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

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile