The collapse of trust: Operation Midland and Exaro News.
Quite why this is happening now, and why it is happening to both left and right, whether it be with UKIP, Corbyn, Trump or Podemos is difficult to pin down precisely. What is apparent is that it has its roots both in the economic crash, and in the transformation in the way we consume information: the collapse in faith in politicians who insisted they had all the answers, that there was no alternative, combined with the rise of social media where those very alternative voices have been able to cut through where they couldn't previously. The same forces are behind very contrasting movements: on the right, where the belief is that an unaccountable liberal elite has been forcing its values onto the majority, resulting in a resurgence in patriotism and nationalism; and on the left, where what are seen as the failed compromises of the past are being rejected in favour of those who will at least fight for what they believe in.
This is obviously to simplify massively, not least as there is also a third constituency. This consists of individuals who aren't necessarily politically inclined one way or the other, but who are convinced they have been and are being lied to by everyone. Again, this group is also well catered for, increasingly by ever more professional outlets. That they are often backed and funded by authoritarian states doesn't seem to matter; Press TV and RT's ability to offer an alternative is enough by itself.
Then you have the likes of Exaro News, where the clash between the establishment and those professing to be against it looks to be coming to a head. Funded by Jerome Booth and headed by Mark Watts, formerly of Press TV, with ex-Guardian reporters David Hencke and David Pallister also on the staff, the agency is at the very centre of the intensifying row over the Met's Operation Midland. Approaching a year after the investigation was launched into claims made by a witness known only as Nick, no arrests have been made and evidence to back up the allegations of murder and organised child abuse by a Westminster paedophile ring remains elusive.
Following continued criticism of the decision by Midland's lead officer Detective Superintendent Kenny McDonald to call a press conference following interviews with Nick, at which he told the media that the account related was both "credible and true", the Met on Monday released a lengthy statement defending the investigation up to now. While accepting that the use of the words "credible and true" suggested they were pre-empting the outcome of the investigation, they insist they were doing nothing of the sort. Would everyone rather have a return to the mistakes of the past, the statement all but asks, where "the first instinct of investigators appeared to be to disbelieve those making the allegations"?
Obviously not, but the resort to a false dichotomy is unhelpful to say the least. The difficulty for the police once a statement such as McDonald's is made, which does seem to be almost unprecedented, regardless of how they now want to present it, is that it gives the impression of then looking for evidence to confirm their initial belief was the correct one, rather than "investigating without fear or favour, in a thorough, professional and impartial fashion" as they claim to have done. The Met further doesn't help its cause when the rest of the statement is essentially a complaint about how the media other than Exaro has been operating, asking them to consider the vulnerability of those making the allegations, and all but calling out James Hanning of the Independent for putting Nick's real name to Harvey Proctor amid a list to see if it produced any response.
Adding insult to injury, the statement goes on to insist that the Met "does not name or confirm names of those arrested or interviewed". What the Met has been doing however is informing either Nick or Exaro when it has carried out raids of those accused, as Exaro was first with the news of the interviewing of Proctor and the initial raid of his home. Proctor has not been as much as arrested, it should be remembered, nor was Lord Bramall, who as the Mail reported on Saturday also saw his home searched by a number of officers. Equally apparent as evidenced by a previous report in the Mail and by pieces elsewhere since is that officers, either on Operation Midland itself or within the Met, are split on whether or not there is any truth to Nick's claims.
A somewhat corroborating account, given by another witness who first went to Exaro News, has since been dismissed. The Sunday Telegraph reported that while "Darren" was abused by a foster carer, his claims of being abused by a paedophile ring led by Peter Righton were not backed up by the available evidence, and that he had a history of making unsubstantiated allegations. Exaro claimed at the start of September that Darren had himself withdrawn cooperation from Sussex police after they had referred his son to social services, which does not seem to be an entirely truthful account. Despite describing the reports as "smears", Exaro in a number of tweets made no attempt to dispute the Telegraph account, beyond insisting that it has not sat in on interviews between the police and witnesses. Exaro staff have apparently attended preliminary meetings between the police and witnesses, however.
Exaro's approach has been criticised from the outset. As the Mail's report on Saturday makes clear, Exaro has not made any mention of previous accounts of the abuse Nick suffered which he shared online, none of which made reference to the allegations against VIPs he subsequently made to them. Exaro has also as Richard Bartholomew notes not featured the most lurid parts of Nick's testimony, that it was Ted Heath who prevented Proctor from castrating him with a penknife, and also that he was abused by soldiers who humiliated him further by pinning a poppy to his bare chest. This could be perfectly innocent: they may not have wanted to go into such detail, despite reporting in the case of Darren that a boy with Down's syndrome was tied between two cars which then reversed away from each other or it may have been that Nick only informed the police of these specific aspects of the abuse. It could also be that Exaro felt these parts of his account to be so incredible as to cast doubt on the whole.
This isn't to pretend there aren't problems with the reports by both the Mail and Sunday Telegraph. While not naming Nick, the former article gives more than enough detail from which anyone who really wanted to could identify him. Doing so is completely irresponsible, and only makes it all the easier for supporters of Exaro and Nick to dismiss the rest of the story. It also attempts to make it into an issue for both Labour and about political correctness, as the Mail is so often insistent on doing. While there are criticisms that can be directed at Tom Watson and other Labour MPs Simon Danczuk and John Mann, Watson has had zero input on the actual police handling and investigation of Nick's allegations. Nor does he seem to have influenced the investigation into Darren's claims, despite having according to the Telegraph been copied into some of the emails between Darren and the police.
Exaro's response to the criticism so far has been to either not engage, cry smear, in the case of Darren to blame Sussex police while at the same time when it comes to Nick repeating ad nauseum how the Met believes his allegations to "be credible", or to list what it claims its reporting as a whole has achieved. If as seems increasingly likely the Met does slowly wind down Operation Midland, Exaro might be able in the same way to move on with little in the way of fanfare from its all but ownership of the establishment paedophile claims. Nothing was proved, nothing was disproved, and so the claims will go on. Those who want to believe always will. The question is whether the numbers of "believers" is increasing, or whether they're simply more visible than before. And if the likes of Exaro fail to satisfy them, will there be another new media organisation along to take its place?