The heavily “redacted” Operation Conifer Report into Sir Edward Heath consists of 109 pages of self-justification and virtually no evidence of any kind. It is a document that is as empty as it is verbose. Its central conclusion, that were he still alive he would be interviewed under caution, tells us almost nothing.
It fails to make any sort of case against the former Prime Minister, but equally fails to lift the miasma of suspicion that will probably now surround him for all time. Speaking last December Wiltshire Chief Constable Mike Veale said he hoped that the inquiry would “contribute to the wider picture of truth seeking and reconciliation.” If that was indeed the purpose, it will certainly not succeed. Those who already believed that Heath was a villain will claim that the Report lends them support. Those who were sceptical will point to the fact that the vast majority of allegations have been judged so weak that they could be dismissed without even troubling to ask Heath about them, had he still been alive. The idea that the truth can be divined from the report, or that its publication will do anything to reconcile anybody to anything is risible.
The full version will now be supplied to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Who knows what its fate will be there: perhaps some of the undermined allegations will find their way into the weirdly named “truth project” where anonymous accusations can be levelled without fear of challenge or contradiction.
Despite the emptiness of the document, it is possible to hack through the repetitious verbiage and see some themes.
First, the Report cheerfully describes anyone who claims to have been abused by Sir Edward as a “victim.” Thus, the Report has sections entitled “victim strategy,” “victim categorisation approach,” and “victim exit strategy.” It also repeatedly uses the cant word “disclosure” to refer to unproven, unsubstantiated and very probably entirely false, allegations. It is deeply depressing that it still needs to be said, but “victims” are only victims if they have been abused, and “disclosures” are only disclosures if they reveal something that actually happened.
The decision to use this loaded terminology suffuses the report, embodying as it does undisguised – one could reasonably say “institutional” – prejudice against Sir Edward from the outset. “The starting point,” says the Report, “is that the police should believe the account given.” It is exactly the same approach that the retired High Court Judge Sir Richard Henriques so strongly warned against in his 2016 report into Operation Midland, the Met’s bungled investigation into “Nick’s” false allegations against Harvey Proctor, Leon Brittan, Lord Bramall and indeed Heath himself. “The policy of ‘believe victims’,” wrote Henriques, “strikes at the very core of the criminal justice process.” Yet here is Wiltshire Police ignoring the judge’s advice in one of the most high profile and controversial investigations it has ever undertaken.
Secondly, again and again the Report seeks to justify its own existence by reference to “Human Rights Law” or the “need for proportionality” or its own “objectivity.” It is self-congratulatory legalese deployed to disguise humbug. All “disclosures” are treated as genuine and all “victims” are to be believed unless their disclosures are positively undermined – a massively difficult task – in which case they stop being “victims” and become instead, not “liars,” “fantasists” or “chancers” but “people who have reported alleged abuse by Sir Edward Heath … where undermining evidence exists.” Nothing in human rights law, “proportionality” or “objectivity” requires such an approach.
Thirdly, the Report makes great play of the fact that it was overseen by an “Independent Scrutiny Panel,” which comprised a QC from Matrix Chambers, a surgeon, a “Wiltshire resident” and a psychologist. One of the stated “strategic objectives” of the panel was that “scrutineers shall remain independent of the investigation.” The psychologist scrutineer, Elly Hanson, is a specialist in Dissociative Identity Disorder, a controversial condition which (if it exists at all) is often said to be particularly associated with ritual or Satanic sexual abuse. She spoke at the opening of something called the Wall of Silence Exhibition in Bristol in January 2016. The exhibition was closely associated with, indeed was partly the idea of, a “survivor” of sexual abuse, “Nick”, formerly known on twitter as @carl_survivor, who had himself made an allegation against Sir Edward. It is right to say that Dr Hanson has since made it clear that she received no money for doing so, although that does not altogether explain why she thought it seensible to appear at the event at all.
Earlier this year she had also attracted controversy when it was revealed that she had accepted payment of just over £2,000 for advising the Wiltshire Police about two of the Heath complainants in the Conifer inquiry, although she has dismissed the suggestion that this created any conflict of interest.
As for corroboration of the allegations: there is none so far as we can tell, apart from the existence of multiple complaints, the vast majority of which even the institutionally credulous Wiltshire Police accept do not give rise even to “reasonable suspicion.” In the frantic leaking and spinning in the weeks leading up to the report it was reported that Police considered these complainants “independent” of one another. For some reason “sources close to Mike Veale” appear to have leaked a lot to Mark Watts, former boss of Exaro News, the defunct and unlamented organisation that gambled and lost all respectability through its reporting of Operation Midland.
In fact the report does not even say that the witnesses were independent of one another. It mentions the possibility that the fathers of three “victims” worked together, and then devotes a single bland sentence to the critical question of collusion:
The investigation did not establish any evidence to suggest that any of the victims who reported alleged abuse to Operation Conifer had colluded. It is accepted that it is possible that some of the victims may have associated prior to making disclosures of abuse.
If anything this seems to be a grudging acceptance that some form of collusion could indeed have occurred.
There is no mention anywhere in the report of the internet or of social media, and not even a hint that the police have investigated any of the torrents of online allegation and rumour that have swirled around Heath for years. It would be almost inconceivable that anybody with access to a computer would not have been aware of it. Nor is there a mention of David Icke, the superficially funny but actually repulsive conspiracy theorist who has promoted the idea of Heath’s infamy to his hundreds of thousands of online followers for years.
Nothing is said about the widely publicised witterings of Michael Shrimpton, the disgraced (and imprisoned) barrister who has promoted the idea that Heath used his yacht to abuse boys from the Channel Islands.
Where there has been an attempt to find proper corroboration it has in every respect drawn a blank.
With a brief interlude between March 1974 and late 1975, when terrorists tried to assassinate him, Sir Edward was entitled to a police guard from the Metropolitan Police, “Close Protection Officers,” from when he became Prime Minister up to the time of his death. Whilst he did not always have officers present, not one of the 28 officers interviewed provided “any information that linked Sir Edward to sexual abuse.”
Security at his Salisbury house, Arundells, was provided by Wiltshire Police. Officers were interviewed: they were aware of nothing to substantiate the claims.
None of his many official drivers reported anything untoward.
His private office staff, his domestic staff and even the nurses who cared for him as he lay dying were spoken to; none provided the slightest support for the allegations.
The “intelligence agencies” (presumably MI5, MI6, GCHQ and Special Branch) were spoken to: none provided any support for the allegations.
As for the most lurid accusations, that Heath had taken boys onto Morning Cloud in order to abuse them before throwing the bodies overboard, the report debunks the possibility:
“There is no indication from former crew members that children were ever taken aboard the different Morning Cloud yachts.”
Nor was there any evidence that children had gone missing in the circumstances alleged.
Nevertheless, the Report concludes that were he alive Sir Edward would have been interviewed under caution in relation to just 7 of the original 40 complainants. None of the complaints were made to the Police before April 2015, and all but one were made after the appeal for “victims to come forward” was made in Salisbury Cathedral Close in August 2015.
Three of the complaints related to indecent assaults of boys “during chance encounters” in respectively (1962) a “public place in Kent” (1967) a “public building in Guernsey” and (1990 – 92) “private gardens in Wiltshire.”
Two related to alleged indecent assaults on adult men, one (1976) during another of those “chance encounters” at a public event, and another in 1992 during a “paid consensual sexual encounter” in a Wiltshire hotel.
One related to three separate indecent assaults on boys during “paid sexual encounters” in London in about 1964. In fact we know – because he has revealed it on twitter – that a man called James Reeves has accused Heath of paying for sex with underage boys on Hampstead Heath. He has also, perhaps even more implausibly given their political differences, claimed to have seen Heath at South End Green on the edge of Hampstead Heath, in the company of Michael Foot, although in fairness I do not think he suggests that Foot was also a paedophile.
The final, and most serious allegation, is of rape of a boy during a “paid sexual encounter” in London in 1961. Who the boy was, how he encountered Heath and why he waited until 2015 to report the matter to the police is unexplained in the Conifer report, although it has since turned out that the allegation was made by a convicted child abuser, and was investigated by the Metropolitan Police in 2015 who decided not to pursue it further.
The Report tells us almost nothing about the accounts that the various complainants gave. We are told nothing of the trustworthiness of the “victims,” and nor do we have any information upon which to make such an assessment. We are told nothing of how decades later most of these complainants – assuming they are truthful in the first place – have been able to make a safe identification of Heath as their abuser. We know nothing of the seemingly bizarre process by which three “chance encounters” in public places – including one while Heath was the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition – somehow led to sexual assaults. There is no indication that there is any corroboration for a single one of these allegations. Presumably they have survived scrutiny simply because, unlike in the majority of cases, there is nothing actually to disprove them. Given its decision to “believe the victim,” as far as these allegations are concerned the Wiltshire Police is thus unable to do anything other than have “reasonable suspicion.”
Members of the public are under no such obligation. We do not have automatically to believe the victim, or even to believe that there are victims. We are entitled to remain deeply sceptical about any allegations against a public figure against whom – by inference – numerous other false allegations have been made, and against whom a vile internet campaign has been waged.
We are not required to accept at face value that “reasonable suspicion” exists when we are supplied with only the blandest of summaries about what is actually alleged. The Police say they are obliged to believe that Heath was a paedophile and anyone else is at liberty to believe it; but this report does nothing to persuade any fair-minded person that he in fact was. It is a shame that Wiltshire Police does not seem to have taken on board the central lesson of Henriques, that if you want to avoid the appearance of prejudice you should not appear to prejudge the veracity of the witnesses.
We are not required to accept the assurances of the Wiltshire Police that their inquiry has been fair and objective, and especially not if, in another tactic reminiscent of Operation Midland and condemned by Henriques, figures close to the inquiry were spinning its contents to favourably inclined journalists and MPs before its official publication. Why, for instance, was the report seemingly leaked to Andrew Bridgen MP? One reason could be that Mr Bridgen was happy to tell the Guardian that Mr Veale was:
“a public servant of high integrity, conducting a high-profile and difficult investigation, being hammered in the press with no ability to defend himself.”
I wouldn’t dream of questioning Mr Veale’s integrity, but this does not mean he is beyond criticism. He himself called for people not to comment on the investigation, yet here was his own Wiltshire Police Force, giving “confidential briefings” to “a number of different stakeholders.” Why the sycophantic Mr Bridgen, representing a constituency about 120 miles north of Wiltshire, should be considered a relevant “stakeholder” for this purpose is not clear.
The tactic seems to have continued after publication. The first published interview Mr Veale gave after its publication was with none other than Mark Watts.
Was it worth it? It has certainly failed to achieve the “truth and reconciliation” that Veale hoped for. Heath’s accusers may feel vindicated that at least some of their claims have not been dismissed. Heath’s supporters will feel that his name has been tarnished by an inconclusive report whose caveats and warnings are already being ignored by the unscrupulous. It seems a disappointing return for the £1.4M and thousands of hours of police time spent on the investigation over the last two years.
This blog originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Daily Telegraph 6th October 2017