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Wednesday, March 23, 2016 

Operation Midland: a modern morality tale.

Operation Midland has been closed down.  Announced on Monday, happily for the Metropolitan police while attention was on Westminster and before the events in Brussels, it had been in the offing for quite some time.  After around 15 months of investigations into claims of sadistic abuse perpetrated by figures from the very top of the defence, intelligence, political and entertainment establishments, at its conclusion there was not enough evidence to so much as submit a file to the Crown Prosecution Service for their consideration.  It had already been announced that Lord Bramall, the former chief of the defence staff, had been cleared of any involvement.  Monday saw Harvey Proctor, the only other accused still alive, told that he also would not face charges.

Even at this point, it's difficult to properly get your head round how the Met could have gone about investigating the allegations of a single man with such a level of seeming incompetence.  Operation Midland has been a disaster rivalled only by the anti-terrorist operations in the aftermath of 7/7, or the corresponding failure to properly investigate phone hacking at the News of the World at the first opportunity.  Some of the mistakes were made with the best of intentions, or at least that's what we have to conclude.  Otherwise, the Met looks even more headspinningly credulous.

As the Met belatedly recognised, it was a huge mistake for Kenny McDonald to describe the allegations made to his team by the man known only as "Nick" as "credible and true".  McDonald we were later told did not accept they were true; his aim in describing them as such was to reassure any other witnesses they would also be believed.  His team believed that as with Jimmy Savile, and others since convicted of historic sex offences, the publicity would encourage other witnesses to come forward and help corroborate Nick's story.  Only two witnesses did, and they came to the police through the same proxy as Nick, via Exaro News.  One of those witnesses was decided not to be credible midway through last year.

With no other witnesses to back up Nick's highly distressing account of abuse by VIPs, it was almost as if the police didn't properly know what to do, having already described their witness as telling the truth.  Their approach, knowing they didn't have even the beginnings of the evidence needed to arrest anyone, was to carry out searches of the homes of the accused still alive, and in the case of Leon Brittan, the recently deceased.  The raids on the homes of Lord Bramall and Harvey Proctor were accompanied by leaks to Exaro News, making their names public when the police were unable to.  The relationship between Exaro and Operation Midland was far too cosy from the very start, almost as if it was Exaro rather than Nick in control of events.  It was to Exaro that Nick first went, who then provided access to Nick to the BBC and the newspapers, most notably the Mirror group.  When the police came calling, Exaro at the least accompanied Nick; other reports have suggested they sat in on the interviews.

Nick's account itself should have set alarm bells ringing.  Not just that some of the details given by Nick of his abuse are highly reminiscent of the accounts provided by those who have claimed to be the victims of Satanic ritual abuse, with Nick claiming he was tortured on Remembrance Sunday, his abusers pinning a poppy to his chest repeatedly, but that those named and the locations where the abuse was meant to have taken place have been circulating online for years.  As the Times belatedly reported, the defunct magazine Scallywag claimed over 20 years ago that abuse by senior politicians had taken place at Dolphin Square; those articles have provided the backbone to conspiracy theories ever since.  Nick's account of his abuse developed over time: he first went to Wiltshire police in 2012, informing them only of the predation by his deceased stepfather.  The following year he spoke to a documentary team, alleging that he had been abused by groups of men that on a number of occasions included Jimmy Savile.  Come 2014, his story had expanded further to include Ted Heath, the former heads of MI5 and MI6, Lord Janner and Peter Hayman, as well as the murder of three boys.  As the Needle Blog has pointed out, his story seems a conglomeration of online conspiracy theories, the Scallywag articles and the varying allegations made against Savile and Janner, with added details that only he can explain.

By the time Harvey Proctor gave his extraordinary press conference in August of last year, detailing in full what he was being accused of by Nick, it was already apparent the investigation was falling apart.  Having at first given massive publicity to the allegations, if we're being extremely charitable believing McDonald when he pronounced them "credible and true", the coverage swung in the exact opposite direction.  The Mail and the Sun went after Tom Watson, more because of his new position of power as deputy Labour leader than anything else, before turning on commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, again more out of rage at the investigations the Met has undertaken into the press than real digust at the treatment of Bramall and Brittan.  Despite reports in the Mail and Telegraph that had began to cast further doubt on the police and Nick, it was BBC's Panorama, somewhat making amends for the corporation's role in first publicising Nick's claims, that piece by piece cast doubt on the police investigation and asked why it was they apparently hadn't done some very basic fact-checking.  The police's response was to demand it not be shown, while Exaro resorted to smears directed at Panorama's reporter Daniel Foggo.

The Met, as Matthew Scott writes, still seems to believe it has done little wrong.  They will not apologise for investigating "serious allegations of non-recent abuse", as though anyone is asking them to.  If anyone is asking for apologies rather than lessons to be learned, it's for the way Operation Midland went about its investigation, or arguably, didn't.  Hogan-Howe's attempt to regain the initiative, saying that perhaps the police should not automatically believe witness testimony given to them of abuse completely missed the point: everyone wants allegations of sexual abuse to be investigated, and properly.  Victims must have confidence they will be believed.  Public trust can also be damaged however when someone's testimony is declared to be true before it has even began to be investigated, not least when that testimony it subsequently becomes clear was, as even Exaro News's editor said, "very hard to believe".  As with so much else, a balance has to be struck: until recently it was often felt police forces failed to take sexual offences as seriously as other crimes.  The public interest is not served by a tilt too far in the other direction, where the reputation of individuals can be destroyed in a moment, never to recover, thanks to leaks to the media.

More than anything, the police and Nick have done a disservice to other victims of abuse, especially those who have been the victims of people in positions of authority.  Nick himself may not be a liar or a fantasist so much as so severely damaged by what he went through as child that he no longer knows the truth of what happened to him.  We don't know how he was treated for the problems arising from his abuse, or by whom.  The Met cannot say the same.

Nor though is it just the Met or Nick.  The media, Exaro especially, has played a dangerous game, having no real care for those entrusting them with so much, thinking only of the remuneration available, or possible political advantage.  Politicians played a similar role.  So too we have seen how social media has become an echo chamber rather than an arena for debate, where dissenting views are ignored and opinions reinforced rather than challenged.  We're left depending on the Goddard inquiry for the answers, which from the preliminaries looks as though it might turn into a 5-year long saga of successive witnesses detailing accounts of abuse.  The omens could hardly be worse.

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