Metropolitan Police Operation Midland Statement: Some Concerns

A (somewhat turgid) statement from the Metropolitan Police:

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) recognises the media’s and the public’s interest in its historic child abuse investigations, and in particular, in Operation Midland. The focus of this investigation is on allegations of the homicide of three young boys. There are also allegations of sexual abuse but the MPS has made clear from the outset that this is, and remains, a murder investigation.

The historic nature of the allegations means this is a complex case where the normal avenues of evidence-gathering from CCTV, DNA and telephone data, are not open to us.

The investigation is also unusual for some another reason: no-one knows who the “three young boys” are supposed to be, and there are no bodies to work with, either. The whole case rests on the testimony of one man, known to the media as “Nick”. Nick claims to have witnessed the killings during his childhood, while he was being victimized by a paedophile gang that included senior military and intelligence figures, the former Prime Minister Ted Heath, and Jimmy Savile. Lack of progress in the case has recently prompted increasingly sceptical and critical comment, including a Dail Mail article that raised questions about Nick’s credibility.

The statement continues:

These cases take time, but the public can have confidence that allegations from witnesses will be investigated thoroughly. We can all see the legacy that has been created by police and other authorities who appeared not to take allegations seriously in the past and the impact that has had on the confidence of victims to come forward.

This sounds reasonable enough, but like most guiding principles needs to be applied sensibly. If someone’s home is to be raided and property seized for months on end, there needs to be more of a reason than just “being thorough”; and natural justice demands that individuals who are being treated as suspects see their cases progress at a reasonable speed. Yet such caveats do not appear to figure anywhere in current police practice.

Continuing:

There are particular challenges where details of the allegations and those facing accusations are in the public domain. This can create potential conflicts between media and criminal investigations, and have an impact on vulnerable witnesses and those accused. This has been especially true in Operation Midland, and we wish to highlight to the media and to the public the risks that our investigation may be compromised. We raised this concern when we initially appealed for more witnesses and it continues to be an issue.

One might have more sympathy for that view if were not the fact that allegations against the accused have been widely aired with the cooperation of “Nick”. Exaro News, which acts as Nick’s media handlers, has published a number of lurid articles based on Nick’s testimony, while at the same time expressing indignation that that one of those accused – the former MP Harvey Proctor – has dared to assert his innocence and to complain about how the police have handled the case.

Further:

We also need to clarify our investigative stance in cases of this kind.

Our starting point with allegations of child sexual abuse or serious sexual assault is to believe the victim until we identify reasonable cause to believe otherwise… 

This is worrying. It’s reasonable to start from the assumption that a complainant is non-delusional and making a statement in good faith; but that is a working methodology, not a statement of faith. Belief means identifying with the complainant, with two unhappy consequences: first, the investigation is likely to become skewed by “confirmation bias”; second, observers will assume that there must be a strong case against the accused, if law-enforcement professionals are already convinced.

That is why, at the point at which we launched our initial appeal on Midland, after the witness had been interviewed for several days by detectives specialising in homicide and child abuse investigations, our senior investigating officer stated that he believed our key witness and felt him to be ‘credible’. Had he not made that considered, professional judgment, we would not have investigated in the way we have.

The police are here attempting to get away with a bit of sleight-of-hand. Det Supt Kenny McDonald did not say late last year that Nick is credible: he said that Nick’s claims were “credible and true”. We now know that Nick’s claims were actually bizarre and highly extraordinary, even though he may have presented himself in a way that was credible. One allegation in particular, that he was saved from castration at a VIP paedophile orgy due to the intervention of Ted Heath, stretches the bounds of credulity to breaking point (which is why, I suspect, Exaro refrained from mentioning it).

We must add that whilst we start from a position of believing the witness, our stance then is to investigate without fear or favour, in a thorough, professional and impartial fashion, and to go where the evidence takes us without prejudging the truth of the allegations. That is exactly what has happened in this case.

The integrity of our investigation is paramount, and the public can have confidence that allegations of homicide are being investigated thoroughly. Our officers have the resources to test all the evidence, and we have not yet completed this task. It is then for the Crown Prosecution Service to make a decision on whether to prosecute.

It looks to me that the buck is here being prepared to be passed. My understanding is that the police will refer a case to the CPS if they think there is evidence that a crime has occurred. However, if their investigation finds no evidence – or discovers counter-evidence – they have the power to wind it up without needing to involve the CPS at all.

More significantly, only a jury can decide on the truth of allegations after hearing all the evidence. We should always reflect that in our language and we acknowledge that describing the allegations as ‘credible and true’ suggested we were pre-empting the outcome of the investigation. We were not. We always retain an open mind as we have demonstrated by conducting a thorough investigation.

Some media reports have framed this as the police admitting that the “credible and true” claim was a mistake, although it seems to me rather more mealy-mouthed than that. Alison Saunders of the CPS responded to this part of the statement by saying that the police “perhaps have acknowledged today that they overstepped the mark in saying it might have been true”; this looks to me to be a polite attempt to toss the hot potato back to the Met.

Continuing:

In this respect, our approach in Operation Midland is the same as if we were investigating a contemporary rape allegation. Anyone familiar with the history of child abuse and rape investigations will recall that for many years, the first instinct of investigators appeared to be to disbelieve those making the allegations, which had a negative impact on people’s confidence to report to the police or other authorities. This undoubtedly led to crimes going unreported and un-investigated, and we do not want to return to that situation.

We’re all aware of “the bad old days”, but it seems to me that MPS ought to reflect on the possibility that they are overcompensating.

The statement goes on to remind the media to be careful when it comes to reporting cases involving “vulnerable individuals”, before adding:

…Our other main concern is the risk that media investigations will affect the process of gathering and testing evidence in our criminal investigation. In recent weeks, one journalist reporting on Operation Midland has shown the purported real identity of someone making an allegation of sexual assault to a person who has disclosed that they have been questioned by police concerning those allegations. This action has a number of potential impacts.

First, for those who have made allegations of sexual abuse, it is extremely distressing to discover that their identity might have been given to anyone else, particularly if that is to someone who may be involved in the case. Secondly, possible victims or witnesses reading the article may believe their identities could be revealed as well, which could deter them from coming forward. Ultimately, that could make it harder for allegations to be proved or disproved. This might not just deter those who could provide information for this investigation but also concern anyone thinking of coming forward with sexual abuse allegations. Finally, the potential disclosure by a journalist of a name may possibly hamper an investigation. Names will be disclosed by police to those involved in the case, but that will be at the appropriate time for the investigation depending on how those lines of enquiry progress…

In the case of “Nick”, it seems likely that his real identity has been known to the journalistic community for a long time – he has given various interviews, including one in the summer of 2014 for a documentary about Jimmy Savile, before he became involved with  Exaro and tales of murder. The law forbids publication or broadcast of his name without his consent, but that does not prevent its private circulation.

Nick’s real name was apparently put to Proctor by James Hanning of the Independent. According to Hanning:

I have met Proctor, and in a list of names I asked him about, I included what I believe to be Nick’s real name. It produced not a flicker. Hardly conclusive, but for what it’s worth, my strong belief is that he still doesn’t know who Nick is.

Obviously, outsiders ought to tread very carefully when dealing with people involved with police investigations, and I would hesitate before attempting this kind of amateur experiment. But while there obviously may be special circumstances in which it would be sensible to withhold an accuser’s name from a suspect, the practice seems to me to be undesirable and tending away from what is naturally just.

Finally, after a couple more paragraphs:

…We expect the challenges for media and police alike to continue once witnesses start to give evidence to the Goddard Inquiry. We think it is important, therefore, to offer this context now so that journalists and police officers can continue to do their job, and pursue a shared interest in justice for victims and fairness to those facing allegations.

That’s a good sentiment; but it would be good if the police could “continue to do their job” with some discernment and speed.

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