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.

The File on 4 website rightly, and understandably, celebrates the programme’s record of excellence. It quotes the words of one of the programmes presenters, Jenny Cuffe: ‘File on 4 is fiercely independent. Based in Manchester, we pride ourselves in adding a touch of grit to the stories of the day. We spend a lot of time on the road, testing Government policies and expert theories by talking to the people who experience them as everyday reality. Our approach is invariably sceptical, but always fair. We avoid the answers that come easily, realising that life is more complex than a sound-bite, and we leave the listener to be the final judge.’

Given the programme’s reputation, many people who listened, on Tuesday 2 March, to Angus Stickler’s report into claims of corruption and cover-up at Flintshire County Council will have invested his conclusions with the authority which File on 4 justifiably enjoys.

So far as some of these conclusions are concerned it seems likely that they would be right to do so. The allegations which formed the core of the early part of the programme were based squarely on the testimony of the man who once had the job of conducting internal investigations into possible malpractice inside the council.

Former Flintshire County Council Internal Audit Manager, Andy Sutton, resigned his post in 2001 after he had been taken ill with stress and anxiety. Before this happened he had been conducting, as a part of his work, a number of investigations into areas of the council’s work in which acts of deception, fraud or corruption appear to have been engaged in by the council’s officers.

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.

After finding 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 constructive dismissal.

The employment tribunal praised his testimony: ‘The applicant has a remarkable grasp of, and memory for detail. This commended him to the tribunal as a reliable and convincing witness. He was not prone to exaggerate fact.’

At the same time, however, the tribunal criticised senior officers of the council, specifically stating that Phillip McGreevy, the Chief Executive, and Andrew Loveridge, the County Secretary, ‘appeared uncomfortable and unconvincing’.

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 credible.

One part of the story, already referred to in a number of editions of Private Eye, concerns unusually high payments made over a two year period to an administrative assistant, Sian Griffiths, who had been seconded to work on the North Wales Tribunal (the Waterhouse inquiry into child abuse in North Wales children’s homes). Sian Griffiths was in fact employed by Wrexham County Borough Council, but after she was appointed as Joint Inquiry Co-ordinator it was agreed that her salary should be paid by Flintshire.

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.

To anyone who is familiar with the manner in which the original 1991 police investigation into allegations of abuse in Clwyd was launched, this claim seems implausible. The police were called in as a direct result of a meeting held in the offices of Clwyd County Council in June 1991. The meeting was called by the then leader of the council, Dennis Parry. Present at the meeting were three other men, councillor Malcolm King (the chair of social services), Andrew Loveridge (then the county solicitor) and John Jevons, the director of social services. It was these four men who themselves had jointly come to the conclusion that there might be a paedophile ring operating in Clwyd children’s homes, and it was they who decided to raise the alarm and to explore the possibility that Clwyd might in the past have ‘pulled its punches’ in relation to allegations of child abuse – in other words that it might have engaged in a cover-up.

According to John Jevons it was none other than Andrew Loveridge himself who had eventually drafted the letter which was sent to the North Wales police in July 1991. It was this letter which explicitly raised the possibility that a paedophile ring might be operating within Clwyd children’s homes and that it might be based at Bryn Estyn – a Community Home on the outskirts of Wrexham.

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.)

Given this background the idea that Loveridge and Griffiths might in some way have contrived to frustrate the very investigation Loveridge had originally helped to trigger, while not to be ruled out, needs to be approached with extreme caution.

None of  the essential context, however, was supplied by Angus Stickler in his recent programme. Instead his own report incautiously pursued the very lines of speculation which others have already engaged in.

His initial witness in this respect was John Jillings, the retired social services director who had been commissioned by Clwyd County Council in 1994 to prepare a report into what had gone wrong in Clwyd. Jillings claimed that on a number of occasions when he and his team had requested files and information, there were ‘protracted delays’ in  producing them which he and his team did not understand.  Although, in the extracts of the interview which were broadcast, Jillings himself spoke only of ‘delays’ and not of any ultimate failure to provide the information in question, Stickler prompted him with the words ‘So you were being blocked?’  To this Jillings replied: ‘It became pretty evident as time went by that this was happening, yes.’ The interview then continued:

Q. Do you believe that vital information was withheld from your inquiry? 
A. Yes, it was very difficult to get certain information, particularly when it directly related to the abuse of children, which was of course at the centre of our inquiry
..... Very late in the day when we were compiling our recommendations we discovered that the insurance company were quite deeply involved. There was this instruction that the county and the social services should be restrictive in the information which was provided to us so as to avoid a proliferation of claims for compensation.
Q. In terms of the information that was suppressed to you, who would have been behind that? Have you got any inclination [sic]?
A. I guess at the end of the day that it would have been the director of social services and the county solicitor who had to make the decisions.
Q. So the director of social services John Jevons and the county secretary Andrew Loveridge?
A. It must, I think, have been those two people.
Q. And the conduit for passing information and documentation to you was Sian Griffiths.
A. Yes.

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 original allegation.        

In the circumstances
it might well be thought that Stickler’s attempt to highlight the possible role played by Andrew Loveridge in this alleged process of suppression is entirely reasonable. For because of the other charges which had already been brought against Loveridge, his integrity was clearly a matter for serious questioning.  Not only this but Loveridge had been alerted by the BBC to their forthcoming programme in which he had declined to participate

What is rather more surprising is that the reporter – and the BBC – should also choose to implicate another figure who was widely respected by those who knew him professionally – Clwyd’s former director of social services John Jevons.

To 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.

John Jevons for his part says that the claim made by Jillings and Stickler is simply untrue. It was certainly the case, he told me, that he and his department had had to spend a great deal of time dealing with requests from Jillings and his team. At one point, indeed, this had become almost a full-time job. In some cases it had been possible to supply documents promptly. In cases where there were delays or difficulties, however, this was not because there had been any attempt to suppress information. It was simply because by this stage a great deal of the relevant documentation had already been handed over to the police. Since the police were themselves not co-operating with the Jillings inquiry (on the grounds that its own investigations might be prejudiced by it), it was sometimes difficult or impossible to supply the information which was requested.

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.

Whether 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.

What was even more surprising was Angus Stickler’s choice of his next witness. ‘Our investigation,’ he said, ‘has discovered serious concerns about the validity of some of the documents presented at the Waterhouse inquiry.’ In support of this claim Stickler used extracts from an interview with Steven Messham, a former resident of Bryn Estyn and other homes who, said Stickler, ‘alleges he was sexually assaulted by 80 different men including a peer of the realm’. Messham said that it was clear that  some of the claims he had made were not supported by the social services documents which were produced at the Tribunal. From this he drew the conclusion that, as his solicitor put it (while making it clear that he was expressing the opinion of his client) ‘the files had been doctored.’

What is perhaps most extraordinary about Stickler’s decision to rely on claims made by Steven Messham is that Messham is due to stand trial later this month (on 15 March 2004) on a number of counts of theft, deception and false accounting. The charges relate to the alleged disappearance of more than £60,000 from the funds of NORWAS (North Wales Abuse Survivors) a support group which was set up to help victims of sexual abuse, and of which Messham was once the chairman.

It is, of course, entirely right that, until the evidence in this case is actually heard, Messham should be presumed innocent of all the charges he currently faces.
But these charges, by their very nature, cannot but raise questions about his reliability and integrity. As a matter of common sense, any journalist tempted to broadcast the testimony of a man facing such charges might be expected to show extreme caution. The wisest course to adopt in the circumstances might very well be to refrain from using the witness at all. A journalist who did take the decision to give weight to the testimony of a witness who was facing such serious criminal charges might be thought to be under an absolute obligation to make this clear.

Given that the charges against Messham have been in the public domain for some time it is difficult to believe that an alert investigative reporter would not be aware of them. The most cursory research could indeed have uncovered them since the BBC itself carries the story on its own website.

Angus 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.

Messham, however, was not the only former resident of Bryn Estyn who was interviewed on the programme. The second former resident whom Stickler claimed to have ‘tracked down’ was another man who has made frequent appearances on radio, television and in the press – Darren Laverty.

Laverty 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 at all.

Much more serious, however, was Stickler’s suggestion that a document contained in Laverty’s Tribunal ‘bundle’ had been doctored. ‘There were also,’ he said, ‘documents relating to Darren’s placement at the Bryn Estyn home that looked highly suspect too – handwritten documents purporting to be a daily log of Darren’s time in care.’

Stickler’s report went on to suggest that these documents were not contemporaneous records since they had all been written by the same person; log book entries would have contained entries made by different members of staff, written in different hands.

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’ [italics added].

The first thing that must be said about this particular claim is that it is not true. Even if the Tribunal had believed every word of Laverty’s evidence, nothing he told them could have corroborated the claim that paedophiles habitually visited North Wales children’s homes. Laverty himself never made  such a claim.

It is 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’.

By now some twelve years have passed since this lurid scenario was first created. After the multi-million pound investigations conducted both by the North Wales Police and by the Tribunal, and after a libel trial whose evidence, if studied carefully, demonstrates that a series of allegations against a former senior police officer had been fabricated, the truth about the scenario is tolerably clear. To any dispassionate observer it should now be apparent that the ‘paedophile ring’ enthusiastically located by journalists and others in North Wales children’s homes belongs to the realm of higher fantasy.

Those who have held this belief religiously, however, evidently find it very difficult (as is usually the case with religious beliefs) to relinquish it in favour of the facts. In this respect one general question which is posed by Angus Stickler’s report, and the extraordinary mix of journalistic standards it contains, is how it is that journalists who  seem to be competent and intelligent frequently get stories about alleged sexual abuse so spectacularly wrong.

Angus 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 paedophile ring.

Angus Stickler himself first came to prominence as a Radio 5 journalist with a number of reports about North Wales produced in the 1990s in which he appeared to be almost as credulous about paedophile rings and shadowy conspiracies as Davies.

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.

There 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.

Just as seventeenth-century clerics enthusiastically calculated the day of the coming of the Lord by attempting to decipher the number of the Beast, so twentieth- and twenty-first century journalists have frequently become engrossed in attempts to estimate the size and evilness of paedophile rings (or satanic covens practising ritual abuse) which have no more real existence than the Beast itself.

So long 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.

This is not a passing danger. It is, on the evidence which is now before us, likely to be a recurrent one. It is one that editors, whether they work for newspapers, for the BBC or for any other part of the media, need to be continually aware of.

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

So 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 is to spend more time working for File on 4.

Since Stickler is clearly a journalist who is possessed of considerable talents, this may in the end actually strengthen the programme. It will only do so, however, if the editors and producers who work with him understand that he is, like a number of journalists, credulous in the face of some conspiracy-theories and temperamentally unsuited to dealing rigorously and fairly with one of the very subjects to which he is apparently most powerfully drawn – allegations of child abuse.

If this recognition is not made and if editors continue to allow him to work in this most difficult area, then, on the evidence of his most recent report, it should not be surprising if he gets the story in question dangerously wrong.

Wednesday, 10 March 2004; revised 17 March



 

© Richard Webster, 2004

www.richardwebster.net

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