By Mark Watts
Investigating the sexual abuse of children is harrowing for journalists and an especially difficult area to uncover the truth.
The main witnesses – maligned by much of society that prefers to “blame the victim” than confront the truth – are often wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder well into adulthood. Some parts of the media, outrageously, use that condition to dismiss survivors of child sexual abuse as “mentally ill”.
Investigating evidence of a multi-levelled cover-up of sexual abuse by politicians and other “VIPs” plunges journalists into a toxic environment that has maintained Britain’s darkest secret for decades.
Compared with investigating other subjects, there are relatively few documents that shed much light on the subject. Whistleblowers are scared witless, whether they be police or former police officers who fear the Official Secrets Act, or social workers who endure a backlash after daring to question the status quo.
Exaro, the investigative website launched in 2011, has helped Britain turn the corner on this dark chapter. Since Exaro closed last month, many people have approached me with offers to help a new form of Exaro, with at least some of the same team members, to continue the journalistic effort truly to hold power to account in the UK.
Amid the extreme difficulties for abuse survivors and journalists who want the truth to be told, the most shameful piece of work in this area in recent times was Panorama, which last year sought to debunk allegations about “VIP paedophiles”. On the BBC, the late Sir Jimmy Savile’s long-time parish.
Ahead of the Panorama, as Exaro revealed, the Metropolitan Police Service’s directorate of professional standards launched an investigation into a senior detective who was alleged to have been a confidential source for the programme over the leaking of secret identities of complainants in abuse cases. BBC News, which was at war with Panorama over the programme, gleefully followed up Exaro’s startling story.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has since taken over the investigation into Panorama’s source, turning it into a criminal case. The IPCC is investigating whether the officer used Panorama as part of an attempt to sabotage several of its recent investigations into alleged sexual abuse by MPs and other prominent men. The officer, whose identity must remain confidential for now, denies any wrongdoing.
Just as Panorama was about to go to air, Scotland Yard issued a highly unusual statement to attack it for potentially jeopardising several ongoing criminal investigations.
Soon after transmission, Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk Constabulary, and the lead at the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) on investigating child sexual abuse, told BBC Newswatch that the programme “absolutely” risked deterring abuse survivors from coming forward.
No wonder when I went on BBC Radio 4’s Media Show that week, Panorama refused to put anyone up to defend the programme.
In that context, The Times ran an article last week from Ceri Thomas, Panorama editor, to attack Exaro, following its closure, for our reporting that sparked the overarching inquiry into child sexual abuse, chaired by Lowell Goddard, the New Zealand judge, and multiple police operations.
Like his programme, he did not find room to mention the 44 investigations – overseen by the IPCC – into allegations that the Met had improperly shelved past operations on child sexual abuse by VIPs. Again, Exaro first reported on the evidence – from former police officers – that sparked the initial wave of those IPCC cases.
Thomas also failed to address a key charge made publicly by Meirion Jones, the former Panorama producer who tried to expose Savile as a paedophile for Newsnight. Jones alleged that Thomas’s Panorama had set out with an “anti-victim” agenda.
I e-mailed Thomas to ask for his response, and whether, in light of the police reaction, he was proud of this programme.
He is away until mid-August, but Panorama’s acting editor, Karen Wightman, rejected the charge by Jones that the programme was “pre-determined”, adding: “We stand by our film and the research upon which it was based.”
Thomas, though, did find room in his Times article to include the false claim that Exaro had “bullied” an abuse survivor to stop talking to Panorama, warning him that his job might be at risk.
Panorama asked me a different version of this claim before broadcasting its programme last year. Although Panorama cannot get its false story straight, the claims are completely wrong.
Thomas also wrongly stated that a cloud of suspicion over Lord Bramall, the retired field marshal, was generated by Exaro when in fact we had simply broken the news that police had raided his property as part of their investigation. I cannot think of a serious news organisation that would not have broken the story if it had known.
For example, The Sunday Times and The Independent on Sunday first named Lord Brittan, former home secretary, two years ago when they broke the news that police had interviewed him under caution over a claim of raping a 19-year-old woman in 1967.
Thomas also raised doubts about my reporting in an LBC interview that an abuse survivor (who had not featured in the Panorama) attempted suicide as a result of the programme on the spurious grounds that I did not repeat the point in an interview with Newsnight.
The abuse survivor concerned read Thomas’s piece with horror, saying to me: “He throws doubt on my suicide attempt, just as he throws doubt on my abuse. Both of these things hurt.”
“But would he look me in the eyes and say them to my face.”
Well, I have asked Thomas whether he would meet with this witness – the person who attempted suicide as a direct result of his programme – accompanied by me, so that he can begin to understand the consequences of his actions. I am sure that it would be a harrowing and an especially difficult meeting for Thomas, and even more so for the witness.
But it is well past time to confront the truth. I await a response.
Mark Watts (@MarkWatts_1), co-ordinator of the FOIA Centre, is the former Editor-in-Chief of Exaro. Another version of this article appeared in Press Gazette.