By Mark Watts

Police chief Mike Veale condemned the campaign against his investigation into Sir Edward Heath for increasing the suffering of survivors of child sexual abuse.

A campaign of vilification has dogged ‘Operation Conifer’, the national investigation overseen by Veale into allegations against the late former prime minister of child sexual abuse, since a front-page article in the Mail on Sunday (pictured above) last November branded accusers as “fantasists”.

It triggered a series of articles in the British media that amounted to a campaign to force police to shelve the operation, which was launched in August 2015.

Veale, chief constable of Wiltshire Police, told me: “The most frustrating thing for me was two years of intense scrutiny, misleading commentary and criticism, which concerned me, concerned me because I was worried about the impact it would have on victims, alleged victims, not just in this particular case, but from a wider perspective.”

Veale was talking to me in a lengthy exclusive interview shortly after Wiltshire Police published Operation Conifer’s summary report just over a week ago.

I revealed last weekend how Veale had branded as “highly inappropriate” attempts by Keith Vaz, Labour MP, to interfere with his force’s investigation into Ted Heath.

On Thursday, I reported a warning from Veale that the overarching inquiry into child sexual abuse may be hampered by an absence of “pro-active investigative capability”.

Police ended their investigation into Heath in August, and then spent more than a month drawing up and finalising a confidential report, which is going to the inquiry, and a summary for publication.

Veale continued: “For two years, there was not one operational detail in the public domain. It just didn’t exist. Yet, for two years, there have been headlines in most newspapers on one page or another that has been driven by voices and commentators.”

“How the story has kept going for two years without one operational detail in the public domain is beyond me.”

The article in the Mail on Sunday claimed that Operation Conifer rested on several “fantasists” who made allegations against Heath of satanic ritual abuse.

When Wiltshire Police published a 109-page summary report on Operation Conifer on October 5, it devoted about half a page to claims of “ritual abuse” from just six out of 40 people who made allegations to the investigation against the ex-PM.

None of the six was among the seven men whose claims would have led police to interview Heath under caution in relation to 10 alleged offences, or among another two witnesses who fell just short of that threshold, according to the report.

The Mail on Sunday performed a hand-brake turn on the story last February when it realised that Operation Conifer had assessed several of its witnesses as credible.

However, other British media outlets are continuing the campaign – alongside an array of establishment figures, including friends and former colleagues of Heath – to traduce Operation Conifer.

Veale claimed that he was not blaming the media for the “misleading commentary and criticism”, saying: “For me, this is about people who may have intransigent views about those people who may have been involved in criminal activity and, whatever the veracity of the information, whatever the behaviours of people in the past, they’re not going to change their minds.”

The source of the fundamentally misleading article in the Mail on Sunday was Richard Hoskins, a criminologist who was hired by police as an ‘expert’ on Operation Conifer.

Hoskins claims that he was acting as a whistle-blower, but his disclosures related to a tiny part of the operation that police did not rank as the most credible.

Wiltshire Police strongly condemned him, and a spokesman said that Hoskins had been removed from the National Crime Agency’s list of recognised experts.

While the media continues to vilify abuse survivors, Veale believes that Operation Conifer will help encourage public trust in police on investigating child sexual offences.

He told me: “I think a lot more people today will have a lot more trust and confidence in the British police service.”

“We have, hopefully, engendered a lot more trust and confidence in people who may have suffered child abuse in the past, child abuse today or child abuse in the future.”

Mark Watts (@MarkWatts_1), co-ordinator of the FOIA Centre, is the former Editor-in-Chief of Exaro. This article also appears today on Byline.

Comment on this article

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Mike Veale: vilification of investigation into Edward Heath risks harm to abuse survivors
Vilification: Mail on Sunday
Conclusions: Operation Conifer