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.