The online news organisation Exaro made the shortlist to win the UK Press Gazette’s award for “Campaign of the year.” It lost out yesterday to George Arbuthnott of The Times for his stories about modern slavery in Britain.
The award is given to “the series of articles or broadcasts which has done the most to make a difference for the better in society and serve the public interest.” The nomination related to Exaro’s series of articles about paedophilia in high places which gave rise to the over-arching inquiry into child sexual abuse.
One can see why the judges might well have concluded that Exaro has made a difference in that it has driven the issue of “VIPaedophiles” and sex offenders to the top of the news agenda. Whether it is one that has served the public interest is perhaps less clear.
The line taken by Exaro and its many vociferous online supporters is that it has prompted investigations into paedophilia and murder where before there was only apathy, cover up and conspiracy.
Others think that it has generated a poisonous atmosphere of outrage and hysteria in which wild and immensely hurtful accusations can be made and believed on the flimsiest of evidence; and that by publicising detailed allegations of paedophile orgies and murder it has risked destroying the prospect of fair trials either for victims or defendants.
Exaro has been much praised, for its tenacity in bringing into the open allegations such as that of “Nick,” who claims to have witnessed one or two, or even three child murders with his own eyes. One of these murders is said to have taken place in the presence of a Conservative Cabinet Minister, who also, he alleges, repeatedly raped him.
The organisation’s modus operandi is to give just enough information for the internet gossips to guess the identity of the alleged rapist or paedophile, while not actually naming him themselves.
The technique was well illustrated in May when it splashed a story from a woman it called “Jane” who alleged that she had been raped in 1967 by a young “high-flying professional man.” The man was said to have tricked a 19 year old woman called Jane into a “plush apartment in a smart part of London,” before locking her in, raping her and then apparently drugging her before she was able to escape. Jane had gone to the police in 2012 but they had refused to arrest the man, or even to interview him under caution.
The man was not named in the story but various hints were dropped. He later rose “to become a Conservative cabinet minister.” He had “greasy” and “slicked back” hair. The list of ex Conservative cabinet ministers old enough to have raped anyone in 1967 and still alive today is a very short one. The list of such cabinet ministers who also affected “greasy, slicked back hair” is even shorter.
Piously, Exaro said it was “refusing to name the ex-cabinet minister for legal reasons” although once Leon Brittan had been called in for questioning by the police all possible doubt was removed. Exaro duly reported the fact.
Lord Brittan – who strongly denies the allegation – has not been charged with rape. The smear, however, remains.
Even more serious than a single rape is the allegation that an “ex cabinet minister” (said by Exaro to be still alive) repeatedly raped Nick when he was a child, and that the minister witnessed a boy being strangled to death at an orgy. Again, there are precious few candidates for the offender. The few surviving cabinet minsters from the 1980s have as a result been smeared by Exaro, although a quick internet search again leaves little doubt about the individual whom the organisation is pointing at.
When Exaro broke its murder story in the middle of November I posted a blog under the headline “Exaro is playing a dangerous game with its paedophile murder story.” Quite apart from the danger of smearing innocent people with an appalling allegation, I suggested that publishing details of Nick’s allegations could both assist dishonest witnesses and undermine any corroborative accounts by genuine witnesses.
Since then, Exaro has continued to drip details of Nick’s account into the public domain. For example, two missing children from the relevant period were Vishal Mehrotra and Martin Allen. Exaro has revealed that one of the boys seen murdered by Nick could not have been Mehrotra but strongly hinted that he could have been Allen.
For what reason was that crucial information made public?
Although Exaro has continued with its own smear campaign it has, in an audacious example of a pot calling kettles black, reacted to those who it says have “smeared” it. Characteristically, it has not identified such people by name. Instead it issued a warning against them in a couple of tweets.
“Do not fall for smears against Exaro re CSA survivors. We cannot discuss the arrangements that we make to ensure their safety and security.”
“BTW the smears are coming from paedophiles as well as spooks. But some are one and the same. But they all know that the tide has turned.”
I have asked Exaro if they can name those whom they say are spreading these “smears” for which we should not fall. After all, unless we know that a person is a paedophile or a spy how are we to know of whom we should be wary? They have neither replied nor clarified who, or what, on earth they are talking about. Once again, Exaro prefers insinuation and innuendo to taking the risk of naming those that they accuse of smearing them.
They returned to the same theme earlier this week, tweeting:
For the first time we are blocking some paedophiles and paedo-apologists who have engaged in extreme trolling to upset abuse survivors
Asked if they would “name and shame them,” Exaro replied:
Not worth naming them. We do not want to give them publicity.
Well really. First Exaro warn us not to fall for the smears coming from paedophiles and spooks. Then they say it’s not worth naming them. For that section of the population that looks to Exaro for a lead it is all most unsatisfactory.
Does it mean that anyone who criticises Exaro, as I have done, is to be regarded as “smearing” them? If so then I must be one of those that they are warning people about.
Does Exaro regard me as a paedophile, a spook, or a bit of both?
If the accusation is that I am a paedophile then, though untrue and hurtful, such insults are, almost literally, Exaro’s stock in trade. The insinuation that I am a spook, or a spy, on the other hand, with the suggestion that I am paid to further the interests of some state or other – again absurd and false – is in some ways even more breath-taking.
It is a particularly curious insult to come from Exaro, since one of its Directors, its “Editor in Chief,” and the author of many of its most lurid stories, including those that relate to Nick’s murder allegations, is the journalist Mark Watts. For Mr Watts:
“Transparency is critical to everything … it’s the role of investigative journalists to make transparency work.”
So important is transparency that he has made it one of the defining principles of Exaro:
Fine words indeed, but it’s hardly very transparent to fire wild accusations indiscriminately at people who question you. A word which might describe it better than “transparency” would be “intimidation.”
It’s also odd to hear Mr Watts attempting to take the high moral ground, and to accuse unspecified others – including perhaps even myself – of working for intelligence agencies when seven years ago he was himself prepared to work as a top presenter for Press TV.
Press TV, for those who have not have heard of it, is the propaganda voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yes, that’s right, the Republic which, in 2007 when Mr Watts started his work, was headed by Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, a holocaust denying anti-semite and hardly someone known for his commitment to transparency and fearless investigative journalism. More to the point, he led a country in which the most basic human rights were ignored; where, for example, teenage boys could be hanged for sodomy; a country in which, round about the time that Mr Watts took up his comfortable post spouting soft propaganda on Ahmedinejad’s behalf, a man was stoned to death for adultery, a country, indeed, which allowed the death penalty not just for murder, sodomy and adultery, but also for rape, armed robbery, apostasy, blasphemy, drug trafficking, prostitution, treason and espionage.
I don’t know whether Mr Watts ever conducted one of his fearless investigations into who pulled the strings at Press TV. I rather doubt it, but I suspect that if he had tried to do so he would pretty soon have come across the influence of Iranian intelligence.
In fairness to Mr Watts there is no suggestion that he ever allowed the fact that he was working for an Iranian government television station to affect what he said, and he has always stressed that he was allowed complete editorial freedom. He got on with his job of presenting a perfectly good weekly press review in a relaxed and affable style.
But while that may have salved his conscience it rather misses the point. By working for an Iranian government broadcaster he was allowing himself to be used by a horrible regime anxious to present a decent and friendly face to the world. To be sure, some countries are even worse than Iran, but on any reasonable view Watts was a useful idiot performing a service for one of the world’s nastier regimes.
It should be made clear that Watts was not alone. George Galloway, it almost goes without saying, has been a Press TV regular over a number of years, while other British journalists have somehow convinced themselves that working for the Iranians was compatible with their self-respect. Andrew Gilligan, for example, worked for the station for some time before concluding that “taking the Iranian shilling was incompatible with my opposition to Islamism.”
Again, in fairness to Watts, his conscience got the better of him when, after leaving Iranian television, he, along with other ex-Press TV personalities, signed a letter to The Times protesting about the 2006 death sentence imposed for adultery on an Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. It seems that the letter may have worked, because Ashtiani was eventually released from prison in March of this year.
Another British journalist who worked for Press TV at the same time as Watts was Fiona O’Cleirigh, who was an assistant producer on “Between the Headlines” the flagship news programme fronted by Watts.
O’Cleirigh is now a regular contributor to Exaro. Both Watts and O’Cleirigh have posted online biographies on the Exaro website. Surprisingly for an organisation that prides itself on “transparency,” neither mentions their shared history working for Iranian television. Watts puts his CV like this:
The Sunday Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Sunday Telegraph, and Sunday Express. He also worked on World in Action and an array of other television current-affairs programmes.
The closest O’Cleirigh’s Exaro biography gets to transparency about her days with Watts at Press TV is to mention that she has worked for “a range of Middle Eastern Broadcasters and news outlets ….”
Does it matter? In itself, perhaps not that much. After all, we have all made mistakes and Watts’s former connection to Press TV is readily apparent to anyone googling him (although O’Cleirigh’s is a little harder to find). On the other hand, if Exaro wishes to make transparency its guiding light and central principle, and if it thinks his previous experience relevant (which it obviously does) then it hardly seems very consistent with that principle not to mention the fact on its website.
And if Exaro intends to shut down debate about its own behaviour by making sweeping accusations implying that those who criticise them are paedophiles, “paedo-apologists” or spies, in other words to attack the morality and good faith of its critics, then it is certainly relevant – in the interests of transparency if nothing else – to ask whether the ethical standards of its own journalists have always been quite as impeccable as they would like us to believe.