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2001: The News of the World and a “Huge Police Dossier” of Celebrity Abuse Allegations

Simon Just of Real Troll Exposure has drawn attention to an interesting News of the World article from November 2001, which was published in the wake of record producer Jonathan King’s conviction for underage sex abuse against five complainants:

A HUGE police dossier details the child sex secrets of some of Britain’s favourite stars. The 700-page report, studied by the News of the World, makes horrifying reading

TV star Jonathan King, jailed for seven years this week for a string of underage sex offences, is simply the first name in a gigantic police initiative codenamed Operation Arundel.

The investigation by Surrey police grew out of the orginal [sic] inquiry into 56-year-old King’s activities.

A bulleted list of “King’s debauched cronies” follows, although “for legal reasons” (i.e. lack of evidence) the paper did not provide any names. The article refers to a “chart star” who “cultivates a squeaky-clean image”; a “pop idol” who has been “named as a paedophile”; a “TV presenter” who is “close pals” with a “convicted paedophile”; a “peer” who has served in the House of Lords more than 20 years as a Lib-Dem, and whose “name was put forward”; “two DJs”, who are “said to be at the heart of King’s paedophile ring”; and “a “record producer”. The article, by Ben Proctor and Mike Jarvis, ends by asking: “Do you recognise any of the men in the police dossiers as your abuser? Ring 0207 782 1001… A sympathetic reporter will be waiting to take your call.” For some reason, a distinction is made between the dossier itself and “a list held by Scotland Yard”.

The article foreshadows the many headlines about “celebrity sex abuse” that have appeared in the British media in recent years – and it raises the question of to what extent old allegations may have been cross-contaminated or inspired by media hints, and how police leaks and media exposés may have fed off each other, with troubling end results. And this is not some natural development – the leaker of the “huge police dossier” shows how the agency of particular individuals may influence outcomes.

First, though, the backstory. The article was published a year after News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks (now Wade) had decided to suspend her paper’s “name and shame” anti-paedophile campaign, set up in the wake of the murder of the schoolgirl Sarah Payne. The campaign had led to outbreaks of public disorder during 2000 – most notoriously, a doctor’s house was attacked based on a confusion between the words “paediatrician” and “paedophile”, but the last straw was when a convicted sex abuser who had been released from prison went missing after fleeing a mob. However, outrage over child sex abuse remained a tabloid staple, and a “700-page report” would be an irresistible prospect.

Jonathan King has always maintained his innocence, and in 2005 following his release from prison his website was shut down after he made scathing comments about one of the complainants – a complaint was made to his internet provider by an activist named Shy Keenan (discussed here), who had been paired with Sarah Payne’s mother Sara by the News of the World to continue campaigning against underage sex abuse. The incident was reported in the Mirror as “Perv King’s Web Filth Shut Down“, a headline that falsely inferred that he was running a pornographic website.

In 2014, the evidence gathered against King in 2000 was reviewed, and Surrey Police decided to bring a new charge against him: he was put on trial last year, but this time there was a different outcome: the trial collapsed due to the discovery of police failures that must now cast a shadow over the original convictions (see commentary by Daniel Finkelstein here). One detail was that

In 2014 Surrey Police also learnt that former detective Mark Williams-Thomas, who helped run the original inquiry and is now an investigative journalist, was allegedly offering to sell information on – and introductions to – King’s victims.

I discussed Williams-Thomas’s response to this discovery here.

Williams-Thomas left Surrey Police in October 2000 – this was a year before the News of the World revealed the existence of the “700-page report”, but it ought to have been obvious to the force that this leak was the work of Mark Williams-Thomas – so why was no action taken against him?

In 2001, Williams-Thomas was not a public figure. However, that changed in 2012 when he made the Exposure documentary denouncing the late Jimmy Savile. Simon notes one particular media profile that appeared a few months after the documentary, which again refers to a “dossier”:

Williams-Thomas has worked closely with Scotland Yard’s Operation Yewtree inquiry into abuse by Savile and others, sharing new leads and contact details for victims as he proceeds. He has a dossier featuring a catalogue of allegations alongside the names of about 20 suspects, including some household names, which he has shared with detectives. In some cases that has led to arrests, he says, although he does not reveal names.

A number of figures, including the comedian Freddie Starr, DJ Dave Lee Travis and PR man Max Clifford, are on police bail waiting to learn whether they will face sexual offence charges after being detained under Operation Yewtree.

It is odd to juxtapose “He does not reveal names” with a list of names; it is reasonable to infer a connection between the names and the dossier, and to assume that this dossier is the 2001 police report – although the hook that these are all “King’s debauched cronies” has been jettisoned (Operation Arundel had closed in 2003).

Operation Yewtree has yielded some convictions that it is reasonable to regard as safe. However, some of the investigations have been persecutory and raise questions about police conduct – Jim Davidson and Paul Gambaccini have both written books that raise serious concerns, and Freddie Starr, Jimmy Tarbuck and Cliff Richard have made public appearances where it is obvious that unsubstantiated and/or impossible allegations have taken a toll on personal wellbeing.

The involvement of Williams-Thomas came under particular scrutiny in a Mail on Sunday article by David Rose and Rosie Waterhouse last November, in a piece headlined “How a self-promoting TV detective, obsessed with celebrity sex abusers, helped police ruin the lives of Sir Cliff and a string of other famous faces… who all turned out to be TOTALLY INNOCENT” – Williams-Thomas responded by pointing out a previous article by Rose that had ended with a libel payout, which was hardly a substantive response. (1)

The 2001 News of the World article gives the impression that this game of ping-pong has been going on for the best part of twenty years or more: a police/ex-police source leaks to the media, and the story prompts the police to take further action, which generates new stories. The Savile documentary turbo-charged this process. (2)

Meanwhile, Williams-Thomas has a book out soon: Hunting Killers, the cover of which advertises itself as “Britain’s top crime investigator reveals how he solves the unsolvable”. According to the blurb:

Death has a unique smell. I’ve been in the presence of people who have killed; I’ve been in rooms where people have been killed. I’ve seen the unspeakable things human beings are capable of. None of that puts me off my aim; I want to see those people caught, convicted and sent to jail.

The criminologist James Treadwell was not impressed by this, for reasons he outlined in a Twitter thread (here, here, here and here). Given the ephemeral nature of the site, I’ll quote in full:

I think I have probably been in VASTLY more lengthy interviews with murderers than most criminologists. I can name names, but don’t. Many would mean nothing to most people anyway. But this sort of narrative line, It is cheap, simplistic and horrible. Homicide, rather than murder happens for an array of complex reasons, involving a diverse cast of offenders and victims. The impact is a far wider way than often recognised, and simplistic tropes of “hunting”, “wickedness” and “evil” are, in my humble opinion, just utter crap.

Victims and offenders deserve better, as do all involved. A far bigger cast is involved. Much of the criminal justice work is mundane and frustrating and, well all a bit dull. That work doesn’t end with conviction. Some of the most dull and tragic people I have met were murderers.

A final thing. If you need to tell people how significant you are on the cover of your book, you probably aren’t. So even if your publisher swallows the line, most criminologists and people with half a clue won’t. So please, just for your sake, don’t start to believe the hype.

Publication is now imminent – although for some reason Williams-Thomas has recently closed down his Twitter account.

Footnotes

1. This response was recently noted by self-described “police whistleblower” Jon Wedger, after Rosie Waterhouse asked some difficult questions concerning a man recently produced by Wedger and his associate Anna Brees as a new Edward Heath accuser. Wedger says he now intends to “target” journalists who write sceptically about allegations.

2. This dynamic may have parallels with other subjects – for instance, Rebekah Brooks was later responsible at the Sun for a bogus terror-related story in 2009 derived from false information provided by a self-described activist who had been involved with a group that had links with police.