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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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge