The Jersey skull fragment, the police and the facts that changed
Wednesday 23 April 2008; last revised 6 May 6.40am
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The discovery of a bone fragment at a former children’s home in Jersey led to a media frenzy about murderous paedophiles. But the facts tell a different story.
AT 9.30 AM ON SATURDAY 23 February 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. Almost immediately the police issued a 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 ‘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 . The Guardian 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 has by now almost certainly become a multi-million pound inquiry, and teams of experts were brought in from all over the UK.
There was only one problem. This was that practically every element of the initial story, as relayed by the media, was untrue.
The small piece of bone, however, became the most important piece of evidence in the entire inquiry. It was immediately placed in a polythene bag and sent to a laboratory in the UK for carbon dating. Although results were initially promised in two weeks, the wait proved to be much longer. During this wait some journalists appear to have become sceptical. On 3 March, after a full month had passed, Jersey Evening Post reporter Diane Simon even ventured to ask during a press conference whether the skull fragment might turn out to be a .
More than a month later, on 8 April, her question was partly vindicated when the police announced that scientists had been unable to date the fragment at all.
In the first place the police reported the on-site archaeologists as saying that the bone could not have been found in a much less favourable environment as ‘there was a large amount of lime present’. It was this, the police implied, which had destroyed the collagen in the bone (on whose presence carbon dating depends).
In the second place the police reported the archaeologists as saying that ‘from a study of the materials in the location where the find was made, the bone was placed at that location no earlier than the 1920s’. This, they pointed out, ‘was some seventy years after the home opened as an Industrial School for Boys.’
In the third place they said that, according to the archaeologists, the fragment might have been deposited more recently than the 1920s:
The effect of surrounding the news of the disappointing outcome of the carbon dating tests with these three new pieces of information was remarkable. This can best be illustrated by the story which appeared at the time in the Daily Mail which turned the story about the failure of carbon dating completely upside down.
The substantive story here was that no forensic testing had been possible. However, the way in which this news had been presented by the police evidently persuaded the sub editor to pen a headline which conveyed the exact opposite of the truth: ‘Child skull found at Jersey care home “WAS put there while building was a children’s home”, forensic tests confirm.’
It is is difficult to imagine a more successful public relations coup than the one the police managed to achieve at this point. For they had effectively reversed the true import of the story by turning defeat into victory.
However, it can now be revealed that this coup had something in common with their original public relations triumph when they suggested that they had found the ‘remains of a child’. For, like their original claim, none of the three new pieces of information the police presented to the press at this stands up to closer examination.
IT IS THE JERSEY EVENING POST which should take the credit for making the first part of this discovery. On 18 April, the Post ran an extremely significant story, the most important points of which have, quite inexcusably, been ignored by the press on the mainland.
The particular layer in which the skull fragment was found contained Victorian brickwork and a Victorian penny bearing the date 1851. Perhaps more importantly still, it is said to have been sealed in by a layer of aggregate dating back to the 1940s. In other words, the bone which, as Simon notes, ‘ sparked a frenzy of interest from the world’s media’ has turned out to be exactly the kind of red herring she speculated it might be when, during a press conference held on 2 March, she posed which every other journalist seemed too timid to ask.
It follows from the Evening Post story that the two crucial claims made by the police in their press release of 8 April – namely that the fragments could not have been deposited earlier that the 1920s, and that it might have been deposited recently, were both untrue.
Of course the fact we now know that an 1851 penny was found nearby does not in itself provide a secure date since, as the archaeologists note, such coins would be in circulation long after they were minted. But the presence of the coin raised the possibility that the depositing of the skull fragment had nothing whatsoever to do with Haut de la Garenne’s use as a children’s home, which only began when it opened as the Jersey Industrial School in 1867 – a full sixteen years after the penny was minted.
Carbon dating and the disappearing collagen
WHILE DIANE SIMON’S DISCOVERY will be known at least to those who read the Jersey Evening Post, the second discovery, which relates to carbon dating, is reported here for the first time.
This discovery concerns the third new piece of information that the police had used in what appears to have been an attempt to spin the bad news about the result of the carbon-dating tests. ‘The protein “Collagen” had been completely destroyed in the bone’, said the police press release. 'Archaeologists state that the bone could not have been found in a much less favourable environment as there was a large amount of lime present.’ It is for this reason, the police imply, that the carbon-dating tests failed.
‘Bones are very difficult to identify on the basis of a small sample’, he continued. It was sometimes very difficult to distinguish between human and other mammalian bones.
Professor Pieter Grootes, a carbon-dating specialist at the Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany, who recently gave a conference presentation entitled Dating Bones Without Collagen, was more forthright. When I ask him what he would think if he had been presented with the Jersey skull fragment and had found it to contain no collagen, he said: ‘I would wonder whether that was a modern piece of bone and had anything to do with child abuse.’
The fact that there had been a great deal of lime where the fragment was found did not change his view: ‘I would not expect lime to penetrate bone.’ A bone found on the Channel Islands with no collagen was likely to be old, he said. How old? ‘A few thousand to few hundred thousand years.’
SINCE THE FIGURE OF a few hundred thousand years would take us back into the early Neanderthal era, it was presumably intended as a notional one. But it should be noted here that the Haut de la Garenne building is some three or four hundred yards away from
This is a neolithic passage grave which was constructed some 6,000 years ago and has occasionally been mentioned in connection with the current investigation. On a a former Jersey resident wrote:
Blue pointer indicates Haut de la Garenne, red marks the dolmen
At the same press conference at which Jersey Evening Post reporter Diane Simon asked Lenny Harper whether the skull fragment might be a , he was also asked whether it might have come from the Faldouët Dolmen. He replied at the time that there was no evidence to suggest this.
Why was the carbon dating necessary at all?
ONE QUESTION REMAINS: why was the skull fragment ever submitted for carbon dating in the first place? For as soon as the archaeologists working on the site had ‘very securely’ dated the fragment to the 1940s or earlier then its irrelevance to any criminal investigation should have been apparent. Who could possibly be arrested and charged for a potential crime that may have taken place 60 or more years ago?
It would seem clear that, from the point of view of the police, the entire saga of the skull fragment and the protracted attempt to carbon date it, has been an extremely successful exercise in news management. In fact it was a great (if unintended) theatrical coup. The discovery of this fragment, and its prompt promotion to the media by way of a press conference, suddenly turned the Haut de la Garenne investigation from an obscure police inquiry into a global media phenomenon. This in turn has been used to justify expenditure on the investigation on a scale which is completely out of proportion to the evidence which has been found.
This theatrical coup seems to have succeeded principally because the police launched it by making the untrue or misleading suggestion to the press that they had discovered the ‘remains of a child’. Then, at the very point when the entire story was on the verge of collapse, – because of the carbon-dating failure, which could not possibly show that this was part of a ‘child’s body’ from ‘some time in the 1980s’– the police apparently sought to mitigate a potential public relations disaster by supplying three more pieces of information, all of which have turned out to be untrue or misleading.
That it should now emerge, after two months of horrific and sensational publicity, that the skull fragment has been effectively eliminated from the investigation by the very archaeologists who helped to find it, and that it may in any case be thousands of years old, is sobering indeed. And the fact that the most recent developments have effectively been hidden from the general public in mainland Britain by quiescent, slumbering or complicit journalists, may well have come as a relief to the police.
THIS DOES NOT MEAN, of course, that the horror stories have now ceased. No sooner had the Jersey Evening Post made preparations to publish its story about the archaeologists than sent into circulation an entirely new story. On Wednesday 16 April, two days before the story about the difference of opinion with the archaeologists appeared in the Post, the police let it be known that two pits had been dug at the home during the late seventies or early eighties. Having been dug they had then almost immediately been filled in again. The police had already excavated one of these pits and had discovered that it contained nothing but a large amount of lime.
The language of the press release was restrained. But its effect was entirely predictable. The following day most mainland newspapers carried the story. Some, including the and the immediately put their own gloss on it, pointing out that lime ‘can be used to disintegrate corpses’ (Telegraph) or ‘is often used to try to accelerate the decomposition of soft tissues in buried remains’ (Guardian).
What no mainland newspaper recorded was the report which appeared in the Jersey Evening Post on 16 April, which said that ‘the information about the pits came from a member of the public soon after police work had started at the site in February’. The question which this raises is why, if this information was so important, was the excavation of the pits left for more than a month? And why, since the police had already found nothing (except lime), in the first pit, did they not wait until they had finished digging up the second pit before giving the story to the media?
One answer to this question, of course, is that press releases which announce that excavations have been completed and no skeletons have been found do not make good horror stories. And it is on good horror stories that the ‘success’ of the investigation in prompting publicity and, through it, more allegations, has so far depended. Perhaps, for the police, a new horror story might be particularly welcome at a time when anything which distracted attention away from Diane Simon’s story about the archaeologists would, presumably, be helpful to them.
An important note: none of this should be taken to indicate that there is no substance at all in any of the allegations which have been made in relation to children’s homes on Jersey. Since the story of the lime pits was announced, the police have broken two more stories.
On Friday 18 April they claimed that they had found ‘blood-stained items’ the nature of which they declined to specify.They might have ‘an innocent explanation’, the police said. And last week, the police attributed malign significance to they had found, linking them to some fragments of bone which have not as yet even been identified as human.
THE PROBLEM IS THAT THESE complaints about abuse have not been followed up by the kind of careful and sensitive police inquiry required in such circumstances. Instead they have been met with a high-profile, sensational investigation which has been conducted at times with quite extraordinary recklessness. The officer in charge of this investigation has, by his own admission, deliberately sought maximum publicity, and has done so with the explicit purpose of generating more allegations against former care workers.
For the reasons which I have outlined in an earlier article, Flat Earth News and the Jersey child abuse scandal, this method of investigation is dangerous, not least because it will all but inevitably have had the effect of generating a large volume of false allegations.
Those who may end up suffering because of such false allegations are not only the many innocent care workers who were employed at Haut de la Garenne over the years. They are also almost certain to include those who genuinely were abused. For one of the dangers of conducting investigations in a manner which unintentionally encourages false allegations is that these will ultimately undermine any true allegations which have also been made.
As I wrote in my book The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt (which examined a child abuse scandal at care homes in North Wales):'
It is because of the pain which scepticism of any kind about allegations of abuse can inflict on those who genuinely have suffered abuse, that many people, including police officers, social workers, lawyers and journalists, are sometimes prepared to accept on trust any allegation. This attitude is dangerous for the simple reason that it tacitly encourages fantasy and fabrication. To make a false allegation against an innocent person is itself a serious crime, and tolerating such false allegations, or creating conditions in which they flourish, is unwise. Indeed, it is just as dangerous to a democratic society as tolerating any serious crime would be.
The Haut de la Garenne investigation in Jersey, and the manner in which it has been conducted, has already, I believe, created conditions in which false allegations are being inadvertently encouraged. And if the inquiry continues on its present course, then it is likely to cause immeasurable harm.
Having spent more than 10 years investigating the North Wales child abuse scandal, and the nationwide trawling operation against residential care workers which followed, I have seen too many innocent people put in prison for crimes which neither they nor anybody else has committed. Of these care workers, who have been given sentences of up to 15 years, some have been released, some have died in prison, and some are in prison still. Any writer who, knowing this, failed to ask critical questions about the inquiry at Haut de la Garenne would, I believe, be both negligent and irresponsible. If the climate of moral panic which has been created around this investigation is not challenged, more innocent people will almost certainly suffer.
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Richard Webster is the author of The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt (2005). The long-delayed paperback of this book, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing, will be published later this year. His earlier article on the Jersey story, Flat Earth News and the Jersey child abuse scandal was published here on 4 April. The second part will appear in May.
My thanks to the editors of who featured this piece as one of their ‘Articles of Note’ and to Brendan O'Neill the editor of , who has republished it
This page has been viewed 9499 times since Wednesday 23 April. (This does not include the version of the article carried by .) Last updated 9.35am, 6 May.)
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© Richard Webster, 2008