Crusade or witch-hunt?
Abuse Of Trust: Frank Beck and the Leicestershire children’s homes scandal. By Mark D’Arcy and Paul Gosling. 224pp. Bowerdean, London, 1998
DURING THE 1970s AND 80s, Frank Beck, an ex-Marine who had become a qualified child-care worker in Leicestershire, gradually came to be regarded as one of the most gifted residential social workers of his generation. Young criminals who had a record of violent assaults often became well behaved in his care; habitual absconders stopped running away. Adolescents who had driven others to despair became devoted to Beck, and some would always remain so. Few people appear to have understood either Beck’s charisma or his potent home-brew of psychoanalysis and regression therapy. But it evidently worked. Dorothy Edwards, the then Director of Social Services, reportedly told a friend: ‘I don’t know quite what he’s doing, but he’s doing it very well.’
Gradually, however, Beck seems to have come to resemble the leader of a cult, and some of those who worked with him began to rebel. There were complaints about him using excessive force. Then, in March 1986, two male members of his staff complained that Beck had made sexual advances to them. Several members of staff, they said, had been groped, kissed or undressed by Beck during training sessions.
These complaints destroyed Beck’s career almost overnight. He was suspended, and he promptly wrote a letter of resignation which implicitly admitted the truth of the complaints (while at the same time calling them ‘overstated’). ‘I cannot say how sorry I am’, he wrote.
Here the story might have ended. Early in 1989, however, during an investigation into one of Beck’s colleagues, a man alleged that he had been buggered by Frank Beck while in care. An inquiry was launched, and the belief grew among those involved in the investigation that Beck was at the centre of a paedophile ring which involved pornography and snuff films. In the largest operation of its kind ever mounted in Britain, Leicestershire police interviewed almost 400 people who had been in Beck’s care and collected more than a score of allegations against him.
After a complex trial involving two co-defendants, Beck was found guilty of three counts of buggery against adolescent boys in care, one count of buggery and one count of rape against a girl in care, six other sexual offences against adolescents and a number of counts of causing actual bodily harm. His Honour Judge Edwin Jowett then handed down one of the harshest sentences since the abolition of the death penalty. Beck received five life terms – one for each of the most serious sexual offences. He was also sentenced to twenty-four years for the remaining charges.
That evening, however, the BBC regional television news bulletin broadcast Beck’s reaction to the verdict. ‘I can only hang on for so long,’ he said, ‘someone has got to listen. I have got feelings.’ Sobbing almost hysterically, Frank Beck, who had at this point become the most hated man in Britain, was protesting his innocence.
Beck always maintained that he had never sexually abused anyone in his care. Far more importantly, he had convinced two key members of his legal team of his innocence. One of these was Ian Henning, a gifted legal executive (and former policeman) who had taken charge of Beck’s defence. The other was Bernard Greaves, the former policy adviser to the Liberal Party. When Greaves first met Beck, he did not believe his denials. But wherever documentary evidence was available, he found it confirmed what Beck had said – that he could not have committed the offences in question. The more they worked on the case, the more Henning and Greaves became convinced that Beck had become the victim of an unprecedented trawling operation in which police officers, in their anxiety to gain a conviction, had inadvertently suggested allegations to the witness they were interviewing. Largely as a result of the work done by his defence team, Beck was acquitted on half the charges he faced. Henning and Greaves were preparing his appeal when Beck died of a heart attack in prison. The problems which surrounded Beck’s conviction were promptly forgotten, Ian Henning was killed in a motorbike accident, and Beck underwent a kind of reverse canonization in order to become one of the most evil men of the twentieth century – social work’s devil for all time.
Almost a decade later, with large-scale retrospective investigations into care homes in progress throughout the country, and with the North Wales Tribunal due to report in April, the appearance of this study of the Beck case by the journalists Mark D’Arcy and Paul Gosling is timely.
Abuse of Trust contains some useful material, and is especially good on the people and the politics that governed Leicestershire social services. But any illusion we may have that the authors intend to conduct an open-minded investigation is dispelled in the first paragraph, which introduces Beck as ‘a proven monster’. The evidence which suggests that, at the very least, large numbers of the allegations against Beck were fabricated, has been carefully tidied out of the authors’ narrative. Most of it is discarded without trace; the rest is swept into the receptacle of a seven-page chapter entitled ‘The Case for the Defence’. In this chapter, D’Arcy and Gosling propose an alternative to the accepted view that Henning was pensioned out of the Metropolitan Police after fracturing his skull. According to them, ‘sources within the police argue … that Henning was sacked for corruption’. This is an extraordinary and grave allegation. What is still more extraordinary is that the authors have evidently made no effort to find out whether it is true. Because it fits their story, and because the dead can be libelled with no legal consequences, they simply recycle an unsubstantiated smear.
This kind of disregard for the basic journalistic task of establishing the truth is characteristic of the authors’ approach. Throughout the book, they regularly mix their sources without identifying them, so that the reader does not know whether the information offered derives from the trial, the compensation hearings, interviews the authors have conducted, or anecdotes they have heard. Allegations are repeatedly presented as facts and hearsay as history. The authors write confidently that ‘200 or so’ children were sexually abused by Beck and one of his colleagues, Colin Fiddaman. Given that Beck was only convicted (wrongfully in the view of Greaves and Henning) of sexually abusing ten adolescents in care, this is a remarkable claim. It appears to have originated in a police briefing given to the press immediately after Beck’s conviction and was without any foundation in fact. This baseless piece of speculation led to a number of new allegations, none of which was ever brought to trial, though some resulted in substantial compensation payments to the alleged victims.
The authors go on to suggest that Beck actually murdered one young boy. The only evidence they have for making this claim was provided by a man, Peter Bastin, who is himself a convicted rapist and murderer. Twenty-one years after a verdict of suicide was returned on a thirteen-year-old boy who had been in Beck’s care, this man claimed that he had looked out of the window on the night in question and seen Beck and Fiddaman carrying ‘something wrapped in a blanket’, which he now, in 1998, believes was the body of the boy. This claim was made during a recent compensation hearing. Although it bears many of the marks of being an opportunistic fabrication, D’Arcy and Gosling treat it with respect. In the second paragraph of their book, they even write that ‘there is strong evidence’ that Beck was a murderer. The handling of Bastin’s story should in itself be sufficient to undermine the reader’s faith in the authors’ judgment.
To say this is not to endorse the view that Beck was completely innocent. Now that both Beck and Henning are dead, it will probably never be possible to establish the true facts about the case. But there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the kind of police investigation mounted into Frank Beck was intrinsically unsafe. The alarming thing is the way in which this evidence has been conjured into virtual invisibility by D’Arcy and Gosling.
Abuse of Trust is not only shallow and tendentious. It is also dangerous. This is because the kind of trawling operation which the Leicestershire Police mounted in relation to Beck rapidly came to be regarded as the model on which all future care-home investigations should be based. In North Wales, police interviewed some 3,000 witnesses and collected allegations against no fewer than 365 different people, mostly care workers. Cheshire Police have conducted an even larger investigation. ‘Operation Care’ in Liverpool is bigger still, and the Merseyside Police now advertise for allegations on the Internet. Would-be complainants who visit their web-site (http://www.merseyside. police.uk) are helpfully provided with three reasons why they have not made an allegation before:
Feelings of guilt (often transferred on to victims by the offender).
A feeling by victims that they will not be believed.
A belief that the offence happened too long ago to report it now.
Of course, these reasons may in some cases be quite valid. But this does not alter the fact that they also provide the ideal justification for bringing forward long-delayed false allegations relating to events which supposedly took place twenty, thirty or even forty years ago.
‘Operation Care’ may be the largest of the police trawling operations now in progress, but it is by no means the only one. Retrospective investigations modelled on the Beck case are also in progress in South Wales, in Manchester, in Yorkshire, in Tyneside and in at least a third of the police forces in the United Kingdom. Some of the care workers convicted are undoubtedly guilty. But there is evidence which suggests that these investigations have already led to the conviction of more than a dozen innocent men. If prosecutions resulting from trawled allegations are not halted soon, this figure is likely to rise to a hundred or more.
We are, in short, in the midst of a witch-hunt of unprecedented intensity. If most people remain unaware of this, it is largely because the watchdogs of our freedom and our liberty, the British press and the British media, have themselves been partly responsible for launching the witch-hunt, and sustaining and increasing its intensity over the past five years.
In writing Abuse of Trust, Mark D’Arcy and Paul Gosling had an opportunity to undo some of the harm caused by their fellow journalists. The tragedy of their book is that it actually compounds this harm. By failing to examine properly the evidence which suggests that a miscarriage of justice may have taken place in the case of Frank Beck, they have further obscured the miscarriages of justice which undoubtedly are taking place as a result of the investigations for which the Beck case provided the model.
Supplement, 22 January
© Richard Webster, 2002