Proper investigations into paedophilia need to continue, writes Exaro’s Editor-in-Chief
By Mark Watts | 16 November 2012
“Shoddy journalism in one case must not prevent proper journalistic investigation into other stories”
Promising leads for stories are pitched to me every day as Exaro’s Editor-in-Chief. But what I was being told over coffee in the office one day – in the wake of revelations that the late Jimmy Savile, one of the BBC’s biggest stars, was a serial child abuser – was of quite a different order.
David Hencke, Exaro reporter extraordinaire, told me that he had been given details of police failure to investigate allegations of sexual abuse of children by several high-profile people, including former senior Conservative ministers.
David picks up, from an incredible collection of contacts, a wide array of stories of enormous public interest. For example, he uncovered for Exaro the scandal of lots of senior civil servants – and indeed many people at the BBC – being paid ‘off payroll’ through personal-service companies.
Over coffee, he told me of shocking allegations of child abuse, alleged high-profile abusers, and an apparent failure by the authorities to act.
David apologised to me, as he often does, because “there are too many stories to investigate.”
He was also conscious of my insistence for a solid evidential base before I would allow any story – let alone this one – to run on Exaro. This never makes an editor popular, but who would contest that approach now?
So, David knew that this one would take much work, and that, despite the febrile atmosphere following Savile, Exaro would not rush to publish. But David, outraged as he was about how victims of alleged child abuse had apparently been let down by the authorities, was determined to unearth the truth.
I told him that I would see whether he could obtain key evidence that would enable us to publish.
A little while later, BBC2’s Newsnight broadcast a report, quite unrelated to our story, in which a victim of sexual abuse as a child in a care home in Wrexham, Wales identified a senior Tory figure from Margaret Thatcher’s era as having abused him.
The report was based on an interview with the victim, Steve Messham, similar to one run by the BBC some years ago. But, post-Savile, Newsnight’s report would plainly grab more attention.
There was an obvious problem with Newsnight’s report even though it did not name the alleged culprit. Scallywag, an obscure magazine that often published wild, unsubstantiated stories, made the same claim in 1994 and named Lord McAlpine, treasurer of the Conservative party when Thatcher was prime minister.
But there was a bigger problem: McAlpine had been wrongly accused.
The day after the Newsnight report, one of our reporters, David Pallister, arrived in the office with that very edition of Scallywag. He decided to look back at Sir Robert Waterhouse’s inquiry report on child abuse in Wrexham.
Within hours, he found clear evidence from the report – available in the public domain – that two victims, apparently talking about the same abuser, identified different people. And Messham, referred to as ‘witness B’ in the inquiry, said that he believed the culprit to be dead.
McAlpine, 70, is very much alive and, indeed, threatening to sue for staggering defamation.
So, Pallister had enough evidence to cast serious doubt about Newsnight’s claim. We were working on substantiating the identity of the dead person really suspected, when The Guardian broke the story.
I tweeted: “It was Lord (Alistair) McAlpine who didn’t do it.” But, I added, there was still a seismic story involving former senior Tory ministers to come out. One dud story should not lead to any assumptions about other stories.
David Aaronovitch, a columnist in The Times, had already argued that there was a “witch-hunt”.
I have to say that Aaronovitch has a point. The BBC set one off with its flawed Newsnight report.
Straightforward journalistic research exposed its sensational accusation against a senior Conservative figure as false.
But I have no doubt that Exaro must continue its investigation into a separate case.
Shoddy journalism in one case must not prevent proper journalistic investigation into other stories, even in a similar area.
Right now, I can say no more about our investigation. When we have the evidence necessary to publish a story, we shall do so. When we do, it will be right.