Briefly – for what now seems a very short time – everyone was saying “We must believe the victims.”
Newsnight’s decision not to run an investigative programme about Jimmy Saville, because all they had was his victims’ testimony, was widely criticised.
On Newsnight tonight, instead, was the more usual refrain: Steve Messham was a “fantasist”, and shouldn’t be listened to. Lord McAlpine’s lawyer talked of bringing legal charges against Newsnight and Alistair McAlpine himself issued a comprehensive denial. Newsnight formally apologised, though it’s hard to see what for: they did not name Lord Alistair McAlpine as Messham’s abuser: nor did they hint his identity in any way.
[But see The BBC, Lord McAlpine and Libel Law for how Lord McAlpine might be able to sue the BBC anyway.]
More to the point, Steve Messham says:
at the time police showed him a picture of his abuser but incorrectly told him the man was Lord McAlpine.
Mr Messham told the BBC that he was “mortified” when he recently saw a real picture of Lord McAlpine and realised his mistake.
Newsnight did not name Alistair McAlpine as Steve Messham’s abuser. Steve Messham did not name Lord McAlpine to the media. The only senior Tory named was Sir Peter Morrison, who died in 1995.
Like everyone else – probably – I easily found more than one site by googling that did name Lord McAlpine. Most of them seemed to be comprehensive kitchen-sink lists, without substantive evidence, often referencing consensual sex between men as if that was a sex crime. McAlpine wasn’t the only Establishment figure named on these lists and I found the multitude of names in itself unconvincing. I accept Lord McAlpine’s thorough rebuttal of the allegations against him: whoever raped the boys of Bryn Estyn care home, it wasn’t him.
But the rapists were there.
This is not all about Lord McAlpine’s feelings. I hope he doesn’t decide to sue Newsnight, but that if he does, I hope he loses, thoroughly and expensively: I would like that to be a lesson to men who think that if they are accused of rape and are actually innocent, once cleared, their hurt feelings now ought to be everyone’s first consideration – not the rapist’s victims.
Steve Messham, now being labelled a “fantasist” again, said he handed photographs to the police and the police took no action, claiming the men were not identifiable.
I’d done so because a very credible retired child protection professional had lived with a gnawing suspicion of a cover up for many years.
These people are the rarest of human beings. They’re the people who labour in anonymity, day in day out, trying to make the world a better place. They have always been the foundations of our public services. Yet this retired public servant had, through a quirk of fate, stumbled on something that appeared so huge, that almost everyone he’d ever raised his concerns with had baulked at the challenge.
Since then though, many more ordinary people have contacted me about suspicions they have had of a wider wrongdoing – in some cases so heinous it made me cry.
They have talked of psychopaths marking children with Stanley knifes to show “ownership”. They tell of parties where children were “passed around” the men. They speak of golf course car parks being the scenes for child abuse after an 18 hole round.
And they have named powerful people – some of them household names – who abused children with impunity.
None of this has gone away. David Cameron’s feelings at being confronted with a list of names plucked off the Internet, Alistair McAlpine’s feelings about being mistakenly identified for a rapist: both of those are immaterial, and if David Cameron was at all sincere about wanting to help the victims of abuse come forward and testify, he would say so.
Inquiries are mostly the establishment’s way of managing dissent and pretending something is being done. I did not rejoice when David Cameron announced there would be an inquiry into allegations that children in the north Wales homes scandal were abused not just by staff but also by politicians, police and businessmen; or when Theresa May appointed the chief of the National Crime Agency to investigate how north Wales police handled allegations of child abuse in the 70s and 80s. Those allegations have been known for decades. We don’t need another inquiry but a proper, long overdue police investigation.
What we will get, it appears, if Lord McAlpine and David Cameron have their way, is a libel suit against Newsnight, many pages in the right-wing press attacking the BBC, and yet another “public inquiry”, which will by no means reveal any Establishment figures that may be involved.
What is important, surely, now we know about Rochdale, about Jimmy Savile – now it’s being acknowledged how many other instances have had rapes ignored or trivialised because the rape victim wasn’t giving good testimony – is to have someone stand up tomorrow and speak up for Steve Messham, for all the child abuse survivors who weren’t listened to, for all the child protection specialists who tried and failed to get anyone to pay attention.
What is not important: soothing Lord McAlpine’s and David Cameron’s hurty wee feelings.
Update – the “after 9pm statement”
It was announced that George Entwhistle, Director General of the BBC, and Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, were going to make “a short statement at 9 o’clock this evening”.
This eventually happened at quarter past nine on the BBC News channel: George Entwhistle resigned and Chris Patten praised him for “behaving extremely honourably”. (He’d been in the job for 54 days.)
For many years the BBC ignored Jimmy Savile preying on teenage girls. (To be fair, the BBC was hardly the only institution to do so.) No one has had to resign over that. Entwhistle didn’t have to resign because Newsnight didn’t run the investigative programme on Jimmy Savile, nor because the BBC ran a celebratory programme about the deceased rapist.
George Entwhistle has to resign because Newsnight took seriously the testimony of an abuse victim and Lord McAlpine decided his own feelings mattered so much more than any abuse victim’s.
Tim Davie will be acting Director General.
The point when I lost confidence in the BBC’s integrity and reliability as a news service?
It was on 9th December 2010. I was watching the Metropolitan police kettle tuition fee protesters on Westminster Bridge on news cameras, and reading reports from the protesters on the bridge live on Twitter.
But the BBC went on blandly repeating the Metropolitan Police’s version of events, without bothering themselves to check its accuracy. Their consistent failure to report on the NHS Reforms just underlined that.
Mistakes don’t shake my confidence: anyone can make mistakes, and the BBC have – with regard to Newsnight, Jimmy Savile, and of course His Preciousness Lord McAlpine – real willingness to examine their mistakes.
That John Whittingdale regards the real problem with BBC management that the Newsnight programme about child abuse went ahead is sadly predictable: as a commenter to this blog post pointed out, concern about child abuse traditionally means concern about the feelings of men who might be accused, not concern about the victims who need to have confidence they can come forward and speak out.
Charlie Beckett writes: George Entwistle is gone but how to rebuild confidence in the BBC? and disturbingly proposes:
The NHS and schools have seen structural revolutions – why not the BBC? It is time for this tired old fortress to be opened up.
Is this crisis going to be the Tory excuse to destroy the BBC as they destroyed the NHS in England?