I had not really wanted to blog yet again about Exaro. There are many other subjects about which I would prefer to write. The subject matter is unpleasant, to express any opinion invites a torrent of abuse, and I would, frankly, like this blog to move away from the rather sterile trench warfare that has now developed between Exaro and its voluble supporters and those, like myself, who think that its influence has been malign.
And yet …
There are of course many intertwined threads to Exaro’s general thesis that the British Establishment has for many years been riddled with paedophiles, murderers and their protectors. In order to keep things reasonably simple I would like to leave on one side their stories about the Elm Guest House (many of which can be traced back to the now notorious fraudster Chris Fay), and the allegation (now completely discredited) that Leon Brittan raped a woman called Jane in the 1960s.
I want to concentrate on their flagship story which, if true, would mean that senior politicians, soldiers and intelligence officers raped and murdered children in Dolphin Square and other “central London” locations.
At least so far as the child murders are concerned the story appears to rest entirely on the word of a witness known as “Nick”, whose account relates to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Two other witnesses, Esther Baker (who has waived her right to anonymity) and “Darren Thornham” (who has not) also say that they were abused by “VIPs” in Dolphin Square, although some years after Nick. In addition, Darren claims to have witnessed the murder, on a Suffolk country estate, of a man with Downs Syndrome by Peter Righton. There is little doubt that Righton was a very nasty piece of work with an unhealthy interest in underage children. However, according to Exaro he was also a supplier of children to be abused by VIPs as well, of course, as being a murderer.
If even half of this catalogue of depravity is true, appalling crimes have been committed.
The Dolphin Square allegations are being investigated by Metropolitan Police’s Operation Midland.
The investigation into Darren’s murder allegation appears to have stopped after a breakdown in trust between him and the Suffolk Police.
I have four main concerns about Exaro’s handling of these stories.
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There is no other comparable case in British criminal history in which the press has presented huge swathes of evidence to the public before a defendant has even been arrested, let alone charged. Many people, no doubt, have already made up their mind either that a VIP paedophile ring is established fact, or that it is obvious nonsense.
It’s not a very good start, but judges like to say that once a jury has been empanelled a firm judicial direction to try the case only on the evidence presented in court ensures that any initial jury bias becomes irrelevant. Whether that is true or not, let’s assume that an unbiased jury can be found, or at least brought into existence by firm words from the bench.
The next problem, and it is a major one, is that should any allegation come to court which depends upon the evidence of Nick, Darren or Esther Baker, the defence will be able to argue that any corroborating evidence is likely to have come about as a result of contact between witnesses, or at least by witnesses gleaning “corroborative” details from published accounts. I have dealt with this point in an earlier post, so I won’t repeat myself. It may be that there is in fact no corroboration anyway, other than the fact that all 3 witnesses talk about politicians and Dolphin Square.
What I did not touch on last November (because I was not aware of them) were the catastrophic blunders that Exaro has made in its treatment of potential identification evidence.
It is now well recognised, and has been since at least the case of Adolf Beck over 100 years ago, that eye witness evidence identifying someone as responsible for a crime is exceptionally dangerous. There are a number of reasons for this: mistakes in identification are easily made, people generally consider themselves much better at recognising faces than they actually are, and honest witnesses can be, and often are mistaken. There is, moreover, little if any correlation between the confidence with which a witness asserts the accuracy of his identification and the accuracy of that identification. There is, however, a tendency for jurors to believe witnesses who give their evidence confidently. Confident, honest and mistaken witnesses of identification are therefore potentially very dangerous.
For these reasons, identification evidence has to be treated with exceptional care at every stage of a criminal investigation: by the police, in court and in jury-room deliberations.
Since the case of R v. Turnbull  3 All ER 54 juries have had to be warned of the special need for caution in such cases, and judges are required to stop cases which depend wholly or largely on weak identification evidence.
A body of case law has grown up dealing with how to gather identification evidence, and there is a detailed code of practice (Code D) under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act dealing with the subject.
This, by the way, is not something arcane or obscure: it is the most basic police procedure, it is taught to every police recruit and if evidence is obtained in ignorance of the proper procedures it runs a high risk of being ruled inadmissible.
It is the type of evidence would be likely to be at the heart of any to which Operation Midland might lead. Indeed, unless the pen-knife shown shown to Harvey Proctor is shown to have as yet undisclosed secrets, it seems that there is in fact no evidence other than eye witness evidence.
Yet we know, because Exaro revealed it on January 15th of this year, that:
“Nick picked out Brittan from a large number of pictures shown to him by Exaro, identifying him as one of the men who had sexually abused him.”
This is simply astonishing. It breaks any number of principles of sound evidence gathering. To take but one: any identification procedure done by the police has to be done by an “identification officer,” that is a senior officer with specialist training in performing identifications; and, crucially, someone who is separate and unconnected with the rest of the investigation. That is to guard against the very real risk that officers involved in the rest of an investigation will give conscious or unconscious clues to a witness who has been asked to identify someone from a series of photographs.
Yet who showed Nick the “large number of pictures” which supposedly led to the identification of Leon Brittan?
The answer is that it was an Exaro journalist, with an obvious interest in getting a famous name to put in his story. In fact it seems he obtained about a dozen famous, or important, names). Whether it was Mark Conrad (who wrote that particular story) or his boss, Mark Watts, who showed Nick the pictures, either of them were just about as far removed from the expert neutrality expected of an identification officer as one could possibly imagine.
Watts, of course, must take responsibility.
In fact, a series of “photographs” is almost never used for evidential purposes (although the Code of Practice does contain detailed provision for showing photographs to witnesses). Identifications nowadays are generally conducted using carefully controlled and selected moving images. As one of many rules designed to ensure fair and robust identifications, suspects, or their lawyers, are allowed to help select these images (“distractors”) from a huge police database. Identification officers are required to ask questions which are worded in a deliberately non-leading and neutral way, and then to record the answers. The whole process is recorded both aurally and visually, and every action and decision is documented.
It is possible that the Exaro identifications were not recorded at all, although we are told that we are told the investigating police “took a statement from our reporter as to how the picture test was done.” You bet they did.
The very terminology employed by Exaro, “took a picture test,” reeks of amateurism and incompetence. You do not obtain meaningful evidence from a “picture test” and the mind boggles at how Exaro selected the “large number of pictures” shown to Nick before he is said to have picked out Lord Brittan.
Of course, whatever Exaro did, the police could still conduct their own identification procedure with Nick. So they could and perhaps they did, although devising a fair and meaningful identification procedure in a case decades old, where it is unlikely that any suitable moving images exist of the alleged perpetrators, or of suitable distractors would tax the ingenuity of any identification officer. But Exaro’s idiotic, blundering attempts to do what they had neither the resources, the experience, the expertise, or the independence to do fairly has probably destroyed even the faint hope that Nick’s identifications might possess any evidential value of any sort. After all, if a witness has already been committed to the identification of a particular suspect at an informal test, the value of any subsequent properly conducted identification is very much reduced.
We are not told whether Harvey Proctor or Lord Bramall were identified by Exaro in the same way as Lord Brittan. That is probably because at the time the story was published (January 15th 2015) neither had publicly been named as a suspect. But there is no reason to think that Exaro would have treated their “identifications” in any way differently to the way it treated that of Lord Brittan.
Presented with a witness to some of the most shocking crimes in British criminal history Exaro’s journalists had a duty to everything they possibly could to keep his evidence uncontaminated. Instead it is likely that they have destroyed any value it might have had.
If there is a charitable explanation for this it is that Watts was ignorant of the law, and that he foolishly did not ask for any advice from anyone, such as a probationary police constable or a first year law student, who knew the law better than him.
The other explanation is that he did know the law, but he put Exaro’s interest in getting a sensational story ahead of the need to secure worthwhile and reliable evidence that would withstand scrutiny in court; in other words that he put Exaro’s interests ahead of those of justice.
What is the view of the police about Exaro’s conduct?
Rather curiously, 5 minutes before the BBC broadcast its sceptical Panorama report last Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Police issued an odd statement critical of “media investigations” which might “compromise a criminal investigation.” It specifically warned that a media organisation in the past:
“had shown pictures of individuals to ‘Nick’ which could compromise the evidential chain should a case ever proceed to court.”
So was the Met criticising Exaro which, by its own admission, had done just that? Perhaps obliquely it was doing so, but the way it put it was that the organisation it particularly had in mind was “the BBC in fact.”
According to Exaro, in December 2014 the police had complained that a journalist from another organisation (presumably this was the BBC) had shown a picture of a missing boy to Nick, in an effort to identify him as a murder victim. As Exaro sniffily and a little hypocritically, reported at the time:
“Detectives were furious about the incident because this uncontrolled approach has the potential to contaminate evidence.”
Exaro did not at that point reveal that some months earlier it had done precisely the same thing in an effort to get Nick to identify perpetrators rather than victims.
Of course if the BBC showed Nick pictures of possible victims, that was also reprehensible. It is odd, though, that the Met specifically criticised the BBC and not Exaro, even though it must have been aware it too had potentially “contaminated” the evidence, and done so, it seems, at an even earlier stage.
Whatever the reason for the Met’s comparatively gentle treatment of Exaro, there are other serious questions over whether the organisation has come too close to the police investigation.
Exaro admits that their journalists have accompanied witnesses to meetings with the police. It denies that any have gone into any police interviews, but I have a strong sense of unease that they may have over-stepped the mark between telling a legitimate story and putting pressure, inadvertently or otherwise, on witnesses to keep to a particular line in talking to the police.
Even if Exaro journalists have not accompanied witnesses into evidential interviews, what sort of message is conveyed if one of their journalists – keen for a good story – accompanies a witness to an interview and picks him up again afterwards?
Have witnesses been “debriefed” by Exaro after their police interviews?
Where did the leaks about the police raids on the houses of Lord Brittan, Lord Bramall and Harvey Proctor come from? Exaro’s financial backer Jerome Booth has confirmed that (at least in Lord Bramall’s case):
“Exaro – in conjunction with two Sunday newspapers – were the first to report that Lord Bramall’s house had been searched by the police.”
In other words, Exaro got the story of the raid first.
Given that Lord Bramall has denied telling anybody about the raid (and appeared both upset and furious about the publicity given to it), the only plausible explanation seems to be that Exaro were told either by the police or, conceivably, by one of “their” witnesses.
The thought that someone close to the inquiry may have been leaking intelligence to Exaro is not reassuring. It also adds to the impression that Exaro and the 27 Metropolitan Police officers involved in Operation Midland are tightly linked in a loveless embrace. Should Operation Midland fail then both the officers involved – especially Supt Kenny “credible and true” McDonald – and Exaro itself will look ridiculous, although, like ex-partners in a loveless marriage, I daresay each will blame the other for the debacle.
This point hardly needs emphasising. There can be no worse crime of which to be publicly accused than child rape and murder. The risk that the allegations even might be untrue does not seem to have occurred to Exaro, or if it did occur they must have thought that it it did not matter.
Exaro’s hypocrisy on this score, as on many others, is quite nauseating. It regularly asserts that it has never named any living suspect until he has first been named by the police. Yet well before the “suspects” were officially named, its own stories – entirely predictably – excited feverish online speculation about their identities.
If this were not enough, when police raids took place on Lord Brittan’s, Lord Brammall’s and Harvey Proctor’s houses the fact of the raids was leaked within days. On March 8th this year the website reported: “Exaro has established that, in a highly secret operation, detectives from the Metropolitan Police Service’s Operation Midland raided” Lord Brittan’s, Lord Brammall’s and Harvey Proctor’s houses. The “highly secret operation” was described as a “co-ordinated series” of dawn raids.
On the same day, an article appeared in the Daily Mirror, co-written by Exaro’s pompously styled “Editor in Chief,” Mark Watts:
“Sources say [the raids] were signed off by a “senior figure” in the Operation Midland team.”
Suggesting either that they had spied on Lord Brittan’s house themselves, or that they had the services of a police officer, Mr Watts gloatingly noted Lord Brittan’s “terraced gardens with roses and herbaceous borders” and his “fish pond.”
“Highly secret” the raids were not.
Nor can Exaro possibly justify its naming of people raided as some sort of carefully thought out police plan to encourage corroborative witnesses to come forward.
It would have been appalling if the police had had any such plan, and they say that they did not. The official police position, as reported by Exaro itself and by Mr Watts’s story in the Daily Mirror, was not to give the identities of those raided, a position that quickly collapsed once Exaro reported them anyway.
Not only was their reporting of the raids deeply harmful to suspects, it was also contrary to the overt policy of the investigating police force.
It was inevitable that putting out stories in advance of, or at the same time as, any police investigation would invite the rest of the press to scrutinise those stories. Exaro cannot reasonably have expected that it would simply be given a free hand to disseminate accounts of the most appalling crimes, to report the names of the accused, without anyone else making their own inquiries.
Entirely predictably others have concentrated on the creditworthiness of Exaro’s sources.
As complainants in sexual cases, Nick, Darren and Esther Baker are all entitled to the protection of Section 1 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, which provides them with lifelong anonymity. Only Baker has waived her right.
But while publishing material likely to lead to a complainant’s identification is unlawful, attacking the credibility of a complainant without identifying him is not, at least not when there are no court proceedings pending.
As a result the press have been free to investigate the past of Nick and Darren (and Esther Baker for that matter) and have published material that, certainly in Darren’s case, has been upsetting and distressing to him. None of that, of course, would have happened had he not been used by Exaro.
In recent weeks Darren, once Exaro’s star witness, has become one of its main adversaries.
He revealed on September 26th that Exaro had encouraged him to use social media to publicise his case, and even set him up with a Twitter account, complete with the pseudonym “@darrrencsas”.
His view of his involvement with Exaro is now clear:
He was asked why he had a twitter account:
He also blames Exaro for taking his paperwork and not returning it:
As the day for the Panorama broadcast approached, Darren claims that Exaro even suggested they should claim to Panorama that he was suicidal:
As a result, Police were sent round to Darren’s house.
But Darren says that he was not suicidal then, and is not suicidal now.
But even though the claim that he was suicidal may be false, Darren remains a vulnerable person who has been caught up by Exaro in a storm that he would be much better out of.
Of course, it is possible that Darren is not being fair on Exaro.
It is possible, I suppose, that he has not told the truth about his involvement with them. If so that would make him a liar or a fantasist.
But if so, why on earth were Exaro relying on him? Whichever way you look at it, they have treated him abominably.
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So much for “Holding Power to Account”. Exaro have done nothing of the sort. All they have done is bring misery and confusion.
They have – at least in Darren’s case – pitched a vulnerable man into a media circus.
Their actions have rendered any prosecutions (already an unlikely prospect) virtually inconceivable, despite tying the police up in a long and expensive inquiry.
And if their allegations are false they have destroyed the reputations of innocent people.
As Mr Watts preened himself before an unctuous George Galloway on yet another RT.com interview last Saturday, I remembered the words of Oliver Cromwell:
“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Yet he offered not the slightest indication that he thought it possible he could be mistaken, still less did he offer anything approaching an apology, not even to Darren.
And the next day Exaro was back appealing for yet more “whistleblowers” to place their trust in Exaro.
Nobody should be foolish enough to do so. If you have evidence of crime you should tell the police and have nothing to do with Exaro.
And to Exaro itself some more words of Oliver Cromwell seem appropriate:
“You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”