Journalism, Jersey and the Idea of Evil
(Suomenkieliset tekstit kts. oikealla kategoriassa “in Finnish”. Anu Suomelan käännöksiä Richard Websterin kirjoituksista suomeksi http://niinaberg.com/kirjasto/)
An excerpt from Richard Webster’s 2008 article:
Jersey: the fruitless search for modern evil
Journalism, Jersey and the Idea of Evil
More than three years have now passed since The Secret of Bryn Estyn appeared in hardback but the paperback edition is still necessary. For although the book is an attempt to write history, the problem at its heart is far from being a historical one. Indeed, as this new edition appears, we are in the middle of a new children’s home scandal.
The scandal in question, which first came to widespread attention on the weekend of 23-24 February 2008, has attracted even more media coverage than was given to the Bryn Estyn story during the 1990s.
On Saturday 23 February 2008, a team of police officers and forensic experts made a discovery which would transform an obscure police inquiry in a picturesque corner of Jersey into a global media frenzy. The discovery took place inside the main building of the former Haut de la Garenne children’s home. It was reportedly made not by the officers themselves but by a trained sniffer dog, which had previously taken part in the search for Madeleine McCann after her abduction in Portugal. Almost immediately the police issued a press release saying that they had found ‘what appears to be potential remains of a child’
A press conference was held and the effect on journalists was electric. News of the discovery rapidly shot to the top of radio and television news bulletins. That evening the BBC website headlined its story ‘Child’s body found at care home’. It went on to say that ‘parts of a child’s body’ had been discovered and that the remains were thought to date ‘from the early 1980s’. Jersey’s deputy chief police officer Lenny Harper was quoted as saying that detectives ‘think there is the possibility they may find more remains’.
Within 24 hours this gruesome story spread around the globe amidst talk of a possible paedophile ring. The Guardian reported that ‘half a dozen bodies’ might be found and quoted Harper as saying: ‘There could be six or more. It could be higher than that.’ Journalists descended on Jersey from all over the world. Massive resources were poured into what rapidly became a multi-million pound inquiry, and teams of experts were brought in from all over the UK. Meanwhile both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers carried reports of cover-ups, of sinister political machinations, of the involvement of prominent Jersey politicians and of allegations which in the past went unheeded.
Almost every one of the motifs which had emerged in the North Wales story seemed to be present again. The only significant difference was that the publicity in this case focused not so much on sexual abuse as on the idea that former residents of children’s homes had been secretly tortured and murdered after being raped by those entrusted with their care.
There was only one problem: practically every element of the initial story, as relayed by the media, was untrue
In fact, no child’s body had been discovered. Nor had the police found anything which could reasonably have been described as the ‘remains of a child’. All they had found was a small object, which was later said to be a skull fragment, and which was about the size of a 50-pence piece. There was no evidence to suggest that this fragment belonged to ‘the early 1980s’ and nor was it clear that it had ever been reliably identified as belonging to a child.
Although the police initially gave prominence to the carbon-dating tests to which they had submitted this ‘skull fragment’, the eventual announcement of the results of these tests was muted and revealed only that it had proved impossible to carbon-date the bone fragment accurately because of an absence of collagen from the sample.
At this point, a little journalistic digging of my own sufficed to establish that the Oxford scientist who had conducted the carbon-dating test had serious doubts about the ‘skull fragment’ that he had been asked to date. When the journalist David Rose eventually interviewed him, it transpired that the fragment was, in the opinion of the experts, not a piece of bone at all. It was, in their view, either a piece of wood or a fragment of coconut shell.
Although he had known about this finding for many weeks, deputy chief officer Lenny Harper, who was leading the Haut de la Garenne inquiry, had continued to refer to his find as ‘a skull fragment’. When the view of the experts was made public by Rose in an article in the Mail on Sunday, it seemed entirely possible that a sensation-driven investigation in which press publicity had prompted more than a hundred complainants to come forward, and had identified more than 180 suspects, would collapse.
In fact the new development in the story seemed merely to test the narrative skills of those leading the investigation. Having announced the discovery of more ‘bone fragments’ and a large number of milk teeth, Harper promised the press a ‘bone by bone analysis’ – which was never, in the event, delivered. He then went on to construct, on the basis of no accurately dated evidence at all, an extraordinary scenario.
According to the press reports which now appeared, ‘Innocent children were raped, murdered and their bodies then burnt in a furnace at the Jersey House of Horrors, says a top-secret police report into the scandal’. This newspaper article went on to relate that, having discovered strands of blue nylon in sifted rubble, police had concluded not only that these came from a broom, but also that this putative broom had been used to sweep human bones into the soil floor where they had supposedly been found.
The only paper to carry this entirely speculative story, which appeared as a frontpage lead on 13 July 2008, was the News of the World. But subsequent coverage was by no means restricted to this sensation-seeking paper. On 31 July, for example, still without any reliable evidence, BBC Radio 4 News and the Today programme led with the claim that the remains of five children had been found at Haut de la Garenne.
As is always the case with such stories, it is important to acknowledge that, given the huge time span which was under investigation in the Jersey case, it is improbable that there would not be some cases of abuse – quite possibly serious abuse. But, if reports of the Haut de la Garenne inquiry are studied carefully, then it is clear that there has never been reliable evidence that any murder was committed at the home. The tiny fragments of bone and the numerous milk teeth which were found were not evidence of foul play; they had no demonstrable link with the time the building had been used as a children’s home and could well have been imported from elsewhere; even the police concede that one of their crucial bone fragments was probably 350 years old.
The only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that the major factor which was in play throughout the saga was a deep psychological need for a narrative of evil, a need which journalists seem to feel they have a professional obligation to satisfy.
In the postscript I go on to develop this idea. Here it will perhaps suffice to note that the complicity of the media in the Jersey scandal did not come from nowhere. Over the past 20 years, too many journalists, on both the broadsheets and the tabloids, have accepted at face value unsubstantiated stories about paedophile rings and even Satanic ritual abuse. Even ostensibly critically-minded journalists have willingly become part of this modern search for evil. For example, Nick Davies, who earlier this year won critical acclaim for his exposé of journalistic falsehood, Flat Earth News, wrote two long, credulous reports about the Bryn Estyn panic. In these Guardian reports, which appeared in 1997, he made a parallel between the alleged events at Bryn Estyn and the Holocaust, describing the tribunal of inquiry into North Wales’ care homes as a ‘little Nuremberg’. Davies wrote that ‘for years the muffled sound of scandal has been leaking from the closed world of Britain’s children’s homes’, and ‘now, finally, for the first time, the truth is pouring out’. Sir Ronald Waterhouse himself, the retired High Court judge who oversaw the tribunal, was moved to comment on the Guardian’s ‘highly coloured reporting’; he wondered, upon reading the Guardian’s accounts, whether ‘they were reporting the same tribunal that I have been attending’.
From Bryn Estyn to Jersey, the search for narratives of ‘evil’ almost inevitably threatens the lives of innocent people – in this case the innocent people among the 180 former Jersey care workers against whom a sensation-seeking police investigation had succeeded in collecting allegations.
Richard Webster is author of The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt. The above is the first section of the postscript to the paperback edition of Webster’s book, which will be published in January 2009.
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