Friday, 16 May 2008

Truth, transparency and the Jersey police

A WEEK AGO Jersey celebrated Liberation Day - the anniversary of the freeing of the island from German occupation. As a result the Saturday edition of the Jersey Evening Post carried on its front page an article headed 'Liberate us from lies'.

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.

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