THE JOURNALISTIC nightmare which engulfed the BBC over the handling of child abuse allegations in North Wales has catapulted the Rebecca Television series The Case of the Flawed Tribunal into the limelight.
In November 2012 the Newsnight programme allowed Stephen Messham to falsely accuse Lord McAlpine of abusing children in North Wales.
There was plenty of evidence that Stephen Messham is a damaged character whose testimony required careful evaluation.
But the BBC’s mistake has made it possible for the Rebecca Television investigation to be taken seriously.
David Cameron’s decision to launch an inquiry means the allegations outlined in The Case of the Flawed Tribunal will be considered by a High Court judge.
(This article was originally published last December.)
HOW WAS it that Stephen Messham — a man “severely damaged psychologically” — was allowed to accuse a senior Tory politician of child abuse on a national current affairs programme when those same allegations had been dismissed as unreliable twenty years earlier?
Messham, the 49-year-old former resident of the Bryn Estyn children’s home near Wrexham, was the key witness in the BBC’s now notorious early November edition of Newsnight about child abuse in North Wales.
Messham claimed he’d been sexually abused by a senior Tory politician while he was in care.
Newsnight did not identify the man but a frenzy of speculation on the internet meant that Lord McAlpine was quickly — and falsely — “outed” as the alleged abuser.
A week later Messham saw a photograph of Lord McAlpine and declared he was not the man who had abused him.
The media firestorm that followed this disastrous broadcast forced the BBC’s newly-appointed Director General, former Newsnight editor George Entwistle, to resign.
It also cost the editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Iain Overton, his job.
It was the Bureau’s lead reporter Angus Stickler, a former BBC journalist, who came up with the idea for Newsnight and he presented the item.
On the morning of the broadcast, Overton tweeted:
“If all goes well we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile”.
The night before Overton had attended an Oxford University Union debate where Channel 4 News reporter Michael Crick, himself a former Newsnight journalist, asked him if the unidentified politician was McAlpine.
The Observer quotes Overton as saying: “Well, you said it.”
On the day of the broadcast, Michael Crick spoke to Lord McAlpine who denied that he was involved in child abuse — and said he would sue if he was named.
Newsnight did not contact the politician because it decided not to name him.
So why did Stickler, an experienced reporter who won the Sony Radio Academy Award for the best news journalist in 2006, make such an elementary mistake?
After all, there has to be a good reason why such a serious allegation had never been reported by a mainstream newspaper or broadcaster in more than two decades.
That reason was simple — journalists could find no evidence that justified publication.
The only title that did accuse Lord McAlpine was the magazine Scallywag — and Scallywag was never taken seriously.
In addition, there is plenty of easily accessible material about Stephen Messham’s tragic life.
Take Lost In Care, the report of the North Wales Child Abuse Tribunal chaired by Sir Ronald Waterhouse.
In its pages, Stephen Messham is identified as “witness B”.
This is what the report said about “witness B”:
“We are satisfied that B has suffered a long history of sexual abuse before, during and after his period in care and, to a significant extent until he left care, of physical abuse.”
“As a result he has been, and remains, severely damaged psychologically: he has been greatly affected also by the sudden death of his young wife in very sad circumstances …”
“A major problem is that the damage is reflected in B’s personality in such a way that he presents himself as an unreliable witness by the standards that an ordinary member of a jury is likely to apply.”
“Thus, he is highly sensitive to any criticism and explosive in his reactions …”
“He has been described also as manipulative and there are many matters on which he is particularly vulnerable in cross-examination.”
Lord McAlpine is not the only figure Stephen Messham has falsely accused of serious sexual offences.
He was one of three witnesses who appeared in the 1994 libel action brought by former North Wales Police superintendent Gordon Anglesea against Private Eye, The Observer, the Independent on Sunday and the broadcaster HTV.
See the article The Trials of Gordon Anglesea for the full details of the case.
Stephen Messham is not named in this report but he is the witness who collapsed in the dock.
He was cross-examined about inconsistencies in his evidence.
A jury found by a majority 10-2 verdict that Gordon Anglesea had been wrongly accused.
Damages of £375,000 were agreed.
Another publication where Stephen Messham’s approach to evidence is highlighted is Richard Webster’s 2005 book The Secret of Bryn Estyn.
Here Messham is given the alias “Lee Steward”.
Webster tells the story of how Messham was approached several times about Gordon Anglesea by the freelance journalist Dean Nelson.
Messham complained to the police that Nelson was harassing him.
In a statement he said “ … I would like to say that at no time did Gordon Anglesea ever sexually abuse me.”
It was only later that Messham made statements claiming he’d been abused by Anglesea.
There was, then, plenty of evidence that Stephen Messham’s testimony should be treated with caution.
WHEN STEPHEN Messham finally admitted he’d made a mistake about Lord McAlpine, there was a danger the government would call off the two inquiries into the North Wales scandal.
But in the highly charged political atmosphere that existed in the wake of the Jimmy Savile affair, David Cameron and the Cabinet decided that they must go ahead.
They are a review of the Waterhouse Tribunal by High Court judge Mrs Justice Macur and an investigation of new allegations of child abuse in the 1970s and 1980s by the director of the National Crime Agency, Keith Bristow.
Rebecca Television (RTV) is already a participant in these inquiries and has made several statements to both.
In addition, editor Paddy French met with Mrs Justice Macur at the Royal Courts of Justice earlier this year.
Before Messham’s intervention, the series of articles published as The Case of the Flawed Tribunal by RTV were totally ignored by the media.
Now the allegations are likely to be tested.
The most important of the failures of the North Wales Child Abuse Tribunal highlighted by the series is the treatment of Des Frost, the number two at the privately-owned Bryn Alyn complex of children’s homes near Wrexham.
Frost’s boss John Allen was gaoled for six years in 1995 for abusing boys in his care.
Briefly, Frost claimed he had reported allegations of abuse against Allen in 1980 — more than ten years before Allen was arrested.
He said that he asked detectives from Cheshire Constabulary to pass on his concerns to police in Wrexham.
(The full story can be found in the article Silent Witness.)
During the period when the Tribunal was taking evidence, in 1997, the HTV programme Wales This Week interviewed Frost about these allegations.
The Tribunal found out and threatened programme-makers with contempt if details of the allegations were broadcast.
They were removed.
But Frost was not called as a witness and his evidence was never investigated.
Rebecca Television believes this was a major flaw in the Tribunal’s deliberations.
As a result, the Tribunal conclusion — “there was no significant omission by the North Wales Police in investigating the complaints of abuse to children in care” — is suspect.
Police visited Frost shortly after he was interviewed by HTV and took a statement from him.
In 2011 we wrote to the North Wales Police officer who carried out this interview — Detective Chief Inspector Neil McAdam — to ask what happened to this statement.
McAdam discussed this letter with his superiors who, after discussions with police HQ in Colwyn Bay, told him not to answer.
Rebecca Television complained about the lack of a reply.
The investigation that followed cleared McAdam because he’d been instructed not to reply — “ownership to respond” rested with “someone higher within the organisation”.
We had already written to Chief Constable Mark Polin about the matter.
He did not reply.
In October 2011 we also wrote to then Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan asking her to intervene.
The letter asked her to “appoint a suitably independent barrister to examine the Rebecca Television allegations.”
Gillan never answered the letter.
She passed it on to the Home Office where a press officer replied:
“Any concerns you have should be addressed to the chief officer (i.e. the chief constable) and not the Home Office. The Home Office has no power to intervene or act on your behalf.”
A year after Rebecca Television wrote to the Welsh Secretary, the North Wales child abuse scandal is not being investigated by a barrister as we requested — but by a High Court judge and the head of the National Crime Agency.
This article was first published on the old RTV website in December last year.
The timeline of last autumn’s events is as follows:
Wednesday, October 3
ITV’s Exposure programme “The Other Side of Jimmy” demolishes Sir Jimmy Savile’s reputation.
It emerges that the BBC Newsnight programme shelved a similar programme the previous December — allegations are made that the decision was influenced by the BBC’s planned Xmas tributes to Savile, who died in October 2011.
The row engulfs the upper echelons of the BBC including George Entwistle, a former Newsnight editor, who had just been appointed Director-General.
Friday, November 2
Iain Overton, editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, tweets:
“If all goes well we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile”.
The Newsnight report, fronted by Angus Stickler of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, interviews Stephen Messham who claims he was sexually abused by an unnamed senior Conservative politician.
The former politician is later widely identified on the internet by public figures — including Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, and Guardian columnist George Monbiot — as Lord McAlpine, former Tory party treasurer and a key supporter of Margaret Thatcher.
Monday, November 5
David Cameron, on an official visit to the Middle East, announces two inquiries into the child abuse scandal in North Wales.
One would be into the way North Wales Police handled child abuse allegations in the 1970s and 1980s.
The second would be into the conduct of the 1996-2000 Waterhouse Inquiry by High Court judge, Lady Macur.
Tuesday, November 6
Stephen Messham meets Welsh Secretary David Jones.
Home Secretary Theresa May makes a statement in the House of Commons on the North Wales child abuse scandal.
In the debate that follows, Newport West Labour MP Paul Flynn makes the following point:
“I ask the right hon. Lady to look not only at the fresh evidence but at the evidence that was available at the time and that was almost certainly suppressed by powerful people.”
“Will she look at the evidence produced by Paddy French and the Rebecca Television website on an edition of the Wales This Week that was never broadcast?”
This was Theresa May’s reply:
“The police investigations will look at the evidence that was available at the time in these historical abuse allegations, and at whether the evidence was properly investigated and whether avenues of inquiry were not pursued that should have been followed up and that could have led to prosecutions.”
“I can therefore say to the hon. Gentleman that the police will, indeed, be looking at that historical evidence. That is part of the job they will be doing.”
Wednesday, November 7
Messham’s story begins to unravel: Guardian reporter David Leigh uncovers “inconsistencies” in his story.
Thursday, November 8
Philip Schofield, presenter of ITV’s This Morning programme, hands a briefly visible list of alleged abusers to David Cameron during a live interview.
ITV later disciplines 3 members of staff but does not say who they are or what their punishment is.
The company ends up paying Lord McAlpine compensation of £125,000.
Friday, November 9
Guardian suggests the identification of Lord McAlpine is a case of “mistaken identity” because Messham told the Waterhouse Tribunal that the McAlpine who allegedly abused him was dead.
Guardian says it had asked Messham to comment on the Wednesday and Thursday but he had declined.
Later the same day Messham issues a statement saying the man in the Newsnight programme is not Lord McAlpine.
“After seeing a picture of the individual concerned in the past hour, this (is) not the person I identified by a photograph presented to me by the police in the early 1990s, who told me the man in the photograph was Lord McAlpine”.
BBC issues “unreserved” apology for broadcasting the item.
All investigations at Newsnight suspended and Corporation stops co-productions “across the BBC” with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
BBC Director Scotland Ken MacQuarrie drafted in to prepare a report.
McAlpine issues statement saying he will issue libel writs.
Subsequently, the BBC pays him £185,000 in damages.
Saturday, November 10
BBC Director General George Entwistle resigns with a £450,000 pay-off.
Tuesday, November 12
Bureau of Investigative Journalism editor Iain Overton resigns.
Angus Stickler, the Bureau’s lead reporter, “steps aside” while an urgent investigation takes place — he later resigns from the organisation.
© Rebecca Television 2012 & 2013
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