The Media Column: The timing of last week’s ‘Panorama’ on child abuse worked well for the Conservatives

The documentary pulled apart the Met's inquiry into historic claims of child sex abuse by Establishment figures 

Ian Burrell
Media Editor
Sunday 11 October 2015 16:51
Meirion Jones, a former ‘Newsnight’ producer, whose 2011 investigation into Jimmy Savile was spiked by the BBC
Meirion Jones, a former ‘Newsnight’ producer, whose 2011 investigation into Jimmy Savile was spiked by the BBC

The timing of Tuesday night’s Panorama special, The VIP Paedophile Ring: What’s the Truth?, was convenient indeed for the Prime Minister, coming hours ahead of his speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.

The hour-long documentary pulled apart the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Midland inquiry into historic claims of child sex abuse by Establishment figures and appeared to absolve the former Conservative home secretary Leon Brittan, who was questioned by officers before his death this year, as well as casting doubt on evidence against other Tory grandees.

As David Cameron took to his feet with a determination to dispel the lingering image of the “nasty party” – still recovering, as he was, from the sleazy smears of Lord Ashcroft – it was helpful to have the persistent and damaging saga of politicians and paedophilia swept into the trash.

For those delegates attending the conference for the purpose of lobbying for the existentially challenged BBC, the conversations in the corridors might have become a little easier after Tuesday night, ahead of the corporation’s submission on Friday of its detailed response to the Government’s Green Paper on the broadcaster’s future.

The Metropolitan Police, though, was less than happy. Scotland Yard issued a long statement ahead of the broadcast, saying it had “serious concerns” about the impact of the programme on its investigation and the witnesses involved. The Yard’s position was backed up by the Chief Constable of Norfolk, Simon Bailey, who is head of child abuse investigations for the National Police Chiefs Council. He told Radio 4’s Today programme: “The worst possible thing that could happen from this is that victims who are coming forward and reporting their abuse when they were a child will not do so.”

What of the programme itself? Reporter Daniel Foggo diligently tracked down key witnesses in the far-ranging scandal and systematically exposed holes in their stories and flaws in their credibility. The viewer was left with the impression that the evidence of VIP child sex abuse, at either Dolphin Square, near Parliament, or at the notorious Elm Guest House in south-west London, did not stand up to scrutiny.

But journalists with experience of investigating the story were concerned by the extremity of the programme’s positioning. In a powerful blog, the highly experienced investigative journalist Tim Tate wrote that Panorama had produced “very little new information” and that question marks against four of the featured witnesses had already been “widely publicised” in other media. He noted hard evidence of paedophilia involving other Establishment figures, such as the late MPs Cyril Smith and Sir Peter Morrison, and the late diplomat Sir Peter Hayman. “Panorama fell into the trap of dismissing all the clear and unequivocal evidence of VIP or politically protected paedophiles,” he wrote.

Meirion Jones, the former Newsnight producer whose 2011 investigation into Jimmy Savile was famously spiked by the BBC, tweeted of the documentary: “This is absurd – categorically, a very young boy was repeatedly abused by paedophiles at EGH [Elm Guest House]”.

Jones was involved in the Panorama that exposed the BBC’s failure to investigate Savile, a courageous documentary broadcast in 2012 after the scandal of the Jim’ll Fix It presenter had been broken by ITV. He has since claimed to have been forced out of the BBC, along with the former editor of Panorama Tom Giles and Liz MacKean, his colleague on the Newsnight Savile investigation.

Ceri Thomas, who replaced Giles as editor of Panorama, announced to colleagues his wish to do a programme on the VIP paedophile scandal almost immediately after taking up his role a year ago. In a blog published last week, he wrote: “What we’ve found while making this Panorama is a concern that all those big institutions – the police, press and politicians – are so determined to atone for the sins of the past that they’re in danger of inventing whole new categories of mistakes.”

He lashed out at politicians who “staggered into the Savile crisis with their moral authority in tatters over their expenses” and the press, “cheerfully hacking the phones of murder victims, miserably incompetent at investigating Jimmy Savile’s crimes”. Thomas did not dwell on the BBC’s own record in investigating Savile, nor the damage done to the organisation by its sordid presenter.

Meirion Jones was astounded. “Ceri Thomas ... criticises big institutions ‘determined to atone for sins of past’, certainly wouldn’t accuse BBC of that,” he tweeted.

During the Pollard inquiry into the BBC’s failings in reporting Savile, Thomas acted as a “prisoner’s friend” adviser to Peter Rippon, the Newsnight editor responsible for shelving the investigation by Jones and MacKean. Last week’s Panorama seemed determined to show that the Savile story – and where it leads – was not the era-defining scandal that other media and MPs such as Tom Watson have been suggesting. It was a film that was as much about other media and the deputy leader of the Labour Party as it was about Scotland Yard, and it induced a muted apology from Watson to Brittan’s family.

But many newspapers, despite Thomas’s suggestion of a vendetta of atonement, have long been questioning the validity of Operation Midland.

The programme ended up rubbishing the work of Exaro, an investigative website that few television viewers will have heard of. Exaro’s editor, Mark Watts, went on Radio 4’s The Media Show to complain of Panorama’s “brazenly biased” approach. But those who had high hopes for Exaro, with its promise of a fresh approach to journalistic investigations in the City and Whitehall, should be concerned that the site’s obsession with this story, and reliance on sources discredited elsewhere, could do lasting damage to its young reputation.

The documentary also attacked the BBC’s newsroom for giving prominence to the alleged scandal.

The scale of the accusations makes this a subject worthy of Panorama. “What you are seeing here is journalists holding other journalists to account, and that’s a good thing,” says Dr Paul Lashmar, lecturer in journalism at the University of Sussex.

Equally, police should not decide when a documentary is broadcast, especially when a scandal has been dragging on for years.

Yet there’s an oddity in the timing of this programme, as Liz MacKean – who since leaving the BBC has made Cyril Smith, Paedophile MP for Channel 4’s Dispatches – points out. While the BBC cites ongoing police investigations as its reason for holding back publication of Dame Janet Smith’s three-year review of the culture and practices at the BBC during the Savile years, it applies different rules to Panorama. “I find that a really contradictory position,” says MacKean.

And so, after 12 months of investigation and much delay, the documentary was inserted into the BBC1 schedule just a day after another Panorama on Edward Snowden, during the Tory conference. Rather than breaking a story, it was debunking one that has already been largely debunked.

The following day, the former Bishop of Lewes and Gloucester, Peter Ball, was jailed for sex abuse against boys dating back 40 years. An Old Bailey trial heard that an original police investigation resulted in a mere caution after the bishop was backed by MPs, cabinet ministers and members of the Royal Family. There was a story.

Northern Ireland is having a good run

The loquacious Sky Sports commentator Gerry Armstrong once told me the story, over a drink, of how he put the ball past Spanish goalkeeper Luis Arconada as Northern Ireland sensationally defeated the host nation in the 1982 World Cup.

I don’t suppose I was in the first thousand people to hear that story from the chatty Ulsterman. On Thursday, “Norn Iron” beat Greece 3-1 to reach their first major championships for 30 years and it was fitting that Gerry was in the commentary box to record the moment. I expect the Arconada anecdote was trotted out a few times later that evening.

Today the BBC announces that this year’s Sports Personality of the Year will take place in Belfast. Alastair Cook, Chris Froome and Jessica Ennis-Hill will be among the favourites but most people in the room would surely vote for Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill.

Revelations from the world of Murdoch

It was another busy week on Planet Murdoch, as Greg Miskiw, linchpin of the phone-hacking operation at the News of the World, broke his silence to give an interview to Channel 4 News.

Fleet Street’s “Prince of Darkness” wouldn’t address the Old Bailey hacking trial (he was jailed for six months after pleading guilty), but he spoke to Alex Thomson in the dramatic setting of a Leeds theatre after being persuaded to ’fess up by fellow reformed hacker Graham Johnson, ex-Sunday Mirror investigations editor.

Miskiw’s repentance included an acknowledgement that David Beckham’s phone was repeatedly hacked and a claim that the News of the World would not have closed if Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives had acted quickly to sack the “handful” of staff responsible for hacking.

On another side of his planet, Mr Murdoch was making the assertion that Barack Obama was not a “real black president”, but that Republican candidate Ben Carson had the potential to be one. The suggestion that the owner of Fox News was an arbiter of the genuine African-American experience prompted an outcry and Mr Murdoch had to apologise.

But Rupert, as he flips his own identity from “fair dinkum” Aussie to American entrepreneur to descendant of Scots Presbyterianism, according to where elections are taking place, will continue to play his favourite role of political kingmaker, wherever he operates.

Twitter: @iburrell

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