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How the police trawl the innocent

Care goes on trial

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Trawling goes on trial

How the police trawl the innocent

A three way exchange: Christian Wolmar, Nick Davies, Richard Webster

………………………………………………………… New Statesman letters column

26 July  - 13 September 1999

The following exchange of letters was occasioned by the publication of ‘How the police trawl the innocent’ in the New Statesman on 19 July 1999. To read the original article, click here.



Nick Davies to the New Statesman, 26 July 1999

I was very troubled by Richard Webster’s essay (‘How the police trawl the innocent’, Special Report, 19 July) claiming that the prosecution of abusers in children’s homes is a witch-hunt.

I was troubled first by his extraordinary lack of evidence. He wants to say that everyone else is wrong: all those judges who have dealt with civil cases, all those expert inquires that have reported, as well as all the police officers and all of the social workers and all of the journalists who have worked on these cases. But what does he offer to support his position? Not one single proven case of a miscarriage of justice.

I was troubled by his partial account of events. He wants to tell us that the police are trawling for evidence in these cases in a way that is bizarre and improper. He does not say that this kind of intelligence-led policing is established practice in every detective force in this country for every kind of major crime, not just for child abuse. What would he prefer? That police make no attempt to find corroboration when an allegation is made? That is exactly what did happen with child abuse for several decades, and that was certainly wrong. He wants to say that phoney victims are manufacturing allegations in the hope of earning criminal injuries compensation. He tells us that many of the accusers have criminal records but he does not say - as he must know - that, throughout the period when most of these allegations were made, compensation was denied (quite wrongly) to any crime victim who had a criminal record.

But what is most troubling - in fact, immoral - is that, without any evidence or understanding, he declares these abusers innocent and, therefore, declares their accusers to be liars. For every child who was raped and intimidated in the hopeless isolation of these homes, Webster adds gratuitous insult to their painful injury.

Nick Davies
The Guardian
London EC1

Christian Wolmar to the New Statesman, 2 August 1999

Richard Webster’s suggestion (‘How the police trawl the innocent’, Special Report, 19 July) that many innocent care workers are being sent to prison as a result of inquiries into abuse in children’s homes has no foundation.

His evidence is painfully thin: a social worker who tells him that he is innocent and is found guilty after a three-week trial; a solicitor who thinks that many of the convictions of care workers in Merseyside and Cheshire are “unsound”; and the unusual nature of the police methods.

The facts are these. Of 20 former care workers convicted, so far, in Liverpool for abuse in the 1960s to 1980s, all but three pleaded guilty. Yes, the police do trawl, but they proceed only when they have evidence from several witnesses with similar stories. The modus operandi of abusers tends to be the same (some do it in their office, some in the children’s bedrooms; some groom, some are violent; some like oral sex, some commit buggery; and so on) and therefore fabricated evidence would quickly be exposed. Since the victims are scattered around the country and are not in contact with one another when approached by the police, how can a conspiracy have been created? And why? It is incredibly hard to get compensation, especially for those victims with criminal records. Most victims with whom I have spoken just want retribution.

In fact, as events in North Wales show, the police have been incredibly reluctant to pursue these cases, because they are a hassle involving difficult witnesses and lengthy investigations.

Gradually the sheer weight of evidence forced the police on other forces, such as Liverpool and Cheshire, to launch more systematic investigations. But the victims have often been extremely reluctant to come forward, and the high rate of convictions is testimony to the courage of those prepared to give evidence. The victims are subjected to the same types of cross-examination as in rape cases.

The police have no reason to launch a “witch-hunt” (silly word anyway, as there were no witches, and even Webster admits many care workers are guilty). Webster’s 5,000 figure for the number of care workers likely to face trial is plucked, like much of his argument, out of the blue.

There is something deeply offensive about Webster’s thesis, as he casts aspersions on the children in these homes by saying that the allegations concern “residential institutions for troubled or difficult adolescents”. His subtext is that the victims are all nasty working-class scumbags on the make. In fact the vast majority of children in these homes (including many in approved schools and their successors) were wholly innocent of any crime prior to their entry. Many became criminals as a response to what happened to them in these homes. It is a bit like saying that all rape victims make it up because some were prostitutes.

Christian Wolmar
London N19

The author is writing a book on the scandals in children’s homes, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Richard Webster to the New Statesman, 9 August 1999

In my piece on police trawling operations (‘How the police trawl the innocent’, Special Report, 19 July) I suggested that “the great children’s home panic” was largely created by journalists. Two journalists, Christian Wolmar and Nick Davies, have written to contest my argument (Letters, 26 July and 2 August).

They are right to insist that many young people have been abused by care workers. I believe they are dangerously wrong to suggest that only the guilty are being punished. Wolmar implies that almost all convicted care workers pleaded guilty. Yet in the North-west alone at least 15 pleaded not guilty. Most continue to protest their innocence from their prison cells, unvisited and uninterviewed by either of the journalists who now proclaim their guilt.

Wolmar writes that “the modus operandi of abusers tends to be the same”, so “fabricated evidence would be quickly exposed”. He appears not to have noticed that some care workers have been convicted of both homosexual seduction and heterosexual rape. He suggests that conspiracies are impossible since “victims” are scattered around the country. He ignores the fact that many complainants meet in prison and the argument that police officers themselves may spread allegations through leading questions. He says that obtaining compensation is “incredibly hard”, although he recently chaired a conference of lawyers who are pursuing hundreds of compensation claims based on trawled allegations.

Davies objects to my claim that a witch-hunt is in progress and goes on to profess his faith in expert inquiries, police officers and social workers. He appears not to understand that faith in officialdom was the foundation on which most historical witch-hunts rested. He pretends that trawling operations are just another example of “intelligence-led policing”. And, even though there is clear evidence that some allegations have been fabricated (see my report), he implies that it is immoral even to suggest this.

Most seriously of all both Wolmar and Davies seem unable to entertain even the possibility that a care worker might be wrongly convicted. Yet one Cheshire conviction has already been overturned on appeal. And in York Crown Court in June, Judge Crabtree dismissed a care home case altogether. “The courts must draw a line somewhere,” he said. “Is every teacher in England to lie awake at night wondering which child they have offended 20 years ago might suddenly decide to go to the police and complain? Anyone who is in charge of children is vulnerable to allegations of assault from some dissatisfied or angry child, and if no complaint is made for months or years, how can any teacher, social worker, nurse defend themselves? How is he or she going to be able to . . . prove his or her innocence after so much time has passed?”

These are not my words. They are the words of an experienced judge. The award-winning journalist Davies, and Wolmar, who has been given £50,000 by the Rowntree Foundation to write a book about children’s home scandals, would do well to heed them.

Richard Webster

Nick Davies to the New Statesman, 16 August 1999

Richard Webster (Letters, 9 August) has dodged the point of my letter with the same skill as he has dodged the weight of evidence against his thesis. He wants us to accept that the wave of convictions for sexual abuse in children’s homes is, as he said in the Guardian, “the gravest series of miscarriages in British criminal history”. In my letter, I invited him to identify one proven case of miscarriage. Webster produces a lot of wriggling but not one miscarriage, never mind the gravest series in our history.

Webster may be right and may have seen what all those juries and judges and witnesses and journalists failed to see. But no one is going to take him seriously until he sorts out some honest evidence. In the meantime, his wild and unspecified swipes continue to inflict needless pain on those who genuinely were the victims of abuse.

Nick Davies
The Guardian
London EC1  

Richard Webster to the
New Statesman, 13 September 1999  

Nick Davies (Letters, 16 August) accuses me of failing to identify a single “proven case of miscarriage of justice” in relation to care home investigations. Yet in my reply to his barbs (Letters, 9 August) I was careful to point out that one of the Cheshire convictions had already been overturned on appeal.

Perhaps Davies missed my brief reference to this case. Or could it be that he is demanding evidence not of a miscarriage of justice but of innocence? If so, he is asking for something that is all but impossible. Proving that you did not commit a real crime is sometimes difficult enough. Proving, after 20 or 30 years have passed, that you did not commit a crime that never took place at all is much more difficult.

The evidence that innocent men have been convicted as a result of trawling operations is extensive and compelling, but mostly circumstantial. Some of this evidence is recorded in my own articles. Much more is contained in the legal papers and the testimony of defendants and their supporters. If Davies had researched the story properly he would be familiar with this evidence. However, when he wrote his celebrated articles in the Guardian suggesting the existence of paedophile rings in children’s homes in North Wales and the North-west, he did not interview any of the convicted care workers who now protest their innocence. Nor did he have access to their legal papers. One of the key witnesses for his North Wales report was a man who has made allegations of sexual abuse against no fewer than 49 people. None of these has ever led to a conviction and Davies omitted to say that one of his most serious allegations had been rejected by a jury after barristers had argued that it was a transparent fabrication.

Unfortunately for Davies the articles he wrote as a result did not pass into the oblivion they merited. In two successive years they helped him win coveted press awards and crowned his reputation as an investigative journalist. He can hardly admit now that he got the story entirely wrong.

Meanwhile the great children’s home panic, which Davies himself helped to inflame, intensifies almost by the day. In the weeks that have passed since my last letter, three more former care workers from North Wales and Merseyside have been convicted. They received prison sentences of two, eight and twelve years. All three continue to protest their innocence. If their protests are empty, then justice has been done. If, as their many supporters believe, their protests are well founded, then the lives of three more innocent care workers have been destroyed by false allegations.

Richard Webster


NOTE: Christian Wolmar has since changed his views on this issue. To read his review of The Secret of Bryn Estyn, click here.

Richard Webster, 1999 / 2002