Cover-ups, conspiracies and why journalists should sometimes break the law

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts column.

When he set up a committee on smog in 1952, Harold Macmillan, then the local government minister, said: “We cannot do very much, but we can seem to be very busy.” I suspect it is in the same spirit that David Cameron has set up two new inquiries – one of them into an earlier inquiry, which is surely a first of some kind – regarding allegations of abuse at children’s homes in north Wales.

Almost every instance of mass abuse at such homes – in Jersey, Leicestershire and Belfast, as well as north Wales – has been accompanied by claims that prominent public figures were involved as members of “paedophile rings”. None has been substantiated, but details still lurk on the internet. Those named include several former Tory cabinet ministers and one deceased prime minister, though it isn’t always clear whether they are accused of actual abuse or just helping to cover it up. Freemasons, MI5 and Downing Street “strong rooms”, said to hold the only copies of incriminating documents, put in frequent appearances. Several “mystery deaths”, including that of Stephen Milligan, a Tory MP who expired in 1994 while apparently engaged in erotic acts with an electric cord and an orange, are connected to the scandals. As for the late Sir Ronald Waterhouse, who led the north Wales inquiry, his failure to expose the truth is easily explained: he was “a Masonic paedophile judge”.

While some are convinced the north Wales scandal went much wider (and higher) than we were told, others are equally convinced of the opposite: the late Richard Webster, an occasional NS contributor, published a 700-page book arguing that several men were wrongly convicted. I was on the receiving end of two expensive libel writs, one from each side in the argument (probably a unique distinction), so I shall say no more. Conspiracy theories usually turn out to be wrong. But conspiracies sometimes happen, as Cameron no doubt reflected when he announced his inquiries on 5 November.

It’s all Gover

Nobody seems to have noticed, but the whole basis of Michael Gove’s education policies has been undermined. Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics authority, has written to the Department for Education pointing out that claims of a decline in English children’s international test results since 2000 are not “robust”, which is statistician-speak for “complete nonsense”. Given that Gove quotes those results to justify everything he does, will he now drop his plans to introduce “free schools”, abolish GCSEs and bring back the curriculum of 50 years ago? Or, better still, resign in shame at misleading the public?

Dead wood

Our political leaders present globalisation as a win-win. The threat to British trees illustrates its downsides. Britain is hardly short of trees. If we want log fires, wooden structures or new trees, we have enough wood and seeds of our own. But globalisation requires that, if wood is cheaper abroad or we are short of acorns this year, we must import. This is apparently dictated not just by commercial imperatives but by international trade agreements. So whole forests will now be wrecked by imported pests to which they have no resistance. My science education stopped at O-level, but this looks to me like simple biology. Why do politicians persist in ignoring straightforward science?

The unprofessional

Should one support statutory underpinning to press regulation? I am instinctively suspicious of anything that tries to regularise press behaviour. Journalists should not strive for respect - ability or the kind of professional status that doctors and lawyers enjoy. They should operate on the margins of society, and sometimes beyond the law.

What will push me into the Hacked Off campaigners’ camp is the newspapers’ special pleading. For example, they make the laughable claim that fear of the Leveson inquiry prevented them from exposing the BBC’s decision to drop a report about Jimmy Savile’s abusive behaviour. The Mail on Sunday argues that, because the now-disgraced Labour MP Denis MacShane accused it of “intrusion” when it investigated his parliamentary expenses (well, he would, wouldn’t he?), stronger regulation would prevent similar exposés in future. The abiding sin of the cheap newspapers is their inability to distinguish between what is important and necessary and what is trivial and gratuitous. Anything that helps them make this distinction should be welcomed.

False economies

“Disgraced”. How sad to use that adjective about my old friend MacShane, himself a journalist by trade and not the first to get in a tangle by using creative accounting (or, as he puts it, claiming “under the wrong heading”) in his expenses. He says he was distracted by writing “hundreds of articles”. That at least will be true. When I edited the NS, scarcely a week passed without an early-morning visit from a breathless MacShane, bearing an 800-word offering fresh from his computer. It was invariably unexceptionable, but not exceptional. I don’t think I published any, and he didn’t seem to expect me to. At least he didn’t claim expenses.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.