Mail on Sunday Sensationalises on Wuhan Lab Claims

From yesterday’s Mail on Sunday:

Documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday show the Wuhan Institute of Virology undertook coronavirus experiments on mammals captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan – funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government.

Sequencing of the Covid-19 genome has traced it to bats found in Yunnan’s caves.

It comes after this newspaper revealed last week that Ministers here now fear that the pandemic could have been caused by a virus leaking from the institute.

Last week’s article was headlined “Did the Virus Leak from a Research Lab in Wuhan?”, and quoted a unnamed COBRA meeting attendee as saying that the theory “is not discounted”. The article went on to rehash material that had appeared in American sources in February, presented as if new. It thus quoted “biosecurity expert Professor Richard Ebright, of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, New Jersey”, who said that the virus “could easily” have escaped, and cited “unverified local reports that workers at the institute became infected after being sprayed by blood”. It also stated that

A study by the South China University of Technology concluded that Covid-19 ‘probably’ originated in the Centre for Disease Control – although shortly after its publication, the research paper was removed from a social networking site for scientists and researchers.

Both Mail on Sunday articles are by Glen Owen, who is the paper’s political editor rather than a hack with expertise in science or health. As such, the articles are primarily political messaging to the general public as conveyed via a compliant journalist. That does not mean that they might not convey true and relevant information, but in this instance Owen’s sensationalism is misleading, even though he avoids the more egregious”bioweapon” speculation seen elsewhere. (1)

The South China University of Technology paper is discussed by Alex Kasprack at Snopes here (links in original):

This paper, such as it is, merely highlights the close distance between the seafood market and the labs and falsely claimed to have identified instances in which viral agents had escaped from Wuhan biological laboratories in the past. With those two elements, half of them factual, the authors come to the sweeping conclusion that “somebody was entangled with the evolution of 2019-nCoV coronavirus,” and “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.” While SARS viruses have escaped from a Beijing lab on at least four occasions, no such event has been documented in Wuhan.

Moving on to this week’s instalment, the “documents obtained by the Mail on Sunday” are actually two open-access academic articles that various people have been Tweeting about for a while:

Results of the research were published in November 2017 under the heading: ‘Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus.’

The exercise was summarised as: ‘Bats in a cave in Yunnan, China were captured and sampled for coronaviruses used for lab experiments.

‘All sampling procedures were performed by veterinarians with approval from the Animal Ethics Committee of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

‘Bat samplings were conducted ten times from April 2011 to October 2015 at different seasons in their natural habitat at a single location (cave) in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. Bats were trapped and faecal swab samples were collected’

It should be noted that despite the Mail on Sunday headline “Wuhan Lab was Performing Coronavirus Experiments on Bats”, the above states that the experiments were actually performed on coronavirues. There is no indication (and no reason to suppose) that the bats themselves were transported to Wuhan after the swab samples had been obtained (2). Owen’s scoop here amounts to “research lab investigating coronaviruses published research about coronaviruses”.

As for the second academic article:

Another study, published in April 2018, was titled ‘fatal swine acute diarrhoea syndrome caused by an HKU2-related coronavirus of bat origin’ and described the research as such: ‘Following a 2016 bat-related coronavirus outbreak on Chinese pig farms, bats were captured in a cave and samples were taken.

Experimenters grew the virus in a lab and injected it into three-day-old piglets. Intestinal samples from sick piglets were ground up and fed to other piglets as well.’

This is again the sort of research that one might expect, but Owen attempts to link it to the “leak” theory via a couple of quotes from commentators:

…Last night, Anthony Bellotti, president of the US pressure group White Coat Waste, condemned his government for spending tax dollars in China, adding: ‘Animals infected with viruses or otherwise sickened and abused in Chinese labs reportedly may be sold to wet markets for consumption once experiments are done.’

US Congressman Matt Gaetz said: ‘I’m disgusted to learn that for years the US government has been funding dangerous and cruel animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute, which may have contributed to the global spread of coronavirus, and research at other labs in China that have virtually no oversight from US authorities.’

These American quotes are lifted without attribution from an article that appeared a few days ago in the Washington Examiner (3). Bellotti is a Republican strategist who frames animal experimentation as government “waste”, and the Examiner article attempts to back up his assertion by referring to a February op-ed in the New York Post by the activist Steven Mosher:

And then there is this little-known fact: Some Chinese researchers are in the habit of selling their laboratory animals to street vendors after they have finished experimenting on them.

You heard me right.

Instead of properly disposing of infected animals by cremation, as the law requires, they sell them on the side to make a little extra cash. Or, in some cases, a lot of extra cash. One Beijing researcher, now in jail, made a million dollars selling his monkeys and rats on the live animal market, where they eventually wound up in someone’s stomach.

Who was this “researcher”? At what kind of institute did he work? What is the basis for extrapolating from one criminal incident to the claim that this is a “habit” among Chinese researchers? We can imagine a corrupt scientist using grant money to purchase animals that are then sold on, but it is also reasonable to suppose that Mosher is being deliberately vague here because a more detailed account would not support this argument. Yet it forms the basis of the Examiner headline “Taxpayer-Funded Animal Experiments tied to Chinese ‘Wet Markets’ and Wuhan Laboratory” that one way or another later came to Owen’s attention at the Mail on Sunday – even though Owen’s argument also incorporates “doubt” about the presence of the virus at the market.

But what about the claim that “sequencing of the Covid-19 genome has traced it to bats found in Yunnan’s caves”? An article by Matt Ridley for the Wall Street Journal (and also posted to his own website) explains the sources more clearly, and notes:

…analysis shows that the most recent common ancestor of the human virus and the RaTG13 virus [i.e. the virus as found in a specific bat specimen sampled in Yunnan] lived at least 40 years ago. So it is unlikely that the cave in Yunnan (a thousand miles from Wuhan) is where the first infection happened or that the culprit bat was taken from that cave to Wuhan to be eaten or experimented on.

Rather, it is probable that somewhere much closer to Wuhan, there is another colony of bats carrying the same kind of virus. Unless other evidence emerges, it thus looks like a horrible coincidence that China’s Institute of Virology, a high-security laboratory where human cells were being experimentally infected with bat viruses, happens to be in Wuhan, the origin of today’s pandemic.

More generally, one wonders why there appears to be so much investment in the “lab escape” theory. We know that the Chinese government is horribly culpable for covering up the initial rise of the virus, but that remains the case however the virus first emerged. Perhaps the idea that the virus is the result of scientists making conscious decisions is in a strange way reassuring, in that it suggests that humans remain the masters of their own destiny. The downside, though, is the potential vilification of Chinese scientists working in good faith (despite their corrupt political masters) to track and prevent disease.

Notes

1. The week before Owen’s first article, the Mail on Sunday splashed on the claim that “Mr Johnson has been warned by scientific advisers that China’s officially declared statistics on the number of cases of coronavirus could be ‘downplayed by a factor of 15 to 40 times'”. Again, this is science journalism via political leak. Who are these “advisers”, and what was their methodology? The story is not implausible, but if politicians believe it is in the public interest for us to know about it, they should provide us with all the details.

The same issue also carried an absurd piece (in retrospect, also in bad taste) headlined “Did Michel Barnier infect Boris Johnson?”, in which Owen and co-authors tried their hand at amateur contact tracing.

2. The institute does appear to have handled live bats for some research, though. A 2017 paper by researchers there includes the detail that

A total of 450 bats of eight different species were captured in Longquan city and Wenzhou city, Zhejiang Province in the spring of 2011 (Figure 1 and Table 1). Similarly, 155 bats representing eight species were captured in Hubei Province in the spring of 2012.

Recent media reports have referred to “605 bats”.

3. Gaetz, of course, is infamous as the congressman who recently wore a gas mask on the House floor, apparently as some kind of joke about coronavirus. It’s not clear to what extent Gaetz has a general objection to animal experiments; certainly, the research at Wuhan is no more “dangerous and cruel” than research undertaken at comparable institutions in other countries, including the USA. For instance, live mice were infected with the bat virus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016 (this in turn has now become a focus of speculation, with the risible Chanel Rion of OAN [One America News Network] citing a certain “Greg Rubini” as a source. Little is known about Rubini other than that he controls a Twitter account and supports the QAnon conspiracy theory, He uses a photo of Keir Duella from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey as his Twitter profile image, and Rion mistook this for his actual likeness).

Media Criticised In Wake of Cardinal Pell Acquittal

At Sky News Australia, conservative commentator Andrew Bolt reads a list compiled by Gerard Henderson of media figures the two men argue were among those prominent in a “pile-on” against Cardinal George Pell ahead of the recent quashing of his child abuse conviction:

Philip Adams of the ABC; Richard Ackland of the Sunday Paper; Paul Bongiorno of the Sunday Paper (disgraceful); Barrie Cassidy (I’ve just mentioned); Sarah Ferguson (you [i.e. Henderson] just mentioned); Peter FitzSimons of Nine Newspapers (Peter, hang your head in shame, mate); Ray Hadley of 2GB who called me “creepy” for defending George Pell (Ray, I expect an apology tomorrow); Derryn Hinch (disgusting); Fran Kelly of the ABC; David Marr; Louise Milligan; Tim Minchin (Tim, not everything’s a song for you, mate. Not everything’s a highlight. Your song slamming Pell was a disgrace); Lucie Morris-Marr, formerly of the Herald Sun, (I’m glad that she’s no longer there); Leigh Sales of the ABC; Tim Soutphommasane, former National Discrimination Commissioner; and Jack Waterford for the Canberra Times.

Bolt was one of a number of commentators who pointed out various implausibilities and difficulties in the case against Pell; counter-arguments ranged from the complacent suggestion that we can never know as much as a jury, through to the malicious assertion that anyone who thinks that Pell might be innocent is in fact approving of the sex crime of which he was accused. The general consensus among liberal-minded people who might in other contexts be critical of the police and willing in principle to entertain the possibility of a miscarriage of justice (e.g. a member of a minority accused of terrorism) is that Pell is certainly guilty despite the High Court outcome and that those who are doubtful or sceptical are wicked.

Thus we have the odd situation that it has been largely left to conservatives to critique the conduct of Victoria Police. Here’s what Bolt wrote a year ago:

The suspicion must be that the jury, like many Australians, had its opinion of Pell poisoned by decades of venomous media attacks, including false claims that he abused other children, offered hush money to a victim of paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, and sheltered other paedophiles.

Sadly, Victoria Police helped to destroy his reputation. Graham Ashton, now chief commissioner, falsely told a parliamentary inquiry that the Melbourne Catholic diocese under Pell had not referred any victims of paedophile priests to the police, and falsely claimed that victims compensated under a scheme set up by Pell had to sign confidentiality causes.

Then, with Pell vilified, police set up an inquiry into sexual abuse by him without having had a single complaint. It instead advertised for accusers, and after years of publicity about the compensation the church was paying.

In the same column, Bolt also noted that Lucie Morris-Marr had reported on details of a private phone call between Pell and Monsignor Charles Portelli; Bolt infers (while noting Morris-Marr’s denial) that Pell’s phone may habe been bugged by police and the details leaked to the media. Why should this be of interest and concern only to conservatives? (1)

Meanwhile, the media figures criticised by Bolt and Henderson appear to have chosen to double-down rather than reflect. David Marr wrote a piece for the UK Guardian in which he warned of a “storm of rage from the cardinal’s supporters”, which seems more like a projection of the “rage” long-directed against sceptics, while Lucie Morris-Marr has announced on Twitter that she has “filed a complaint against Gerard Henderson to the Australian Press Council”, apparently for alleged “bullying”. This echoes Morris-Marr’s previous strategy against Bolt, which I discussed in 2016 here. (2)

Excursus

Commentary on the Pell case is extensive. However, I would like to draw particular attention to a piece that appeared in the UK Catholic Herald last year, by my friend Catherine Lafferty. Catherine’s piece is particularly useful as it places what happened into a broader international context:

…In 2016 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship 60 Minutes programme aired a documentary about the cardinal. It featured British anti-abuse activist Peter Saunders, then a member of the Vatican’s advisory commission on sexual abuse, saying that Pell was a sociopath. What viewers weren’t told was that Saunders heads an organisation that holds eccentric beliefs about Satanic Ritual Abuse and so-called recovered memory.

The Australian programme has a track record of hysterical claims. The year before it aired a breathless documentary, entitled “Spies, lords and predators”, into the so-called Westminster VIP paedophile scandal which was then convulsing the news. It promised to expose what it called “the biggest political scandal Britain has ever faced”, which it said involved “a secret network of the highest office holders in the land, past and current members of parliament, cabinet ministers, judges, diplomats, even one of the country’s top spies”…

The secretive network was then being investigated by the Metropolitan Police under “Operation Midland”, a title which like the Guilford Four, has become synonymous with scandal. Just as with Pell, the claims being investigated in Operation Midland were historic, lacked any supporting forensic evidence and should have been treated with caution not credulousness.

Catherine discussed these points further in discussion with Damian Thompson, as I noted here; this was shortly before Saunders was disgraced after it came to light that he had had an opportunistic drunken sexual encounter with a vulnerable adult in a restaurant toilet during a work-related meeting. Meanwhile, “Spies, Lords and Predators” has not fared well under scrutiny, as I discussed here.

Notes

1. Also worth noting is Rod Dreher’s speculation that Pell may have been framed by the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. While based in Rome, Pell was put in charge of reforming the Vatican bank, and Dreher notes a 2013 report stating the view of Calabrian Mafia investigator Nicola Gratteri that such banking reform “could prove a problem for the ’Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful Mafia”. Dreher says that this same mafia “control organized crime on Australia’s East Coast” and “are said to have infiltrated every part of the Australian establishment.”

2. Morris-Marr’s account of her dispute with Bolt was also carried uncritically by the UK Guardian, despite an older report in the same paper that raises questions about her journalistic ethics. The story concerned a journalist named Mark Covell who had been beaten up by police in Italy during the 2001 G8 protests; Morris-Marr, who at the time was just Lucie Morris of the Daily Mail, visited Covell in hospital the next day without disclosing that she was a journalist (he had assumed she was from the British Embassy) and later wrote up a piece falsely accusing him of “helping to mastermind” anarchist riots during the protest. As explained by Roy Greenslade in 2005:

[Covell’s lawyers] pointed to a possible breach of his privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights and a similar article of the Italian constitution, not to mention a contravention of data protection laws. Morris appeared to have breached three clauses of the editors’ code of practice, having invaded Covell’s privacy, intruded into his grief and shock, and entered a hospital bedroom, where he surely had a reasonable expectation of privacy, without permission.

Costs, damages, and a rare letter of apology followed.

A Note on 5G Coronavirus Conspiricism

A couple of Tweets from the Guardian‘s technology editor Alex Hern (2 April):

The Sovereign Citizens and the 5G Truthers are merging. Someone has emailed to say “a Notice will be hand delivered by the military police” and “reported to the World Court and Interpol and your Liberty will be removed without further notice” if I don’t reveal the truth about 5G [here]

Oh there’s a little bit of Coronavirus conspiracy in there too: “5G is lethal to humanity and all living things, it produces irreversible damage to DNA and kills any living being, as demonstrated in Wuhan Radiation [experiment]”. The square brackets are in the original. [here]

5G scaremongering has actually been a staple of “Sovereign Citizen” activism in the UK for a while (see e.g. the website of a group called the “New Chartists”). The crossover with Covid-19 conspiracism ought be to be a particularly absurd outlier, yet in the context of a national crisis it appears to have been responsible for a recent shift from people sounding off online to committing acts of arson against 5G masts.

The crossover has been addressed in a article by Ryan Broderick for Buzzfeed:

The UK’s early push into 5G cellular coverage has led to an especially active British anti-5G movement. In 2018, the Democrats and Veterans Party, an offshoot of the British far-right political party UKIP, hosted at their party conference British YouTuber and conspiracy theorist Mark Steele, whose speech on the dangers of 5G is featured regularly in conspiracy theory videos. The dangers of 5G were also a major talking point in the 2019 election for UKIP and its supporters.

Steele (who confusingly also goes by the name of Anthony Steele) also has a presence on Twitter, where he describes engineers working on the masts as “criminals working to kill children” and suggests that “anyone not covering the 5G crime is an enemy of the people”. If this is not incitement to violence, then what is?

Steele also promotes the specific 5G coronavirus  theory – indeed, he may even be its originator, as back in February he was already claiming that “WUHAN had the 5G in the Streetlights”. Some of his Tweets incorporate short to-camera videos, in which there is more of a hint of a smirk as he expounds his various claims and allegations; and when he opines that Boris Johnson “MUST HAVE BEEN STANDING TO [sic] CLOSE TO A 5G TRANSMITTER” you have to wonder whether his wild conspiracy-mongering is nihilistic and performative rather than simply delusional.

I wrote about the Democrats and Veterans Party conference here, although I didn’t note Steele’s presence specifically. Steele’s appearance was as an influencer within the UK conspiracy milieu – other speakers included UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom and Bill Etheridge, Sir WIlliam Jaffray (misspelt as “William Jaffrey”) Jon Wedger and Belinda McKenzie.

Steele’s anti-5G activism has also been amplified on conspiracy podcasts (hosted by e.g. Lou Collins and Richie Allen), as well as, erm… by Mail Online, which in 2018 ran an article reporting that 5G “radiation given off by state-of-the-art street lamps is wreaking havoc on the residents of Gateshead, according to local Mark Steele.” This was several months before Steele was fined for threatening councillors.

In September 2019, Steele appeared on a panel at an event titled “5G Apocalypse London“. The panel was headed by Sacha Stone, founder of a pseudo-court cosplay outfit called the International Tribunal for Natural Justice.

Some Media Notes on Farah Damji

From the Daily Mirror:

A former New York art gallery owner who made the life of a church warden “complete hell” has been sentenced to 27 months in prison.

Farah Damji, 53, was jailed for five years in 2016 for stalking the engineer after meeting him on an online dating site in October 2013.

…The businesswoman, who ran an art gallery in Manhattan in the 1990s, was convicted in February of two counts of breaching the restraining order on April 2018 and June 2018.

There now just remains the small matter of apprehending her – she has declined to make herself available to the authorities, and sentencing took place in absentia.

Damji’s scofflaw antics have provided the media with fodder for years; here’s Guy Adams writing about her in the Independent in 2006:

Damji, the socialite daughter of a prominent Asian property tycoon, has become a notorious figure in the media village. She last made headlines in October after being jailed for three-and-a-half years for using stolen credit-cards to fund her free-spending lifestyle.

As that case approached trial, she dropped another gift into the laps of headline writers by impersonating David Blunkett’s secretary and two members of the Crown Prosecution Service, in a failed bid to have the charges against her dropped.

Damji absconded that time as well, bringing her further fame as “Britain’s first on-the-run blogger”, and Adams observed that “recent coverage of her tale has been remarkably sympathetic” despite the fact that many of her frauds during this period “involved other journalists”. This was also the case even though there was evidence that Damji was not just crooked but also vicious, with a former lover (the author William Dalrymple) having called in the police.

Following her release from prison, Damji easily re-established her position as a London socialite involved with literary/media matters – the publication of her memoir Try Me in 2009 was covered by the Lifestyle section of the Evening Standard under the headline “Confessions of London’s most dangerous woman”, and the gushing profile amplified various grievances she had included in the book:

we find tales of incest, rape and kidnapping; allegations of an alcoholic father and a mother incapable of love: of pimping — Damji was once a madam for a New York “escort agency”—and of numerous sleazy, dangerous men, all named. There are drugs and drug-dealing, prison and escape and, yes, high glamour both here and in New York. How much of it we can believe isn’t clear, as Damji’s chequered past makes her a very unreliable narrator. But her version of her own life is compelling.

This media plug was published while Damji was persisting in criminal behaviour, and just a few months later she was jailed for ripping off landlords and engaging in benefit fraud. The Daily Mail covered the case at the time; due to what I assume is a technical error the article was recently re-dated from 2010 to 2020, but the original can be seen in the Internet Archive here and her age as given in the piece signals the error.

Despite being jailed for 15 months at the end of January 2010, she was (bafflingly) out in time to participate in the Stoke Newington Literary Festival in June (in conversation with Darcus Howe) and to take part in a subsequent event at a local library in August (where she appeared alongside Shaun Attwood). Perhaps inevitably, she also set herself up as a prison reform activist – the Sunday Times cast a critical eye over her attempts to monetise this with a 2011 piece headlined “Fraudster eyes Tory rehab cash“, but although her plans fell through she remained available as a rent-a-quote on prisons in the years that followed.

Frustratingly, however, despite her name continuing to appear in the Evening Standard diary column (e.g. here in 2012) there was no media interest in the fact that she was also engaging in harassment against multiple targets (I discussed one case here). She wasn’t brought to book until 2016, by which point it was at last very clear that the previous “colourful rogue” media framing was not appropriate:

The court heard that between December 19, 2013 and January 5, 2014 Dan [Damji’s legal surname], using a number of false identities, made 186 silent or hoax calls and texts to the victim’s mobile.

She also tried to plant stories in the media about the company where the man’s company.

She even sent sexually explicit texts and made silent calls to her victim’s 16-year-old son.

…Some of the more disturbing messages included threats of sexual violence against members of the victim’s family including his six-year-old daughter.

Damji continues to maintain her innocence, and alleges a widespread conspiracy against her involving her victim and the authorities. So adept is she at playing the system that even while in prison in 2017 she managed to get the UK Parliament Public Accounts Committee to upload a document to the Parliament website that amplified her version of events and tormented her victim further with incredibly vile allegations (although he wasn’t named) – this was achieved by inserting the details into what was supposedly a report on mental health services in prison, thus taking advantage of the liberal principle that serving and ex-prisoners may have some useful and valid insights into prison conditions.

Damji’s most recent conviction and sentencing were covered by Court News UK, and it is likely that the Mirror article is derived from their work. However, it is reasonable to suppose that media interest in Damji has declined, and this is likely to have been the case even without the current pandemic. That may be harder for her to bear than yet another prison sentence from which there is very little chance she will emerge either rehabilitated or subdued.

Metropolitan Police Compensates Blogger Three Years After Arrest

A letter from the Metropolitan Police to blogger Simon Just and his wife:

11 March 2020

Dear Mr and Mrs Just

Re: Your request for financial compensation from the Metropolitan Police – PC/27 [Redacted]

As agreed, by way of full and final settlement of your claim, please find attached a cheque in the sum [Redacted] which includes [Redacted] settlement fee and [Redacted] payment on account of costs.

Yours sincerely

[Redacted]

Lawyer

Directorate of Legal Services

The letter has been published on Simon’s blog, as evidence of police malpractice in relation to his arrest on allegations of stalking January 2017 over his online writings (as well as social media accounts he says he had nothing to do with). He explains:

I had taken a stance that there was a public interest in the online behaviour of various individuals and I wasn’t going to be strong armed into silence, simply because it supposedly impacted on their feelings providing that I was limiting my posts to observations and opinions of my own or opinions based on other evidence. There was no intent to harass anyone, there were posts which were made with the wider public interest in mind and to create a timeline of events which could later prove useful. In the latter regard that has proven absolutely crucial in other matters.

I wrote about the case in May 2017, after the police dropped the case. Simon’s writings were concerned with problematic “VIP abuse” allegations, and he was also helping a man named Darren Laverty with his defence against an allegation of stalking. The case against Laverty reached the CPS, but was dropped when “further evidence” came to light – and it is reasonable to suppose that this was evidence that the police had been negligent in not putting before the CPS earlier.

It is also reasonable to suspect that Simon’s arrest and bail were primarily part of a strategy to undermine Laverty, and that the case against him was dropped when it no longer served this purpose. As Simon writes:

Laverty’s case being investigated and prosecuted effectively by the exact same officers who had nicked me… no agenda there at all then? I’m being sarcastic.

So when the officers found out that they were effectively witness intimidating me the look of shock on their faces was a picture to behold. Whoops. They were also potentially compromising any defence material that had not yet been passed over to the defence team and were possibly doing so deliberately.

It should be noted that Simon’s arrest had been celebrated by what we might call the “Operation Midland cheerleader” crowd, with Tweets from the likes of Exaro‘s Mark Watts crowing about “green bottles” falling. This was during the dying days of the Operation Midland fiasco, at a time when it was obvious that “Nick’s” allegations were not going to lead to the earth-shattering revelations on which Watts had banked all of his journalistic credibility. The arrest of a sceptic, then, served as some psychological consolation prize.

Simon draws some parallels with Midland (square brackets in original):

The same errors which appeared in Operation Midland and the seriousness of the search warrant issues apparent within the Met was flagged up yet again in today’s [Friday 13th March 2020] HMICFRS Inspection report….

The officers concerned had actually worded the warrant as though I was threatening individuals [I wasn’t and nor were the accounts actually under investigation to the best of my knowledge] and even worse that I was the owner of things that had no relation to the material they were really investigating. i.e. they named old twitter accounts which I’d already admitted were mine not the ones they were investigating.

In fact, I’d not been on twitter with an active account for around 18 months before the time of my arrest.

This raises an important question:

…If offences had been made out [by whoever was operating those specific accounts that were actually under investigation] then why didn’t the investigation into the real identities of those accounts continue and alternative means of identity be investigated?…

The cops don’t just normally ditch what is meant to be a valid case just because they have the wrong suspect.

Or putting it another way, the complainants were using the police as a private army and to hell with the consequences.

One further notable aspect of the police action is the disproportionate resources involved. Simon lives far from London, in Cumbria. Yet Metropolitan Officers were dispatched first to Liverpool, to take a statement from an accuser there, before descending on Simon’s home. Although Simon’s police interview took place at his local station, one wonders if there was a reluctance to liaise with local officers for some reason.

There is also this very telling and troubling detail:

I also had received a letter from the SIO in the case against me asking me to collect my computer equipment from Wimbledon Police Station over 300 miles from where I live. I replied back saying that the Met had a duty to return the equipment either to me directly or to my local police station. They eventually hand delivered the equipment in November 2017 but there was no apology nor acceptance that they’d screwed up.

It is difficult to believe that the police simply failed to think about whether it was reasonable to ask someone to undertake a 600-mile round trip just to pick up their property. It looks to me that this was a calculated and petulant attempt to create massive inconvenience as some kind of revenge. This is what is known in police jargon as “oppressive conduct”, and it raises concerns about what kind of culture of policing there is at Wimbledon Police Station.

The above are just a few points from the post that I have chosen to highlight. Simon took on the Metropolitan Police as a litigant in person, and his post includes a “checklist at the end of this article in order to assist others in future if in similar situations to mine”. The full post also has further context.

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.

IICSA Rejects “Westminster Paedophile Network” Claims

Journalist Don Hale’s account “implausible”

“No evidence… PIE had any members who were MPs or peers”

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has published a its conclusions on “allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster”, two years after its first hearings on the subject (discussed here). According to the report:

There is ample evidence that individual perpetrators of child sexual abuse have been linked to Westminster. However, there was no evidence of any kind of organised ‘Westminster paedophile network’ in which persons of prominence conspired to pass children amongst themselves for the purpose of sexual abuse. The source of some of the most lurid claims about a sinister network of abusers in Westminster has now been discredited with the conviction of Carl Beech.

This is in striking contrast to the impression given by newspaper reports that dominated the British mediascape between 2014 and 2016, at which time it seemed that any allegation that placed politicians from the 1970s or 1980s at child abuse parties or at meetings of the Paedophile Information Exchange would receive uncritical and sensational coverage, no matter how unsubstantiated or implausible.

Beech’s allegations – promoted in particular by the Sunday People, in cooperation with the Exaro news website – were only some of the most lurid. The Sunday Mirror presented as fact the allegation that Edward Heath had “attended Paedophile Information Exchange meetings”, and named Rhodes Boyson and Keith Joseph as paedophile orgiasts; The Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday credulously reported claims that Enoch Powell and William Whitelaw may have been involved in Satanic Ritual Abuse; and the Daily Mail‘s hatchet man Guy Adams wrote up a “special report into the growing stench of a cover-up by the Establishment” in relation to Dolphin Square. Chancers such as Anthony Gilberthorpe and the convicted fraudster Chris Fay were given national platforms, while the buffoonish right-wing MP Geoffrey Dickens was posthumously lionised as someone who had supposedly compiled a devastating “dossier” that had been suppressed by Leon Brittan (not true, as discussed here).

Don Hale

In the midst of all this, a journalist named Don Hale came forward with a story about how the Labour MP Barbara Castle had entrusted him with documents that would have exposed a Westminster network, but that this had been seized from him before he had a chance to act on it. For some reason, there is no record of Castle ever mentioning this to anyone else, and Hale only began mentioning it in 2014. Hale gave evidence to the IICSA, but they were not impressed:

There are several implausible elements to Mr Hale’s account. In certain key respects Mr Hale’s story simply does not add up. It is extremely unlikely that, if Mrs Castle had evidence of child sexual abuse and support for PIE at Westminster and wished to expose it, she would have sought to do so by giving the documents to the editor of a free newspaper in the North West with a small, local circulation. Even if, as Mr Hale said, the large national newspapers had refused to take the story, there were obvious and better alternatives, such as publication in Private Eye, or Mrs Castle simply making a speech to publicise what she had discovered.

…Finally, if the documents did say what Mr Hale claimed and if the visit by Cyril Smith and the Special Branch raid did take place, it is inconceivable that neither Mr Hale nor Mrs Castle sought to bring these matters to public attention. Mrs Castle was a veteran politician with great experience of challenging the establishment. Mr Hale was an established journalist who went on to lead press campaigns including one that came to national attention and won him industry awards. The raid, if it happened, was itself evidence that there was substance in the concerns about Westminster child sexual abuse and a cover-up that was the subject of public debate led by Geoffrey Dickens MP and others in the mid-1980s. If it all happened in the way that Mr Hale described, it is likely that he and probably also Mrs Castle would have been very vocal about it. One way or another, they would have made certain that their story was told publicly. We do not consider that either of them would have been deterred by what the simplest of enquiries could have established was a false D-Notice. The fact that Mrs Castle appears to have said nothing about these events before her death in 2002 and Mr Hale said nothing for some 30 years, and then only once other allegations had been made in the wake of Jimmy Savile’s death, leads us to doubt whether the events did in fact take place as Mr Hale described them.

…Mr Hale has told his story many times over recent years – to the police and IOPC investigators on a number of occasions, to journalists and to this Inquiry. The various accounts have become more detailed over time. Even when giving oral evidence to us, some of the detail that he gave did not appear in any of his previous statements.

The Paedophile Information Exchange

The report also addresses some other aspects of the “Westminster network” mythology. On the Paedophile Information Exchange:

At its height in around 1978, it seems that PIE had some 300 members in total. The Inquiry has seen no evidence to suggest that PIE had any members who were MPs or peers, or who could be described more broadly as senior Westminster figures, with the exception of Sir Peter Hayman. There were two members of the PIE executive committee – Charles Napier and Peter Righton – who had significant establishment connections of a more general kind, such as holding prominent positions in schools and academia or (in Mr Righton’s case) in public advisory roles, but we have seen no evidence of any other prominent persons.

Further:

Mr Heath’s private secretary of the time, Peter Batey, recalled informing Mr Heath he had received a letter from PIE and him replying “We don’t want anything to do with them” with a strength of reaction that was notable.

I wrote more about Heath and PIE here. The IICSA further notes that there is no evidence that PIE ever received Home Office funding.

Elm Guest House

The report cites the police review into the Elm Guest House investigation:

Elm Guest House was a tawdry establishment which had come to the attention of police on several occasions. Child sexual abuse had almost certainly occurred there. However, Commander Neil Jerome from the Metropolitan Police Service stated that “no individuals of prominence or (individuals) that could be described as being well-known” were either observed by the police during surveillance operations or found there when the property was raided [in 1982].

Further:

There has been a detailed investigation into an allegation that when interviewed on the night of the raid the 10-year-old boy referred to one of his abusers as “Uncle Leon” who may have been a politician and came from “the big house”. This allegation was made by Andrew Keir, a social worker who was present at the interview with the boy on the night of the raid, his suggestion apparently being either that this detail was deliberately omitted from the contemporaneous manuscript notes of the interview or that it was removed when the typed version was subsequently prepared. The IOPC investigation into this allegation was Operation Helena. In summary, Commander Jerome informed us, having regard to some of the contemporaneous documentation, the records of an earlier inquiry, and the evidence of the officers involved, the investigation concluded that “there was no substance … at all” to the allegation that Mr Keir had made.

I discussed this story here.

Attitudes

The above does not mean, of course, that there are no credible allegations against individual MPs or other figures associated with Westminster – several cases are discussed in detail in the report, and much of the press coverage has focused on this angle. The report makes several references to police “undue deference”, and it is reasonable to suppose that such failures have played a role in why false and implausible allegations came to have a presumption of truth in the public mind.

The report also notes other problematic attitudes – child protection did not have “precedence” when it came to the sex industry and indecent images, and there was confused thinking in the wake of the sexual revolution:

The profound social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in relation to socially acceptable sexual behaviour, meant that people in positions of political and cultural influence at that time deliberately sought to challenge the boundaries of sexual activity. Language was often used in ambiguous ways. For example, the term ‘boys’ was used to describe 18 to 21-year-old young men. Although homosexual acts were decriminalised in 1967, the age of consent was still higher than for heterosexual relations until 2000 and being openly homosexual in Parliament was still unusual and the subject of disapproval. The effect of this was that in some circles there was an unwillingness to challenge efforts to make ‘paedophilia’ acceptable or to ask difficult questions about proposals to reduce the age of consent which seemed to be borne of inappropriate attitudes, for fear of being seen as old-fashioned, buttoned-up or out of touch with the times. Child welfare and protection yielded to self-serving ideas of sexual liberation.

Clearly, there was a failure of justice, with the result that risks to children were needlessly amplified. But if we want to understand why this was the case, we should look to social history and sociology rather than conspiracy theories.

UPDATE: David Aaronovitch has written about the IICSA conclusions in a Times column, under the heading “VIP abuse farce shows danger of moral panic”. His conclusion:

…in this instance the true scandal is that there was a mostly posthumous witch-hunt fuelled by fantasists and liars and exploited by careless journalists and feckless police forces. It’s a panic that has cost millions, taken resources away from policing (conceivably at the expense of genuine and continuing child protection cases) and absorbed part of the nation in a false debate. It has been catnip for conspiracy theorists, besmirched our democracy and distorted our perception of our own recent history. And it needs to be called out.

Aaronovitch is particularly scathing of Don Hale, noting:

Whatever IICSA’s deficiencies in presentation, the lawyers who questioned Hale did an excellent job. The transcript of his cross-examination makes painful reading. The report itself is couched in the most careful possible terms, in which the words “odd”, “implausible” and “inconceivable” are used, but amounts to this: we didn’t believe a word of it. The report does say that there’s no evidence any of it happened, the key elements of the story just don’t make sense and Mr Hale’s account of his 30-year delay in coming forward is incredible.

Hale has not responded directly to the IICSA’s assessment, beyond suggesting  generally that the inquiry is engaged in a “cover up”. His only acknowledgement of the IICSA’s criticisms has been to RT an endorsement by someone else, who writes:

Having now read most of your statements to the Inquiry it’s plainly obvious this whole exercise is a sham. As a former employee of the Bury Times it appalls me that they sought bring into question your integrity. I’ve always believed that the establishment leaned on you re [Cyril] Smith.

“Ritual Abuse” Conference Returns to Dundee

From Third Force News (“the voice of Scotland’s third sector”):

A conference later this month will look at the current international situation of ritual abuse (RA) and organised abuse of children.

International experts in the field of RA will come together in Dundee to discuss the impact and prevalence of RA and organised abuse on children and share best practice on support for young survivors. The conference will examine the current situation in the world and in the UK specifically to help workers and supporters to identify and help children who are affected by organised and ritualised abuse.

Dr Laurie Matthew OBE, coordinator of charity Eighteen And Under, will be presenting at the conference… Other experts who will be presenting include Dr Michael Salter, a Scientia Fellow and associate professor of criminology at the University of New South Wales. His research focuses on organised forms of child sexual abuse. Dark Justice, an organisation who catch potential sex offenders who try to groom and meet up with children following sexual grooming will also be speaking. Neil Brick (RA survivor) and creator of the S.M.A.R.T (Stop Mind control And Ritual Abuse Today) newsletter and Dr Sarah Nelson, Universities of Edinburgh and Dundee, who has presented widely for decades on sexual abuse issues, will also be delivering talks.

The event is being jointly organised by Eighteen and Under and a group called Izzy’s Promise, and as the report notes, it is their second conference – I discussed the first one, which took place in 2018, here. As I noted then, both groups are projects of the Ritual Abuse Network Scotland, and RANS in turn is affiliated with the Ritual Abuse Information Network (RAINS) (blogged here).

The bare formulation “ritual abuse” is broad. It might apply to children being harmed due to witchcraft beliefs, or by stretching the meaning a bit to the idea of “grooming” as a repeatable technique – this would explain the involvement of “Dark Justice”, a vigilante duo named Scott and Callum who have come under criticism from the police despite securing evidence that has been used in prosecutions.

However, the term “ritual abuse” is also useful because it comes with less baggage than “Satanic Ritual Abuse”, and it is reasonable to infer that this will be a significant topic of the conference. Nelson, for instance, is the author of works such as “Satanist Ritual Abuse: Challenges to the Mental Health System”, presented to RAINS in 1996 (available from SAFF here), while Neil Brick is known for his history of extravagant claims about Illuminati mind control and such, as discussed here.

Michael Salter, meanwhile has a history of attacking the personal integrity of memory scientists who raise doubts about supposedly “recovered” memories (as I noted here); he is also the chair of the Ritual Abuse, Mind Control and Organised Abuse (RAMCOA) Special Interest Group at the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD).

Excurcus on Michael Salter

Salter is usually based in Australia, but for those in the UK unable to make their way to Dundee there is also an upcoming ISSTD “Day With Professor Michael Salter” in London. Other presenters will include Valerie Sinason and Elly Hanson, the latter billed as an adviser to CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command of the National Crime Agency – Hanson recently came under critical scrutiny following her involvement with the police investigations into Edward Heath and into claims made by the hoaxer Carl Beech.

Recently, Twitter user @RDobbson1 has drawn attention to Salter’s early work, in particular a troubling 2005 essay titled “Bearing witness to ritual abuse” (Word doc download from the Internet Archive here). Much of the article is a personal narrative rather than a theoretical discussion, and it is Salter’s account of how, as a teenage student, he had come to discern that his female housemate’s behavioural quirks were evidence of past sexual abuse. This housemate, Alex, confirmed his suspicion and disclosed that the perpetrators had been “a group of police officers”. We’re told that in the years that followed, the two of them received threatening phone calls, Alex moved location frequently, and that Salter has “come home to find bloody organs smeared through our beds and strange sigils painted on our sheets.” Writing as “Plain Speaker”, @RDobbson1 refers critically to the story on a now-defunct website called Dysgenics (“Dispatches From a Degenerating Mental Environment”), which can be accessed here.

Trauma Therapists Renew Attacks on “False Memory” as False Memory Syndrome Foundation Closes

From the website of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation:

After 27 years, the FMS Foundation dissolved on December 31, 2019. During the past quarter century, a large body of scientific research and legal opinions on the topics of the accuracy and reliability of memory and recovered memories has been created. People with concerns about false memories can communicate with others electronically. The need for the FMS Foundation diminished dramatically over the years. The FMSF website and Archives will continue to be available.

The announcement has received little media attention, although it has been celebrated by those who argue that “false memory” is a pseudo-explanation contrived to undermine victims’ testimony of historic child sexual abuse. In this framing, the FMS Foundation has closed not because its “need” has “diminished dramatically”, but because the notion of false memory has been exploded. Thus a polemical article on the website of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation is headlined “The Rise and Fall of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation“. Oddly, however, although the article does refer specifically to “recovered” memories, the subject is downplayed:

FMSF Advisory Board profiles show just how personal and sometimes vicious their involvement was. One Board Member, John Hochman MD wrote, when talking about therapy for people who reported a history of child sexual abuse, “The real message being sold by these new therapy messiahs is the ultimate cry-baby solution to everyone’s pitiful human problems. It’s all someone else’s fault.” It is hard to fathom that these words come from a mental health professional.

No source is provided, despite a list of references at the bottom of the page, but a bit of Googling shows that the quote is taken from a 1993 op-ed that appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

Welcome to the strange world of memory recovery therapy. This is a pseudoscience based on the notion that tens of thousands of Americans were repeatedly molested as children and don’t know it.

People involved in memory recovery therapy have been convinced by misguided self-help books or therapists that they are “survivors” of totally forgotten sexual crimes. They are told that their eating or sexual or marital problems will clear up once the “lost memories” are found. The real message being sold by these new therapy messiahs is the ultimate crybaby solution to everyone’s pitiful human problems: It’s all someone else’s fault.

In other words, Hochman is referring specifically to “people who reported a history of child sexual abuse” as a result of therapy in which they were encouraged to “remember” such abuse for the first time. It is difficult to believe that the quote used by the ISSTD has seen extracted in good faith. Hochman goes on to highlight various problems with the idea of memory repression, but the ISSTD is less concerned with these points than with pulling a quote out of context to falsely imply that Hochman is dismissive of all allegations (incidentally, it’s not clear why the IISTD quote adds a hyphen to”crybaby”, but it makes the original slightly harder to find).

Another “gotcha” quote refers to another member of the FMS Foundation board:

Another member, Dr Rosalind Cartwright PhD, describes her desire to become involved as follows: “A friend and colleague had an adult daughter in therapy accuse him of childhood sexual abuse.” She says, “It was my best judgment that this was unbelievable of the person I knew and could only been induced by the therapist.” One can only wonder if she had had any psychological training or knowledge of how common it is for perpetrators to present and operate quite differently within the family home, as opposed to the professional sphere. And how on earth she reaches a conclusion of ‘therapist induced memory’, with presumably no contact with the daughter or therapist, is difficult to fathom.

This complaint has more merit, but picked out from a collection of more than 40 board member bio-blurbs it hardly amounts to a significant or systematic critique.

Inevitably, the article also focuses on the fact that the FMS Foundation’s founders, Pamela and Peter Freyd, were themselves accused of abuse by their adult daughter Jennifer Freyd, who is herself psychology professor. Presumably we should therefore suspect their motives, but it is not a great surprise that someone who says they have been falsely accused would develop an interest in the mechanics of how false allegations come to be made and believed. Equally, of course, a guilty person might be motivated to associate with a concept that might undermine the strength of the evidence against them, but that is simply a truism. The science of memory does not rest on the personal authority or integrity of the senior Freyds.

One undoubted problem with the FMS Foundation, though, was that the name was misleading. Memory science today acknowledges that the normal functioning of memory includes incorrect recall – as such, there is no need to postulate a “syndrome” or to psychopathologise the process, even though therapists may have been involved. The legacy of the word, however, means that “false memory” is portrayed by critics as simply a device by which victims are stigmatised as mentally ill. This was seen recently when Harvey Weinstein’s defence team announced that it would be calling memory experts to give testimony on memory. According to an article by two “trauma psychologists”, Anne P. DePrince and Joan M. Cook, published by The Conversation,

…Weinstein’s defense team has prepared to call witnesses to argue that women who came forward to accuse him suffer from “the formation of fully false memories for events that never happened.” This is not a suggestion of normal problems with memory or recall, but the unlikely proposition that his accusers somehow developed entire memories of sexual assault that never actually occurred.

The article refers here to Deborah Davis, although we now know that Elizabeth Loftus will also be called. Loftus gave her testimony on Friday; the Los Angeles Times reported:

She has routinely testified that memories can be transformed and contaminated — and, in some cases, altogether false.

Loftus stuck to a similar narrative during her testimony Friday, though she was not permitted to speak on issues of memory tied to sexual interactions. She explained that many factors can lead to weakened or entirely fabricated memories, including some therapy techniques, media coverage and questioning by law enforcement.

In other words, her testimony was concerned with general principles of memory. This is in line with a profile of Loftus from the Los Angeles Times that appeared just a few days ago:

When asked if she must believe in the innocence of a defendant to testify on their behalf, Loftus answered the question indirectly.

“I believe that science belongs to all of us. So my decisions on whether to work on a case are sometimes based on scheduling, or whether it seems interesting, or whether it’s a death penalty case where the outcome could be very severe,” she said. “Most of the time, I don’t know if they did it or not.”

In her 1992 book, “Witness for the Defense,” Loftus writes that she is not defending the clients whose cases she takes on. She is “detached and disassociated” on the stand, she says, “simply presenting the research on memory.”

This supports what I noted in a previous post, in which I drew on statements by Julia Shaw: a memory expert may talk in general terms about the conditions in which false memories may arise, but it is not their job not diagnose a particular piece of testimony as being the result of a false memory – they do not “diagnose” accusers. As such, it appears that DePrince and Cook have distorted what the “witnesses” intend to say, conflating general expert testimony with the defence case itself for polemical effect.

One concern I do have with the idea of “false memory” is that it may sometimes be an over-explanation. There are legitimate reasons why a genuine victim may make a late disclosure, or have previously interacted with someone in a way that seems inconsistent with having been their victim, but for a false accuser “repressed memory” is also a convenient explanation for making a late allegation. I also wonder about the distinction between remembering something and persuading yourself you have remembered something – recovered memory therapy includes imaginative exercises (as I discussed here), and if an expert tells you that your ability to vividly imagine something is in fact because it is a memory, who are you to argue?

IPSO Backs Tom Newton Dunn’s Deleted “Hijacked Labour” Conspiracy Chart Article

It has now been a bit longer than a month since the the Sun newspaper published, and then deleted, an article promoting a website that purported to have traced how Jeremy Corbyn sits at the centre of a “spider’s web of extensive contacts” that stretch “from Marxist intellectuals to militant groups and illegal terror organisations”. The fact that Corbyn has had some controversial and discreditable associations over the years is hardly news, but the website’s chain of associations was absurdly diffuse and conspiratorial. At least one person who had left the Labour Party over Corbyn was annoyed to find his name on it; there were inexplicable inclusions, such as the comedy actor Matt Berry; the authors appear to have a crank obsession with three French philosophers (Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard); and there were signs of sloppiness and incompetence (Keir Starmer becoming “Kevin Starmer”, for instance).

What did for the Sun article, though, was when social media users noticed that sources for further reading were included alongside some of the names, and that these sources included neo-Nazi websites. That was apparently too much even for the Sun, and the piece was promptly pulled. The article’s author, Tom Newton Dunn, has declined to comment on the matter since then, although he did apparently take to Wikipedia to try to have a reference to the incident suppressed from his page.

Of course, there is no law against promoting a crank conspiracy website that uses vile sources, although those named on it might reasonably complain that the Sun had amplified a smear website that was inciting hatred against them. What interested me, though, was that Newton Dunn had misled his readers about the website’s provenance and the credentials of the persons behind it. According to Newton Dunn, the website was the work of “former British intelligence officers”, led by “ex-SAS officer turned author Mark Bles”. These details were reported as fact, and so I decided to make a complaint to the press regulatory body IPSO.

My complaint was follows. First, Mark Bles (real name Mark Whitcombe-Power) is not a “former intelligence officer”. The SAS is an elite combat unit, but it is not an agency of British intelligence. Second, the website, called “Hijacked Labour”, was obviously a reworking of an earlier website called “Traitors Chart”, toned down slightly with a less inflammatory name and the most egregious absurdities removed. That earlier website was deleted as soon as the new one was created, which was a few days before Newton Dunn wrote up his story. Clearly, someone was trying to obscure their tracks, and those curious about where the chart really came from would be advised to probe the websites that first promoted the “Traitors Chart” (there’s also a video with a narrator – also deleted, but helpfully preserved here). And third, the poor quality of the website is manifest grounds for scepticism as to its purported origins with “intelligence officers”. There is no evidence that this “group” of ex-officers actually exists, and I’m inclined to the view that Bles was duped into fronting the project.

IPSO, however, is unconcerned. The body has written to me to explain that “the SAS, as a unit, are often involved in covert intelligence gathering”, and also that I did not dispute that Mr Bles had “worked as an ‘intelligence specialist’ outside of the SAS.” As such, there is no “significant inaccuracy”. It should be noted that this is not the Sun‘s defence of its article – this is IPSO’s own argument. In other words, when a complaint is made to IPSO, the organisation serves as both defence counsel and judge.

I was invited to respond to this within seven days if I wished IPSO to reconsider – however, the email was sent to me on the afternoon of 24 December, meaning that a seven-day deadline was actually three working days away. It is difficult not to regard this as deliberately obstructive.

My response was that many jobs involve “covert intelligence gathering” – police officers, benefits investigators and so on. That does not make those who do them “British intelligence agents”. I added that that term “intelligence specialist” has no specific meaning, but that in any case it is irrelevant here. The point is that “British intelligence officer” obviously designates membership of an arm of British intelligence.

Three weeks later, it has been explained to me by IPSO that that article’s headline stated that “Ex-British intelligence officers say Jeremy Corbyn is at the centre of a hard-left extremist network”, and that this word “say” means that the claim was not being reported as fact. As such, I have no case.

This was a curious reply, as it argued against a point that I had not raised. The problem with “Ex-British intelligence officers say” is not with the word “say”, but with the designation “ex-British intelligence officers” being reported as fact. Such an obtuse misreading of my complaint suggests to me bad faith.