The real victims must have feared it was all over when Nick was convicted.
Last year, Nick – once the star witness in a headline-grabbing police investigation into paedophilia and murder at the heart of Westminster – was found guilty of making the whole thing up and jailed for 18 years. For the 18 months during which police believed Carl Beech (to use his real name), livelihoods were destroyed and reputations ruined – on the evidence of a fantasist.
It didn’t take long for the tide to turn against those who had apparently believed his claims without question that there was a VIP child abuse ring operating unchallenged and protected within the corridors of power. The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was heavily criticised for describing the allegations early on as “credible and true” when it turned out there was no evidence to support them. The right-wing press accused the police of being “politically correct” in their pursuit of high-profile suspects falsely named by Beech as paedophiles. More column space was devoted to the “ruined lives” of those Beech had accused, and their families, than I have seen given to the actual victims of sexual abuse. As recently as last month, former Labour No.2 Tom Watson, who had championed Beech’s claims, faced calls to have his peerage blocked.
This week’s report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse makes passing reference to Beech, but the vast majority of its 173 pages are concerned with abuse that actually did take place.
While it stops short of finding any evidence that there was an organised paedophile ring operating in Westminster, as Beech and others had alleged, it readily conceded that sexual abuse happened, and that it was covered up by politicians more concerned with the reputation of their parties than with securing justice for vulnerable young people.
The notion that we should trust and respect people who allege rape and sexual abuse is still fragile; the Me Too movement, which secured a landmark prosecution this week in the form of Harvey Weinstein, is a welcome and desperately needed step in the right direction, but there is still so much further to go. A fraction of rape allegations end in prosecution, never mind conviction; the figure was less than 2% last year. Partly that is because of a system stacked against victims – invasive or impossible tests they must satisfy, demands they give evidence in traumatising circumstances, and a culture that more readily believes men, especially powerful ones, than women. The fact police didn’t spot Carl Beech’s lies sooner is disappointing, but it was right that they took his allegations seriously.
Three years ago, as editor of the Islington Gazette, a colleague and I spent months working on an investigation into historic allegations concerning a former senior politician in north London, unconnected to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Islington is, sadly, a borough whose past is blighted by its own shameful child abuse scandal, this one involving children in council-run care homes. We revealed that the councillor who once had political oversight of Islington’s children’s services had herself been a pro-paedophile campaigner; the council launched an independent review to test our claims and evidence, and came out on our side. During the process we met and spoke to dozens of survivors. Some had been fighting for justice – for a police investigation, an apology, an admission of failure by the local authority – for 25 years. Their stories were astonishing and heartbreaking, as was their bravery and strength. Some had been keeping their pasts secret. Many had struggled with mental health problems in the years since, struggling to hold down jobs, relationships and housing because of the damage done to them as children.
I believed, and believe, these people.
Of course journalists and police must be proportionate and critical in our treatment of tip-offs and criminal allegations.
And yesterday’s report did find that police were too quick to believe some people’s claims. But it wasn’t the victims they believed uncritically – it was the politicians.
“We heard evidence of overt and direct deference by police towards powerful people, such as a conscious decision not to arrest or investigate someone because of their profile of position,” one line reads.
It’s obvious, when you think about it, but so important to see in black and white. In the eyes of the law, everyone should be equal: yet the testimony of vulnerable children was too often given less weight than the rebuttals of their abusers, precisely because those people were powerful men.
The IICSA’s report may not go as far as some victims’ groups might have hoped. But its publication is a necessary vindication of many of their claims that abuse did take place, and was covered up. It is also an admission that power sticks together, that victims aren’t given enough credence.
What Beech did was wrong and offensive and destroyed lives. But sexual abuse destroys lives too: that is something that, as a local news journalist, I heard over and over from the people it happened to.
Beech’s case is certainly not a reason to stop believing victims. Yesterday’s report proves that. And there are many more out there who have yet to be heard.
Ramzy Alwakeel is news editor of HuffPost UK.