Tuesday, 16 December 2008
THE FRONT PAGE OF TIMES2 today features a full page picture of Haut de la Garenne, together with the title given in the headline of this piece.
The article inside appears under the rather more anodyne headline, 'No murder at the mansion'.
To read Mick Hume's 3 page feature, click here.
For the latest from former deputy chief officer Lenny Harper, see this article in the Belfast Telegraph.
To read responses to this post - or to leave a response yourself - click on the comments link below.
Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Peter Wilby's article begins with a succinct summary of the sensational coverage given to the original version of the story:
Last month, Jersey police announced that, so far as they could establish, there was no torture and no murder at the Haut de la Garenne children's care home in Jersey. The widely reported "human remains" (actually tiny bone fragments) were mostly animals, though three were possibly humans who died at least 58 years ago, and maybe more than 500 years ago. A "skull fragment" was a coconut shell. Underground "torture chambers" were floor voids where a grown person could not stand straight. "Shackles" were bits of old metal guttering. And so on and so on.
You probably saw the story, though you could be forgiven if you missed it. The Sun, Mail and Mirror had it on pages 19, 29 and 35 respectively. Back in February, when the abuse allegations first surfaced, Jersey was front-page news. Every paper gave it dramatic elaboration in the following months. Children had been "dismembered" and "incinerated". This was "a house of horrors", a "fortress of fear", a "kiddies' Colditz" where children were flung into "punishment pits". Detectives had discovered "sex abuse bunkers" and "mass graves". Terrible crimes, perpetrated by "a ring of evil men", had been "covered up" by the "close-knit Jersey establishment" on "the isle of secrets and whispers".
A Daily Mail reporter visited a nearby church where "faceless perverts" were damned by the Dean of Jersey. "From their muffled sobs, the victims, mainly middle-aged and careworn now, were all-too-easily identifiable ... others ... appeared to shift a little uneasily in their pews as the dean demanded that the culprits be called to account."
But supposing this enormously complex inquiry remains unresolved come his retirement day in September?
Surely he won't depart the island while the house on the hill sex fiends remain at large?
The veteran detective insists that he will.
But when he fixes you with an old-fashioned Londonderry stare and talks about all those tortured little children, it is hard to believe he could rest until he has closed the last file on the House of Horrors and locked all its evil predators away.In Peter Wilby's piece no newspaper or broadcaster is singled out for particular criticism. But in a comment posted here in relation to one of my earlier pieces, somebody who evidently has a strong Jersey connection focuses on the role of the BBC:
I will never forget the horror I felt when I heard the first hysterical reports on Radio 4 news in February. I felt physically sick.
As the weeks and months passed by it became increasingly clear that the BBC was complicit in driving the global frenzy by hyping the stories beyond all reason.
So what happened to the BBC's editorial guidelines which should have prevented this mess? For the sake of clarity here is an excerpt from them:
"Truth and accuracy
We strive to be accurate and establish the truth of what has happened. Accuracy is more important than speed and it is often more than a question of getting the facts right. We will weigh all relevant facts and information to get at the truth. Our output will be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested and presented in clear, precise language. We will be honest and open about what we don't know and avoid unfounded speculation...."
It is very disappointing that in a case where lives are being ruined and the world is watching that these important principles have been abandoned.
Months after the "skull" was discredited the BBC was still reporting - "Haut de la Garenne, where a child's skull was found" ... "where the remains of six children have been found" . . .
That comment can be read in full here.
If anyone has any further comments on the media coverage, please add them to this post.
To read responses to this post - or to leave a response yourself - click on the comments link below.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
PERHAPS THE MOST telling feature of the coverage of the Haut de la Garenne story in today's Sunday papers is just how little of it there is. The revelation last week that one of the biggest child protection stories in the history of the British media was based on the delusions and confusions of a senior police officer was extraordinary.
Given that journalists on both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers had, week after week, accepted unquestioningly the pronouncements of Lenny Harper, and continued to do so even after evidence that he had misled journalists had been placed squarely in the public domain, one might have expected a little soul-searching and and even a little self-criticism from some of our more reflective journalists. Yet, unless I have missed something, this is almost entirely absent from today's papers.
To give credit where at least some credit is due, the Guardian managed to run a brief piece on this subject by Nick Davies on Friday, which did make at least some of the points which needed to be made.
The Sunday papers, however, are almost completely free of such self-criticism. The only detailed report which carries the story forward in significant respects is, as might have been expected, by David Rose in the Mail on Sunday. His substantial article, 'How Lenny lost the plot', appears in the Review section of the paper. It provides an excellent summary of the main points of the Haut de la Garenne saga for which one can only be grateful. Indeed, given the grave implications of the story which he relates, it is both astonishing and depressing that none of the broadsheet Sunday newspapers has even attempted to run a similar investigation.
It should be noted, however, that not all the 'revelations' made in this piece are as new as Rose suggests. Some of the most important were in fact made by Diane Simon (in outline at least) in the Jersey Evening Post in the middle of April and the fact that this has not been acknowledged actually distorts the story Rose is seeking to relate. His account, though, does fill in many crucial details which were previously missing.
It also includes an extraordinary and genuinely new revelation concerning a confidential email in which Harper, in an attempt to maintain the credibility of his investigation in the eyes of his political masters, effectively misreported an entire forensic report.
So far at least there can be no doubt that Rose's is the best piece of journalism about Haut de la Garenne which has emerged since last week's press conference and it is all the more valuable for being without any serious competitors.
Meanwhile in the Observer, Catherine Bennett has produced one of the most interesting reflective pieces which has appeared in the wake of last week's news conference. Although her account of my own contribution is not strictly accurate and she greatly underplays the culpability of journalists, she does at least fleetingly acknowledge the possibility that they might have acquitted themselves better. She also recognises (as Nick Davies does not) that the entire saga has been driven forward by our enduring appetite for evil. At the same time she implicitly recognises that a fascination with evil conspiracies tends almost invariably go hand in hand with extreme forms of credulity.
The forces of evil
THIS BRINGS US to an article which appears in the newspaper which has been one of Harper's most fervent supporters throughout the Haut de la Garenne saga - the News of the World.
In the video clip carried on the paper's website (click here and scroll down), although he talks bravely, Lenny Harper, almost for the first time, seems to have lost the ebullient confidence he once displayed when addressing the world's media. But he does say one thing which bears repetition. In attempting to explain why he continued digging relentlessly, when all the signs would have indicated to a rational observer that his quest was fruitless, he told the News of the World reporters that 'There was something evil going on at Haut de la Garenne and I felt I had to carry on my inquiry.'
It would seem that my own suggestion that at the heart of the entire story there lies a battle with forces that are imagined as evil is something with which Harper himself agrees. The problem with all such battles, however, is that the invocation of evil is too often used to justify all manner of shortcomings on the part of those who crusade against it. Because, in our own culture, we seem to have adopted child abuse as our ultimate evil, the assumption is frequently made that actions which are less than entirely scrupulous can be justified so long as they are aimed at defeating this evil.
In the case of Haut de la Garenne it would be all too easy to seek to excuse the various misrepresentations in which Harper has engaged by invoking the nobility of the cause in which he has been fighting. One of the many reasons for resisting this argument is the seriousness of the consequences that have flowed from his actions. In the first place there has been a huge waste of police time and huge expense, running into millions of pounds, has been unnecessarily incurred.
Even more importantly, a great deal of damage has been done to the cause of child protection by the promotion of unfounded claims. These will inevitably undermine the credibility of those who make genuine allegations of child abuse and it is at least possible that they have jeopardised prosecutions which would otherwise have been soundly based. At the same time, because of the credulous response of journalists, the newspaper-reading public in Britain - and indeed far beyond - have been encouraged, over a period of many months, to become caught up in what amounts to a massive collective delusion.
How Lenny Harper himself should be dealt with is a matter ultimately for the police and the authorities on Jersey. Whatever conclusion is ultimately reached with regard to Harper, however, it should not be allowed to distract us from an issue which is just as important – the culpability of journalists. For the journalists who have covered the Haut de la Garenne story, and the editors who have relentlessly published and broadcast the ill-researched or unresearched stories they have written, do bear a huge responsibility for what has happened in Jersey over the past year.
It is a responsibility which, on the evidence of the stories which have appeared – or which failed to appear – in today’s papers, they seem markedly reluctant to shoulder.
To read responses to this post - or to leave a response yourself - click on the comments link below. Expressions of agreement are always welcome; so too are dissenting views.
Wednesday, 12 November 2008
From Spiked, 13 November 2008
Richard Webster, the Orwell Prize-nominated author of The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt, has been asking awkward questions about the Jersey children’s home scandal for the past year.
His essay ‘The truth about the Jersey skull’, published on his own site [as 'The Jersey skull fragment, the police and the facts that changed'] and on spiked in April, was the first piece to raise serious questions about the police investigation in Jersey. It led directly to the revelation that a ‘skull fragment’ found in the former home was actually a piece of coconut. Now that the Jersey police say there is no evidence that murders took place at the home, Webster reports on his feelings of ‘quiet vindication’ and asks: why didn’t journalists behave more sceptically?
Yesterday, Graham Power, the chief officer of Jersey’s police force, was suspended after the new deputy chief officer, David Warcup, and Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell (who has been seconded from Lancashire CID) held an extraordinary press conference. During their briefing they made it clear that in their view there had never been any evidence that murders had taken place at Haut de la Garenne – the former children’s home on the island of Jersey, in the UK, which has been the subject of sensationalist media coverage over the past year – and that previous press briefings given by Warcup’s predecessor, Lenny Harper, had been misleading and inaccurate.
Although the news imparted at yesterday’s press conference has been treated by much of the media as a revelation, the conclusion reached by Warcup and Gradwell could in fact have been reached by any journalist who had sceptically studied the evidence about Haut de la Garenne already in the public domain.
Some two months ago, at a time when Mick Gradwell, the new senior investigating officer in the Haut de la Garenne case, had barely arrived on Jersey to take up his post, I put the finishing touches to the postscript to the paperback edition of my most recent book, which is due out in January. The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt is an investigation of the North Wales children’s home scandal which shows that, during the 1990s, Bryn Estyn, a former children’s home in Wrexham, North Wales, effectively became the focus for a massive collective delusion. This happened largely because a number of broadsheet journalists, some of them very distinguished, promoted the idea that Bryn Estyn had been in the grip of a paedophile ring and that children had been systematically raped and abused throughout North Wales children’s homes. The only problem was that this evil conspiracy, like the parallel conspiracy which has been located in Haut de la Garenne, did not in fact exist.
In the postscript to the paperback edition of my book, I set out to explore some of the parallels between what happened in relation to North Wales more than 15 years ago, and what has been happening recently in relation to Haut de la Garenne and Jersey. I have to confess that when, some two months ago, I committed to the hard cold finality of print my own conclusion that there was no indication that any murders had taken place at Haut de la Garenne, I did so with a small tremor of apprehension lest evidence to the contrary should emerge before the paperback of my book appears. Yesterday that tremor of apprehension was replaced by a feeling of quiet vindication.
What follows is the first section of the postscript (with the addition of two final paragraphs which seek to place the Jersey story in a longer perspective by relating it to earlier journalistic failures). The full version of the postscript will be published separately as a pamphlet when the paperback of The Secret of Bryn Estyn appears at the end of January 2009.For details, click here. To go to the Orwell Press website click here.)
Journalism, Jersey and the idea of evil
MORE THAN THREE YEARS have now passed since The Secret of Bryn Estyn appeared in hardback but this paperback edition is still necessary. For although the book is an attempt to write history, the problem at its heart is far from being a historical one. Indeed, as this new edition appears, we are in the middle of a new children’s home scandal.
The scandal in question, which first came to widespread attention on the weekend of 23-24 February 2008, has attracted even more media coverage than was given to the Bryn Estyn story during the 1990s.
The Jersey ‘skull fragment’
ON SATURDAY 23 FEBRUARY 2008, a team of police officers and forensic experts made a discovery which would transform an obscure police inquiry in a picturesque corner of Jersey into a global media frenzy. The discovery took place inside the main building of the former Haut de la Garenne children’s home. It was reportedly made not by the officers themselves but by a trained sniffer dog which had previously taken part in the search for Madeleine McCann after her abduction in Portugal. Almost immediately the police issued a press release saying that they had found ‘what appears to be potential remains of a child’.
A press conference was held and the effect on journalists was electric. News of the discovery rapidly shot to the top of radio and television news bulletins. That evening the BBC website headlined its story ‘Child’s body found at care home’. It went on to say that ‘parts of a child’s body’ had been discovered and that the remains were thought to date ‘from the early 1980s’. Deputy Chief Police Officer Lenny Harper was quoted as saying that detectives ‘think there is the possibility they may find more remains’.
Within 24 hours this gruesome story spread around the globe amidst talk of a possible paedophile ring. The Guardian reported that ‘half a dozen bodies’ might be found and quoted Harper as saying: ‘There could be six or more. It could be higher than that.’ Journalists descended on Jersey from all over the world. Massive resources were poured into what rapidly became a multi-million pound inquiry, and teams of experts were brought in from all over the UK. Meanwhile both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers carried reports of cover-ups, of sinister political machinations, of the involvement of prominent Jersey politicians and of allegations which in the past went unheeded.
Almost every one of the motifs which had emerged in the North Wales story seemed to be present again. The only significant difference was that the publicity in this case focused not so much on sexual abuse as on the idea that former residents of children’s homes had been secretly tortured and murdered after being raped by those en-trusted with their care.
There was only one problem. This was that practically every element of the initial story, as relayed by the media, was untrue.
In fact, no child’s body had been discovered. Nor had the police found anything which could reasonably have been described as the ‘remains of a child’. All they had found was a small object, which was later said to be a skull fragment, and which was about the size of a 50p piece. There was no evidence to suggest that this fragment belonged to ‘the early 1980s’ and nor was it clear that it had ever been reliably identified as belonging to a child.
Although the police initially gave prominence to the carbon dating tests to which they had submitted this ‘skull fragment’, the eventual announcement of the results of these tests was muted and revealed only that it had proved impossible to carbon date the bone fragment accurately because of an absence of collagen from the sample.
At this point a little journalistic digging of my own sufficed to establish that the Oxford scientist who had conducted the carbon dating test had serious doubts about the ‘skull fragment’ he had been asked to date. When David Rose eventually interviewed him it transpired that the fragment was, in the opinion of the experts, not a piece of bone at all. It was, in their view, either a piece of wood or a fragment of coconut shell.
Although he had known about this finding for many weeks, Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper, who was leading the Haut de la Garenne inquiry, had continued to refer to his find as ‘a skull fragment’. When the view of the experts was made public by Rose in an article in the Mail on Sunday, it seemed entirely possible that a sensation-driven investigation in which press publicity had prompted more than a hundred complainants to come forward, and had identified more than 180 suspects, would collapse.
In fact the new development in the story seemed merely to test the narrative skills of the officer leading the investigation. Having announced the discovery of more ‘bone fragments’ and a large number of milk teeth, he promised the press a ‘bone by bone analysis’ – which was never in the event delivered. He then went on to construct, on the basis of no accurately dated evidence at all, an extraordinary scenario.
According to the press report which now appeared, ‘Innocent children were raped, murdered and their bodies then burnt in a furnace at the Jersey House of Horrors, says a top-secret police report into the scandal.’ The article went on to relate that, having discovered strands of blue nylon in sifted rubble, police had concluded not only that these came from a broom, but also that this putative broom had been used to sweep human bones into the soil floor where they had supposedly been found.
The only paper to carry this entirely speculative story, which appeared as a front-page lead on 13 July 2008, was the News of the World. But subsequent coverage was by no means restricted to this sensation-seeking paper. On 31 July, for example, still without any reliable evidence, the BBC Radio 4 news and the Today programme led with the claim that the remains of five children had been found at Haut de la Garenne.
As is always the case with such stories, it is important to acknowledge that, given the huge time span which was under investigation in the Jersey case it is improbable that there would not be some cases of abuse – quite possibly serious abuse. But, if reports of the Haut de la Garenne inquiry are studied carefully, then it is clear that there has never been reliable evidence that any murder was committed at the home. The tiny fragments of bone and the numerous milk teeth which were found were not evidence of foul play; they had no demonstrable link with the time the building had been used as a children’s home and could well have been imported from elsewhere; even the police concede that one of their crucial bone fragments was probably 350 years old.
The only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that the major factor which was in play throughout the saga was a deep psychological need for a narrative of evil – a need which journalists seem to feel they have a professional obligation to satisfy.
Note added 13 November 2008
In the postscript I go on to develop this idea. Here it will perhaps suffice to note that the complicity of the media in the Jersey scandal did not come from nowhere. Over the past 20 years, too many journalists, on both the broadsheets and the tabloids, have accepted at face value unsubstantiated stories about paedophile rings and even Satanic ritual abuse. Even ostensibly critically-minded journalists have willingly become part of this modern search for evil. For example, Nick Davies, who earlier this year won critical acclaim for his exposé of journalistic falsehood, Flat Earth News, wrote two long, credulous reports about the Bryn Estyn panic. In these Guardian reports, which appeared in 1997, he made a parallel between the alleged events at Bryn Estyn and the Holocaust, describing the tribunal of inquiry into North Wales’ care homes as a ‘little Nuremberg’. Davies wrote that ‘for years the muffled sound of scandal has been leaking from the closed world of Britain’s children’s homes’, and ‘now, finally, for the first time, the truth is pouring out’. Sir Ronald Waterhouse himself, the retired High Court judge who oversaw the tribunal, was moved to comment on the Guardian’s ‘highly coloured reporting’; he wondered, upon reading the Guardian’s accounts, whether ‘they were reporting the same tribunal that I have been attending’.
From Bryn Estyn to Jersey, the search for narratives of ‘evil’ almost inevitably threatens the lives of innocent people – in this case the innocent people among the 180 former Jersey care workers against whom a sensation-seeking police investigation had succeeded in collecting allegations.As in the case of Bryn Estyn, such narratives almost inevitably threaten the lives of innocent people – in this case the innocent people among the 180 former Jersey care workers against whom a sensation-seeking police investigation had succeeded in collecting allegations.
Wednesday, 18 June 2008
'His crime was to have used an electricity-generating device as an instrument of torture to punish boys. Now there will be those for whom the conviction of a member of a religious order will come as no surprise — after all it is easy, given lurid headlines about psychopathic nuns and pervy priests, to conclude that they were all involved or complicit in abuse. It is a conclusion that some people seem almost to take pleasure in reaching.
'Of course had the Brother involved actually electrocuted kids then a jail sentence would seem only appropriate. But he hadn’t. '
To read the rest of Mark Smith's most recent column for cyc-online, the journal of the International Child and Youth Care Network, click here.
Mark Smith, who is a lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh, writes about residential care with particular authority.
This is not primarily because he is an academic. It is because his academic career is based on the foundation of twenty years experience in the residential social work sector, where he eventually became the principal of a secure unit.
In an earlier article, published in the journal Practice, he explained how his interest in the subject of historic abuse allegations came about:
'There is perhaps a default position that leads social workers to accept a view that abuse in residential care settings was widespread, reflecting the pre-eminent place of child protection in the profession's recent history. This is sustainable so long as the setting in question is not one we know. Most of my experiences as a practitioner and manager in residential care settings over a period of almost 20 years had been positive with not a hint of systematic or institutionalised abuse. Then, over the past few years, schools and individuals I knew well became implicated in claims of abuse. Many of the allegations simply did not fit with basic facts. I began to follow cases, keeping press cuttings and attending court sittings. I also began to look more critically at the literature on institutional abuse.'
His most recent article goes on to make reference to my own work and to the Jersey case. But it is not for that reason that I include it here. It is because it illustrates, as well as any piece of writing, the dangers of reposing faith in justice when it comes to historic abuse investigations.
The fact that Mark Smith's former colleague had not tortured any boys with electric shocks ultimately proved irrelevant to the court which tried him. He, like many other innocent care workers, received a prison sentence for crimes which had never been committed.
He did so because of the power of a narrative which has been built up over twenty years. This narrative maintains, in the face of a mass of contemporary evidence to the contrary, that physical and sexual abuse was rife in residential care throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Nowhere, perhaps, has this narrative been deployed with greater force than in relation to the allegations about Haut de la Garenne.
Monday, 9 June 2008
Those who have followed the news coverage of the Jersey inquiry would not necessarily be aware of this. A week ago, on the evening of Sunday 1 June, the BBC Radio 4 news bulletin broadcast as its lead item the news that another suspect had been arrested in relation to allegations of abuse at Haut de la Garenne.
News of the cyclone in Burma and the earthquakes in China was evidently considered less important than the latest twist in the Jersey story.
What the BBC did not tell us, and what practically no other newspaper drew attention to in the following days, was that the man who had been arrested was aged between 14 and 17 at the time of the alleged offences.
In other words these allegations did not point , as most reports implied, to a breach of trust by a care worker, but to sexual offences carried out by one child on three younger children at a time when all were in care at Haut de la Garenne.
The failure of the British media to report this salient fact is merely the latest example of a saga of misrepresentation and shallow or misleading coverage which most editors appear to have no desire to correct. This kind of reporting, consisting largely in the suppression of significant facts, might be thought to be more appropriate to a totalitarian regime than to a democracy with an allegedly free press.
There have also been a number of other developments. More than a week ago the Jersey Evening Post reported that calls had been made by victims' advocates for Jersey to set up a 'Redress Board'. In practice this would mean that compensation could be awarded to alleged victims without the the need for allegations to be tested in a criminal court. In support of this move Fay Maxted, chief executive of the Survivors' Trust, actually cited the examples provided by compensation schemes set up both in the Republic of Ireland and in Nova Scotia:
"The redress boards set up in Nova Scotia and Ontario in the 1990s, and in Ireland in 2002, have been able to allow victims the opportunity to be heard and recompensed in some way and given communities the opportunity to challenge the silence and secrecy that concealed the abuse in the past."
Today almost exactly the same story appears in the Guardian. What neither the Jersey Evening Post nor the Guardian pointed out was that there is a significant amount of evidence that both in Ireland and Nova Scotia these schemes have in practice functioned almost as a compensation-on-demand scheme for anyone who has made allegations of abuse, whether or not there is any evidence to support these allegations.
In both cases there have been well-informed claims that the creation of such redress schemes has led to, or intensified, a veritable culture of false allegations. This is the argument put forward by Herman Kelly in the closing sections of his book Kathy's Real Story: A Culture of False Allegations Exposed. The same argument was also implicit in the conclusions of the Canadian judge Fred Kaufman when he was commissioned by the Nova Scotia government to conduct an inquiry into the compensation scheme there.
For my own comment on the workings of the Irish redress board, click here.
If the Jersey parliament were to act on the ill-judged recommendations reported today by the Guardian, they would be committing an act of the grossest kind of folly.
Meanwhile Jersey's chief minister, Frank Walker, has called on elected representatives in Jersey to 'stay silent' and refrain from passing any comments on the conduct of the police investigation. 'Our major concern,' he has said, 'is that nothing should undermine the fairness of the judicial process in the interests both of the complainants and those charged.'
The sentiments which the chief minister expresses in these words are admirable. Prejudicial publicity about alleged crimes in advance of criminal trials taking place does indeed pose a threat to justice. This is the principal reason why senior police officers usually refrain from making any comment about the evidence they have gathered in advance of a criminal trial taking place.
Unfortunately, although the minister has imposed a duty of silence on Jersey's elected representatives, he has imposed no such duty on Lenny Harper, the deputy chief officer of the Jersey police. Indeed it may well be that he is quite powerless to do so.
It is precisely because Harper has been systematically undermining the fairness of the judicial process from the day in February when he told the press that 'We have never doubted that the people who contacted us are telling the truth' until now, that he has been criticised so severely by so many people.
Since justice and fairness are indeed vital it would seem to be extremely important that Jersey's politicians should feel free to speak out if they genuinely believe that principles of justice are being violated.
Wednesday, 21 May 2008
What is now clear, however, is that neither the Jersey police nor the journalists sitting in the press gallery to which Harper has been playing since the end of February have learned the obvious lessons.
To put the matter another way both the Jersey police and journalists from the BBC, the Times, and the Telegraph have evidently decided that the show must go on. For that is what the Jersey child abuse story has become. It has become part of the 'lethal peepshow', made up of episodes of 'gruesome prurience' which, as both Mark Lawson and Brendan O'Neill have recently noted, our news media now regularly provide.
There is as yet no evidence that any murder has taken place at Haut de la Garenne. Harper himself has had the grace to make it clear that there hasn't even been an allegation of murder made by any of his witnesses. Nor, he has said, is there any reliable evidence that a child ever went missing. Yet still, prompted directly by his words, the airwaves and the newspapers are dark with talk of a possible homicide inquiry. With the kind of journalistic irresponsibility that even the Sun sometimes eschews, the Times headlines its most recent story about Haut de la Garenne 'Children were dismembered and burnt, say Jersey police.'
FOR DEPUTY CHIEF officer Lenny Harper himself such headlines are, of course, manna from heaven. The recent revelation that he had deliberately concealed from the press, and from Jersey government ministers, the scientists' conclusion that the famous 'skull fragment' was not a piece of bone at all might very easily have led to the complete discrediting of his inquiry.
However, he has handled the latest crisis with the kind narrative skill which is normally shown only by novelists. Having started off the entire story by representing a small fragment of alleged bone as 'the remains of a child' and holding out the possibility that as many as six dead bodies might soon be discovered, he knows the power which can be exerted by the promise that gruesome revelations will be made, though always at some future point that we never quite manage to reach. So now he has performed the same narrative trick all over again. This time thirty fragments of alleged bone have been used to imply that evidence of children being cut up into pieces may emerge any day.
The results may not be as spectacular as they were the first time, but he has succeeded in distracting attention away from what ought now to be the main issue. Instead of focusing on the fact that Harper has, while preaching truth and transparency, concealed vital facts from the public and misrepresented evidence he knows to be worthless, much of the press is now agog at his latest claims.
The press conference
YET IF WE listen carefully to the extraordinary 12-minute unscripted and uninterrupted speech which Harper recently made to the BBC cameras, it is quite clear that he is doing again what he has done already. He is actually withholding from the press the details of reports he claims to have received from scientists, which might entirely discredit his latest instalment of gruesome innuendo.
For he himself says that he has received 'conflicting information' from experts, some of whom date the latest finds to 'way, way before the date that our inquiry started'. This, he says, would make any 'potential homicide inquiry impossible and just a pointless exercise.' According to the Jersey Evening Post, even the most recent date given for these bone fragments has still placed them no later than the 1960s.
Because of the deputy chief officer's past record, none of the claims he now makes should be relied on until documentary evidence has been produced. But even if all the tiny pieces of bone were to turn out to be human they would still, in themselves, have no forensic significance.
What most journalists do not seem to have understood, but what Harper himself is evidently aware of, is that you cannot conduct a murder inquiry on the basis of a few fragments of bone. This is particularly so when the largest fragment is only two inches long and most are much, much smaller. You certainly cannot conduct a murder inquiry on such a slender basis when you do not even have evidence that any person is missing.
THE QUESTION WHICH no journalist has dared to ask is why, given this fact, the entire police exercise has continued relentlessly. It has done so in spite of the fact that no forensically significant evidence has been found after three whole months of digging.
It is quite clear that the original purpose was not to discover tiny fragments of bone and tooth which would probably barely cover the bottom of a bucket - or perhaps an ashtray. The aim was to exhume whole human bodies - or, failing that, skeletons. Because such evidence has not been found there has been a need to justify the huge amount of money which had already been allocated to the excavation work before even the first 'skull fragment' was found.
It is for this reason that the inquiry has turned into an elaborate pseudo-forensic archaeological dig. In a desperate attempt to vindicate the enterprise, 'tons and tons of rubble', to use Harper's own words, has been meticulously sieved.
More human remains?
IF YOU CONDUCT such an investigation amongst the cellars or foundations of any large nineteenth-century building which happens to have been constructed within four hundred yards of a neolithic burial site, you are likely to make similar finds.
So far at least, the tiny bone fragments that Harper's team have found (which may well have been imported in builder's rubble from elsewhere on the island) tell us nothing at all about what happened in the Haut de la Garenne children's home. Moreover, even according to the undocumented claims Harper has himself made, 21 of the alleged 30 bone fragments found during the past month have, up to now, not even been confirmed as human.
Instead of facing up to these stark facts most journalists have continued to take on trust the words of the same investigating officer who, on 23 February, described as the remains of a child what we now know to be a piece of wood or coconut. Perhaps the most astonishing of the many reports which have appeared since the 'post-coconut' press conference of Wednesday 21 May was that of Alex Bushill. Speaking to BBC cameras in front of Haut de la Garenne, Bushill reported that the Jersey police had 'found the remains of at least one child, possibly more.'
'A child lies buried'
DISREGARDING the manner in which the entire media story was started off three months earlier with untrue claims by the police that the remains of a child had been discovered, he went on to say that 'this is the first time they've said they have found human remains here.' He then suggested that the bones may have 'been put here at Haut de la Garenne' as early as 'the eighteenth century' even though the home was not in fact built until 1867.
On the following morning the chief reporter of the Daily Telegraph, Gordon Rayner, quoted as though it were a fact Harper's completely unfounded claim that 'a child or children lies buried in the cellars under Haut de la Garenne'
Such reports notwithstanding, it is quite clear that the main result of the excavation up to this point has not been to amass evidence which might be used in a criminal prosecution. It has been to attract more publicity for the inquiry and the investigating officer who is leading it.
If the original (and dangerous) aim was to use such publicity to encourage allegations, its current aim is to salvage the reputation of that officer and to distract the attention of journalists away from the fact that he quite deliberately fed them false information for more than a month.
Criminal records and credibility
IN HIS PRESS CONFERENCE, however, Lenny Harper was at least right about one thing. For, as he urged, it is certainly not the case that people who complain of abuse should be disbelieved purely on the grounds that they have criminal records.
But nobody has suggested that they should. They have merely pointed to one of the facts of human nature of which any responsible investigating officer should be aware. In circumstances where former residents of children's homes are encouraged by sensational publicity to make allegations of abuse it is normal for a large number of the allegations made to be untrue.
The fact that such former residents often have long criminal records is inevitably relevant to this. Perhaps the most measured words on this subject are those written by the Canadian judge Fred Kaufman:
'Sexual abuse claimants should not be regarded as immune from the temptations and incentives - particularly monetary - that move human beings generally, just because they allege sexual abuse. The fact that young offenders may be targeted for abuse because of their vulnerability, and because they are less likely to be believed, does not mean that their institutional history for deceit or criminality should be discarded in evaluating their credibility.'
When Kaufman completed an inquiry for the Nova Scotia government into a former children's home which had been demonised in press coverage just as Haut de la Garenne has been, he came to the conclusion that a huge number of the allegations of abuse made by former residents had been fabricated. In this respect he was only confirming the results of a previous inquiry conducted by the Canadian Mounted Police.
When, as an author, I conducted a ten-year investigation into allegations of abuse made in relation to children's homes in North Wales, I reached a similar conclusion.
The North Wales investigation
WHAT HAPPENED IN NORTH WALES is that the investigating officer there, in an attempt to vindicate his own massive (and highly dangerous) police inquiry, resorted to the most desperate strategy of all. Early in the morning of 15 March 1992, 40 police officers took up positions in streets in and around Wrexham in North Wales.
As dawn broke they swooped down on their suspects and arrested sixteen men and one woman. All but one had worked at Bryn Estyn, a care home for adolescent boys on the outskirts of Wrexham.
According to reports which began to appear in the press in 1991, Bryn Estyn had lain at the centre of a network of evil – a conspiracy which supposedly involved the extensive homosexual abuse of adolescent boys by a paedophile ring, whose members terrorised their victims and subjected them to a regime of violence and brutality.
One former member of staff at Bryn Estyn was guilty of serious sexual abuse. But, as the police themselves were eventually forced to admit, the evil conspiracy in whose existence many people had come to believe was a figment of their imagination. As a result of their high-profile investigation, however, the witch-hunt spread throughout the United Kingdom. Thousand of innocent former care workers were arrested and as many as a hundred were given long prison sentences for crimes which neither they nor anybody else had committed.
Deputy chief officer Harper is now showing all the signs of the same kind of desperation which prompted the disastrous dawn raid in North Wales. Although he has previously spoken of forty suspects, his press conference yesterday dramatically ratcheted the total up to seventy. According to the Telegraph, he promised the press that 'they will all be questioned and most of them will be arrested'.
If this is allowed to happen it will almost certainly lead once more to a number of grave injustices and to the ruining of many innocent lives. For arrests on this scale, made on the basis of unreliable evidence which has been contaminated by the very police operation which collected it, do not belong to any process of justice. Such arrests, which inevitably generate fear, loathing and prejudice, are part of the mechanics of modern-day witch-hunts. They lead, as traditional witch-hunts once did, to injustice and the persecution of the innocent.
Alphonse le Gastelois
THOSE WHO LIVE in Jersey should not need to be reminded of the fate of Alphonse le Gastelois, the island's most famous victim of false allegations. They will know that the pressure of false allegations eventually drove him, in 1961, into exile on Les Ecréhous (the Rocky Islands), a small barren reef seven miles off the coast of Jersey.
But it may not have occurred to every Jersey resident that the story of le Gastelois, who once lived in a cottage at Faldouet, within a few hundred yards of Haut de la Garenne, contains lessons about what has been happening close to his former home in recent months.
For those who do not live in Jersey, the story bears retelling. It can perhaps be told most eloquently in the words of Senator John Rothwell, the Jersey politician who, in 1999, proposed to the Jersey States Assembly, that le Gastelois should be compensated for his suffering.
In his speech to the Assembly, Senator Rothwell said this:
'Alphonse Le Gastelois, much to his distaste, will always be remembered for being the chief suspect in a series of hideous sex crimes that plagued the Island in the late fifties and throughout the sixties. He was hounded, humiliated, spat on and cursed until, not being able to withstand the onslaught of public vilification any longer, he left his tiny rented cottage at Faldouet for the Ecréhous where he remained in exile for 14 years.
Alphonse was always looked on as an odd ball, in appearance and lifestyle. He lived alone, kept himself to himself and was seen regularly roaming the countryside and lanes, often late in the evening. He was often teased by the young of the Parish of St. Martin. He was used to that but when rumour turned to gossip and later suspicion, those youngsters and adults became afraid.
Ridicule turned to hate. Suspicion reached fever pitch when the States Police picked him up and questioned him at Police Headquarters for over 14 hours. Whilst there, his cottage was searched and various items and all his clothes were removed and sent to Scotland Yard for examination. Alphonse emerged from Police Headquarters a forlorn figure, wrapped in a blanket.
He was driven home only to discover on arrival that all the windows of his cottage were broken. Alphonse could stand it no more. He was deeply depressed and could see no way out. He yearned for peace and freedom from the victimisation he had endured. He arranged for a local fisherman to take him to the Ecréhous where he remained until 1975.'
'Jersey crucified me'
'ONLY BY GOING AWAY could I clear my name,' he would later say. 'I was sure the terrible attacks would continue and my innocence would be recognised.'
The attacks did continue and le Gastelois' name was eventually cleared. In December 1971, after ten years, Edward Paisnel - 'the Beast of Jersey' - was finally convicted of the crimes for which le Gastelois had initially been made the scapegoat. Paisnel was found guilty on 13 counts of assault, rape and sodomy.
It was at this point that the story of Alphonse le Gastelois' lonely exile became more widely known after it was featured in Time magazine. Asked by a journalist whether he was now going to leave his rocky outpost, he said that he would not. 'This is my home now,' he said. 'Jersey crucified me.'
Le Gastelois eventually did return to Jersey. But ironically this was only because he was accused once again of being guilty of a crime. In 1975 he was arrested on suspicion of setting fire to a holiday cottage on Ecréhous and brought back to the mainland to face trial. He was acquitted but he was now a broken man without even the will to resume his exile.
It was left to Senator Rothwell to plead his case to the Jersey parliament a full twenty-four years later. He concluded his speech with the following words:
'Alphonse is now 84 years of age, living alone in abject poverty in a single room at the rear end of a cottage in St. Helier. Most of the time he keeps himself locked in. He suffers severe back pain which impairs his ability to walk very far. He is a lost soul, a victim of circumstance which changed the direction of his life forever.
He was an innocent man wrongly accused, persecuted by his fellow islanders, and subjected to constant intense police surveillance. He has received no pension and has never been given a single penny in compensation.
I believe we should recognise that he is deserving of some compensation for the suffering he has endured from being wrongly accused.
It might help to restore some faith in a society that vilified him, and never said sorry.'
The great danger which faces Jersey now, as deputy chief officer Harper vows to arrest scores of suspects on the basis of evidence his own reckless use of the media has contaminated, is that more innocent islanders will suffer the the fate of Alphonse le Gastelois.
They may, just as le Gastelois was, be caught up in the fear and loathing inspired by those (probably a very small number) who are guilty of real crimes.
In such circumstances it is customary both for ordinary citizens and for politicians to place their faith in due process and the safeguards of the justice system. Recently the Bailiff of Jersey, Sir Phillip Bailhache, used his Liberation Day address to suggest that, although we do not know the truth about what happened in Haut de la Garenne 'What we do know is that a rigorous investigation is taking place and, in due course, a balanced judgement will be possible.'
Unfortunately we know nothing of the kind. All we know is that deputy chief officer Harper has conducted a sensational police inquiry in a manner which recklessly disregards the requirements of justice. Given the manner in which he has used the lethal peepshow of the press in order to generate allegations against care workers who may be entirely innocent, a balanced judgment is something which the courts may never be in a position to reach. In these circumstances we should recognise that the faith in justice which so many British people still have is one of the most dangerous forms of faith there is.
Witch hunts and journalists
THE GREATEST DIFFICULTY which is faced by the legislators and politicians who wield nominal power on the island of Jersey, is that their hands have been all but tied by a press to whom they are now held captive. For they will now find it extremely difficult to halt the witch hunt that has been set in motion without being accused by journalists of seeking to cover up an evil conspiracy - or even of being themselves a part of that conspiracy.
The witch-hunting climate that has come into being may originally have been set in motion on the island itself. And there can be no doubt that Harper has played a big part in producing this climate. But even Harper has now become a prisoner of the very journalists he once turned to for help. For by enlisting their aid in the manner that he did, he has placed himself under massive pressure to carry through a dramatic programme of arrests, and thus to bring his investigation to the kind of climax which the lethal peepshow demands.
It is for this reason that it is now more important than ever that the editors of newspapers, and of all news media, should take responsibility for the vast power they exercise and begin to undo the harm done by their actions so far.
If editors do not now rein in their credulous, gruesome and prurient coverage, and begin to look carefully at the other side of the story, then many more innocent people will suffer the fate of Alphonse le Gastelois.
And it will not, ultimately, be only Jersey who crucifies them. Journalists, including senior editors at the BBC, whose coverage has perhaps been the most shallow and irresponsible of all, will themselves bear a heavy measure of responsibility.
This would be a tragic outcome. It is one which, if a wiser and more careful course is now adopted both by politicians in Jersey and by journalists on the mainland, can still be avoided.
Last revised 24 May
To read the article which led to David Rose's discovery that the Jersey 'skull fragment' was a piece of coconut, click here.
Monday, 19 May 2008
Sunday, 18 May 2008
Dr Jacobi said: 'I share Tom's conclusions. I believe it is a piece of coconut shell, such as you might come across on a beach.
'I have been handling bones for more than 30 years, ranging from ones a few months old to those dating back several hundred thousand years. In my opinion, this is not a piece of bone.
'It isn't like any piece of bone I've ever seen: it's light and porous. It certainly has none of the structures you would find in a human skull.'
Yet although Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper has known for weeks about the conclusion that the fragment was not bone he has deliberately kept this information from the press. By doing so he has been actively misleading journalists by implying something which he knows to be untrue - namely that the 'item' had been reliably identified as a piece of bone.
No doubt he was doing this in an attempt to salvage the investigation. But he was also clearly doing it in an attempt to save his own skin. He even claimed yesterday that he had never seen a letter specifically addressed to him which set out the findings in detail. If this is true it is remarkable. But it is also irrelevant since, by his own account the scientists' belief that the fragment was not bone had already been communicated to him some three weeks earlier.
The latest development in the Jersey story has come about as a result of an investigation carried out in Oxford and Jersey by David Rose, who was following up my article 'The Jersey skull fragment, the police and the facts that changed'. For the full story, as it appears in this morning's Mail on Sunday, click here.
For a version of the story which was added to later editions of the Observer, click here.
The Observer story quotes from a statement issued by the Jersey police last night: 'Police were told that in the opinion of the laboratory staff the item was not bone but wood or a seed. However, this was qualified by the statement that if it was bone it was very old bone. By this time, anyway, the item had been eliminated from the inquiry because of the confirmation of the archaeological context in which it had been found. An announcement was made to this effect and as a result it was decided to take it no further.'
What the Observer (in common with the BBC and other news sources) has failed to note that this police statement has something in common with a number of the claims which have been made by the Jersey Police to the media: it is not true.
The press release which was issued by the police on 8 April can be read here. It will be seen that this statement makes no announcement that 'the item' had been eliminated from the inquiry. On the contrary it continues to refer to it as a piece of bone and goes out of its way to say that it was placed in the location it was found no earlier than the 1920s or 'more recently'.
It was this statement which led to stories in the press, such as the Daily Mail piece illustrated here, suggesting that the 'skull fragment' was still very much part of a murder inquiry. Such stories were not denied at the time. Presumably this is because they conveyed exactly the impression the police statement was attempting to create.
The announcement that 'the item', still referred to as a 'fragment of skull' had been eliminated from the inquiry, was not in fact made until ten days later, in the press release issued on 18 April. This statement itself made it clear that the 'facts' contained in the earlier press release were untrue. For now we were told that the fragment could not be recent after all and must have been placed in the location where it was found before the 1940s.
This concession was only made after the appearance in the Jersey Evening Post of a damaging article in which the 'facts' contained in the press release of 8 April were contradicted by the very archaeologists who had been invoked in their support.
The more carefully we study the various contradictions and convolutions in the stories fed to the press by Deputy Chief Officer Harper, the more clear it becomes that there are occasions when he appears to be quite incapable of doing something which witnesses in court are automatically expected to do - telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Friday, 16 May 2008
The article reported how the Bailiff of Jersey, Sir Phillip Bailhache, had used his Liberation Day speech to highlight the misreporting of the facts regarding the Haut de la Garenne skull fragment. What he said was this:
'Now we know that the fragment of skull is at least 60 years old and possibly very much older than that. There are as yet no bodies, no evidence of any murder, and no evidence of cover-ups by government.
Hardly any of this has been beamed across the world. Yet many journalists continue to write about the Island’s so called child abuse scandal. All child abuse, wherever it happens, is scandalous, but it is the unjustified and remorseless denigration of Jersey and her people that is the real scandal. The truth is that we do not yet know what happened at Haut de la Garenne or in other places. What we do know is that a rigorous investigation is taking place and, in due course, a balanced judgement will be possible. A brave writer in the Guardian earlier this week was the first journalist in a national newspaper, so far as I know, to confront this truth.'
One serious problem here is that the Bailiff, who is also the island's chief judge, appears to believe that the unjust denigration of Jersey is an even greater scandal than child abuse. One hopes that this is no more than an ill-judged choice of words. But there is another problem. For what the Bailiff had to say was itself a piece of misreporting. Contrary to the claim he makes, the one thing that we do not know is that 'a rigorous investigation is taking place and, in due course, a balanced judgement will be possible.' Indeed, as my own article should have made abundantly clear, there is a great deal about the police investigation now taking place which is far from rigorous. What is perhaps least rigorous of all is the attitude of the investigating officer towards the truth.
For it is now quite clear that Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper has been briefing the press about the skull fragment with 'facts' which flagrantly contradict the views of the very archaeologists whose authority he has been invoking. In view of this the only sensible attitude to adopt to the investigation he is conducting is one of distrust. By failing to recognise this the Bailiff does the people of Jersey a disservice.
The problem which lofty officials often find it difficult to recognise is that lofty officials do not always tell the truth. Journalists, of course, are meant to hold them to account over such matters. But journalists themselves, as we know, frequently fail to do this.
In this respect it is to be regretted that the Jersey Evening Post, having acquitted itself so well in its initial report on the contradictory stories surrounding the skull fragment, should have covered itself in rather less glory in one of its more recent articles.
That it should have run a story on Nick Davies's piece in the Guardian is understandable. But reporter Diane Simon still does not seem to have recognised that her story about the skull fragment on which I based part of my article, 'The Jersey skull fragment, the police and the facts that changed', was a far more significant piece of reporting than anything Davies wrote. For what she had single-handedly discovered is that the police had been feeding information to the press which simply wasn't true.
Given this discovery it is disappointing, to say the least, that Diane Simon should have given such an easy ride to Harper in her most recent article. She quotes him as saying that 'it paid to be open and honest' with the press about the skull fragment without pointing out that describing a tiny fragment of bone as 'the potential remains of a child' is the very opposite of openness and honesty. Nor does she confront Harper with what her own earlier article so clearly indicated - namely that he had - apparently quite deliberately - given untrue information to the press about the dating of this fragment.
In these circumstances what is needed is more journalistic digging not less. Fortunately some has been taking place on Jersey very recently. For more developments, watch this space closely in the next couple of days.
Monday, 12 May 2008
It's a fascinating story about the role played by the non-conformist churches and what I call the 'pornography of righteousness' in shaping the New Journalism but it's about the big picture rather than the details:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In Flat Earth News Nick Davies criticises other journalists for failing to confirm their stories before publishing them. Yet in offering the view of journalism he presents in his book he has failed to check the most basic facts of all – the facts of history. . . . more
Saturday, 10 May 2008
In this case the 'false misery' book which Kelly exposes as a fraud is Kathy O'Beirne's Don't Ever Tell (published as Kathy's Story in Ireland), which has already sold almost half a million copies.
For more about the £24 million a year 'mis-lit' industry and about Herman Kelly's book, read Ed West's article, Mis lit: Is this the end for the misery memoir? in the Telegraph or Catherine Bennett's piece in the Observer, 'Oh no, not another psychopathic nun!'
These articles, which deal with one of the most extraordinary and troubling phenomena in our culture, are both well worth reading in full - and this includes the comments which have been left on Catherine Bennett's Observer piece which include a discussion of our culture's apparent need for 'torture pornography'.
For the main 'story' of Kelly's book, read Fiona Barton's article in the Daily Mail here. For Hermann Kelly's blog click here.
Towards the end of Kelly's book there is a fascinating and revealing section on alleged children's home murders which never in fact took place. The context here is the moral panic which took place over Ireland's industrial homes in 1999 in the wake of Mary Raftery's RTE documentary series States of Fear. But the story of the murders which never happened is directly relevant to Jersey.
For Kelly's account of the phantom murders alone his book is well worth buying.
For more about Jersey go to www.richardwebster.net