No one should be in any doubt about the anguish Carl Beech inflicted on the innocent men he accused of terrible crimes.
Beech, who was convicted of perverting the course of justice at Newcastle Crown Court last week, spun lurid fantasies about a Westminster paedophile ring, dragging the names of a number of well-known individuals through the mud. His victims included the former prime minister Sir Edward Heath, the former Home Secretary Lord Brittan, the retired head of the armed forces Lord Bramall, and the former Conservative MP Harvey Proctor. His 18-year prison sentence is more than twice as long as that handed down to John Humble, the fraudster known as ‘Wearside Jack’ who did such terrible damage to the Yorkshire Ripper investigation in the late 1970s.
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It is a troubling comparison, and not just because this is the second time senior police officers in this country have fallen for a not-very-subtle hoax.
Beech’s victims are rightly furious about Operation Midland, the Metropolitan Police investigation that left a whole series of well-known men under undeserved suspicion for years. Proctor, who lost his job and home as a result of Beech’s allegations, has called for Lord Hogan-Howe, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police at the relevant time, to return his peerage. The son of another victim, the late Lord Janner, has called on the Labour MP Tom Watson to step down as deputy leader of his party, accusing him of “whipping up a moral panic” over Beech’s allegations.
What hasn’t been noted, in the midst of the furore, is the existence of another, overlooked group that has been drastically affected by his actions – the thousands of women and girls, not remotely well-known, who report a rape each year.
On the face of it, the two crimes are very different: most rapes are committed on women by men, while Beech’s fantastical allegations related to child sexual exploitation involving exclusively male victims and perpetrators. Such crimes are often historical in nature, as they supposedly were in this instance, and involve witnesses who were children at the time. They require incredibly sensitive handling, yet when a middle-aged man came along, making far-fetched claims of rape, torture and murder against public figures, the response of senior officers in the Metropolitan Police was to put him on prime-time TV before they’d carried out a full investigation.
In 2014, Beech was interviewed by the BBC under the pseudonym ‘Nick’ and claimed that the abusers were “quite open about who they were. They had no fear at all about being caught.” In December that year a senior officer, Det Supt Kenny McDonald, solemnly described Beech’s allegations in TV interviews as “credible and true”. But it was only months later, in March 2015, that the police finally got round to searching Mr Proctor’s home, followed by those of Lords Brittan and Bramall.
I happened to catch the BBC’s interview with ‘Nick’ and I didn’t believe a word of it.
It reminded me of a crucial moment in the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, when I was invited to a press conference to hear a tape recording made by a man claiming to be the killer. I listened to the monotonous voice with a Geordie accent, raised my hand and asked whether the tape had been edited; when I was told it hadn’t, I pointed out that everything on it was already in the public domain. The head of the Ripper squad brushed my objection aside, along with others made by experts who believed, like me, that the tape was a hoax. Three more women were murdered and several seriously injured as the Ripper cops dismissed suspects – including the real killer, a local man called Peter Sutcliffe – because they didn’t have a Wearside accent. The hoaxer clearly bore a heavy responsibility for derailing the investigation, yet Humble got only eight years in prison.
The question of why senior officers allowed themselves to be taken in by such melodramatic nonsense, in 1979 and again in 2014, needs to be addressed. Beech, now 51, is himself a convicted paedophile, having pleaded guilty to charges of voyeurism, possessing indecent photographs and fraud at a separate trial in Worcester earlier this year. But while the behaviour of a single male paedophile tells us nothing about the veracity of women who make allegations about current sexual crimes, it is they who are being penalised as a result of the mishandling of Beech’s allegations.
In 2011, in the wake of Jimmy Savile’s exposure as a serial sexual predator, the Metropolitan Police announced a new policy of automatically believing rape victims. It didn’t mean that allegations wouldn’t be thoroughly investigated, but it did mark a break from the scepticism and outright disbelief that many women had encountered when reporting a rape – including those who told the police they’d been drugged and raped by a black cab driver, John Worboys. The Independent Police Complaints Commission conducted nine inquiries into the Met’s handling of sexual assaults, in one notorious case reporting that detectives in south-east London had ‘encouraged’ victims to withdraw rape allegations to make their clear-up rate look better. In effect, the new policy put victims on the same footing as anyone else reporting a crime; the police don’t immediately dismiss your account of events or accuse you of insurance fraud when you tell them your car has been stolen.
The new policy didn’t survive long.
When a retired judge, Sir Richard Henriques, reported on failings in Operation Midland in 2016, he zeroed in on the protocol requiring officers to believe rape victims, urging that it should be scrapped. A policy designed to raise scandalously low convictions rates in cases involving female victims of male violence, in other words, was being targeted after the police made egregious errors in a very different type of case. The criticism caused shock waves; in April last year Hogan-Howe’s successor, Cressida Dick, announced she had abandoned the policy. Organisations supporting rape victims were horrified, predicting a further fall in the number of rape cases getting to court – and that’s exactly what has happened.
On Friday, coincidentally the very day that Beech’s sentence made headlines, The Guardian published an analysis of Home Office figures showing an alarming drop in rape prosecutions in England and Wales. Last year, fewer than one in sixty-five rapes reported to the police led to a charge or summons, amounting to just 1.5% of the total. There has been a significant rise in the number of victims going to the police – from 35,847 in 2015 to 57,882 in 2019, an increase of 61% – but there is now less chance than ever of rapists being prosecuted, let alone convicted.
What we have seen is a radical change in how complainants are treated. In a previous article, I described how victims are being asked to hand over their mobile phones and sign forms allowing police to access a massive amount of private data, including school reports, medical records and even counsellors’ notes made after an attack. It’s been described as a “digital strip search”, something which is now the subject of a complaint to the Information Commissioner.
There are two scandals here. One is about the gullibility of senior police officers who rushed into supporting Carl Beech’s frankly improbable claims about a VIP paedophile ring, causing immeasurable grief to the wrongly accused and their relatives. The other is about the denial of justice to thousands of women who have suffered serious sexual attacks, but have little hope of seeing their rapists held to account.
Genuine rape victims are being treated with unwarranted suspicion because senior officers in the Metropolitan Police bet the farm on a male fantasist.