A thundering editorial from the Daily Mail:
An ugly chapter in the history of the police
As the inquiry into a fantasist’s allegations of a VIP paedophile ring draws to its ignominious close, so too does a truly ugly chapter in the history of Scotland Yard.
Nothing is more fundamental to liberty and the rule of law than the presumption of innocence – the principle that none of us should be condemned or vilified until our guilt is proved.
Operation Midland has turned that cornerstone of justice on its head.
…Adding nastiness to breathtaking credulity, Sir Bernard [Hogan-Howe, head of the Met] allowed former Home Secretary Sir Leon Brittan to die under a cloud of suspicion and vilification before deigning to let his widow know the case had been dropped. Even then, he hadn’t the grace to issue a full apology.
Operation Midland, as is widely known, was set up towards the end of 2014 to investigate the claims of a man known as “Nick”, who says he was subjected to torture and sex abuse by VIPs as a child in 1970s and 1980s, and that he witnessed the murder of three children. Leon Brittan was among those he accused, although the above paragraph actually refers to a rape allegation that was made by someone else.
Nick’s claims are gothically extravagant, and have come under increasing critical scrutiny in recent months. Allegations against Lord Bramall in particular were formally dropped a few weeks ago, and it has been recently reported that the whole Operation is set to close down. This may or may not be accurate, but it is the case that Operation Midland merged into Operation Fairbank, a broader investigation into VIP abuse allegations, in October. Earlier this week, a BBC Radio 4 documentary, The Report, reported that the investigation has failed to ask for statements from crucial witnesses – it appears that rather than starting with Nick and working outwards from his personal circumstances, the police instead decided to start with media stunts, in the form of house raids.
However, the Mail‘s outrage is very much behind the curve. The paper (meaning the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday – they are virtually indistinguishable on Mail Online) was very happy to report the raid on Harvey Proctor’s home last year uncritically, and in the months before Leon Brittan’s death the paper ran insinuating articles about his “faulty memory”, implying that he had suppressed a “dossier” of evidence relating to VIP paedophiles in the 1980s. The Mail never apologised for that particular “cloud of suspicion”, even though the story was debunked in the Sunday Times. The Mail only began to write critically on the subject of VIP abuse allegations when Tom Watson MP became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party – overnight, he went from being described as “campaigning MP Tom Watson” to being portrayed as a monster who had tormented a dying man with false accusations.
But even so, it is heartening to see that Mail is now committed to “the principle that none of us should be condemned or vilified until our guilt is proved”. This has not been a major theme in the Mail‘s history.
Most famously, at the end of 2010 it reported the questioning of Chris Jefferies on suspicion of murder as “Murder police quiz ‘nutty professor’ with a blue rinse”, and followed up with “Does this man hold the key to Joanna’s murder?” – a sensationalising speculation that turned out to be a QTWTAIN. Both items were front page splashes that vilified a completely innocent man, and subsequently led to a substantial libel payout.
The smearing of Jefferies came in the wake of a disastrous Mail on Sunday article in 2008, in which an innocent diplomat named John Yapp was falsely accused of groping an adult woman. At the time, Yapp was facing a employment disciplinary over the allegation, and as with Jeffries two years later it seems that the paper felt safe to press on ahead of the investigation on the assumption of “no smoke without fire”.
In fact, however, Yapp was exonerated, and the Mail paid costs and damages. His firm of lawyers, Collyer Bristow, issued a scathing statement:
The articles were sensationalised and false. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed that an official enquiry has exonerated Mr Yapp of these allegations. I am happy to say that The Mail on Sunday have now published an apology making this clear and apologising for the considerable distress caused to Mr Yapp.
The appalling allegations and false reports caused my client serious and long-lasting damage both personally and professionally. The articles also caused his partner, Anne, and family profound distress.*
This was in 2009; Yapp went on to successfully sue his former employer, the Foreign Office, in 2013, which the Mail reported without reference to its own earlier role in tormenting an innocent man. Perhaps the paper hoped the later report would obscure the timeline, and its own culpability.
Jefferies recently appeared at an event with Paul Gambaccini, who spent a year under a false suspicion of child sex abuse, as part of Operation Yewtree. I wasn’t there, but from reports it appears that both men lamented the stupidity of the police and the way they worked with journalists. Gambaccini said that the names of suspects are regularly leaked by police to the press, while Jefferies believes that in his case the police hoped that journalists would do some of the work for them.
So, what’s happened to this cosy relationship between media and police? Let us return to the Daily Mail editorial:
[Hogan-Howe] is the man who spent £11million on Operation Elveden, assigning 70 detectives to investigate payments by journalists to whistleblowers and public officials (especially police sources).
More than 60 were arrested and 29 were charged. Yet only one was convicted in court, while another pleaded guilty under an obscure 13th century law. Both received suspended sentences.
Those two paragraphs, buried deep in the article, are the nearest thing to a declaration of having an interest. It is true that only two journalists have been convicted, although the above neglects to note – one suspects deliberately – that Operation Elveden has also led to a number of police officers (and one prison officer) being convicted. In this light, the Mail‘s “ugly chapter in the history of the police”, while a valid assessment of the Operation Midland fiasco, is also opportunistic revenge.
*Disclosure: Although I do not know Yapp, I do have a personal interest in this particular libel case.