On 3rd August 2015 Wiltshire Police made an extraordinary announcement:
“Sir Edward Heath has been named in relation to offences concerning children. He lived in Salisbury for many years and we would like to hear from anyone who has any relevant information that may assist us in our enquiries or anyone who believes they may have been a victim.”
The context of the appeal for witnesses was that the Independent Police Complaints Commission were investigating Wiltshire Police over an allegation that a 1992 prosecution of a Salisbury woman, Myra Ling Ling Forde, had been dropped after she threatened to drag Heath into the case.
Earlier this week she insisted through her solicitor both that Heath was never one of her clients, and that she never threatened to name him. I was surprised to hear of the allegation, because I was her barrister in that case and it certainly never crossed my mind that Heath had anything whatever to do with her acquittal.
She was one of my more colourful clients; certainly more so than the drunken hobbledehoys that provided my bread and butter in 1992. The precise details of the charges escape me now, but essentially they amounted to an accusation that she was running a brothel from her unremarkable home a few hundred yards from Salisbury railway station. Obviously I can’t reveal – and to be honest can’t really remember – the finer points of her instructions, but she intended to contest the charges vigorously. I seem to recall a conference at which the legal implications of various relaxing Thai massage techniques were closely analysed. I was certainly aware of no behind the scenes skulduggery or blackmailing of the prosecution to drop the charges by threatening to name Sir Edward Heath. On the contrary, I turned up at court anticipating a hearing at which Ms Forde would put her faith in a Winchester jury.
It was not to be. Of three main prosecution witnesses, two did not turn up and one – who was in prison serving a sentence for another offence – was unwilling to go into the witness box. It is certainly not unusual for serving prisoners to be reluctant witnesses. Giving evidence for the prosecution, whether truthful or untruthful, is not the way to gain popularity amongst your fellow prisoners. Nor is it unusual for cases of all sorts to collapse because of witness problems; it was a mundane occurrence then, and remains so today. I don’t recall anyone being particularly surprised when the witnesses decided that swearing on oath that they were prostitutes working for Myra Forde and being accused of lying about it by me was, from their point of view, a rather unattractive way of spending the day.
So the case had to be dropped, but it didn’t do her very much good in the long run. The Wiltshire police came after her again 3 years later and this time there was to be no escape. The witnesses turned up – one of them as young as 13 – and the Winchester jury took against the masseuse from Manila. Passing sentence Judge Martin Tucker QC, a gifted prosecutor who lost none of his advocacy skills, when he swapped bar for bench, described her brothel as a “festering sore of vice” and gave her 6 years. Notably, in view of recent allegations, during the trial she had made no claims about Edward Heath, not even as Winchester’s toughest judge passed sentence.
Whilst it is of course possible that Edward Heath used prostitutes, and even that he abused children, I am deeply troubled that Wiltshire Police have decided publicly to name him “in relation to offences concerning children,” and to appeal for witnesses “from anyone who believes they may have been a victim,” to use their somewhat curious turn of phrase.
Allegations of paedophilia should not be bandied around lightly, even about the dead.
The first casualty has been my former client. She may not have been in every respect an ideal role model for the young people of Salisbury, but she has served her sentences of imprisonment, has moved out of Wiltshire and has been trying to lead a life of quiet anonymity. With her name and photograph now plastered over the world’s press and internet that seems a forlorn hope. The British public in a fever pitch of excitement over paedophiles in their midst is a terrifying thing. It can even be a matter of life and death, as the Iranian refugee Bijan Ebrihami discovered when he was burned to death by a lynch mob wrongly convinced that he was a paedophile.
Wiltshire Police did not name Ms Forde, but their announcement led to her being identified, and – as they must have anticipated – has contributed to her being at the centre of a storm of interest. It is not an enviable position to be in. Should she now fall victim to vigilante justice Wiltshire Police will bear its share of responsibility.
The next casualty may prove to be the wider ranging investigations into allegations of child sex abuse in high places. What Wiltshire Police have effectively done is announce a “trawl” for victims.
It is a process that may or may not produce some genuine victims, but it is also highly likely to produce false ones. Nothing is more likely to produce a false accusation than being told by the police that a particular person is a suspected paedophile.
Public figures, dead or alive, are anyway at particular risk of false claims, and not just from attention seekers, fantasists or those who have undergone “memory recovery” therapies. We should not deny the incentive of compensation from public money, or civil damages claims, and there can also be money to be made from selling false and salacious information.
The Prince of Wales, for example, was the victim of a false claim implicating him in a sexual incident with a Royal servant. Seven months later, the source of the story, royal valet George Smith, admitted that the “sex scandal” had been an invention for which he was paid £60,000 by a Sunday newspaper.
Former MP Neil and his wife Christine Hamilton were targeted by 29 year old Nadine Milroy-Sloane, who mainly “out of a desire for financial reward and celebrity status“. accused them of a catalogue of sexual and other offences, including involvement in raping her. Advised, ironically enough, by Max Clifford (who had apparently told her that the allegations could net her £100,000) Miss Milroy-Sloane complained to the police who duly arrested the Hamiltons. Not until sometime after they produced a cast-iron alibi for the date in question did she withdraw her allegation.
Fortunately, the Hamiltons were able to prove their innocence: Heath cannot and should not be expected to prove his innocence from beyond the grave.
Even if the Wiltshire Police’s announcement does not encourage false claims for compensation, it has still made other criminal inquiries, some of them into very grave matters, even more difficult.
Take, for example, Operation Midland, the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into allegations of sexual abuse and murder by politicians in the seventies and eighties. Wiltshire Police’s public identification of Heath as a possible paedophile acts as the strongest possible hint to false witnesses of a name they should give if they want to be believed; and, of course, anything that helps false witnesses simultaneously undermines genuine ones.
On the day after Wiltshire Police appealed for witnesses against Heath, the Met, no doubt alive to the dangers, issued a far more sober statement:
Media continue to speculate on the identity of individuals who may feature as suspects within the ongoing investigation Operation Midland. The MPS wishes to make it clear that it will maintain its stance of neither confirming nor denying names of any individual who may or may not be part of this investigation.
Operation Midland continues to be a complex and sensitive investigation, and the MPS will not be giving a running commentary on its progress. This is important for the integrity of the investigation and protecting evidence that may form part of it.
In other words – please don’t name names or you may mess up the whole investigation.
The Met may not always practise what it preaches, but the good sense of that statement contrasts markedly with the recklessness of Wiltshire Police.
We live in febrile times and predictably other police forces have now adopted the sensationalism of Wiltshire rather than the caution of the Met, and announced that they too are investigating Heath.
Much of what has already been said about Heath may seem wildly implausible to many. Dan Hodges used his column yesterday to explain why. That does not mean it should not be investigated.
One of the central allegations – and one that makes the Salisbury case seem trivial – is that boys were repeatedly raped by a gang of senior politicians and other “VIPs”. It is an account being enthusiastically promoted by, amongst others, the online news company Exaro and its friends, including George Galloway in the Russian-owned TV station RT.com. One man in particular claims that when he was a boy in the late 1970s or 1980s he was repeatedly raped by both Leon Brittan and Edward Heath. He claims that others in the ring – including, crucially, some who are still alive – are guilty of similar crimes, and even of multiple murders. Various arrests have taken place and – accidentally or otherwise – the names of those arrested have been made public.
If these allegations are true it is astonishing and alarming almost in equal measure. If it is untrue, then innocent men are being horribly traduced day after day, with little hope of redress. We can only hope that our imperfect justice system will be able somehow to distinguish fact from fiction.
Against this background the job of the Wiltshire police is not to whip up rumour and speculation to ever greater heights. It is to investigate allegations about Edward Heath calmly and dispassionately, particularly so when they touch upon people who are still alive and who could yet be arrested and prosecuted. Instead, watching their announcement – with their spokesman provocatively filmed outside Heath’s beautiful Salisbury house – has been like watching a fire brigade spraying kerosene on a fire.
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 7th August 2015