Sunday, 16 November 2008

'Something evil had happened . . . I had to go on' - Jersey in the Sunday papers

Sunday 16 November; last revised 20.40pm, 19 November

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.


  1. In this article Richard Webster brilliantly summarises a key cause and the worst consequences of such erroneous assumptions in investigations of child abuse (last five or six paragraphs). The whole piece is an excellent review of the recent journalism, good and bad, on the Haut de la Garenne inquiry. I trust it won’t simply remain the preserve of this blog: the public at large should be seeing it as the leader article in one of next Sunday’s review supplements. The press owes it to us.

  2. I've been watching this case unfold and reading your blog and wondered when it would finally end. I simply cannot find one reason why the police and media could perpetuate this bizarre fantasy.It makes you realise-we just haven't really advanced too far, as people, from the Salem Witch trials of 400 years ago.Considering the cost of this make-believe affair, and the recent reported cases of real children's deaths and the incapacity of social workers to cope with real problems,the only conclusion I can draw is that authorities couldn't give a continental about the care of children. By the way-just finished reading your Freud book..fascinating !

  3. It is now clear that almost all British journalists were taken in by a zealous crank who was prepared to alter the facts to fit his theory. It is fortunate that there were just a few investigative reporters such as Richard Webster who saw through all this and were presenting the unedited facts. This information is at last in the public domain, but not before time. The damage done to reputations of people of Jersey may take some time to repair.

  4. You might be interested in the comments by Stuart Syvret, who seems to have played a significant part in hyping the scare. He won't let go of the stick!


  5. Thank you very much Ros, Jonno and Peter for your kind words, which are much appreciated.

    I tend to agree with what you say about Salem Jonno. But I would put things another way. It seems to me that precisely because we have advanced quite a long way along the path we choose to call 'rationality', we are even more susceptible to getting caught up in collective fantasies now than we ever were. This is because our own supposed rationality is one of the greatest collective delusions of all. In short witch-hunts don't get less dangerous as we become more 'rational' and more 'scientific'; they get more dangerous and we are even more susceptible to falling into the witch-hunting mentality unawares. There's a bit about this in the introduction to my Bryn Estyn book which is available on my main website. And elsewhere on the site. That's how I see it anyway. But basically I agree with you about Salem.

    I think you're right about Stuart Syvret, TDK. His role in this entire affair has been extremely important and I hope at some point I might try to look at this. One thing which perhaps does need to be said is that he too has been vindicated recently in at least one respect. I have in mind the recent report of the Howard League and what it has to say about the 'Grand Prix' System. See the Syvret blog for more on this.

    Oh yes, and while I'm at it, many thanks to Louise Robinson, who posted a most interesting comment months ago on the story headed 'A Redress Board for Jersey?' Please forgive the long delay in saying this Louise but when it comes to the comments sections of blogs I'm still very much a novice! - Richard

  6. Sorry, as I said, I'm still a novice at this. The link to Louise's comment should have been this: 'A Redress Board for Jersey: comments'

  7. This article by Richard Webster couldn't be clearer. Mr. Harper may have had a genuine concern for the truth, but lost sight of his duty and the investigation in embarking on a diversive personal quest for evil. He took charge, not only of the investigation, but also media dissemination. This was wrong. The media swallowed his fiery sermons of buried bodies in cellars, blood and shackles, as well as his claims of a corrupt establishment. Nothing can redress the damage that he did to the due process of law in the prosecution of child abusers.

  8. It was obvious from the beginning that these allegations were based on hysteria. In a comment on a TimesOnLine article dated 26 FEBRUARY ("Beast of Jersey Paedophile...") I wrote the following:

    In ireland between 1999 and 2004 we had a large number of allegations that children had been killed in industrial schools run by the Christian Brothers. These included accusations in a major Sunday Newspaper of mass killing ("a Holocaust") at Letterfrack in Co. Galway. Not a single claim has proved to be correct. This is not surprising as several relate to periods when no child died of ANY cause. (I call these "Murder of the Undead" allegations). **

    One body was exhumed and proved to be a death from natural causes but the resulting publicity resulted in dozens of child abuse claims within a couple of weeks against the institution.

    The child killing allegations were not made by isolated nutcases but by major newspapers and by leading members of child abuse organisations. They have now ceased but the people responsible have not been called to account.

    What is happening in Jersey looks like a repeat of our Irish witch-hunt.

    Rory Connor, Dublin, Ireland

    Richard feels that the response of the British media to the latest revelations is inadequate. In Ireland the media simply buried the scandal since they were almost 100% responsible for it. At least your UK journalists can cast the blame on Lenny Harper (who is from Derry by the way) and so they are prepared to give LIMITED coverage to the collapse of this witch-hunt. We should be so lucky in my country!

    Rory Connor, Dublin

    ** I also coined the phrase "Victimless Murders"!

  9. Further to comment above, while I support (nearly) everything Richard has said and done to combat this witch-hunt, I am a bit uneasy about his treatment of the concept of "Evil". I don't believe that the underlying cause was an unhealthy obsession with evil. In Ireland the cause was definitely anti-clericalism - and specifically hatred of the Catholic Church. The hysteria has now spread to encompass the whole of our society but it started as a hate-filled attack on the Church - with journalists being the main offenders.

    I suspect that in Jersey, the cause was Hatred of Authority. One prominent Jersey politician seems to be consumed with loathing of his colleagues. Also Jersey is a small island with a number of rich people who seem to dominate the economy and politics. Nobody is starving but I suspect there are lots of relatively unsuccessful people who are prepared to use any means whatsoever to bring down the local elite.

    Many journalists also loathe authority and tradition and are very destructive types. It's not that they are obsessed with evil but that they are prepared to (literally) demonise any person or institution they don't like. When Lenny Harper made a foolish and premature announcement last February about finding "part of a child's skull", these journalists descended on Jersey like a pack of wolves, determined to discover a vile conspiracy of child abusers among the elite. Their behaviour made it very difficult for Mr. Harper to backtrack and he pressed on regardless of the mounting evidence that his original decision was wrong. In my opinion THAT would explain a great deal of what happened in Jersey - and it ties in with our experience in Ireland!

    Rory Connor

  10. When this broke I offered my services to the authorities on Jersey (as a side trip on a planned trip to Europe in March), as a psychologist with expertise in false memory syndrome and the ways in which people convince themselves of such things. I did not even get the courtesy of a reply to my emails. At the time I was not surprised, given my experience with the cases in Australia and the way in which police, too, get swept up in such things. I have been waiting for the retraction, and thank you for summarizing it so nicely.

    Dr. Travis Gee
    University of Queensland

  11. Murder, they wrote
    By Peter Wilby of the Guardian

    In the early 1990s, allegations of systematic abuse at the Bryn Estyn home in Wrexham and others in north Wales first came from the Independent and its Sunday sister. As many as 365 people were accused and questioned. Just a handful of prosecutions followed from the main investigation, leading to only two new convictions for sexual abuse, one of them probably unsound. These were followed by further allegations that local police officers who conducted the inquiry were part of an abusive ring, based on Masonic links. One of them successfully sued for libel. Only thanks to an exhaustively researched, 700-page book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn, by Richard Webster, a freelance writer, do we have an inkling of the true story. The book, however, although shortlisted for the Orwell prize, went almost completely unnoticed in the national press.