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Ex-Exaro Journalists Respond to Critics

Much recent critical coverage of Exaro – the controversial news agency that first brought Carl Beech’s “VIP sex abuse and murder” claims to public attention and afterwards uncritically promoted his allegations – has focused on Mark Watts, the “strange and obsessive man” (to quote Matthew Scott) who even after Beech’s conviction for perverting the course of justice on overwhelming evidence is “refusing to apologise, or even to accept that Exaro did anything wrong in promoting Beech” .

However, although Watts appeared in the original 2014 Sunday People splash, in a photo that showed him interviewing Beech (viewed from the rear) on a park bench, the article was written by Mark Conrad and People journalists, and it was Conrad who accompanied Beech when he first made contact with the police about his “VIP” claims (he had previously made a complaint about his dead step-father) after showing him photographs of individuals to see if he recognised anyone.

Conrad and his Exaro colleague David Hencke have over the past few days produced a number of social media posts with details about how Exaro operated. Most of these have been Tweets, published primarily in response to queries and criticisms by Matthew Scott and David Aaronovitch.

The discussion was kicked off by an extraordinary statement from Hencke on his website that he “did not know the true identity of Carl Beech until it was made public”. Beech lost his right to anonymity as a sex abuse accuser in December 2018 – the following month, he pleaded guilty to voyeurism and possessing child abuse images, but when Hencke adds on Twitter that “I don’t think he was named as Carl Beech until the actual trial”, he appears to mean either February 2019, when there was apreliminary hearing, or May 2019, when the trial for perversion of justice and fraud began.

Although Beech’s name could not be reported until December 2018, it was common currency among journalists from at least mid-2015, and after Harvey Proctor’s August 2015 press conference and subsequent reporting in the Daily Mail anyone with an interest could have worked out who he was via jigsaw identification. Yet a journalist at the heart of Exaro was both kept in the dark and remained incurious about their star informant. This was despite co-authoring articles with Watts, and working on various stories with potential cross-overs with Beech’s allegations.

Mark Conrad backs up Hencke’s account:

Absolutely true. David did not work on the Beech case. Two people inside Exaro’s office knew Beech’s identity. When Watts was sacked, that became one. If I’m honest, I think this fact points to many of the problems Exaro created for itself [Link]… By the time Henriques published [here], Exaro had closed for financial reasons – so David and I never sat down to discuss Beech’s case in full journalistic/legal detail [Link]… David knew better not to ask. He asked some v.useful Qs about his background, claims, history etc and we discussed aspects of the case in general terms. But during Midland we were under strict instruction not to discuss names, so we upheld that [Link].

Hencke adds:
That’s absolutely true. Mark C was the soul of discretion on it and Mark Watts refused to discuss with any reporter any csa case the reporter was not working on [Link]. 

Conrad further explains:

…In addition, there were parts of the Exaro investigations that none of us – with the exception of Watts – knew about. For me, that was a huge problem…[Link].

On alleged hit and run, yes, we found no evidence that it had taken place following archive searches, door-to-door, public records. But that didn’t rule it out (or in) 100%. When police got involved, we slowed other investigative lines of inquiry to give them clean shot at it [Link].

That last point is significant – this lack of evidence was also discovered by BBC Panorama. At the time, I assumed that Exaro had been negligent in not making the same checks – but now Conrad is saying that in fact they had looked into the matter. So why weren’t readers told about the outcome of their efforts? The only explanation is that their findings would have undermined Beech’s account – it might not “rule it out 100%” (a truism, given the difficulties of proving a negative), but why not let readers draw their own conclusions? Exaro’s vicious attacks on Panorama in October 2015 now look even more like they were made in bad faith – they already knew there was reason to doubt Beech’s account.

Much of the online discussion has become rancorous, with Conrad accusing David Aaronovitch of “foaming at the mouth” and Hencke suggesting that Matthew has a “one track mind on child sex abuse” (an unsavoury hint). Perhaps unwisely, Hencke then turned to one of the more vicious online conspiracy mongers for confirmation that Beech’s name was indeed obscure before it was made public. Inevitably, the ex-Exaro journalists also take refuge in the fact that there is more to it than outsiders will know: “We had other issues to contend with which are none of your business” (Hencke) and “You see, what’s in the public domain is a mere fraction of what went on/was going on” (Conrad).

Aaronovitch has reason to be aggrieved – he was named in articles impugning the integrity of critics, and although Conrad says “I have never drafted a single piece of copy with your name in it” that is not the case with Hencke (e.g. here).

3 Responses

  1. The media critics of Exaro seem to have largely glossed over the most troubling thing of all, the way they basically canvassed for vulnerable victims to contact them by email using an allegedly secure means of communication. ‘Tis almost as those most of the other media organisations have similar skeletons in the closet, if not quite as blatant!!

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