Operation Midland: time to examine our prejudices

by Rob Marchant

Last week Operation Midland, a two-year investigation into an alleged homicide thirty years ago, concluded with no charges made. It was the latest of several inquiries into child abuse, some of which are still ongoing.

Back in 2012, the Metropolitan Police began Operation Yewtree, culminating in the arrests and convictions of a number of people, mostly media personalities. It was largely perceived as a success, rightly uncovering some terrible failings on the part of the media “establishment”, where stars had become “untouchable”.

The most shocking thing about the revelations was that it seemed that everybody knew. I still remember a conversation with a BBC producer perhaps a decade ago, who commented that “you didn’t leave children alone with Jimmy Savile”. How could it be, I asked myself, that a culture be allowed to grow which allowed people to commit horrific crimes against children with impunity?

And so, many finally got their just desserts. About time. A job well done.

There was, however, a downside. No wide-ranging investigation can dig up only guilty people. Inevitably, there would be those, like the thoroughly decent DJ Paul Gambaccini, who suddenly found themselves pushed into a media circus where their life and careers were trashed by mere virtue of suspicion. That they formed part of the same sick segment of society as Savile and Rolf Harris.

Later, of course, they were cleared. As were comedians Freddie Starr and Jim Davidson.

What was the part of Labour in all this? Well, the now Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, was at the forefront of raising awareness, and used his position as MP to campaign for action to be taken, as he did with the phone hacking scandal which ultimately led to the Leveson inquiry. Both laudable goals, which largely produced positive results.

Of course, it also fitted conveniently with some traditional leftist prejudices that figures such as Starr and Davidson were in the list. After all, they were well-known Tory supporters: and we all know that Tories are essentially bad people, don’t we?

But then the situation developed. Momentum had gathered in the campaign to uncover paedophilia (as well as other sexual offences not connected with children), and Watson became convinced that there was a ring of offenders which centred around Westminster. Naturally there were the odd Lib Dem and Labour figures allegedly involved, but mostly it centred around Tory MPs.

There followed a cornucopia of “Operations”: Operation Fairbank, initial police investigation of alleged events at the Elm Guest House, initiated on the back of Watson’s claims; Operation Fernbridge, a full criminal investigation of the same; further investigations Operations Hedgerow and Cayacos; and finally, in 2014, Operation Midland into the “cold case” of an “possible homicide” in a ring based at Dolphin Square, London. Nothing, it seems, was beyond these paedophiles.

Except that it turned out to be that that final investigation produced nothing which could be pursued in a court of law; and most of the others, little.

How had a genuinely well-intentioned campaign to uncover real paedophilia turn gradually morphed into a mad witch-hunt of perfectly innocent people? It serves us to look at Midland, the final step in the long chain of inquiries.

It took in the late Prime Minister Edward Heath, and former Home Secretary Sir Leon Brittan – who would be dead by the end of the inquiry – as well as the still-living former MP Harvey Proctor, whose life was turned upside down as he was accused of being not only a paedophile but potentially a murderous one at that.

Now Heath (always thought by many Tories to be a closet homosexual and therefore unacceptable as leader) and Brittan (a Jew) were easy targets for everyone’s prejudices, especially some of the older members of his own party. But Proctor was a cinch: he was not only openly gay but, in less enlightened times, had already been convicted in 1986 for gross indecency because he had had a relationship with a 17 year-old male.

It is easy to forget that, in the 1980s, homosexuality and paedophilia were not seen as entirely unrelated phenomena in the eyes of much of the general public. Indeed, for an ultra-reactionary few, that situation has never changed.

But Proctor was a fighter. He managed to rebuild his life, setting up a successful business in shirt-making with the help of a few friends within his party.

He has now had to rebuild his life a second time, after an accusation that he was involved in the paedophile ring of Operation Midland; forced to take retirement from his job as Private Secretary to the Duke and Duchess of Rutland and be on the run from the media for two years. And Proctor was not the only victim.

In short, the man who is now Deputy Leader of this party used parliamentary privilege to make several unfounded allegations, which came pretty close to ruining people’s lives. As the Times put it last October, “Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, used the floor of the Commons to make an unfounded allegation that a senior Conservative MP was linked to the smuggling of child abuse images.” It was his third such claim about a parliamentarian.

The Times goes on: “Mr Hames, a retired head of the obscene publications branch, said: “It is terrible that Watson… said what he did because that was a conspiracy too far.”

Proctor, unsurprisingly, saw his case as the second witch-hunt he had had to suffer in his life. He called for a public inquiry and for resignations to be carried out.

It clearly was a witch-hunt, but neither is it the first instance of poor judgement on the part of the Deputy Leader, is it? Oh, or resignations, for that matter.

To wit: from coordinating the 2006 letter and would-be coup against Tony Blair, to his ministerial resignation over expenses, to his forced shadow ministerial resignation after the Falkirk fiasco in 2013, Watson has rarely passed up an opportunity for a judgemental disaster (to that list, we might also add the coda of the present, as Deputy Leader shoring up arguably the worst leadership in the party’s century-long history).

Supporting the Operation Midland investigation there have been other Labour MPs, such as John Mann and Simon Danczuk; even the Tory candidate for London Mayor, Zac Goldsmith; but from the start it has been Watson leading the charge.

Watson apologised last October after the Brittan investigation collapsed for the “hurt caused”. But it was a little late for Brittan’s relatives. And Brittan himself, who died of cancer during the investigation, having led a tortured final few months.

To date, there has been no such apology to Proctor, the only surviving subject of Operation Midland. despite his quite reasonable demand for one. As he himself eloquently put it in his statement about Watson, Mann and Goldsmith:

“I only hope in their lives they never face the turmoil that their varying degrees of encouragement to fantasists and the police has caused me this past year.”

But why is all this important for politics, and for Labour?

First, while England and Wales have long held libel laws which are generally thought too lax, it is still worth reflecting on whether parliamentary privilege is really such a wonderful old institution as all that. In other words, the fact that an MP can stand up in the Commons with total impunity and accuse anyone of anything they damn well please might seem to the layman to be grossly unfair. Especially if you, like Proctor, are a victim of that “inalienable right” of parliamentarians.

Second, and more importantly for us: why is it that us Labourites can so easily think ill of our political opponents in such an unhinged manner? That is, not merely that they are politically wrong, but that they are genuinely morally inferior or even, in extremis, capable of anything.

It is part of an unattractive, holier-than-thou leftism which Peter Watt, former party General Secretary (and formerly of this parish), has written about many times here at Uncut.

Proctor was not only openly gay – not a problem for most of the Labour Party membership these days – but he was a Tory and a toff, with a question mark over his past. With pure, old-fashioned classist attitudes, how easy for us to read into the press coverage that he was guilty without ever coming to trial, especially with doughty “campaigning MP” Watson leading the charge.

Like all of us, Watson deserves to be judged not by his words, but by his actions. Those actions have helped lead to the uncovering of some important cases, yes. But at this point they have also caused a huge amount of unnecessary pain and suffering. It is time to stop.

And, on the other hand, we who believed him should perhaps examine our own instincts and prejudices.

On how quick we are to trust the judgement of others, when such trust has manifestly not been earned. And how we might fall into seeing our political opponents are bad people, rather than merely wrong.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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12 Responses to “Operation Midland: time to examine our prejudices”

  1. Dave Roberts says:

    You can confront your own prejudices if you like but you don’t speak for me. We have a police service which is increasingly both corrupt and politically correct.

    They covered up the grooming of hundreds of young girls by Asians and last week four employees of The Police Federation were arrested in connection with a million pounds missing from the funds. Three of the four are serving police officers.

    A man who asked a Muslim woman to ” explain Brussels” was charged with racially aggravated harassment until it was dropped. They are an absolute joke.

  2. Rocky Petulengro says:

    This is a society where the birth rate has plummeted. Childbirth and sex have become divorced. It is a society where over half the children are born out of wedlock, therefore into unstable homes. The average relationship, according to Jonathan Sacks, is just 2 years. I watch Jeremy Kyle and can see that the assumptions which he has to make are, frankly, the most basic of any society ever. Adultery is OK if you are on a break. Children are nothing to do with sex. Grown men and women cry like children and have tantrums onstage like toddlers. They rut like animals with little or no thought for the future.
    No wonder there is such guilt and such a desire for a scapegoat!

    PS My mother who died last year aged 103 was playing alone in the lounge in the 1920s as a little girl. Alone? No the Bishop of Balaarat was staying in the house. After some time, my grandmother rushed into the room, dragged my mother out and told her never to be in the same room alone with the bishop.
    At my own public school, two male teachers were forced to leave for touching little boys and there were several other very famous cases which were never dealt with. Other schools were full of the same kind of thing, I understand.
    This is nothing new.

  3. John reid says:

    Dave Roberts and seeing as Islam isn’t a race how can anyone questioning be accused of racism, even if they had said something, inflamitory, or incited racial hatred

    The met police tend to accuse people of being the exact thing they’re not to smear them, an old trick, Nick Griffin being arrested for saying a Black person killed Stephen Lawrence and Praising Kate Osamor for saying the a white police man killed PC blakelock

  4. TCO says:

    Not having sufficient evidence to prosecute, and no offence having been committed, are not necessarily the same thing. As we saw with Lord Janner.

  5. Rallan says:

    I agree with Dave Robert, but I’d like to correct what he said about Rotherham. For almost two decades the police covered up the rape and brutalisation (not just grooming) of thousands (not just hundreds) of underage white girls (not simply young girls) by mostly Pakistani Muslims (not simply Asians). The Jay report figure was “at least” 1400 underage girls raped and traded by the Rotherham gang. The girls were passed around by Pakistani men to their brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers and grandfathers. This went on for almost 20 years, and at no time during this time did anyone from the muslim community report anything to the police.

    This is still going on now in towns up and down England, most commonly in Labour dominated areas with a large Muslim population. Since Rotherham came to light similar news has been suppressed from Manchester, Halifax and Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

  6. There is a prejudice that makes it easy to suspect leading Tories of some sort of sexual deviation, although I would say it stretches across establishment figures from all parties. There is also a very obvious prejudice by Rob of anyone in the party who has dared to fight against New Labour or Tony Blair. I suspect this prejudice is the reason for this article.

  7. john reid says:

    danny speight, but it’s not new labour who are running it now and not them who are appeasing this form of racism

  8. I suspect we’ve all watched Question Time, and wished we were on the panel. But when it comes to a question about a criminal case, I’m very glad I’m not.

    I don’t know the details of the cases that are discussed, nor, I suspect, do the panel. But we, especially those of us who use social media, are so quick to pass judgment.

    Are there cases where the guilty are not punished for lack of evidence? Undoubtedly.

    But we have a principle of innocent until proven guilty, and I think those of us who comment on the internet should follow it.

    We’re all guilty of inconsistency. When some Corbynites were accused of anti-semitism, I was too quick to join the chorus of condemnation because I’m anti-Corbyn. But then I looked at the detail of what was said, and I realised that I didn’t know the context, so I had no right to pass judgment.

    I think Rob Marchant makes an extremely important point. We must beware of the tribalism within all of us. We should not judge in a way that we would not wish to be judged.


  9. Rob Marchant says:

    All, I think a lot of people have rather missed the point here. It is not to play down the real issue of child abuse. There were real and important cases brought to trial as a result of this coming into the public eye. It’s about the judgement of when that has gone to far, which it clearly has at this point.

    As Harvey Proctor himself pointed out earlier this week, the result has been “disastrous for real victims”, who now will not be looked at in the same light. We have to recognise what has happened and now try and redress it.

  10. historyintime says:

    Agree with FCO re not having evidence. More generally Tom took a very courageous and moral stance given all the pressure of the British establishment both Tory and Labour to ignore child abuse allegations against famous figures The good of that far outweighs the bad. Also do you really believe Leon Brittan had nothing to hide??

  11. TNL says:

    Operation Midland represents the whole thing going full circle – we had the Savile revelations, which appeared to show at least on some levels the tacit complicity of many in helping a genuine monster to hide in plain sight. If he was guilty then… who else might be? It could be anyone from that era! So genuine abusers were finally caught and brought to justice (even if that justice was a posthumous shaming of them; a very limited form of justice I know) but others in entertainment, politics and beyond suffered the indignity of being accused to the most heinous crimes on what it often appears to be precious little evidence.

    There is a middle ground where such accusations are treated with respect and dealt with effectively by the police leading to prosecution if the evidence is there and what we saw after the fallout of Yewtree which amounted to little more than a witch-hunt. Things were certainly not right during the era of Savile, but as the article points out that doesn’t make a knee-jerk hysterical reaction in the other direction acceptable.

  12. Tafia says:

    dealt with effectively by the police leading to prosecution if the evidence is there

    That is a blatant lie and if you believe it you are a delusional fool. Over and over again we have witnessed the police the length and breadth of the country involved in cover-ups, disinterest on the grounds of community cohesion, being coerced by politicians etc etc. Rotherham, Rochdale, Hlaifax the Hillsboro tragedy etc etc on and on, ad infinitum.

    I can even tell you a true story (because I was there) of a Labour prospective candidate assaulting a female in her late fifties right in front pf a Police Officer, said Police Officer pulling him off her and draghing him away, woman concerned making a formal complaint and the Police dropping the matter because ‘the gentleman concerned has a bright future in politics (who fed them that line?) and this would tarnish it’ (said gentleman was a co-opted town councillor of limited capability and little value, largely disliked, who stood for the County Council and single handedly halved the Labour vote. He then stood as an Assembly candidate and yet again managed to halve the Labour vote. He is now treated as a pariah by the local CLP.)

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