Police U-Turn on PIN Issued to Journalist Highlights the Problem of “Harassment Warnings”

From the Croydon Advertiser:

THE Metropolitan Police has revoked a harassment warning given to a Croydon Advertiser journalist for questioning a convicted fraudster.

Chief reporter Gareth Davies was issued with a Police Information Notice (PIN) in March 2014 while investigating Neelam Desai’s alleged involvement in a dating website scam in which men were conned out of tens of thousands of pounds.

The Met said his attempts to question Desai – calling at her house once and sending her a politely-worded email – “went beyond what was reasonable” and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) later upheld that decision.

Mr Davies, backed by publisher Local World then new owner Trinity Mirror, challenged the ruling and, earlier this year, a High Court judge granted permission for a judicial review.

…A Trinity Mirror spokesperson said: …”The Police and IPCC will also pay most of the legal costs of the proceedings and will write to the College of Policing to request a review of the guidance on using PINs with journalists.”

The police u-turn here came just days before the judicial review was due to take place. It seems to me that the police invoking the College of Policing at this late date is opportunistic: it is an attempt to suggest that the fiasco was due to unclear guidance rather than obviously flawed decision-making. Why didn’t the Met seek clarification back in 2014?

The decision also looks bad for the IPCC: they confirmed that the police had acted properly in issuing the PIN, only to now see the original decision that they approved being repudiated by those who made it. That hardly inspires confidence in the IPCC’s competence and true independence.

One small consolation from this wretched affair is that the Metropolitan Police were able to clarify a common misconception about PINs:

Scotland Yard said: “When a harassment warning letter is issued, there is also no implication that the alleged harassment has taken place.”

As I wrote previously, that was met with some surprise; many people are under the impression that such “warnings” at the very least reflect the considered opinion of professional law-enforcement officers that criminal conduct has occurred, and at worst that they amount to the same thing as a police caution, in which an offence is admitted. But in fact, PINs merely warn individuals that alleged conduct may amount to an offence if it continues. It is shockingly easy for a vexatious complainant to get an PIN issued to someone, and then to wave it around like some kind of trophy (see below for my experience of this).

Part of the problem is that police themselves often don’t understand how PINs are supposed to work: last year, I got Wiltshire Police to delete a highly misleading website on the subject, and police are known to talk of a PIN being “breached” despite such documents being informal and having no legal force. The issue thus goes much deeper than “using PINs with journalists”.

This is what the UK Parliament website has to say on the subject:

Constituents sometimes ask about the status of Police Information Notices (PINs) which the police may issue where there are allegations of harassment. These notices (sometimes called Harassment Warning Notices) are not covered by legislation, and don’t themselves constitute any kind of formal legal action.

…Because signing a Police Information Notice does not mean admitting any wrongdoing, there is no right of appeal. If a person is unhappy about the fact that the warning was issued, he or she could complain to the police force concerned.

This was why I was unsure whether Davies’s judicial review would succeed: the Met could have argued that the PIN cannot be revoked because there is nothing to revoke.

My interest: Dennis Rice aka Tabloid Troll

This is of some concern to me, having received a PIN myself in 2014 (from Thames Valley Police) following a malicious complaint by online troll Dennis Rice, who had been subjecting me to unpleasantness as “TabloidTroll” over an extended period from 2012-14 (he’s recently started up again, this time under his own name). Rice is actually a professional journalist himself, but his behaviour had nothing to do with how he makes his living: he was pursuing a private vendetta after I agreed with evidence that unmasked his sockpuppeting and trolling.

Rice actually received two warnings himself from police about his conduct towards me, in 2013 and 2014 – I didn’t make a big deal about this, as my goal was to get him to change his behaviour, and I did not want to misrepresent police intervention as confirming criminality (just as lack of police action would not have amounted to an exoneration). It was shortly after the second of these warning that he closed down his @tabloidtroll Twitter account.

A few weeks later, Rice retaliated by making his own complaint, claiming to have received an anonymous threatening message sent by me. Of course, I had not done this – that sort of thing is beneath me, and such a course of action would have been against my own best interests, given that the police were starting to take complaints against Rice seriously. Further, Rice has a history of claiming to have received an anonymous threat after online alteractions.

Yet a PIN was issued to me – and it didn’t even explain what I was supposed to have done (the specific allegation was only put to me weeks later). Rice now of course boasts that I have “a police warning for trolling and harassment”,  even though he must know what a PIN really is. All of this is discussed in full here.

I later made a complaint to Thames Valley Police, and initially ran up against the problem discussed above, that a PIN supposedly cannot be rescinded because it has no legal basis. I then patiently explained that it can still be the case that a PIN was issued incorrectly, and that this was the pertinent point. This elicited the obtuse police response that no officer had committed a disciplinary offence, which is where matters have been left.

Rice just a few weeks ago attempted a new complaint, against both myself and the author Peter Jukes, after Peter drew attention to new goading comments that Rice had emailed to him. However, this has now been dropped; according to the officer assigned to the case “Mr Rice has failed to return my emails or provide me any evidence of an offence”. More on that here.

(Footnote: To anticipate one objection to the above from Rice: After he received his second police warning, he wrote to me boasting that the police had apologised to him for acting on “false information” from me. I followed this up with police, who explained that the address I had given them for Rice had been out of date. Presumably this error caused some embarrassment to Rice when police showed up there, but the “apology” had nothing to do with the substance of my complaint.)

New Claim of Organised Abuse at Dolphin Square in the 1980s – General Synod Mentioned

From BuzzFeed:

David was groggy when he woke up, he says. As he looked around, he knew where he was, because he had been there before: an apartment in Dolphin Square, central London…

He was 15. His eyes flicker up to the right, reliving those moments in 1982 as if he were back there.

…Memories from the night before would intrude in flashes – being taken to a restaurant, to a table of men, and being told who they were: politicians, businessmen, senior members of the Church of England. Sometimes other boys his age were there too.

…The blood would be his, but the semen was not. He did not know then that it would take more than 30 years to try to find out whose it was.

Thus begins a lengthy article by Patrick Strudwick about the case of David, the latest person to say he was sexually abused by VIPs at Dolphin Square in Pimlico in the 1980s. According to Strudwick:

When BuzzFeed News began investigating this story, the details, which pointed to a clutch of paedophiles operating across some of our most powerful institutions, seemed at first too grim and too outrageous to hold up. That was until we started examining the evidence, until the files began to surface, forced into the open through the Data Protection Act and the coroner’s court. These files not only corroborated David’s story, but expanded on it.

In the wake of the Operation Midland fiasco, can it be that, at last, we have a story about Dolphin Square that might hold up?

Alas, there’s some sleight of hand here – the documents do not “corroborate” what David says happened to him at Dolphin Square in 1982. Instead, they are mostly concerned with police complaints made by David in 2007 and 2015 concerning Gordon Dawson, a landowner who lived at Dalby Hall in Lincolnshire, and the inquest into Dawson’s death in 2007. David maintains that these documents show how his complaints were mishandled – perhaps to the extent of a cover-up – but that’s a different kind of “corroboration” than Strudwick’s intro leads us to expect.

According to David’s account (the first name is his own, although no surname is provided), Dawson befriended his family, and then began regularly raping David. He also convinced the family to allow him to take David to London at weekends to “go to the theatre” – instead, he was taken to General Synod meetings, to a restaurant, and then to Dolphin Square.

(1) Gordon Dawson

In December 2006, according to Strudwick, Dawson was arrested after five individuals made complaints against him; David made his own complaint two months later, after hearing about this. Police told David that Dawson would be re-arrested, but after police made contact with Dawson to arrange a date for an interview, he killed himself with a shotgun. The article includes photos of David as he is now and as a teenager at Dalby House.

Some of this can be confirmed by a news report that appeared in the Skegness Standard in 2007, along with the detail that Dawson had reportedly admitted to something:

At an inquest into the death of Gordon Harry Dawson, it emerged that, since October [2006], no fewer than six individuals had made complaints to police about past.

…Evidence was heard from Pc Geoff Harrison, an officer with the police’s Skegness-based public protection unit who had interviewed Dawson, of Dalby House, Dalby, about the claims.

“He accepted some of what was being said but made a full denial of the specific allegations,” said the officer.

Pc Harrison said that in a subsequent telephone conversation, Dawson told him: “Oh dear, I can’t think who would make these things up.”

Strudwick suggests that the complaint was mishandled by the police in several respects: first, that Dawson was told in advance he would be re-arrested; second, that the police ignored warnings from David about Dawson’s firearms collection; and third, that David’s name was disclosed to Dawson.

On the first point, the article includes an image of an extract from a formal statement made by Harrison in relation to the earlier complainants:

I explained that there had been a number of allegations made against him and we needed to formally interview him about them. I arranged for him to attend Skegness Police Station on Tuesday 19th December 2006 and explained that we could arrange legal representation for him…

Unfortunately, this extract does not feature the word “arrest” anywhere. It proves that the police wanted to interview Dawson under caution, but not that they intended to arrest to him. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t in fact arrested – but to present this extract as evidence when it’s not raises the concern that “arrested” and “interviewed under caution” have been conflated, especially given that “arrest” doesn’t appear in the Skegness Standard article either. This is not nit-picking: Strudwick has a narrative that is critical of the police, but there is nothing untoward about arranging a so-called “voluntary” interview in advance by mutual agreement.

On the second point, the article says that Chief Inspector Tom Bell told David that he may have “had a case” about the firearms – but it is difficult to see what difference it would have made, given that Dawson could just have easily killed himself without access to firearms.

Police documents acquired by David also include details of other complaints against Dawson:

Some of the allegations against Dawson, which stretch back to 1964, included the sexual abuse of boys as young as 5.

The few lines in the files that are still discernible – the odd quote from the police interview with Dawson in December 2006, for example – are all familiar: boys in his car, country lanes, shooting rabbits, trousers undone. Two capitalised words jump out in the police notes: MODUS OPERANDI.

All very disturbing – but not the promised corroboration of organised abuse by VIPs at Dolphin Square.

(2) Dolphin Square

According to Strudwick’s article, Harrison

…came to David’s house to conduct a full interview. The interview would form the basis of David’s police statement, seen by BuzzFeed News, in which he describes, among other things, being raped by Dawson in Dolphin Square. At the time the flats were not publicly linked with sexual abuse, and Harrison, says David, was more concerned with the events in Lincolnshire.

“I said, ‘Am I the only one?’ He [Harrison] almost laughed. He said, ‘No, this is huge. It’ll be the biggest case this country has ever seen.” David says the sergeant informed him the police had been investigating Dawson for nine years; that “over 20 people had come forward”.

Strudwick acknowledges that David mistakenly described the London location as a “hotel”, but explains that this was because he was “unused to such a venue”. It’s a shame that BuzzFeed doesn’t include an image of the the police statement – to see the words “Dolphin Square” on a 2007 statement would have some evidential value, although it’s not quite true that the location had not been linked to abuse allegations at this time; articles on the subject had been published in Scallywag magazine in the 1990s, and from there had eventually made their way online. BuzzFeed also saw a police statement from a neighbour who said that David had disclosed to her in 1996, although it’s not made absolutely clear whether this statement specifically mentions Dolphin Square.

In 2015, David made contact with Operation Fairbank (blogged here), the Metropolitan Police investigation into allegations of sex abuse by politicians:

David attended an interview with two officers… Many questions remained for David: Why was Dawson forewarned of his arrest? Why were firearms not removed from his house first? Why did the case close immediately after Dawson’s death? And why was he not shown the report from the internal investigation [into his warning about the firearms*]?

But there were other questions, too: Why was the information about Dolphin Square David had given to Lincolnshire police in 2007 seemingly not investigated nor passed to the Metropolitan police? Why were many of Dawson’s friends, including two men who, David had been told, co-owned the flat with Dawson in Dolphin Square, not interviewed? Why has there never been any attempt to find out who sat with him at those restaurants?

[*UPDATE: Bandini notes in the comments that the routine destruction of this report after a period of time is being reported on social media as “documents relating to child abuse inquiries going missing”. This is sensationalising: (a) there is no reason to suppose that a review into whether Dawson should have been deprived of his firearms would have revealed anything about the allegations against him; (b) the fact that David was able to get hold of police statements etc. via the Data Protection Act shows that the relevant documents in fact remain available.]

It was a “family friend” who told David that Dawson co-owned the property at Dolphin Square. Again, it’s unfortunate that Strudwick did not apparently seek to verify that Dawson had indeed been the co-owner of a Dolphin Square flat; paperwork to this effect would be strong corroboration, it seems to me.

It should be stressed that David’s claims are not like those of “Nick” – he does not claim to have witnessed parties where others were abused, or to have seen murders or bizarre forms of torture. Indeed, he was unconscious during the abuse, perhaps after being drugged in the restaurant, and it was the after-effects that showed he had been abused by someone other than Dawson.

The results of the renewed contact with police in 2015 were not satisfactory:

…on 25 March 2015, Detective Sergeant James Townly, a senior officer from Operation Fairbank, responded to David’s questions. We read the email together in the hotel room.

Because David does not know exactly who the men at the restaurants were, “this is not sufficient for a crime report”, writes Townly.

(3) The General Synod and the VIPs

David’s story also includes the claim that

“We would go to church meetings at the [General] Synod.” David would sit in, bored and unaware of Dawson’s precise role there. But as they walked round Dolphin Square, says David, Dawson would tell him that people from the Synod also had flats there.

While at the restaurant:

“He would tell me there were people there [at the table] who had big military careers, people from the church ­– he would say that some are from the Synod – and then [also] MPs. There always seemed to be a parliament connection. They’d always be talking about something that had come up that day in the House [of Commons].” David would be introduced to them but, still only 15, would never be told their names.

The article adds that David “rarely” watched television or read newspapers, so that he didn’t recognise anyone.

Once more, Strudwick could have looked for some corroborating evidence here. The General Synod only meets for a few days in London each year (and mostly on week days rather than weekends), and it could perhaps have been possible to firm up some dates – and to clarify Dawson’s involvement – by asking the Church of England or consulting sources such as the Church of England Year Book. It is difficult to envisage some sort of “abuse network” developing within the General Synod, given its occasional nature.

Concluding note

The above is not meant to pour cold water on David’s claims about what happened to him in London. Just because “Nick” was a fantasist, it does not mean that the inside of Dolphin Square has never seen child abuse, or that abusers have never worked in concert there. Each allegation should be examined on its own merits.

David’s story about Dolphin Square may have merit – but it is not yet substantiated. Strudwick  has chased up some leads, but it seems to me that a number of assertions in the article could have been looked into in more detail. Also, given the decision to include scanned excerpts from police statements, it would be helpful to have seen more about what exactly was said to the neighbour in 1996 and to police in 2007.  Perhaps Strudwick’s view is that the main point is to galvanize the police into renewed evidence gathering activity themselves; at the moment, all we have is a frustrating mix of sensational disclosures and vagueness.

UPDATE: David has now given an articulate and at times emotional account of his story to Victoria Derbyshire on BBC 2. The interview lasts for about 20 minutes, and covers the same ground as the BuzzFeed article; he specifically recalls sitting in the gallery at General Synod meetings (this is consistent with the layout of the Assembly Hall in Church House). The BBC also approached Lincolnshire Police and Dawson’s surviving family, but they declined to comment.

Blackburn Muslim Association Condemned Over 2006 Instruction Restricting Travel for Women

From the Telegraph:

Women should not be allowed to go on long journeys without a male chaperone a British Muslim group has advised followers.

Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, condemned the advice from Blackburn Muslim Association as “disgraceful” and said such views had “no place” in modern Britain.

…Ms Greening’s intervention came following a question from David Davies, the Tory MP for Monmouth, during development questions in the Commons… He asked if efforts to improve sexual equality “would be made easier if organisations like the Blackburn Muslim Association were not putting out information to people that women should not be allowed to travel more than 48 miles without a chaperone?”

The “information” was posted online in 2006, and the above was Davies’ second attempt to generate publicity around this particular example of a successful hunt for “something unreasonable on an Islamic website”. A few days previously, he had mentioned the same thing during a Westminster Hall discussion on face veils. According to his press release:

…Mr Davies, who made his comments during a Westminster Hall debate on violence against women and girls, (Wednesday 27 April) was also highly critical of publicly funded bodies giving what he described as “medieval-style” advice to Muslim women.

“The Muslim Council of Britain is often viewed as a moderate organisation and is in receipt of public funds, yet looking at some of the groups affiliated to it sets alarm bells ringing,” he said.

“For example, Blackburn Muslim Association – which has received public money in the past for an education project – advises Muslims that it is not permissible for a women to travel a distance exceeding 48 miles without a husband or close male relative chaperone.

“Apparently, 48 miles is the distance a women would have been able to travel in three days on a camel in a desert in 7th-century Saudi Arabia. It is now being applied to 21st-century Britain.

That earlier quote made Davies’s local Monmouth Today, but it took the later exchange with Greening to make the Blackburn Muslim Association into a public “issue”, with the Sun following up on the “DISGRACEFUL” news. The Telegraph rang round for some quotes: Howjat Ramzy, “former head of the MCB’s education committee”, denounced the instruction as “offensive in this day and age”, while the head of the National Secular Society stated that “women are entitled to their own autonomy and freedom of movement; any attempt to limit this must be condemned roundly”.

I’m all for shining a light on and challenging regressive statements by groups and public figures, but I wish these sorts of controversies could be aired in a way that doesn’t depend on self-promoting politicians contriving to hook the media with haphazard “gotchas” – both in principle, and because it is a method that can easily go horribly wrong.

Eliciting predictable comments from groups such as the NSS is easy work, but it would have been more useful to have had some sort of profile of the Blackburn Muslim Association and the the man who posted the instruction, a certain Yusuf Shabbir.

Shabbir’s 2006 post appears on a site called Nawadir – the main Blackburn Muslim Association website (currently empty) described the site as its “Department of Theology” and provided a click-through. Until a few days ago, Nawadir‘s “About” page stated that

This website has been created to share the knowledge and writings of various scholars on a range of topics. We hope you benefit and feel free to share.

The sentence “We will be launching a new website soon” was added at some point, and the statement has now been further amended :

This website has been created to share the knowledge and writings of various scholars on a range of topics. We are an independent website without any affiliation with any other organisation. The website is run by a group of scholars and professionals. We hope you benefit and feel free to share. We will be launching a new website soon.

Although fairly anonymous, the site carries a prominent link to Shabbir’s Facebook profile, and his Twitter feed (since disabled) linked to the Nawadir website rather than the main Blackburn Muslim Association website. An old report lists him as the Vice Chair of the Blackburn Muslim Association.