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