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The Evening Post Examines the “Westminster Paedophile Ring” Conspiracy Theory

At the Evening Post, a long-read by Joshi Herrmann addresses a pertinent question:

For a few years, between the autumn of 2012 and some time in 2015, a set of MPs, journalists and police officers came to believe in what amounted to a wild conspiracy theory about the British establishment. The question is, why?

The conspiracy theory was that Westminster politicians in the 1970s and 1980s had engaged in organised child sex abuse with complete impunity, in some cases even killing boys at orgies. Police investigations were mysteriously shut down, while the tabloid press – which thrived on sex scandals and openly derided “poofs” – somehow missed the action or chose to remain silent for decades after receiving threats.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse rejected claims about the existence of a “Westminster paedophile ring” just a couple of week ago – and as is well known, the false accuser and hoaxer Carl Beech, who triggered the Metropolitan Police’s “Operation Midland” fiasco, has been convicted and is now in prison. However, the damage is likely to be lasting – zombie news articles from the earlier period remain online, and for the determined conspiracy theorist any kind of counter-evidence can be assimilated into a narrative of establishment manipulation and cover-up.

And for those whose sense of virtue and superior discernment is bound up with their online denunciations of the “powerful” and of anyone urging caution, resistance to a new self-image as someone who was duped or whipped up into self-righteous rage is likely to be strong. The “Westminster paedophile ring” is also an idea that is unlikely to die on the political fringes, where it can be assimilated into conspiratorial interpretations of police failings in relation to grooming gangs and be bolstered by American conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and Q.

Herrmann’s article is a tour de force that synthesises several strands of the story, in particular placing Beech into a wider context that includes BBC Newsnight‘s reporting on Cyril Smith and stories about the notorious Elm Guest House (a “gay brothel”) in 1980s west London. There are insights from psychologists and observers of conspiracy theorising, and interview material with several individuals who were part of the story.

The whole thing is worth careful reading, but here I would like to draw attention to a few specific new details.

Newsnight and Cyril Smith

In 2015, BBC Newsnight reported a claim made by an anonymous former police officer that the MP Cyril Smith had been arrested in London in the 1980s following a child-abuse party, and that there was even a tape recording. The officer alleged to Newsnight‘s Nick Hopkins that the investigation had been shut down by a more senior officer who had seized the evidence and then warned him and his colleagues that they would be in breach of the Official Secrets Act if they ever spoke about it. The source declined to appear on camera, but the Newsnight segment did include an assessment by a different ex-officer, Clive Driscoll (previously blogged here), whose view was that the claim was “very credible”. However,

What Newsnight didn’t tell viewers is that Driscoll was not examining the claims for the first time. In fact, it was impossible for him to be an objective arbiter on the allegations, because he had brought Hopkins the story. 

Herrmann has since spoken with Driscoll by phone. Driscoll revealed to him that he actually believes that the former officer is “paranoid”, and that he had actually refused to even meet anyone from Newsnight. But if this person was fearful of repercussions, why come forward at all? It seems to me that the most economical explanation is that he wished to avoid scrutiny. Investigations by police have failed to substantiate his claims.

Mike Broad

A new name in the saga is a trade unionist named Mike Broad. Broad was present at a meeting with Tom Watson, the MP who in 2012 had raised the question of a “powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament”. Watson, of course, went on to become the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and his name is now closely associated with the allegations and how they unfolded.

According to the account, Broad claimed that Leon Brittan and other prominent people had visited Elm Guest House, and that when the place was raided in the 1980s, “two transit vans had taken away ten boys and one three-year-old girl” (I suspect the “ten boys” here might be a garbled claim about a boy or boys aged ten years old). However,

Others who had dealings with Broad considered him to be unreliable. When he visited another MP around the same time as the visit to Watson, he pointed at people he said were members of Special Branch and told those he was meeting that the security services were reading his lips via the CCTV cameras. Broad was also known for calling parliamentary researchers late at night and muttering things like “Papers tomorrow, Leon Brittan, young boys, rape scars” and then hanging up.

Herrmann’s source believes that Broad’s reference to Brittan may have influenced Watson’s thinking – I discussed his investment in allegations against Brittan here.

Parliamentary researchers and the media

Another thread in the story concerns Simon Danczuk, a buffoonish celebrity politician with a chaotic private life who was writing a book about Cyril Smith. Herrmann spoke with his parliamentary aide, Matt Baker, who recalls:

“Every day we were being blitzed with emails by these people who were basically saying ‘Establishment cover-up blah blah blah… I don’t know who they were but they were sending various YouTube videos and links and saying all these key figures are paedophiles, investigate this and investigate that.”He adds: “I’ve no doubt that with some MPs, it had probably had a bit of an effect on them…A lot of the splashes were nonsense. And half the genuine stuff has been lost.”

Another parliamentary researcher added:

“There was a huge fight to get the stories… I had national journalists calling me on deadline at 6pm, and they were printing whatever I told them without checking. It was really worrying… they were more interested in beating their rival titles to the story than getting to the truth”.

Simon Danczuk and Mark Williams-Thomas

According to Herrmann, Danczuk also met with the former police officer turned journalist Mark Williams Thomas (previously blogged here):

He asked Danczuk to use his parliamentary privilege to publicly out the former home secretary Leon Brittan as a paedophile in parliament, so that Williams-Thomas could get the broadcasting scoop by being in position outside Brittan’s house, ready to knock on his door with the cameras rolling.

However, Williams-Thomas says he merely asked to be “tipped off”.

Zac Goldsmith and David Hencke

Herrmann spoke with someone who was present at a meeting about the Elm Guest House called by Zac Goldsmith MP and attended by Watson and his aide Karie Murphy, Tessa Munt and Danczuk. The group was addressed by David Hencke, a journalist for Exaro, which had been at the forefront of promoting Carl Beech’s claims:

 “Hencke gave everyone sheets of paper – it was all over the place, all these scandals all around the country. There wasn’t any trace of doubt in his voice. All of this was gospel.” The MPs wanted to put pressure on the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to appoint a panel to examine the issue. They agreed that it would be useful to have another Conservatvie MP on board, and soon the former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton was part of the group. By the summer, they had drafted a letter to May.

Herrmann goes on to remind us that Goldsmith later spoke publicly about the Elm Guest House, but that his information had come from the convicted fraudster Chris Fay. Herrmann judges that “at some point… Goldsmith must have realised he had fallen for a hoax”, but it seems to me that unless Goldsmith can be pressed on this point we won’t know for sure.

BBC News vs Panorama

Beech’s claims were given credence by the BBC: its Home Affairs correspondent, Tom Symonds,  met him, and the two attended a play about Jimmy Savile together. However, BBC Panorama had been digging into Beech’s story and were finding elements that failed to stack up. It appears that Symonds discouraged their efforts:

…As they went about their work, Symonds made calls to a member of the Panorama team to chide them – half-jokingly the Panorama staffers thought – about being on the wrong track regarding Beech. “He was just saying he would be proved right and Panorama would be wrong,” recalls a BBC staffer. Eventually a senior BBC executive called a meeting to diffuse the tension between the team around Symonds at BBC News and the staff of Panorama. Representatives of both teams gathered in a dingy meeting room to make peace, only for the meeting to descend into bickering. 

“You are trying to shit on our journalism,” a producer from the news team complained. 

“What journalism?” a Panorama staffer shot back. 

I discussed the documentary here. Herrmann also spoke with Daniel Foggo, who presented it:

the story often seemed like a house of cards. “You could see over time that things had been conflated with other things, and then later used as corroboration,” he told me. “You start wondering if the ultimate provenance of these allegations was that some of these blokes looked a bit off.”

***

Herrmann also relates an encounter with David Aaronovitch, a journalist who expressed scepticism from the start. This fairly sums up the issues at stake:

Just before Carl Beech’s trial, I met David Aaronovitch. “Allow me for a moment to express my intense fury at the idiots who did this,” he said soon after we had sat down in a coffee shop near King’s Cross. He said he was referring to the sections of the media who promoted stories about elite paedophile rings and cover-ups without bothering to check if they were true… Aaronovitch is certainly angry with Exaro, but he sees a wider responsibility on the part of the media, which he thinks put the police under pressure to investigate made-up stories. “They [the police] are intimidated by us,” he said. “This one is our fault.”

Herrmann’s essay not the full story, of course: elements that do not appear include Wiltshire Police’s investigation into Edward Heath; the travails of the former MP John Hemming (again involving Hencke); and John Mann’s “Dickens dossiers” grandstanding. My hope is that Herrmann will expand on his work in a book-length treatment.