The NS special report - What the BBC did not tell us

Richard Webster finds flaws in a "shock" broadcast on child abuse in Wales

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.

As the North Wales Tribunal, the longest and most costly public inquiry in British legal history, gets nearer to publishing its report, the BBC had lined up a succession of witnesses who were prepared to speak about the years and years of child abuse they said they had experienced. All of them were adults. Almost all of them were men. With one exception they spoke full-face to the camera and allowed their names to appear on screen. They spoke of beatings and of bullying by the staff who were employed to care for them, of habitual sexual assaults and of cruelty and neglect on a scale that, ten years ago, would have been beyond belief.

As the programme went on, it became clear why North Wales has now become almost a synonym for abuse. Sir William Utting, chairman of the National Institute of Social Work, said on the programme: "I think this is one of the names that will continue to resonate through childcare over the coming decades because it establishes a kind of benchmark for the combination of things that can go wrong in residential childcare . . . It will be the name that's used to terrify future generations of childcare workers."

This is now the received view of North Wales, held alike by journalists, social workers and politicians. But there is a problem with the story of North Wales. It is a problem that the BBC programme illustrated repeatedly and disturbingly.

The first witness to appear on the programme was Brian Roberts. He had been sent to Bryn Estyn, the home said to have been at the centre of a web of abuse, in 1970 when it was still an approved school. Standing in front of the buildings he said: "It was just like something out of a horror movie, the beatings, the abuse, the sexual abuse. It was disgusting." As atmospheric music played and the camera cut to a shot of crows perching on nearby tree-tops, Roberts went on to say that a man (whom he did not name) had taken him into the gym and attempted to bugger him.

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.

The next witness was Andrew Teague. Teague said he had been beaten and sexually abused by one unnamed member of staff and that he had also been sexually abused by Howarth.

What the BBC did not tell us was that, although Teague had at one point agreed to appear as a witness at the North Wales Tribunal, he changed his mind at the last moment. The tribunal declined to use its powers to subpoena him. Counsel to the tribunal, however, did read out a statement which Teague had made to the North Wales police in 1992. In this statement he made allegations of physical abuse but clearly said: "I never experienced any sort of sexual abuse by the staff." His main allegation was of serious and repeated physical abuse by a care worker, Fred Rutter. It was later pointed out to the tribunal that Teague was at Bryn Estyn between 1977 and 1978. Rutter, however, did not start working there until 1982.

The next witness to appear was Andrew Treanor. He said that he had been abused at Ty'r Felin in Gwynedd, when a member of the care staff had punched him in the face.

What the BBC did not tell us was that in 1992 the North Wales police took a statement about a similar incident from a young woman who had been in care with Treanor. In her statement she recalled that Treanor had been arguing with a member of staff: "Following the argument Treanor came to join us by the steps to the loft. He had a bruise on his face from an earlier incident . . . We were talking about it and Andrew decided to start hitting himself on his face by this bruise to cause a more serious injury. He then said he would make a false allegation against the ex-army member of staff to get him dismissed. We all agreed to go along with his story, although we all knew Andrew had not been assaulted at all."

The next witness did not appear under his real name, and was filmed in shadow. He told of how, some ten years ago, he had been sexually abused by Stephen Norris, the officer in charge of Cartrefle children's home. His testimony was detailed and convincing. There is a wealth of evidence to indicate that the sexual abuse he described (and which he complained of at the time) did indeed happen. Norris, who had previously worked at Bryn Estyn, subsequently pleaded guilty to sexual offences against boys in his care and has served two prison sentences.

Partly because of Norris's conviction there can be no question at all that some sexual abuse and some physical abuse did take place in care homes in North Wales during the 1970s and 1980s. But equally, after all the evidence which has now emerged, there should be no doubt that a substantial number of false allegations have also been made. If the selection of witnesses who appeared on A Place of Safety is in any way representative, then the programme itself would seem to indicate that the proportion of false allegations may be startlingly high.

By far the most disturbing feature of the programme, however, was that the journalists who worked on it failed utterly to discharge the most basic duty of all journalists - the duty to investigate.

The real question raised by the programme is not whether every detail of the complaints made in it was true or false. It is whether the witnesses it featured should have been relied on by responsible journalists. At least five of the first seven witnesses who appeared had in the past made serious allegations of abuse that were demonstrably false. In some cases they had tried to uphold their allegations even when the details of their complaints had been shown to be impossible. Brian Roberts, for example, after having learnt that he could not have been abused by Peter Howarth, said that he had mistaken the identity of the staff member involved. The trouble, he said, was that "we never knew the staff directly by their names, it was either Sir or Miss". According to those who knew Bryn Estyn at the time, Roberts' account of an institution whose staff had no names bears no relationship to reality.

In most cases the amount of research needed to uncover the unreliability of the witnesses who appeared on A Place of Safety was minimal. In the cases of Roberts, Gregory and Teague, for example, all the BBC needed to do was consult the relevant portions of the transcript of the North Wales Tribunal. Yet even this piece of elementary journalistic research, which would have taken hours rather than days, appears to have been too much for them. The result was a programme that undoubtedly shocked many who saw it but which is actually far more shocking as an example of the low level to which some television journalism has fallen.

The low standards of this BBC programme are all the more worrying in view of the planned publication, later this year, of the report of the North Wales Tribunal. This report was referred to in the programme. Steven Messham, the man who claims he has been abused by more than 70 different people (and who also frequently appears on Channel 4 News), spoke of the promise made by Gerard Elias QC that the tribunal would "leave no stone unturned in its search for the truth". Messham went on to suggest that this was not so because the tribunal had failed to give proper consideration to the idea that a paedophile ring had organised a network of abuse in North Wales care homes.

What the BBC did not tell us was that other observers have criticised the tribunal from a quite different point of view. In particular they point out that, although considerable doubt surrounds the conviction of Peter Howarth, the tribunal has explicitly declined to consider this question. The tribunal says that it is bound by the doctrine of res judicata, which prevents it from investigating matters that have already been brought before the courts. This may well have been a legally correct decision. But the effect of the ruling is to prevent Howarth's barristers from challenging the soundness of his conviction.

In other words, one stone must remain unturned. And since the stone in question is nothing less than the foundation stone on which the entire North Wales story has been built, there are those who hold the view that the tribunal has not been able to conduct a proper inquiry at all.

The North Wales Tribunal has cost the taxpayer an estimated £15 million, but if this expenditure is unprecedented, so too is the difficulty of the task it faces. No amount of money can buy access to the truth and we must hope that the tribunal will not end by wholly or partly endorsing a received view of the story of North Wales that is fundamentally false.

But in view of the doubts that surround the story of North Wales - doubts that A Place of Safety, by its choice of witnesses, inadvertently illustrated - it is extremely important that the report, when it eventually appears, is thoroughly examined. For that to happen it is essential that the report is scrutinised by journalists who have themselves researched the story in depth, and whose appetite for sex, sensation and scurrility does not overpower their capacity to judge between what is true and what is false.

On this front, the only reassuring news to have emerged since the broadcast of A Place of Safety is that the tribunal report is now unlikely to appear until the summer. This gives journalists both in the BBC and in other media throughout Britain at least three more months to research the story thoroughly themselves. If we are to judge by the quality of journalism apparent in the BBC's A Place of Safety, they will need all this time and more.

Richard Webster is the author of "The Great Children's Home Panic" (Orwell Press, 1998). He is currently writing a book about North Wales

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.