File on 4: North Wales and the easy journalism of child abuse
Wednesday, 10 March 2004; revised 17 March
AMONG THE PROGRAMMES ON television and on radio which continue to feature investigative journalism, BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 is one of the most impressive. The standards it sets are high and it has deservedly won a number of awards. Last year it was given the Sony Gold Award for the programme it made featuring John Sweeney’s investigation into cot deaths, in which new evidence was uncovered which would later help solicitor Sally Clarke win her appeal against her conviction for murder
In conferring the award for what they termed a ‘journalistic tour de force’, Sony’s judges said: ‘Now that Sally Clark’s conviction has been quashed, everyone is on the bandwagon – but this programme was made whilst she was in prison. It was brave, compassionate and unswerving in its sense of the injustice done. More than that, it pointed the finger at those responsible and found other cot deaths where subsequent convictions for murder should worry us just as much.’
The programme on
cot deaths was but one example of the manner in which File on 4 has
managed to keep alive real investigative journalism in conditions which
are sometimes hostile to the kind of serious and protracted research which
such journalism demands.
According to the programme Sutton had discovered that the Welsh Office had been misled about a case involving a multi-million pound industrial development and that, as a direct result, they had given £300,000 to the council to which it had no entitlement. The council itself had lost hundreds of thousands of pounds on an ill-conceived venture which went wrong but officers had then apparently tried to conceal evidence of this. When one council officer was dismissed for gross misconduct, he appealed against his dismissal. In spite of the fact that Sutton had been the main witness at this officer’s original disciplinary hearing, the appeal was held at a time when he was known to be out of the country. The council officer concerned was then re-instated with a written warning even though it was accepted that he had indeed misled the Welsh Office. There were various indications that a cover-up was being conducted by other officers who might themselves have been criticised (or even faced disciplinary hearings) had Sutton continued his investigations.
In another case Sutton discovered that council directors had made an illegal payment of £20,000 to the manager of a care home. The council wanted to prevent the manager’s early retirement as the home was going through a staffing crisis. This particular case was complicated by the fact that the home in question was one where elderly women were known to have been sexually assaulted by a male patient. Yet still the illegal payment was made in circumstances where the proper action to put an end to the sexual assaults had apparently not been taken.
that his official investigations into these and other incidents had
apparently been blocked by senior officers and after falling ill as a
result, Sutton tendered his resignation. For three years he fought a legal
battle against Flintshire County Council in an attempt to prove that he
was constructively dismissed. In July 2002 he won an employment tribunal
hearing. Both the tribunal and a subsequent appeal hearing found in his
favour on two fronts: the victimisation of a whistle blower, and
The story of what apparently happened within Flintshire County Council when Andy Sutton refused to back off from investigations he felt obliged by the nature of his post to make is an extraordinary one. It has already been told in considerable detail in a report prepared by the organisation Freedom to Care.
In the edition of
File on 4 which was broadcast on 2 March 2004, the story was told
again by Angus Stickler and many elements of it were both compelling and
According to the records and paperwork examined by Andy Sutton and his team of internal auditors, she had been paid over £54,000 for 1997/98, of which over £24,000 related to overtime. In relation to 1998/99 a claim for over £48,000 had been submitted to the Inquiry Accountant, in spite of the fact that Griffiths had only worked for the first half of the year, having been signed off sick in the autumn and eventually being granted ill-health retirement in or around November 1999.
Because pensions are calculated on the basis of actual remuneration during the final years of employment, and because in this case overtime payments were included in the calculation, the entire employment record of Sian Griffiths during her last two years, including her retirement on health grounds, was clearly a matter which should have attracted the interest of any internal auditor. When Andrew Loveridge, who was effectively in charge of Griffiths, repeatedly failed to supply the audit department with the documents and information they sought in relation to this matter, it began to become clear that yet another attempt to frustrate the internal auditing process was being mounted.
Much of this was faithfully reported by Angus Stickler in Tuesday’s edition of File on 4. But it was just at this point, where the story of the internal machinations of Flintshire County Council intersected with the North Wales Tribunal, that a programme which seemed to be based on solid foundations lurched off in a quite different direction.
Interestingly it was also at this point that an extract from an interview with Flintshire county councillor Quentin Dodd was used. As a member of the audit committee which has now been set up to look at the matter, he believed, said Angus Stickler ‘that a lack of transparency allowed rumour to run riot’. ‘It means.’ said Dodd. ‘that people continue to believe that there was impropriety somewhere in the case.’
The kind of
rumour and speculation which has arisen in this respect is indicated by
passages in the report prepared by the organisation
Freedom to Care.
In this report it is suggested that either Sian Griffiths
herself, or Andrew Loveridge or both, were somehow withholding information
from the North Wales Tribunal. The allegations of cover-up which have long
been made against Clwyd County Council (of which Flintshire is one of the
successor authorities) have thus been revived in a new context.
It was this
allegation which was investigated over a period of years and found to be
without foundation (although two former members of Bryn Estyn staff were
eventually convicted on allegations of sexual abuse as a result of the
1991 investigation). In the very early stages of this investigation Sian
Griffiths, who then worked in the social services office and was trusted
by Jevons and Loveridge, was given the task of collecting documentation
and liaising with the police and others. Far from appearing inclined to
withhold vital documents from the police, she seemed to be an enthusiastic
participant in an investigation which threatened to turn into a
witch-hunt. Later during the Tribunal she socialised with one prominent
complainant and around this time she is also reported to have organised a
pub collection on behalf of complainants. (When I spoke to Sian Griffiths
on the telephone on a number of occasions in 1996, explaining that I was
investigating the possibility that false allegations had been made on a
significant scale in North Wales, she was notably unhelpful; my repeated
requests to talk to Andrew Loveridge himself were rebuffed.)
Q. Do you believe that vital information was
withheld from your inquiry?
This is an
extremely interesting example of interviewing in that at no point does
John Jillings himself make any unprompted claim that information has
actually been withheld from him (as opposed to supplied after a delay).
This suggestion comes from the journalist in a series of leading
questions; it is also the journalist who pins the tentative allegations he
thus elicits to particular names which in turn elicit a hardening of the
suggest that a director of social services was party to the
deliberate suppression of information about child abuse and
withheld it from an inquiry which he himself had convened (and
whose chairman he had appointed), is to make a very grave
allegation. To make this allegation without even inviting the
person concerned to respond is to compound its gravity.
While it was quite true that Clwyd’s insurers had expressed concern about the Jillings inquiry and had, at the very least, implied a preference for a degree of reticence on the part of the social services department, John Jevons (who is no longer in a position to consult the documents) believes that any such views were communicated to Clwyd only after the information-seeking stage of the Jillings inquiry was already over. The insurers’ views would, in other words, have been irrelevant to the alleged suppression of information. In any case it remains the view of Jevons that no such suppression took place, and that it would have been virtually impossible for Loveridge, who was not in control of the most sensitive and important documents, to have engaged in the suppression of such information behind his back.
or not this explanation is accepted is not the main issue here.
The central issue is that Angus Stickler chose to make a serious
allegation against Jevons without inviting him to respond to it,
or even alerting him to the fact that it was going to be made.
This approach is strikingly at odds with that described by Jenny
Cuffe when she writes that ‘Our approach is invariably
sceptical, but always fair’. It inevitably tarnishes the
well-deserved reputation of the programme.
Stickler’s report, however, made no reference to Messham’s
impending trial. It would seem either that had not researched
his story at all or that he had decided to rely on
Messham as an honest and credible witness while deliberately
making no mention of the fact that this witness was facing
charges of deception.
claimed that although the records presented to the Tribunal
indicated that he had spent two periods at the Ty’r Felin
Assessment Centre in Bangor and that the second of these had
been for nine days, he had not in fact ever returned to the home
after his first spell there. Since this claim was made in
relation to events which had taken place more than twenty years
ago and since no conclusive evidence was presented on either
side, it is difficult to know why it featured in the programme
The problem with this part of the programme, with its dark suggestion that persons unknown, perhaps with the assistance or knowledge of Loveridge and Griffiths, had somehow managed to interfere with or replace authentic documents which should have been supplied to the Tribunal, is that it was entirely unsupported by any reliable evidence.
Had Angus Stickler taken the trouble to make inquiries among former Bryn Estyn members of staff he could very easily have ascertained that, at the relevant time in Bryn Estyn’s history, one member of staff had taken it upon himself to transcribe by hand entries from the log book which related to particular boys into their personal files. The purpose of this exercise was to make it easier for other members of staff, and for social workers, to follow the progress of individual boys without having to scour the original log books for entries which happened to refer to them.
If, as seems likely, the documents referred to by Stickler had come into being in this way, there was nothing remotely suspect or sinister about them. Since, as Stickler himself was obliged to acknowledge in the programme, the original log books had been available to the Tribunal lawyers, there were in any case no grounds for disquiet even in the absence of this information. Had there been discrepancies between any of the handwritten transcripts and the original log book entries it should have been possible for lawyers to uncover these at the time. No such discrepancies were ever pointed out. There is therefore no reason to suppose that any of the Tribunal documents had been ‘doctored’ in the manner that Stickler’s report suggested.
However, from these meagre ingredients, which contained hardly enough evidential sulphur to fit on the end of a match-stick, Angus Stickler attempted to manufacture, within the confines of his File on 4 programme, a veritable journalistic bomb. With reference to the conclusions set out in the Waterhouse report (which found, inter alia, that there had been no organised paedophile ring operating from children’s homes in North Wales), Stickler said this: ‘We now know that some of [the] documents presented at [the Tribunal] are highly suspect and this new evidence is potentially explosive.’
The fact that there was nothing explosive at all in what Stickler thought he had discovered about the North Wales Tribunal will not generally have been suspected by File on 4 listeners simply because the programme which claimed to inform them actually denied them the full facts. In doing so it performed a considerable disservice both to the BBC itself and to journalism in general. Quite apart from anything else, the twist which Stickler had made to his report in order to point it in the direction of allegations of child abuse, actually distracted attention away from a story which is truly disturbing – one which suggests the existence of institutionalised dishonesty among senior council officers in at least one local authority in the United Kingdom.
Stickler was undoubtedly
sincere in his belief that he had uncovered something which was
even more important than this. Exactly what this was, and quite
how his revelations might prove to be ‘explosive’ was never
spelled out explicitly. One clue, however, was provided by the
comment which Stickler made as he introduced his interview with
Laverty. ‘Darren Laverty,’ he said, ‘was a key, high-profile
witness at the Waterhouse inquiry. He was never sexually abused
but his evidence could corroborate that of those who fell victim
to the paedophiles working at and visiting the homes’
reasonably clear, however, that the scenario conjured up by
Stickler’s words, according to which boys at Bryn Estyn and
other homes were preyed on by an organised paedophile ring, is
what he had in mind when he went on to suggest that the new
‘evidence’ he had uncovered might prove to be ‘explosive’.
Stickler is certainly not the only journalist who has done this.
One other example is provided by Nick Davies whose prominent
contributions to the Guardian arguably contain some of
the best journalism on crime and social issues which has been
produced in recent years. Yet when Davies turned his attention
to the North Wales story about which he wrote two very
substantial article for G2 in 1997, the normal
journalistic requirement for evidence and scepticism disappeared
and Davies became a credulous believer in a non-existent
It is also the case that both writers won coveted journalistic awards for stories which did more to obscure the facts than to reveal them. This in itself can only have dulled the critical faculties both of the journalists themselves and of colleagues who had to attempt to assess the merits of their stories without the benefit of any detailed knowledge of what actually happened in North Wales.
can certainly be no doubt that the North Wales saga, as related
by a succession of journalists in the 1990s (including not only
Angus Stickler and Nick Davies, but also Dean Nelson and Paul
Foot) did indeed provide a truly fantastic story. The problem
appears to be that the appeal of the story as fantasy, and as a
credible modern version of the ancient apocalyptic battle
between the forces of good and the forces of evil, appears to
have overtoppled normal journalistic scepticism. As a result
individual writers found themselves simply unable sceptically to
interrogate the narrative under whose spell they had fallen.
as we continue to delude ourselves with one of the central myths
of modern rationalism – namely that the susceptibility of highly
educated and intelligent people to irrational apocalyptic
fantasies belongs only to the remote historical past – then just
so long is it likely that even hard-headed journalists will
continue to fall victim to such fantasies.
So far as File on 4 is concerned, it is a matter for deep regret that a programme with an established tradition of real investigative rigour should apparently have succumbed so readily to the easy journalism of child abuse, as practised in this instance by Angus Stickler. One can only express the hope that the programme will rapidly reassert those journalistic virtues of accuracy and fairness for which it has rightly been praised in the past
far as Angus Stickler himself is concerned, a recent newspaper
article suggests that the man who was reportedly hired by Rod
Liddle for the Today programme in order to ‘make trouble
for the Roman Catholic church’ will now no longer be working so
much for Today and
to spend more time working for File on 4’.
Wednesday, 10 March 2004; revised 17 March
© Richard Webster, 2004