End this cruel injustice

‘IT WAS THE WORST thing somebody could possibly accuse you of. He said he’d rather be up for murder than something like this because he’s so anti-abuse.’ These words were spoken last year by Ann Jones, the wife of former Southampton football manager David Jones. She was describing her husband’s reaction to the multiple allegations of  sexual abuse he was facing.

On Tuesday, in a courtroom packed with expectant journalists, the long nightmare of David Jones, his wife, and their four children, came to an end. One of Britain’s most popular football managers walked out of Liverpool Crown Court an innocent man after all charges against him were withdrawn.

A week before Jones’s trial began, relatively few people understood how any former care worker could possibly be facing more than twenty counts of physical and sexual abuse, all of which were false. But, by the time the trial collapsed on Tuesday, practically every national newspaper knew the explanation. David Jones was a victim of ‘trawling’ –  a new form of police investigation which has evolved only in the last ten years.

Much credit for bringing about this transformation in public understanding should go to BBC journalists David Rose and Gary Horne and their Panorama film ‘In the name of the children’.

In the film, which was transmitted on the eve of the Jones trial, and in an accompanying article which was published in this newspaper, Rose reported on the case of Roy Shuttleworth, a care worker who is serving ten years in prison for crimes he could not have committed. Shuttleworth too was the victim of a trawling operation.

In such operations police officers deliberately seek out former residents of care homes and invite them to make complaints. Some of these complaints are true and have helped convict social workers who have indeed betrayed the trust placed in them. But there are clear indications that many of the allegations are false. There is also compelling evidence, some of it captured on film by Panorama, that one of the main motives for fabricating allegations of physical and sexual abuse is money.

After Jones’s trial collapsed on Tuesday, his solicitor, Stephen Pollard, said that the prosecution witnesses would have been ‘utterly discredited’ if the case had continued. He said that more witnesses than the defence could possibly use had volunteered to give evidence that the accusations against Jones had been fabricated in order to gain compensation.

David Jones was fortunate. As the case of  Shuttleworth shows, other trials where the evidence indicates that the defendant is innocent have had different outcomes.

To investigate such trials is to enter a grotesque Alice-in-Wonderland world in which convicted criminals, often with long records of deception, swear solemn oaths on the Bible and give fabricated evidence which sends decent men to prison. It is a world in which lies are ratified by the court and where honest service to other people is penalised with prison sentences of up to fifteen years. It is a world where political correctness and the compensation culture have triumphed over justice.

Why, if evidence suggests that individual allegations are fabricated, do juries use them as a basis for convicting? The answer is simple. In cases where allegations are trawled, juries are not able to assess individual complaints on their own merits. The whole purpose of trawling is to try to prove that abuse has taken place not by finding supporting evidence but by multiplying the number of complaints against a particular suspect.

In fact, the sheer quantity of allegations does not prove anything. But this method continues to be used because it works; it usually results in convictions. By launching trawling operations, and piling up huge numbers of allegations against individual care workers, police forces have found a way of destroying the presumption of innocence and obscuring the weakness of individual complaints. Whenever this happens justice itself will almost inevitably fail.

Without any doubt these operations are dangerous. But what is truly terrifying is the speed with which they have spread from police force to police force until, at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds, practically the whole country has been covered by a trawling net.

It should be emphasised once again that some trawled allegations will lead to the conviction of people who are guilty. But it is precisely the fact that it has a core of reasonableness that renders this particular witch-hunt so dangerous, and makes it more likely that innocent men like David Jones will be stretched on the rack which has been devised for the guilty.

The other group who are already beginning to suffer are those who were abused while in care. For, by producing large numbers of false allegations, trawling operations have debased the entire currency of complaints. Tragically, real victims may now find that their truthful testimony is disbelieved.

‘If  the public knew what was going on they would be appalled,’ said Merseyside solicitor Chris Saltrese at the beginning of last week. He is right. Except that he was speaking before the collapse of the Jones trial on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning the public did know what was going on. Or at least they were a lot better informed.

This is crucial. One reason why the current witch-hunt has spread so rapidly and so silently is that all democracies depend ultimately on journalists to safeguard their essential liberties. Yet in this case journalists bear the main responsibility for creating a moral panic around care homes and, until very recently, for keeping both politicians and the public in the dark about what has really been happening.

Now that the media spotlight on David Jones has at last illuminated this darkness, it is time for the government to act. Until now Home Office ministers have responded to complaints about trawling by saying that operational matters are for chief constables to decide. But the government did not say that in the Stephen Lawrence crisis, and it should not say it now.

When the government does intervene, as it surely must, it should not fall into the trap of blaming the police. Its task should be not to chastise the police but to rescue them from the folly we have forced them into.

For the police did not create a moral panic about sexual abuse in care homes. We did.

By doing so and by placing intolerable pressure on police forces to investigate non-existent paedophile rings, we have created a machine for bringing about wrongful convictions. This machine is now out of control and has already led to the greatest series of miscarriages of justice in British legal history.

The collapse of the David Jones trial on Tuesday gives us an opportunity to call this machine to a halt. It is an opportunity which should not be missed.

The Observer, December 10, 2000

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© Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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