Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Learning from the Operation Midland disaster

It is clear that, until comparatively recently, received wisdom in Britain grossly underestimated the scale and incidence of child abuse.

Some like the late Jimmy Savile got away with abusing large numbers of women and girls because they were rich and powerful. Others, members of child abuse rings in Rotherham and too many other towns, got away with similar offences because the authorities were afraid that moving against them might appear racist. Literally thousands of vulnerable people have been victims of abuse because they were not believed, or did not come forward because they did not expect to be believed.

The people who have been convicted of sexual abuse against women and children by British courts over the past few years have ranged from the rich and famous to the poor and unknown. They have included both men and women, priests and atheists, and have had skin of every colour from lily white to dark brown.

In short there is no part of British society which this evil has not touched and the first lesson we must learn from this is that when allegations are made we can never afford to assume that they are false without investigation.

But that point cuts both ways. High and low, rich and poor, people of every skin colour, have also been wrongly accused. Just as we cannot afford to assume that any allegation is false until it has been investigated, neither can we afford to assume that everyone accused is guilty.

We must not lurch between the opposite errors of failing to take seriously the true allegations of genuine victims and of credulously believing the lies and slanders of every fantasist and seeker after compensation for non-existent crimes.

Any allegation of child abuse must be listened to carefully with an open mind, no matter who the accuser is, no matter who the accused, and then investigated as impartially as possible.

We had an early warning of the dangers of failing to check the facts properly in 2012 when a distinguished public servant in the last months of his life was, in his words, consigned to "the lowest circle of hell" when he was wrongly accused of historic child abuse because of an apparent case of mistaken identity.

But this did not stop the pendulum from swinging, as everyone was so driven by a justified wish not to repeat the error of ignoring accusations which might turn out to be true, and a less justified wish to avoid being accused of being part of a cover-up, even if that accusation might be thrown at people who had merely asked questions which ought to be asked.

Successful prosecutions have proved beyond reasonable doubt that we do have a serious problem of child sexual abuse in this country, but some of the investigations of into historic child abuse have become less and less credible. Many people have asked, in the words of an article on Labour Uncut by Rob Marchant, "Operation Midland: time to examine our prejudices which is well worth a read,

"a genuinely well-intentioned campaign to uncover real paedophilia gradually morphed into a mad witch-hunt of perfectly innocent people?"

There are some people who are deeply distrustful of authority and who will have been only too ready to believe the allegations of a "VIP Paedophile ring at the heart of Westminster" which resulted in Operation Midland.

There were plenty of others who, when they heard what the witness known as "Nick" was alleging, will have thought "That's ridiculous - it cannot possibly be true."

But it was not for the police to jump to either conclusion. Their job was to investigate without any preconception of whether the claims were credible and true until the evidence had permitted this to be assessed.

Operation Midland was not a disaster for policing in Britain because the claims made by "Nick" were pursued.

Operation Midland was a disaster for policing in Britain because flaws in the way the case was handled created the impression that police officers were not treating those named in the allegations, who should have had the right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty, or their families, fairly or with appropriate sensitivity. Particularly harmful was the completely inexcusable, grossly premature statement by one police officer that the claims made by "Nick" were "credible and true."

No police officer should ever say such a thing about a set of allegations before the point has been reached where there is sufficient evidence backing up those allegations to proceed with a prosecution. Operation Midland has now been abandoned with the police admitting they had not found evidence against any of the accused which would justify a prosecution, and indeed the Metropolitan Police admitted on September 22nd 2015 that the statement that allegations made by "Nick" were "credible and true" should not have been made.

But the biggest disaster of all would be if Operation Midland discredits the principle that all allegations of child sexual abuse should be fearlessly and impartially investigated. We must not go back to the situation where anyone is untouchable by the police or where genuine victims are not believed.

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