Some Notes on the Robert Hannigan Resignation

From the Mail on Sunday:

One of Britain’s top spy chiefs quit after it emerged that he helped a paedophile Catholic priest avoid jail, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.

Prime Minister Theresa May was last night accused of a cover-up over the scandal as she knew of GCHQ director Robert Hannigan’s connection to the child sex offender when he stood down in 2017.

…After Mr Hannigan provided a character reference for Father Edmund Higgins at his 2013 trial, the priest’s eight-month sentence was suspended.

…With the Prime Minister’s blessing, he was allowed to resign on January 23, 2017, citing family commitments. Anonymous briefings were given to the media that he would be caring for sick relatives.

…After his conviction, Higgins, who had served at St Elizabeth’s Church in Richmond, South-West London, was defrocked and changed his name to Edmund Black, but continued to offend.

We can only speculate as to why this has come to light now, and why the story was handed to the MoS‘s deputy political editor Harry Cole (1). The first line (and front-page headline) hint at some sort of improper influence, when in fact the supposed “cover up” merely refers to a personal embarrassment that had no bearing on Hannigan’s integrity or competence (it’s not even clear to what extent his character reference influenced Black’s judge, if at all). On Twitter, Cole has further promoted the story in terms of “Despite knowing Hannigan connection , No10 let him resign quietly into lucrative private security sector”.

But why shouldn’t he have been allowed to “resign quietly”? I find myself agreeing with Ann Widdicombe, that Hannigan’s acknowledgement of his error “should have been the end of the matter”, and that “in a more sensible world, of course, there should have been nothing to hide.”

One person who predicted that there was more to Hannigan’s resignation than we were being told was Peter Hitchens, who in early 2017 wrote that

Last week the chief of Britain’s electronic spying agency, GCHQ, quit without warning or adequate reason. Robert Hannigan, we were briefly told, left his ultra-sensitive £160,000-a- year post after just two years for ‘personal reasons’ . Mr Hannigan is 51 and has previously worked as ‘director general of defence and intelligence’ at the Foreign Office. He can hardly have expected the GCHQ job to allow him to spend a lot of time at home with his family. One has to suspect a controversy. (2)

It seems that Hannigan’s discretion was such that he preferred to have this question mark hanging over him than for GCHQ to be responsible for the agency being at the centre of negative publicity.

But discretion is one thing; misleading briefings are another. Even white lies from public officials undermines public trust, and in this instance conspiracy theories flourished. As Jeremy Duns noted in Foreign Policy:

In March 2017, [former CIA analyst Larry C.] Johnson claimed on his blog that Britain’s signals intelligence agency GCHQ — or, as he repeatedly called it, “GHCQ” — intercepted communications within Trump Tower during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. His evidence for this? GCHQ Director Robert Hannigan had resigned three days after Trump’s inauguration. Hannigan announced that he would be caring for his ill wife and elderly parents, but Johnson saw a darker plot in the timing, writing, “I do not believe in coincidences.” Like many a conspiracy theorist before him, Johnson sought out a reassuringly malevolent order amid the world’s daily churn of chaos. The real reason, he surmised, was obvious: The Brits had passed intelligence they had gathered on Trump to the Obama administration, and as soon as Trump was apprised of this, Hannigan had been forced to step down.

Johnson repeated this fanciful claim on the Kremlin-funded network RT, after which it was picked up by Andrew Napolitano, a Trump confidant and pundit for Fox News. Two days later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer cited Napolitano’s comments at a briefing, provoking an unusually forceful denial from the Brits.

Another ex-CIA officer, Philip Giraldi (executive director of the Council for the National Interest), promoted the same story at the American Conservative, but focusing on a supposed connection with Michael Flynn.

Perhaps the new revelation will put this old conspiracy theory to bed; but it’s just as likely to be assimilated into an even murkier speculative narrative.


1. Cole was until recently at the Sun, having entered journalism via working for Paul Staines. I don’t have a good opinion of him. His predecessor as Mail on Sunday Deputy Political Editor was Glen Owen, who has now taken over from Simon Walters as Political Editor. Walters, who has moved over to the Daily Mail, produced several MoS articles that promoted Chief Constable Mike Veale and his investigation into Edward Heath.

2. Hitchens’ principle is worth bearing in mind when it comes to other unexpected resignations and retirements, such as this one.

A Note on Tommy Robinson vs Panorama: Part II

From the Independent:

Tommy Robinson played footage from his wedding day to thousands of protesters outside BBC headquarters after the video he wanted to show failed to load.

Supporters, some wearing hi-visibility vests with “Free Tommy” written on them, gathered from 11am on Saturday in the car park in Salford‘s Media City as the right-wing leader prepared to show clips from a new film.

…Canadian musician Kelly Day gave two performances of a version of Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”, with the lyrics changed to reflect the story of Robinson’s court case and a chorus of “how they rule ya”.

Robinson also played a video clip showing him declaring himself “king of the whole Islam race”, which was reported on earlier this month, though he omitted the parts where he boasted about scoring drugs and used a racial slur.

Robinson did eventually manage to show his video Panodrama, a critique and supposed exposé of the BBC documentary strand Panorama which he is confident will explode an investigation into him – indeed, he appears to believe that the scandal is so great that the BBC itself will fall.

On social media there is some frustration among Robinson’s supporters that media coverage has so far focused on the extended warm-up act rather than the substance of the video. However, this is Robinson’s own fault: he presided over a distracting spectacle that overshadowed the main event; he hasn’t provided a detailed summary in writing; and a promised upload has failed to materialise. Currently, the only way to see the thing is to find near-inaudible camera recordings uploaded by random attendees.

The only substantive write-up of the video itself has been provided by Robinson’s allies at Breitbart, in an article by Jack Montgomery. Montgomery expands on Panorama reporter John Sweeney’s lubricated indiscretions that were trailed last week, and he recounts claims made by Robinson’s sometime videographer Caolan Robertson about how he was approached by the documentary makers. As written up by Montgomery, Robertson “appear[ed] to suggest HOPE Not Hate claimed they were ‘steering’ the BBC documentary” and “were present at meetings between himself and the BBC”.

More bizarrely, Caolan Robertson also “alleged they [Hope Not Hate] engaged in intimidation and sexual impropriety” – claims that Montgomery notes have been rejected by Hope Not Hate’s Nick Lowles, who says Robertson had retracted before the video was shown; lawyers are now involved, and this may have something to do with the lack of any official upload. From what I’ve seen of the video, Robertson alleged that the “intimidation” consisted of Hope Not Hate investigators advising Robertson and his associates that they may be in trouble with the police unless they cooperated in providing information.


The fieriest section of Robinson’s documentary comes when he confronts Sweeney about a clip which, Robinson believes, showed Sweeney suggest that a past dispute with [Lucy] Brown could be clipped in a misleading way.

Robinson also claimed one of Sweeney’s statements indicated that he intended to create an impression of some “sexual” misconduct by him — which Sweeney denied was the case, claiming Robinson had “mischaracterised” him.

It was Brown who filmed Sweeney’s liquid lunch, during which we now know that he used the terms “honky” and “woofter”, and expressed admiration for the late Martin McGuinness. That seems to have been the only “undercover” segment of the video.

The video also shows that Sweeney was taken in by a fake text message that Brown sent to her herself via FakeMyTextMessage, to give the impression that Tommy Robinson had threatened her – this was an exercise to show how easy it is to concoct fake evidence that is then taken seriously. Presumably Sweeney was unaware that a text message could be faked, but the message – “If u have anything to do wiv the Panorama doc I will fucking bury you you bitch” – was such a perfect gift that Sweeney ought to have been suspicious of it.

How significant is all this? Sweeney’s lunch discourse is personally embarrassing but not much more than that; and the fact that newsgathering is sometimes an ugly and pushy business that may be compromised by bad actors offering false information is not much of a revelation either. However, allegedly discussing how a clip might be presented in a deliberately misleading way goes beyond the normal journalistic instinct for sensation and ought to be taken seriously by the BBC, even if such a ploy would perhaps not have withstood the editorial path to broadcast.

Currently, there is no indication that the BBC is planning to pull the Panorama episode, despite Robinson’s boasts – indeed, Panorama has issued a statement asserting that it intends to continue – and it will be interesting to see what it has to offer that Robertson hasn’t been talking about.

A Note on the Penny Mellor Conviction

From the Essex Halstead Gazette:

AN obsessive woman who breached her restraining order by posting a series of aggressive Tweets towards an anti-abuse campaigner has been jailed for four months.

Penelope Mellor denied two counts of breaching the order, which was put in place in March 2015 and banned her from contacting or posting messages online about Shy Keenan, who lives near Colchester.

However, yesterday a jury at Chelmsford Crown Court found the 57-year-old guilty on both counts.

The “series” in fact consisted of two Tweets: one referred to an alias previously used by Keenan, and the other described her 2008 memoir Broken as “utter drivel”; according to the report, they also included “gun emojis”.

Curiously, the two Tweets dated from October 2015 and August 2016, and it’s unclear why it took so long for the matter to come to court. Perhaps they were not noticed at the time – but who, then, dug them out so much later? The story was also reported in the Express and Star during the trial, but for some reason is no longer available – that piece headlined Mellor’s defence that the alias was actually the name of someone else, accidentally modified by a spellchecker into Keenan’s alias. BBC Essex noted the trial outcome in a Tweet.

Further details of the court case have been posted to Twitter by the journalist Mark Watts, who is best known for his association with the Operation Midland complainant while working for Exaro. However, Watts did not just observe the proceedings in Chelmsford; he apparently had contact with the police while he was there: “detectives tell me that police are asking themselves whether the little Twitter troll friends of Penelope Mellor… will learn the lesson from her jailing today and stop harassing people – especially abuse survivors” (here); and “I predicted to one officer who has been investigating some of this crowd that they would troll several people in response to yday’s jailing of Penny Mellor aka Penelope Mellor. He asked: ‘Can they really be that stupid?'” (here).

Watts also noticed that Barbara Hewson was present, and he says that he reported this important fact to police, who were “very interested”. Barbara had been vocally critical of Keenan’s part in bringing to trial an elderly former headmaster named Jack Mount on historic abuse charges: Mount was cleared in two trials, and when the third was halted due to Mount’s ill health she described the case as having been “a wicked crusade by Shy and her brain-damaged cohort, Sara”. This was an unkind reference to the campaigner Sara Payne, who apparently suffered a stroke a few years ago: she and Keenan were officially designated “Sun Justice Campaigners” by the tabloid in 2012, in which capacity they fronted stories highlighting child sex abuse and asked the public for information pertinent to Mount’s case. Barbara has also made various comments about Keenan of a scathing nature.

Barbara (wisely) deleted the Tweet, but not before it was noticed by Watts, who says he took it to the Sun on Sunday. Jonathan Reilly’s write-up in that paper is now pinned to the head of Watts’s Twitter page, and an article covering the same ground was also assembled by Jonathan Ames at The Times. Given Barbara’s position as a barrister the story might have some news value, but it is notable that the only two outlets who regarded it as significant enough to publish had particular interests of their own: the Sun, to protect the brand of their “Justice Campaigner”; and Ames at The Times, to implicitly justify and bolster a previous story he had written about Barbara (discussed here).

In case there is any doubt, my view is that Barbara ought not to have posted such a Tweet about Payne; and it is clear that some of Penny Mellor’s comments about and to Keenan that led to her 2015 conviction crossed the line, both as regards quantity and content, some of which was vicious. But one gets a sense that Watts’s interaction with the mainstream media has been strategic, and his vague suggestions about the police sniffing around might inhibit reasonable discussion about matters of public interest.

There is no doubt that Keenan was a victim of abuse while growing up – I can still remember quite vividly the special edition of Newsnight from 2000 devoted to the subject (facilitated by Max Clifford, apparently), in which one of her abusers not only admitted what he had done but seemed to think there was nothing wrong about it (he even seemed to believe that his role in introducing her to other abusers was actually mitigation, since he wasn’t he only one doing it). Yet her book Broken was withdrawn by the publisher Hodder in 2014, for reasons that have not been officially explained; and while this is not conclusive evidence of falsehood it does put a cloud over some of her self-presentation.

Also, Keenan and Payne have a specific discourse about abuse that is arguable, that Keenan sums up as “Anti-Victim Prejudice” (AVP). As explained in a 2014 op-ed for Huffpost, this is a wide-ranging concept that includes not believing accusers: “Every time we talk about paedophiles, they bang on about those who may be falsely accused.” Such expressions of doubt should be “outlawed” – a proposal that may have seemed reasonable to some in 2014, when all manner of “VIP allegations” were flying around, but is now obviously reckless, after the collapse of a number of investigations (several of which, it should be noted, Watts was invested in) and issues around police disclosure. Keenan traces “AVP” to the Paedophile Information Exchange, who she says managed to “manipulate judicial and social policy” in the 1970s.

It is also worth remembering that Mellor’s 2015 trial included a surprise appearance from the TV presenter Esther Rantzen, who famously founded Childline in the 1980s. As reported by Mail Online (sic for “Jimmy Saville” rather than “Jimmy Savile”):

…Dame Esther today discussed allegations by child sex abuse victim and justice campaigner Shy Keenan that were printed on the front page of the Sun under the headline ‘Abuse campaigner: I told Esther Rantzen about paedo Jimmy Saville 18 years ago.’

She said she ‘would have remembered’ if she had been told by Ms Keenan that Saville, Gary Glitter and Jonathan King were child abusers.

If she had been told of such an ‘explosive allegation’ Dame Esther said she would have told her to go to the police.

…Dame Esther told the court: ‘The Sun journalist told me Shy Keenan told them that I said they were too rich, too powerful and that I, Esther Rantzen, could do nothing about it.

‘I said that’s absolutely untrue. I never took the view that anyone was too rich or too powerful. I have a track record in this.’ 

The Sun article appeared in October 2012, shortly after the Exposure documentary on Savile, and it comes across as bandwagon-jumping. Most obviously, given Keenan’s position in public life since 2000, why had she not raised the issue with the journalists and senior police officers with whom she was now in contact as a campaigner (a point discussed in some detail by Moor Larkin)?

The current “hot news” value of Mellor’s conviction ought not to obscure this wider context. Nor should reasonable people be intimidated by Watts’s boasts about his contacts with police and liberal use of the word “troll” to discourage discussion.

A Note on Tommy Robinson vs Panorama

From UKIP leader Gerard Batten on Twitter, last week:

Tommy Robinson is going to reveal how the BBC’s Panorama set out to frame him in its ‘Tommy Takedown’ programme. He has undercover evidence proving a ‘fake news’ scandal that will shock the nation. He says he will reveal all on 23rd Feb. My advice to him is don’t wait, do it now.

Such an extended delay raises the suspicion that Robinson is more interested in hyping his material rather than relying on the substance of it – by the time we get to 23 February his supporters will be so invested in the eagerly anticipated exposé (entitled Panodrama) that its status as a devastating revelation will be an article of faith whether or not it delivers on Robinson’s promises.

In the meantime, though, Robinson has trailed a couple of segments on his Facebook page, derived from undercover recordings of Panorama journalist John Sweeney apparently in conversation with informants known to Robinson. In one of these, Sweeney talks about how unusual it is to have working-class people as guests on BBC Newsnight, and he recalls going out for a drink with one because of the novelty of it. Warming to an anthropological analogy, he perhaps infelicitously says that he undertook this foray like “the way that you would do with somebody, from the, you know a cannibal from… Amazonia or maybe a creature from outer space”. Inevitably, Robinson has presented this as evidence that Sweeney regards working-class people as being “like cannibals”.

The second segment shows Sweeney acting out Private Eye magazine’s golden age of Fleet Street character Lunchtime O’Booze, quaffing his way through an array of beverages at an extravagant liquid lunch for two and ostentatiously charging £220 to expenses. This might reasonably be considered a misuse of money raised by the BBC licence fee, both because of the bill itself and because Sweeney was unlikely to be of much use to his employer for the rest of the day. This was an unnecessary embarrassment, which raises general questions about the privileges and leeway enjoyed by celebrity journalists at the BBC and perhaps elsewhere (and, given the excessive consumption, whether the BBC has a duty of care to an employee with an addiction).

Some of Robinson’s supporters meanwhile are supplementing these clips with Sweeney’s infamous 2007 “exploding tomato” routine, in which he was goaded into yelling at a Scientology spokesperson during a previous investigation (discussed by me here). In both instances, it seems to me, Sweeney underestimated his quarry.

Robinson claims that his video will reveal attempts to “blackmail” associates into making false claims against him, and he has highlighted Panorama‘s partnership with Hope Not Hate, which has the franchise as the official face of anti-extremist activism in UK, notwithstanding some methodological criticisms and other concerns. He also claims that staff working on the Panorama documentary informally referred to it as the “Tommy Takedown”, thus indicating bias. It seems to me that it is always worth questioning why a particular news documentary is made at any particular time, but this does not mean it lacks value or legitimacy. For instance, I was very pleased when Panorama discredited the buffoonish MP Patrick Mercer, but I still wonder why exactly he was targeted when he was.

Currently, Robinson’s clips of Sweeney are being ignored by the mainstream media – naturally, however, articles have appeared on Breitbart, and there is also a write-up in Czech that has been posted to Filip Vávra’s Středoevropan website. The Sun, in contrast, has published self-recorded clips of Robinson in Bologna last month drunkenly boasting that he can score drugs and describing a taxi as “a little Paki that drives a car”. In a Facebook video, Robinson has dismissed all this as harmless banter with Asian friends, and suggested that the clips have appeared in response to his plans to expose Panorama. (1)

Anti-BBC activists on the right are likely to promote Robinson’s work, thus mainstreaming him further – and his clips have also been highlighted opportunistically by the self-described police whistleblower Jon Wedger, who wrote on Twitter that “I feel the BBC need to do more to expose an establishment cover up. Especially in relation to former PM Edward Heath”. (2)


1. Intriguingly, Robinson also says that he “had a meeting this week with a bishop”.

2. Wedger is currently attempting to revive lurid allegations against Heath that were done to death and found wanting between 2015 and 2017, perhaps in order to ingratiate himself with Mike Veale. Wedger also clarifies that “I don’t like Tommy for many reasons but I do like that he’s gone undercover at Panorama”. However, one video promoted on his website is titled “Insight UK Column – Support for Tommy Robinson”.

The conspiracy milieu in general has grudge against Panorama after it debunked specific “Westminster VIP” child-sex abuse allegations in 2015. However, some of the BBC’s output has been more credulous: most notoriously, Newsnight‘s botched segment on Bryn Estyn in late 2012, and in 2015 Becky Milligan’s “David’s Story” segments for BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.

Jon Wedger Finds another Edward Heath Accuser

At the start of the month, self-described “police whistleblower” Jon Wedger announced a new allegation against former Prime Minister Ted Heath:

We are going live this morning. With former BBC ITV reporter @BreesAnna interviewing a man claiming to have been sexually abused by Former prime minister Sir Edward Heath, and launching his book

The accuser in this instance is one Michael Tarraga (var. Mike Tarraga), who says that he was brought to Heath while he was a child in care. According to his account, as given in an interview with Brees:

Uncle Teddy was a sailor. A politician sailor. I didn’t know anything about him. I was taken one afternoon [from school]… to a place called Pin Mill, which was a little sailing place in Suffolk I think it was, or Essex. And [I] went there, and there was a silver-haired man, a portly chap, and another chap who I was told was a doctor. And I was with another boy, we were told to swim naked, which we did, or in our underwear, which we did also, and spent an interesting afternoon in a foc’sle cabin with who I discovered was called Ted Heath, who was a very prominent sailor. That’s all I knew. I knew nothing else. And it clocked years later, “this Prime Minister played with me”. That’s what I thought. I thought no-one, nobody in their right senses is going to believe me. And I was right. Nobody did believe me.

In another video, Brees explains that this was in 1962, when Tarraga was 13 years old.

Tarraga has had a difficult life, which he has written about in a 2017 self-published memoir titled The Successful Failure: The Life of an Uncouth Lout. However, under the guidance of Wedger and Brees, the book has now been re-published as Meat Rack Boy, in reference to the notorious rent-boy scene that used to exist in the vicinity of Piccadilly Circus in central London. This new edition includes the Heath story: as Brees says, “what we’ve done with the book is put a little bit more detail in […]. We’ve also talked about the incident with Edward Heath”.

Wedger previously interviewed Tarraga last month, and according to Brees Heath’s name came up afterwards: “It was Jon Wedger was talking to you after, you know, off-camera, and you just said ‘yeah, I saw him. He was called Uncle Teddy'”. In other words, Heath’s name only came up because Wedger mentioned him first – and Tarraga would have known what Wedger wanted to hear. The name “Uncle Teddy” is reminiscent of “Uncle Eddie”, which was the name provided by another Heath accuser, James Reeves – whom Wedger interviewed last September. Like Tarraga, Reeves was also raised and abused in care during the 1950s and 1960s, but details in his “VIP” allegations against Heath and others are contradicted by the historical record.

As with Reeves, Tarraga’s story about Heath is impossible. I have no idea what happened to him at Pin Mill, but Heath’s involvement can be ruled out. First, Heath did not take up sailing until 1966, and it took a bit of time after that before he became a “prominent” sailor. John Campbell’s biography of Heath makes this clear (pages 249-250):

Unlike music, which had been his passion from boyhood, Heath only took up sailing in middle age, a few weeks before his fiftieth birthday when he was already in the full glare of media attention as Leader of the Opposition… He began in the smallest possible way, taking lessons from an instructor whose kiosk happened to catch his attention on Broadstairs jetty in the summer of 1966. Up to that time he had done no more than mess around in a dinghy on holiday with the Seligmans in Brittany in the 1950s and at Villefranche the previous summer. In his book Sailing Heath claims that sat a boy he had always been fascinated by boats and the sea, but could never afford to do anything about it. (1)

Second, someone who has researched Heath’s movements in 1962 writes that “Heath was out of UK for all but 7 days late June-mid Sept 1962. Those 7 days accounted for. He was negotiating UK entry to Common Market so well covered in media.”

It is also unclear why Tarraga did not go public in 2015, during a period when various lurid claims about Heath were being published in the media, and there was even a high-profile police trawling investigation. Rather than not being believed, his story would have been lapped up uncritically.

It is not pleasant to have to contradict an abuse survivor who is currently enjoying some well-deserved validation and sympathy over a horrendous childhood – one obviously doesn’t want to pain a vulnerable adult, and to appear to have done so can have uncomfortable consequences on social media. However, no-one alive or dead should be subjected to reputational destruction based on claims that are untrue, and in this instance the evidence exonerating Heath is conclusive.

There is also a wider public interest here – false claims about “VIP abuse” not only muddy the waters for anyone who has a genuine allegation; as with the American “QAnon” conspiracy theory (which Brees has endorsed), stories about “elite paedophiles” are also weaponised by fringe political groups (and Wedger has addressed at least one such group).

Whatever way Tarraga was coaxed into re-remembering his past so that it that contradicts known facts, Wedger and Brees have exploited and humiliated him for their own ends, and this cannot pass without comment.


1. A photo of Heath “messing around” in a rowing boat with his godson Lincoln Seligman on holiday in France in 1965 was published by the journalist Mark Watts in 2017. Watts had been led to believe that it was “taken in Jersey in 1972”, and Seligman, viewed from the rear, was not identified. The implication was that this was photographic evidence of Heath’s supposed association with teenage boys on the island, in particular from the Haut de la Garenne children’s care home. Although Watts had been misled, and he was afterwards censured by IMPRESS over the error, he has never explained where this false “Jersey” attribution came from.