any subsequent criminal court. Something similar has already occurred with this same police investigation, code-named Operation Midland. Wiltshire police last month issued a call for victims of the former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath to come forward. They made the plea outside his Salisbury home. Anyone watching would be certain Heath perpetrated crimes against boys. The police were not doubting that; they wanted his victims to contact them.
But Heath, also cited by Nick, was not convicted of anything – there was nothing in his past, nothing on the public record anyway, that could justify the authorities stating there must be victims out there.
Midland was set up in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, and is one of several inquiries into historical claims of abuse. From covering up allegations of underage sex and rape involving public figures, we are now veering to the opposite extreme, of determining guilt based on the unchallenged, unexamined statement of just one witness. Proctor has called on the Labour MP Tom Watson, who has made claims in Parliament of a VIP sex ring, to repeat them outside when he will not have the protection of Parliamentary privilege. Watson has not named Proctor, but the ex-MP has challenged him to name those he is talking about away from the Commons.
I admit in the past to having used MPs to pose questions in Parliament, make statements or table an early-day motion, in order to get a story into the public domain where we lacked the necessary degree of proof to get it past a libel lawyer. I’m not proud of it. In my defence I’d say it was a well-worn route, and I would add we always liked to believe that we were acting in the public interest. There was always a line – between using a willing MP when the evidence was strong but not quite complete enough, and just flying a kite.
Has Watson crossed that line? Again, in the absence of any evidence other than Nick’s, it is impossible to say. Proctor is not an appealing person. He carries a conviction for gross indecency, caning rent boys as young as 17, making them call him “Sir” as he pretended to be headmaster.
Does that mean he is a murderer, rapist, child molester? Not unless there is proof beyond reasonable doubt.Reuse content