This article by Richard Webster was published in the New Statesman on 19 February 1999. I found it via this comment by TomGamble to a Guardian article by Tariq Ali on the future of the BBC published yesterday. I am astonished that both this article and the 1999 BBC programme on child abuse it criticises have scarcely been mentioned in the present scandal, since most of the same people, events and institutions are being discussed now as were discussed then. Some quotes from Richard Webster’s article follow:
On Monday 25 January 1999, immediately after Newsnight, BBC2 broadcast a documentary, A Place of Safety, about sexual and physical abuse in children’s homes in North Wales. Many who saw it found it one of the most harrowing programmes about abuse they had ever watched.
What the BBC did not tell us was that Brian Roberts only made his allegation of sexual abuse after watching a television programme about Bryn Estyn in 1997. This programme, which dealt with the setting up of the North Wales Tribunal, had mentioned the conviction of Peter Howarth, the deputy head of Bryn Estyn, for sexually abusing adolescents in his care. (It did not mention that Howarth, now dead, always protested his innocence, or that some of his former colleagues still believe he was wrongly convicted.)
Roberts immediately contacted the tribunal and told them that he, too, had been sexually abused by Howarth. He then made a formal statement to this effect. At this stage it was pointed out to him that Howarth had not begun working at the school until November 1973, three years after he had left. Far from being sexually abused by Howarth, Roberts had never met him.
The next witnesses to appear on the programme were Keith and Tony Gregory. Tony described a regime where physical abuse was commonplace. He said: “You’d let it happen to you. You’d let the staff punch you in the face, or in the stomach, or throw things at you.” He went on to make even more serious claims, including that he had seen Peter Howarth sexually abusing one of the residents.
What the BBC did not tell us was that Tony Gregory had also given evidence to the North Wales Tribunal. One of the allegations he had made concerned a Mr Clutton who, he said, had thrown a leather football at his face so hard that it had almost broken his nose. During cross-examination it was pointed out that, although there had been a Mr Clutton on the staff of Bryn Estyn, he had left in 1974, three years before Tony Gregory had arrived.
The next witness to appear on the programme was Steven Messham. He said that on one occasion, when he had been in the sick-bay with blood pouring from his mouth, he had been buggered by Howarth as he lay in bed. He said that on another occasion he was asked to take a hamper of food to Howarth’s flat, where he was buggered by Howarth over the kitchen table.
What the BBC did not tell us was that Messham claims he was sexually abused by no less than 49 different people. He also says he has been physically abused by 26 people. In 1994 the Crown Prosecution Service declined to bring his allegations against Howarth to court. None of his allegations has ever resulted in a conviction. In 1995 one of his most serious sexual allegations was rejected by a jury after barristers argued that it was a transparent fabrication.
ADDED LATER: In fairness to Mr Messham, I would like to say that I have no doubt that he was abused when living at Bryn Estyn,and my impression is that he is not a deliberate fabricator as the late Mr Webster implied he was in this article. Unfortunately I don’t believe that Mr Messham can distinguish between true and false memories any more. My point in posting about this article is that the BBC’s recent failure in due diligence when reporting abuse claims by Mr Messham and other former residents of Bryn Estyn is the second time this has happened.
The media’s reckless haste to say that a senior Tory was a paedophile and its decade-long reluctance, until the Times broke ranks and the story, to report the grooming gangs of Pakistani descent that were operating in South Yorkshire both have the same root cause.