TIME

England: Land of Royals, Tea and Horrific Pedophilia Coverups

Two Men Arrested As Part Of Operation Fernbridge
The site of the former Elm Guest House in Barnes. The site of the former Elm Guest House in Barnes.

As Scotland Yard triples the number of officers on high-profile child abuse cases, the UK struggles to find faith in its politicians

From politicians’ fraudulent expenses to phone hacking, Britain has become surprisingly scandal-strewn in recent years, but the latest reputational cyclone to sweep across its shores is casting an especially dark light: pedophilia in high places.

Newspapers and TV bulletins have been dominated for the past week by allegations that politicians with links to Margaret Thatcher’s government sexually abused vulnerable children in the 1980s and hid the truth for decades through their “chumocracy.” Suspicions of an establishment cover-up involving government departments, Scotland Yard and other elements of the establishment intensified in recent days when the law-and-order ministry, the Home Office, confirmed dozens of potentially-relevant files alleging sexual misconduct had gone missing from its archives.

The allegations—which centre around the suggestion that politicians of all parties and other VIPs preyed on children at a guest house in the London suburb of Barnes—have been given greater credence because in the past two years a string of national figures have been exposed as predatory pedophiles.

Most notoriously of all, Sir Jimmy Savile, a BBC children’s television presenter feted by the Royal Family and Downing Street, abused 450 victims, mostly boys and girls as young as eight over 50 years. While Savile had long been seen as odd, the scale of his offenses shocked the country, not least because he was allowed special access to hospitals and the authorities laughed at or ignored his victims, before he died a national hero. An ensuing police inquiry, Operation Yewtree – which has arrested 18 TV presenters, comedians, disc jockeys and other showbusiness associates – last month jailed fellow BBC children’s presenter Rolf Harris for indecent assaults dating back decades, on girls as young as 8.

Into this febrile atmosphere, Tom Watson, a Labour Party lawmaker, told the House of Commons in October 2012 that police should “investigate clear intelligence suggesting a powerful pedophile network linked to Parliament and Number 10.” Newspaper columnists suggested Watson – whose campaigning on phone hacking contributed to the downfall of the Prime Minister communications director Andy Coulson ­– was stoking a “witch-hunt.” But as a result of Watson and online news agency Exaro’s investigations, Scotland Yard launched Operation Fernbridge, an inquiry into the now-notorious Elm Guest House.

One confirmed visitor through its front door was Cyril Smith, a jovial 406-pound Liberal MP who was shown after his death to have been a serial abuser of boys at a local authority care home in his home town of Rochdale. Private Eye investigative magazine has suggested that Special Branch, the UK’s national security police, halted police inquiries into Smith in the 1970s to prevent the collapse of the Liberal-Labour coalition government. Attention then swept back to its successor government. In 1983, the far-right Conservative MP, Geoffrey Dickens, compiled a 40-page dossier alleging pedophilia among Westminster politicians and gave it to the Home Office and Attorney General’s Office. This year, the Home Office discovered that 114 files potentially relevant to historic allegations of sexual abuse, including the Dickens dossier, had gone missing.

A year ago Lord Brittan, the Home Secretary to whom Dickens handed his dossier, told reporters he could not recall anything about it. But last week following the intervention of another campaigning MP in Parliament, Lord Brittan issued a statement remembering that he had received the dossier and had asked his officials to study its contents. Over the weekend it emerged that Lord Brittan had been interviewed as a suspect in the rape of a 19-year-old in 1967; an allegation he dismissed as “wholly without foundation.”

On Monday, Home Secretary Theresa May announced an inquiry into the failures of the authorities to protect children. To the dismay of many, she then said it would be led by Dame Butler-Sloss, a respected family judge but also the sister of the late former Attorney General Michael Havers, who was passed a copy of the Dickens dossier, and who decided not to prosecute a diplomat for exchanging obscene material with members of a pro-pedophilia group.

What does all this mean for Britain?

A new openness among police and prosecutors has led to the number of sexual offenses recorded by police jumping 17% in a year; Britain’s jails are bursting partly as a result of “historic sex abuse cases.

More high-profile prosecutions of pedophilia may shock the country; according to one whistleblower, allegations of sexual abuse have been made against 20 VIPs. Much will hinge over the next two years on the new inquiry, which, conveniently for politicians, will not be public until after the 2015 general election.

For now the scandal is likely to increase the public’s jaundiced view about politics and public life in the UK. Research last year found that political engagement was low and trust in institutions had been damaged by the MPs’ expenses scandal, interest-rate fixing and other controversies. Disaffection with the three main political parties helped the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party, which wants to withdraw from the European Union, win the 2014 European Parliament elections.

In the case of the Westminster “pedophile ring,” the mounting sentiment that Britain’s establishment serves its own interests and conceals its wrongdoing may be well founded. Until recently only seven police officers were working on Operation Fernbridge; Scotland Yard announced today the figure is now 22.

Martin Hickman is a freelance journalist in London.

TIME Media

Hacking Trial Victory Doesn’t Mean Rupert Murdoch’s Troubles Are Over

Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival - Day 3
Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch attend the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival on March 18, 2010 in Cheltenham, England. Max Mumby/Indigo—Getty Images

The media tycoon has reportedly been named a hacking suspect, and prosecution could mean anything from fines to jail time to costly broadcast licenses.

The acquittal of Rebekah Brooks and five co-defendants at Britain’s epic phone hacking trial this week was an important victory for Rupert Murdoch. If his most effervescent editor had been jailed for plotting to snoop, bribe officials and hide evidence, it would have been a deeply personal blow for the tycoon. Murdoch is so fond of the red-headed Brooks that when TV crews chased the pair across London in the tumult of July 2011, he declared her to be his “priority.” But the hacking saga – which has already cost the 83-year-old a Sunday newspaper, a $12 billion TV takeover and some humility — could be entering its most toxic chapter yet for the veteran newsman.

Investigators in the United Kingdom and the United States are circling the business he propelled to global dominance over seven decades. Just today, The Guardian, bastion of England’s liberal elite, reported that Scotland Yard has notified Murdoch that detectives want to interview him. The interview would be “under caution”: Murdoch himself has become a hacking suspect. In the U.S., the FBI has been eyeing the London force’s corruption inquiry into Murdoch’s UK newspapers to determine whether News Corp could be charged under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which bans American businesses from bribing public officials abroad.

How much of this is a problem for a tycoon who has negotiated many a legal obstacle in the past? The central allegation at the hacking trial was that senior management knew about the nefarious behavior of Murdoch’s sex-and-scandal tabloids. In this sense, this week’s verdicts are a relief, because Brooks, as former chief executive of his UK newspaper group News International, publisher of The Sun and The Times, was by far the most senior of all seven defendants. But the one who was found guilty of hacking was Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World. Even before the trial began at the Old Bailey last October however, three News of the World news editors (Greg Miskiw, James Weatherup and Neville Thurlbeck) had pleaded guilty to phone hacking offences.

The legislation under which they were convicted, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, allows the prosecution of companies or its directors if communications were intercepted with their consent, connivance or neglect. Last September, Scotland Yard detectives interviewed Les Hinton, former chairman of News International who resigned as chief executive of Dow Jones in July 2011—again under caution. Murdoch was a director of News International when the News of the World was hacking the phones of hundreds of newsworthy people, ranging from Prince William to the murdered teenager Milly Dowler.

If prosecutors do not bring a corporate charge for hacking – and today’s Sun castigated the Crown Prosecution Service for “blowing millions on high-profile trials destined to fail” – News Corp could still be in real trouble over bribery. High-profile trials of Sun reporters for paying cash to public officials are due to begin in January next year. And police and prison officers have already been jailed for taking the newspaper’s money (though no Sun journalist has yet been convicted).

Directors found guilty of breaching the FCPA can be jailed for five years, though the penalty tends to be a large fine. Murdoch can afford a few million dollars: the hacking scandal has already cost News Corp around $450 million and could top $1 billion, according to former News International boss Tom Mockridge.

Any prosecution could affect broadcast licenses for Murdoch’s highly profitable US TV stations. In June 2012, in an apparent attempt to isolate his TV and film assets from the hacking scandal, Murdoch split his media business into two: News Corp remained, but 21st Century Fox film studio and Fox News cable were hived off into a new corporation, 21st Century Fox.

Murdoch has spent his career keeping one step ahead of politicians and regulators. In the legal trench warfare in Court 12 of the Old Bailey, most of his executives – whose multimillion dollar legal fees were funded by his business – triumphed. But at 83, with his health, reputation and prospects more uncertain than in the past, he may find out that winning a battle does not necessarily mean you win the war.

Martin Hickman is a freelance journalist who co-wrote Dial M for Murdoch. He is publishing an inside account of the trial by Peter Jukes at hackingtrial.com.

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