The Carl Beech verdict is a blow to child sex abuse investigations. After the trial and thorough investigation by Northumbria Police Beech he emerged as a prolific, manipulative and malicious paedophile who made false allegations against powerful people and sparked off a huge investigation by the Met Police.
Both myself and the reporter, Mark Conrad, who investigated Beech, part company with Exaro’s former editor in chief, Mark Watts, in deciding that the verdict was “unsafe” or that he didn’t get a fair trial. Beech chose not to call a single witness in his defence and when the net was closing he fled the country.
Now the question is asked should journalists have ignored him from day one and reported nothing taking the line that no one in “the great and good” has ever sexually molested a child and anybody alleging that is a fantasist.
Or should we try diligently to get to the truth of the matter given the limited tools journalists have compared to a police force or the powers and scope an inquiry can have to investigate a case?
The simple solution is to say allegations, particularly historic, of child sex abuse, are so problematic, so difficult to prove, that anybody coming to a journalist suggesting they are a survivor of sexual abuse should be turned away. That would a devastating to the many thousands of survivors themselves who would have no other recourse other than going to an overworked police force. It wouldn’t be just a case of not being believed but being ignored.
It was also play into the hands of any paedophile to do what he or she liked – knowing their victims would never be listened to and they could hide behind the new populism that most child sex abuse in the UK is just a string of false allegations.
The latter fact is wrong. If you look at recent convictions hardly a week goes by -without either individuals or paedophile gangs being convicted in the courts- and that includes historic cases.
While Operation Midland was going on the National Crime Agency successfully prosecuted people in North Wales – including a police superintendent – the late Gordon Angelsea- who had denied child sex abuse crimes for years and successfully sued Private Eye and the Observer. He was one of 11 people so far successfully prosecuted through Operation Pallial including John Allen, an owner of children’s home and gang of five paedophiles led by a former professional wrestler.
Gangs have been convicted in Rotherham, Hull, Stoke on Trent, Rochdale, Lichfield and Newcastle upon Tyne to name a few.
And the idea that there isn’t a single prominent person who indulges in child sex abuse has been proved untrue with the conviction of the late Bishop Peter Ball, Bishop of Lewes and Gloucester, who convinced people at the very top, including Prince Charles, for years that accusations against him were a pack of lies. And Sir Cyril Smith MP whose escaped crimes in Rochdale were exposed in a report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
The only way you can investigate child sex abuse is to look for any outside facts that might stand up the likelihood of the case, test the person’s knowledge of the places where it is alleged to have happened and do a thorough test to see if the “ victim” can identify his perpetrator. You also rely on other people – not sexually abused themselves – to act as whistleblowers or people in authority at the time who can stand up the circumstances of a story.
The problem with the Carl Beech investigation was the way he undermined any diligent reporting by meticulously researching details about his victims and their premises so the” right” answers would come out.
The other was the odd way Exaro was run. Unlike nearly all news organisations there were no internal news conferences where ideas could be swapped and challenged. Reporters were forbidden from discussing the individual child sex abuse case they were investigating with any other reporter.
As a result I did not know the true identity of Carl Beech until it was made public. I have never met him, never exchanged any emails or talked to him.
Perhaps he would have been exposed if a tech savvy reporter had seized his computer – but I doubt the public would support journalists seizing other people’s computers while they were conducting investigations.
There has been criticism of my colleague Mark Conrad for conducting a picture identity test after Beech had alleged 12 people had sexually abused him. He tells me that consisted of inserting the 12 into 42 different people and took place before the police started their investigation.
The reason why it was done was because of the disastrous episode on BBC Newsnight where the survivor Steve Messham was never shown a picture of the late Lord McAlpine who was wrongly alleged to have abused him – which would have prevented a false allegation circulating on social media..
Investigating historic child sex abuse is one of the most difficult areas to do in journalism. Carl Beech has made it even more so. One lesson is that people who say they were sexually abused will in future have to face more scrutiny by both the police and journalists investigating their claims. The law about anonymity for people being investigated for child sex abuse might have to be tightened up – though I would be careful in advocating this.
But what must not happen is that the default position should move from believing a survivor to taking the view that the accusation is false. That way would provide paedophiles – who are the most cunning and manipulative of all people – with a free market to abuse whoever they wish and get away scot free.