There may never be a more revealing illustration of the often-unhealthy relationship between the police, the press and politicians in the UK than the way those institutions came – separately and together – to take seriously the claims of Carl Beech, not for a fleeting moment but for five years.
Thanks to Beech’s conviction for perverting the course of justice (as well as fraud and paedophile offences), and to an inquiry conducted by Northumbria police, we know a great deal about what happened from the moment Carl Beech – anonymised as ‘Nick’ – first came to prominence. But a catalogue of events doesn’t answer the most important question. The most important question is: why?
Why did Carl Beech invent his story of abuse by prominent people?
Throughout his trial, Carl Beech stood by his story, even as the prosecution tore holes in it. One day he may tell us his motives for fabricating the baroque tales he invented. For now the best we have are the insights of those who knew him most closely.
Money was one possible spur for Beech. His ex-wife Dawn gave evidence that he’d always been a high spender and easily built up debts. In a fraudulent claim to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority he asserted that being tortured by the men he named in court – Sir Edward Heath, Lord Brittan, Harvey Proctor, Lord Bramall and others – had left him with enduring injuries. The £22,000 he received in compensation was blown almost immediately on a Ford Mustang car.
Beech planned to write some sort of memoir and spoke at conferences for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It was fame of a kind – and it was to be amplified later as Carl Beech’s alter ego ‘Nick’ became front page news.
There is also a darker possibility, that Beech’s own sexual offending was a motivation. His sexual interest in children may have helped him concoct his tales of abuse.
Carl Beech’s first contact with the police was in 2012 when he responded to a call from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for victims of the entertainer Jimmy Savile to come forward.
His allegations were eventually investigated by Wiltshire police because, alongside Savile, Beech accused his stepfather of being an abuser, and the Beech family had lived near an army base in the county. The force concluded that they couldn’t take things further as Ray Beech, the stepfather, had died. Another hindrance was that, although he claimed he’d been abused by members of a well-connected ‘group’, Beech had yet to say who they were.
Critically, Beech then took his claims online. A door opened to everything that followed.
Why did Carl Beech’s claims gain prominence?
In his online blogs Beech spoke of being abused by “the group”, made up of a collection of members of the top ranks of Britain’s establishment. He wrote: “They were made up of very powerful people who were not afraid for you to know who they were. They were not afraid of repercussions because they knew they were untouchable”
One of the people reading Beech’s blog was Peter McKelvie. The former social worker had worked on the 1994 BBC documentary The Secret Life of a Paedophile which brilliantly exposed how a former senior social worker, Peter Righton, had been allowed to climb the top ranks of the profession despite an admitted sexual interest in children.
McKelvie had always believed that evidence police gathered from Righton’s home showed links into Britain’s establishment.
In 2012 McKelvie took his beliefs of what came to be known as the ‘VIP paedophile ring’ to the Labour MP Tom Watson. Not long after the pair met Watson stood up in Parliament and claimed that evidence of a paedophile ring with ‘clear links to Number 10’ had been buried.
Watson made this claim at Prime Minister’s Questions, televised live. The then prime minister, David Cameron, was visibly (and understandably) caught off balance. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this moment in giving prominence to the notion of an establishment paedophile ring and a cover-up. The story was catapulted to public attention.
Later that week I met McKelvie in Watson’s office. It was clear that one of the people implicated in Peter McKelvie’s allegations of child abuse was one of Watson’s main political opponents.
But in just eight weeks the Metropolitan police dismissed Watson’s allegation. McKelvie was emailed by a detective to be told there was ‘no evidence of offending linked to [Minister X] within the files’
Critically the experience had left McKelvie with a direct line to people intent on progressing the allegations of child sexual abuse that were now, following Watson’s statement in the House of Commons, coming thick and fast.
Beech’s online tales of being abused by “the group” made up of the top ranks of Britain’s establishment weren’t implausible to Peter McKelvie. For decades he’d believed such a thing was possible. He wasn’t alone.
Why did the media pick up on Carl Beech’s stories?
The notion of Britain’s establishment protecting a VIP paedophile ring has been a kind of journalistic Holy Grail for decades. Early in their careers, investigative reporters are told tales of dark events at places like Elm Guest House and Dolphin Square. Knowledge of these stories, and an interest in pursuing them, was part of what some of the investigative crowd felt marked them out from run-of-the-mill news reporters. These locations, whispered about for years, were to become the centre of two police investigations, thanks largely to the efforts of a news organisation few people had ever heard of, Exaro News.
Exaro was established in 2011, an online news agency with high ambitions. It promised to “hold power to account” and produce “evidence-based, open-access journalism – not spin, not churnalism, not hacking – just journalism about what should be transparent but isn’t”.
Initially, a focus on tax avoidance and financial crimes in the city of London won it plaudits and awards. But insiders say that, gradually, its editor-in-chief, Mark Watts, became obsessive about finding proof of the VIP paedophile ring.
So it was to Exaro and its reporter Mark Conrad that Peter McKelvie went with news of Carl Beech’s blog. Conrad persuaded Beech to speak. But when interviews were recorded on camera it was Watts asking the questions. The lens was turned round to focus on Watts so Beech’s identity could be protected.
Watt’s ambition, and his belief in this story, were such that at one point he predicted to staff that the film made of his time running Exaro would rival “All the President’s Men” – the Oscar-winning telling of how the Washington Post brought down President Nixon.
Still relatively little-known as a news agency, Exaro’s relationship with Carl Beech was crucial to them. Front pages came thick-and-fast in 2014 as Beech’s story was sold to tabloid newspapers. And towards the end of that year, another turning-point: BBC television news led one of its flagship bulletins with Beech’s claims. It was a moment which lent vital credibility to the story.
Exaro insiders now reflect that their reporting around this time lacked rigour, but regardless of how it went about its business Exaro was embraced in high places. Beech went with Conrad to Westminster to meet the man who is now deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson. Mainstream politics was about to throw its support behind the idea of a VIP paedophile ring.
Why did politicians (of all parties) embrace Carl Beech’s allegations?
As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, Tom Watson had played a prominent role in holding newspapers and police to account through the phone-hacking scandal. In 2011 he questioned James Murdoch and afterwards likened him to a mafia boss. And in 2012, Watson’s account of his battles with News International, ‘Dial ‘M’ For Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain,’ had been published.
At the point when he met Carl Beech, Watson was one of the most powerful, crusading politicians in the country. He told me that his uncovering of the phone-hacking scandal had made it easier for him to believe police forces could suppress evidence of serious crime. And this time it wasn’t only the police who were in the frame for allegedly turning a blind eye to, or covering up, evidence of a paedophile ring; senior Conservatives were there too. The prospect of political gain would have done nothing to make Carl Beech’s story less attractive to Tom Watson.
If Watson had earned a reputation as a crusader, other MPs represented a separate, more nihilistic strand of political thought. After phone-hacking and the scandal of MPs expenses, a belief seemed to have taken root in some quarters that the establishment was capable of anything:
Zac Goldsmith, Conservative backbencher, House of Commons November 2014: “There can no longer be any doubt at all that powerful people have done terrible things and that they have been protected by the establishment and we know that some of the key figures are alive today. The measure of success for the police investigations is that those people face justice before they die.”
John Mann, Labour backbencher, House of Commons, December 2014: “The names that have come to me directly or indirectly include people that are still active in parliament as well as those who are dead. It is those that are alive today that the police need to concentrate their resources on. These are very serious allegations.”
Tom Watson has said that his undertaking to Carl Beech was simply to reassure him that his claims would be taken seriously by the police. But after the phone-hacking inquiry, with Watson at its core, the Metropolitan police was alive to the damage Watson could do. Phone-hacking had led to resignations from Commissioner level down.
Why did the police take Carl Beech seriously?
As Tom Watson turned his attention to historic sex abuse, across policing there was an acceptance that forces had to treat people reporting sexual offences better. It was openly admitted that victims who should have been believed in the past hadn’t been, and that high-profile people – including Jimmy Savile – had got away with serious crimes.
In 2014 the Met reached out to Exaro’s editor Mark Watts to ask if its star witness would talk. Extraordinarily, for Carl Beech’s first meeting with the Metropolitan police, Exaro’s reporter Mark Conrad was in the room.
The decisions taken by Operation Midland illustrated what the culture change in relation to allegations of sex abuse meant in reality. In hours of police interviews Beech’s version of events was barely challenged. Key witness, including his ex wife, were never spoken to.
The fear of losing Beech’s confidence was, I understand, behind a decision not to analyse his computers and phones. That decision, which was taken at a high level, meant that Beech’s sexual interest in children was left undiscovered for many months.
The Metropolitan Police’s approach was shaped significantly by advice from the College of Policing, the body which sets standards and guidance for police in England and Wales. It had determined that a significant reason why victims of sexual assault did not report crimes was concern that they would not be believed. The new starting-point was that people making allegations should be believed unless there was significant evidence to suggest that they shouldn’t.
Why does Operation Midland matter now?
The most damning criticism of the investigation of Carl Beech’s allegations is that its failures left Beech – a man now convicted as a paedophile – at liberty for many years longer than should have been the case.
Why did that happen? In the final analysis, Midland is a story of institutional self-interest. When the interests of the police, politicians and the press aligned, the result was injustice towards the men Carl Beech accused, and their families.
All three institutions – police, press, politicians – had been found wanting through the Jimmy Savile scandal. The press had a reputation to recover for integrity and accountability after the damage done by phone hacking. Politicians were in the same boat after revelations about their abuse of expenses.
Self interest – public relations – guided the actions of Britain’s most powerful institutions, and steered them in the same direction. When those planets align again, start worrying.