Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Haut de la Garenne, press prurience and the lethal peepshow

IF THERE IS ONE lesson which might usefully have been learned by the Jersey police as a result of their recent confusion between a skull fragment and a piece of coconut it is that premature speculation about small pieces of alleged bone is unwise. If there is a parallel lesson for journalists it is that they should treat anything which deputy chief officer Lenny Harper says about his latest finds with extreme scepticism.

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.'

Narrative skill

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.

Why dig?

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?

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

1 comment:

  1. I think it is also important to remember that when young men or women are subjected to child abuse, whether physical or sexual, it is quite reasonable to imagine that their subsequent lives will be irrevocably reflect this. By this I mean that it is quite likely and reasonable that they will go on to either commit crimes and gain a criminal record/profile themselves or suffer mental or drug problems. This doesn't mean we should then dismiss them as being 'unreliable'. My partner suffered abuse as a school in the UK and received (a meagre) £3000 for his suffering. He has had drug problems and a criminal record. So did many of his classmates. A devious defence lawyer for the abusers dropped this piece of information in during court proceedings and although the judge instructed the jury to disregard what they heard it was nevertheless planted in their minds. I believe this contributed to some of the evil abusers escaping criminal punishment. Fortunately the civil case was won ... my boyfriend would've preferred criminal justice over the money any day though.
    How can we, as a society, expect damaged children subjected to phsical and/or sexual abuse not to grow into damaged adults?