Jersey child abuse case

On the surface, coverage of the child abuse investigation in Jersey appeared predictably lurid and e

"From over-inquisitiveness, false sensationalism and prurient curiosity, good Lord deliver us." So prayed Robert Key, the Dean of Jersey, during the long hiatus following the discovery of parts of a skull at the Haut de la Garenne children's home. No doubt they would recognise those sentiments in Bridgend.

Delivery from half-baked expertise would probably also be welcome. Anna Plunkett-Cole, a columnist on the Jersey Evening Post, captured the idea: "So far, no direct link has been found between Hitler and Haut de la Garenne, but surely it is only a matter of time, given what is probably known in tabloidese as 'our Nazi past'."

Jersey and its child abuse investigation certainly got the treatment. The home was a "kiddies' Colditz" (Star), a "fortress of fear" (Mirror) and the "home of horrors" (Mail); the cellar beneath was "a dungeon of torture" (Mail) and a "chamber of secrets" (Sun), and Jersey as a whole was "the isle of secrets and whispers" (Times) where unfolding events carried "echoes of the 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man" (Sun).

For Andrew O'Hagan, writing in the Telegraph, the place was "rumoured to have a mysterious underbelly, brought into dramatic focus by the television series Bergerac". And the inglorious Nazi past loomed large in a profile by Ben Macintyre of the Times, whose narrative then assumed a spooky air: "As it emerged as a postwar tax haven, Jersey developed a reputation as a place where financial secrets would be kept, where privacy would be respected, where embarrassing issues would not be raised."

There is at least a whiff of melodrama in all this. Is there really any link between German occupation, offshore banking and Haut de la Garenne? No writer could produce one, but the coincidence in one little island was plainly irresistible, lending as it did an exotic air to a scandal of a kind which, on the evidence, we have seen before in North Wales, Staffordshire and Sunderland.

For all the noise, the brash clichés and the potted wisdom, however, this has not really been a tale of journalistic excess - at least not up to the time of writing. On the contrary, in fact, it may rank as a model of media restraint. This helps explain an oddity of the coverage, which might have led a sceptical reader to doubt whether there was any story there at all.

Day after day was passing, and what did we know? What appeared to be fragments of a child's skull had been dug up at Haut de la Garenne, but Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper kept reminding everyone that the fragments had not been confirmed as human and the necessary scientific tests would take weeks.

The "painstaking" digging and sifting was slow to bear fruit and Harper would not confirm that shackles had been found. The "bath" in the cellar photograph looked odd but not intrinsically sinister (though there were worrying graffiti) and other bones that turned up were thought to be from animals.

No one had been charged and hard evidence - evidence of a sort that might measure up to the decades of outrages that were being discussed - was in short supply.

Also in short supply was the other sort of evidence, that of witnesses. Though more than 150 people had apparently made allegations to the police, only a handful spoke to the press, and then usually in terms so general that the reader might ask whether their testimony could have any value in court. Others who knew the home, meanwhile, spoke of its "lovely, homely atmosphere".

So was this a case of hysteria, of media fuss unsupported by facts? Not quite, and this is where the restraint comes in. Most newspapers and broadcasters were backing away from anyone who appeared to have concrete evidence to offer, and they were doing so at the behest of the Jersey police, who were concerned to protect their investigation, their witnesses and the chance of future prosecutions.

This, and the limited progress of the digging, left a news vacuum, and no doubt some of the more speculative and atmospheric reporting can be explained by the need to fill that vacuum.

So restrained were the news media that the police publicly thanked them, saying how "delighted" they were with the coverage. That kind of approval is guaranteed to make many journalists uncomfortable.

Censored prince

No paper enjoyed Prince Harry's adventures in Afghanistan more than the Telegraph, which devoted many pages to the story. One column, headed "A tour of duty in his own words", captured the best of the prince's quotes on his return, but somehow had no space for the one that went: "I generally don't like England that much and, you know, it's nice to be away from all the press and the papers and all the general shite that they write."

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it