Prompted by the mass media interest in the North Wales child sexual abuse scandal last week I was asked on the Today programme whether I thought there was a witch hunt against leading Tory figures. I said No.
If I was asked the same question about a witch hunt this week, I would say unhesitatingly say yes. But not against Tory politicians, against the BBC and the cause of investigative journalism.
Don’t get me wrong I am appalled by the shoddy journalism that meant a paedophile victim was not shown a photo of his alleged perpetrator – whether he would be named or not – and the scandal that followed the naming of the unfortunate Lord McAlpine across the internet.(see original Guardian story – http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/nov/08/mistaken-identity-tory-abuse-claim).
Anybody in touch with reality should know that when the victim was a young vulnerable person in a care home he would be very unlikely to know the names of any Tory politicians. Ask any young person today , and unless they are a political nerd like me, they are more likely to be able to name the Man U and Chelsea front bench than be able to tell you any of the names of Dave Cameron’s coalition Cabinet. And I am puzzled why a much better researched programme on Jimmy Saville was not broadcast..
What is alarming me is the media hysteria surrounding this. Journalists are natural gossips,nervy, adrenalin fuelled, and totally obsessed with the workings of their own trade. Joe Public, while naturally alarmed that organisation like the BBC should get such a major fact wrong – and rightly unhappy that an elderly senior politician should be traduced in this way, is by no means so obsessed.
The resignation of the BBC director general should allow the BBC to put its top-heavy chain of command in order and get a proper grip on the way it commissions its investigative journalism work. As readers of this blog will know I am not an uncritical fan of the Beeb, previous blogs attacked it for wasting money on moving offices, its failure to be properly accountable to Parliament, and its tax affairs. I did not call it the British Tax Avoidance Corporation for nothing.
However the idea that everyone in Newsnight is as dead as a dodo is frankly nonsense. My own experience in bringing with Exaro News an outside story about the scandal of the tax avoidance practice surrounding the appointment of Ed Lester, the head of the Student Loans Company, gives a different impression. Peter Rippon, the then editor and a young producer, Robin Punt ( now on loan to BBC South East ) could not have been more thorough and Robin was prepared to spend hours examining the hoard of Whitehall documents which disclosed the scandal. They could not have been more professional. Nor were they fazed that the BBC would come under the spotlight for the same thing I was investigating, they were interested in the story. And it proved right, sparking a government investigation exposing 2500 others.
But my main complaint is something else. We are still in the middle of a very serious investigation into what happened to a lot of very vulnerable young people and whether they were used for the sexual gratification of older men while they were in the care of the community.
I firmly believe that by no means everything has come out about this troubled period in the 1980s and 1990s but I am not going to speculate while I am still gathering evidence. There is certainly enough to prove that people did raise this appalling spectre not just in North Wales and it was known to the authorities. But it is too early yet to point fingers at particular perpetrators.
It is vitally important that people who know about this and the victims can come forward with the confidence to talk to the police. It is a valid role for journalists to investigate this area – not least because we are the one group of people who have the time and ability to tell this sad story. Also the very knowledge that journalists – and in this case Mps like Tom Watson – are determined to get to the bottom of this matter – often spurs the authorities to keep digging because we won’t go away.
There is another reason. That the care system allowed this to happen is appalling. If the stories of some of the victims are true, it is a life damaging criminal act and a betrayal of trust. But as the Newsnight debacle shows it must be accurate and it must not trash the reputations of other people.
Today’s care system also needs reform after the appalling grooming scandal in Rochdale. Have we learnt anything and could this happen now?
If I want anything out of this I want social workers, local government officials, the police and the perpetrators of such foul deeds to think twice before either condoning or participating. I want them to think like many politicians do already ” what would this be like if this was published on the front page of The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Guardian or leading the BBC News?”. And then not do this or blow the whistle on such dark deeds.