WITNESS: Stalinist reluctance to study the facts

Reporting the Islington child abuse story was terrifying, says Eileen Fairweather

Eileen Fairweather
Monday 29 May 1995 23:02
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As the journalist who instigated the newspaper investigation that led to the exposure of mass sexual abuse in Islington children's homes in north London, now seems a good time to "out" myself as a Labour-voting feminist, and join the debate on what role "political correctness" played.

The Labour borough has finally put its hands up. Last week an independent report confirmed that pimps, paedophiles and pornographers had for years preyed on children in Islington's homes. Not all were "gay", but many were, and the report unequivocally blamed Islington's dogmatic interpretation of equal opportunities. Getting the council to admit it was wrong took 60-plus articles, 13 independent inquiries and endless midnight phonecalls from scared "whistle-blowing" staff. We were all branded right-wing homophobes.

When the children's harrowing stories first appeared, Margaret Hodge, then leader of Islington council, sought refuge in killing the messenger. The London Evening Standard's month-long investigation was clearly sourced by scores of staff, children, police officers and documents. But because the newspaper is considered in right-on N1 to be "right wing", Hodge airily dismissed it as "politically motivated ... a sensationalist bit of gutter journalism". A month later she took up a top City job.

This typified Islington's Stalinist reluctance to study the facts when the facts do not fit the theory. If gays are oppressed, then all gay men are good, was its simplistic credo. Men who hurt boys are not "gay" - they are paedophiles. But intelligent analysis was impossible in Islington, where paedophiles cynically exploited the gay rights banner and those who suspected this were branded as reactionary.

Such mindless name-calling paralysed many. I find it terrifying that the entire Islington scandal would never have been exposed without the courage of, initially, just one social worker. She contacted me in despair after being investigated as "anti-equal opportunities" for ringing alarm bells about a gay children's home worker (a traumatised boy later confirmed months of buggery). We cajoled other colleagues into secret meetings and confiding. Two had already been sacked after raising concerns, and one received death threats. I took some staff to Scotland Yard, although it was off their patch: publish, was the advice.

Naively, the whistle-blowers hoped the council would protect them. I acted as go-between and, two months before the first stories appeared, met Islington's chair of social services at the town hall. Councillor Sandy Marks asked to see the evidence but would not agree to protect our sources' confidentiality. The Standard's politics could not be trusted, so nor could I: apparently I had sold out to Fleet Street for a fat cheque.

No one appealed to Hodge. A manager had earlier asked for extra funds to investigate why a stream of disturbed children were visiting a man previously imprisoned for running a child brothel. She wrote rebuking him: "Given the state of the social services budget, I expect more appropriate responses." That was two years before this "unknown" scandal broke.

Shortly after publication, some social workers met Islington Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn begging him to influence the council, then still denying everything. Soon after, I met him. He did make inquiries but was reassured. There the matter rested.

Radical acquaintances accused me of "whipping up homophobia"; Islington mysteriously lost files requested by police; at a feminist conference I addressed before inquiries tentatively vindicated our work, I was barracked for "abusing" children. This was Hodge's widely reported claim: that we had bribed disturbed children to invent those heartbreaking stories. She repeated this allegation while securing the Barkingside candidacy and has only just retracted it saying she had been lied to.

All it takes for evil to flourish, one philosopher said, is for good men to do nothing. Only one Labour Party member ever helped this investigation.

The writer won a Reporting Team of the Year award with Stewart Payne for the Islington investigation in the 1993 British Press Awards.

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