Followers of Nine’s 60 Minutes are used to the hyperbole that invariably is associated with publicising the program. For example, last Sunday’s story on Crown casinos was supposed to “rock the foundations of Australia”. However, a week later, life Down Under seems much the same as before.
This serves as a reminder that it was not long ago that 60 Minutes had another (alleged) earth-shattering story. Reporter Ross Coulthart commenced the program on July 19, 2015, with the following claim: “Without question, the biggest political scandal Britain has ever faced will be exposed tonight.” It was the claim that living and dead high-profile men in Britain “are accused of some of the most sadistic child sex abuse imaginable on hundreds of victims, some as young as eight”.
A complainant named “Nick”, who claimed to be a victim, was not a witness for the 60 Minutes story. However, his allegations were central to the investigation by London’s Metropolitan Police, called Operation Midland, which led to the identification of such alleged pedophiles as the late former Conservative prime minister Edward Heath, Lord Brittan, late Labor peer Lord Janner, retired military leader Lord Bramall and more besides, including leading figures in the British intelligence services.
These men were accused by Nick of such crimes as raping young boys, and also murder. In December 2014, a leading member of the Metropolitan Police declared that he believed what Nick had said to be “credible and true”.
That was then. Last week, on July 22, Nick was found guilty in the Newcastle Crown Court of perverting the course of justice, and fraud. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison with a non-parole period of nine years. By then, Nick had been identified as the 51-year-old Carl Beech — a former nurse who had been employed in the National Health Service.
Operation Midland went on for some years at a cost of £2.5 million. It turned up nothing. Beech proved to be a fantasist and a liar. But he fooled not only senior police but also the journalists who reported his assertions.
Mark Conrad led the reporting of Beech’s claims while working on the now defunct Exaro investigative news site.
In recent times, Conrad has said that a lot of his colleagues gave Beech “credibility from day one because he was educated, well-spoken (and held) a very middle-class job in the public sector”. Conrad also said that his editor, Mark Watts, told him to focus on claims of child sexual abuse.
According to Conrad, the educated middle class are more likely to tell the truth and are less likely to commit fraud than others. This is yet another example of a journalist who believes what he or she wants to believe.
The truth is that plausible liars come from all sections of society. Moreover, it is all but impossible to prove whether someone is telling the truth or not. And then there is the fallibility of memory — which leads to some people having clear “recollections” of events that never happened.
And then there is fraud. Beech successfully pocketed £22,000 in compensation following his false claims of historic child sexual abuse. He used some of the money to place a deposit on a new Ford Mustang.
Beech’s allegation that such high-profile British men would engage in such risky behaviour in the presence of others, hoping never to be detected, was always fanciful. Yet he conned not only police and journalists but also British Labor MP Tom Watson, who is currently deputy leader of the party.
Enter Peter Saunders, the founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. He will be familiar to Australians who followed the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for historical child sexual abuse. Saunders has appeared on 60 Minutes and ABC TV’S 7.30 to discuss the Pell case. He got wide publicity for describing Pell, who he has never met, as a “sociopath”.
It turns out that Saunders assisted Beech in advancing his claims against Heath, Brittan and the like. In October 2015, Saunders appeared on a BBC Panoramaprogram and described Beech as “entirely credible”. In short, Saunders was convinced that Beech was telling the truth.
Not any more. On July 23, Saunders was quoted in The Guardian as describing Beech as “a fantasist and a liar” who is a “one-off”. But he provided no evidence to support the implication of his claim that there are no other such types around.
Also, Saunders provided no explanation, still less an apology, for being conned by Beech.
He is not the only one. The allegations of the men who spoke to 60 Minutes in 2015 have also collapsed. However, as Paul Barry revealed on ABC TV’s Media Watch program on February 18 last year, Coulthart has not honoured his promise to keep Nine’s viewers updated on the police investigations. Moreover, 60 Minutes declined to answer detailed questions about its coverage of the issue.
The evidence suggests that most allegations of child sexual abuse are accurate — especially where there are multiple complainants and a degree of grooming is involved. But not all claims are true — as the Beech case demonstrates. The phenomenon is discussed in Ros Burnett’s edited collection Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse (OUP, 2016).
It is proper and just that victims of child sexual assault are adequately compensated. But those who are falsely accused of such terrible crimes are also victims. In a statement read out to court, Lady Brittan described her late husband’s situation as “indescribable, incalculable and unending”. Lord Proctor, who was also accused by Beech, described how he had lost his home and his job and was forced to move to Spain.
The fundamental error of the Metropolitan Police is not that it investigated Beech’s claims but that it did so in accordance with a view that a complainant should always be believed, even in the absence of forensic or witness evidence.
It’s not surprising that some journalists believe what they want to believe — but police are expected to work to a higher standard.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.