Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Lenny Harper and The Media Myth

"Senator le Marquand tried to say that prospects of successful prosecution might have been  damaged by Mr Harper's media handling.  He asserted they would have come forward even without media profile. The evidence on the trust issues of care leavers in general and abuse victims in care in particular clearly indicates otherwise.  Had there been no profile there would have been few if any victims coming forward, and hence no prosecutions at all."(Mark Forskitt)

Senator Le Marquand, according to the Minutes of the Suspension review meeting, appears to have bought into the version of history that says Lenny Harper's handling of the media was bad, and may have damaged prospects of a successful prosecution. This is along the lines of the Daily Mail version of 2008:

A bluff, straightforward and extremely experienced Lancashire detective, Det Supt Mick Gradwell, who had taken over the investigation after Mr Harper retired in August, was telling them that most of what they had been told about Haut de la Garenne and Mr Harper's £4.5million inquiry was nonsense. 'There are no credible allegations of murder, there are no suspects for murder,' Mr Gradwell

But there never were any suspects for murder, and Lenny Harper was advised - at the time - by the ACPO team that the right decision had been made to treat the investigation as involving a potential homicide, not a proven one. The media ran away with the story, ignoring the qualifying adjectives, and proceeded to produce lurid headlines. A good example of this in the Times. The sub-headline text says:

"Jersey police have discovered the partial remains of at least five children at Haut de la Garenne, the former children's home at the centre of the island's child abuse investigation. "

But Lenny Harper's actual statement, reported in the same article, tells quite a different story:

"At the end of the day there may not be the evidence there to mount a homicide inquiry and an attempt to bring anybody to justice for whatever crimes took place there," he said. Mr Harper said: "We were pinning our hopes on the process of carbon dating. The latest information we're getting is that for the period we're looking at, it's not going to be possible to give us an exact time of death. The indications are that if the results come back the same way as they have now it is obvious there won't be a homicide inquiry."

When it comes to abuse, the situation is different, because people had come forward:

The police search has unearthed valuable pieces of evidence which "substantially corroborate" accounts of abuse at the home, Mr Harper said.

But the Times is not the only newspaper to indulge in this kind of misleading talk. I have had a number of people who are genuinely concerned about the headline "GST 'must go up to 12%'" in the Jersey Evening Post in extremely large bold print. The text of the story said: "GST will have to rise to 12% if the States do not rein in deficits, according to the independent spending watchdog." - the qualification was not in the headline, and people just skimming the paper will come away with an entirely different perspective. The Evening Post has also blown up figures on burglary out of all proportion by a misleading use of percentages.

And the BBC website also has this more balanced news report, from 2008:

The Jersey Police Deputy Chief Officer, Lenny said there was no evidence of a cover up by The Jersey Government. He said at a press conference that the police have "no evidence of a cover up by the Jersey Government. There may be evidence that things haven't been done the way they should have done but governments don't normally get involved in child abuse investigations."

Now that is on the BBC, and is also quoted on Fox News, but no other television channel or newspaper reports those words from the press conference - "no evidence of a cover up by the Jersey Government" - Lenny Harper's own media briefing at the time.

So I'm not convinced the fault is Lenny Harper's, so much as the papers who decided to sensationalise the story as much as possible to maximise sales, and there is very little that can be done about that. The only thing Lenny Harper might have done would have been to emphasise more strongly the tentative nature of some of the evidence, but from the Times, it seems likely that even if he had done that, it would not have been highlighted in their reporting, as can be seen from the above example.

That is a matter of judgement, but the supposal that Harper's media strategy deliberately inflamed matters is not a cast iron certainty. We simply do not know how the media would have reacted if he had done otherwise.

What the media attention did gain was publicity that enabled the victims of abuse to come forward, and the confidence that there was now a police team who could be trusted to listen to them and not dismiss their claims as specious.

Bad publicity also accrued to the Island, but I suspect that this was less to do with Lenny Harper than the very public spat between Frank Walker and Stuart Syvret, in which, in from of an audience of millions, Frank Walker accused Stuart Syvret of "trying to shaft Jersey internationally", and then denied Paxman's argument that this in any way implied that he was mainly concerned with Jersey's international reputation.

Although Frank Walker, Jersey's chief minister, has dismissed allegations of a cover-up as politically motivated, he appeared to give some credence to Syvret's claims when cameras caught an off-air exchange between the two men following an interview for BBC Radio 4. As they rose to leave the studio, an exasperated Syvret exclaimed: ''We're talking about children here'', to which a clearly annoyed Walker responded: ''You're trying to shaft Jersey internationally."

It could be argued instead that it was Senator Frank Walker who fueled the media frenzy, and the bias often against Jersey society as a whole, no doubt in part because he was so obviously a soft target who could not bear to apologise for ill chosen words; given the media love of confrontational politics, he could be counted on to provide good copy with the clear antagonism between him and Stuart Syvret. Even before his words appeared on Newsnight, people were making comments such as:

I heard the debate on the Today programme between Senators Syvret and Walker and I think I've been around long enough to judge the difference between an honest man and a time-serving politician.

An inept press conference held at St Martin's Public Hall, where an attempt was made to exclude Stuart Syvret from sitting at the table did not help either, especially as again the burning animosity between the two showed up very clearly to the viewer. It was like watching two schoolboys having a fight in public.

Andrew O'Hagan, in The Daily Telegraph wrote about " a toleration of cruelty to children" and commented that:

Obviously, such cruelty wasn't known to everybody, nor would I suggest that every institution was complicit in the harm allegedly being done, but the island's culture has long been haunted by suggestions of Draconian systems of care that are sealed off from criticism.

And noted that:

This week, spokesmen for the island authorities have been making a terrible fist of it during interviews, compounding our worst suspicions by managing to sound like a bunch of tight-lipped, unreconstructed Puritans in a morality play, offering Channel Islands legalese in place of plain speaking.

Digging into the murkier waters of Island life, BBC Radio 4's "The Investigation", unearthed the case of Roger Holland, a known sex offender when he became an honorary policeman in 1992. Philip Bailhache, then Attorney-General, on being given the knowledge of Holland's past after he had been appointed to the honorary police, decided against removing Holland from that position. Incidents like this, where the judgement of the Attorney-General certainly appears in hindsight to be very poor, as he himself acknowledged, also coloured the media view of Jersey.

The Victoria College case of Jervis-Dykes, as illustrated in the Sharp report, which was cheerfully handed out by Stuart Syvret, showed another case of individuals who were not up to date, as they should have been, with correct procedures in cases like this, and whose actions and comments (as reported in the Sharp report) instead seemed to be more concerned with the reputation of Victoria College than the victims.

Senator Mike Vibert's attempt to hold back the Kathy Bull report from the public domain also played into this, as did the removal of Simon Bellwood from his position, and the details of the Grand Prix system which also emerged.

Neither of these were directly related to the events unfolding at Haut de la Garenne, but they helped to shape the story about a culture of concealment, or in some of the less balanced media, a conspiracy to keep silence. Had there not been so many instances of trying to protect reputations, or manage the disclosure of bad news, there would have been nothing for the media to latch onto.

Let's be clear about what was happening. This was not something specific to Jersey. The UK Government is full of instances of trying to protect reputations, and prevent bad news from leaking out (as in the recent case of MP's expenses) - just look at the notorious email from Jo Moore regarding the destruction of the Twin Towers as being a good day to "bury bad news". And other jurisdictions and organisations are just as poor - the Catholic church over child abuse is particularly bad. When the spotlight was on Jersey, the same kind of behaviour could be seen. The media tended to play this up, as the media does, but that was not because of Lenny Harper's actions, but because the dirt was already available.

So was Stuart Syvret responsible? Certainly, while his release of information, and bombastic manner of release, may have fueled the speed at which the reporting took place, if there had been nothing for him to hand out, the media frenzy would not have occurred. The only way for the authorities to undermine Senator Syvret would have been for them to make available any reports themselves, or offer to make any available, to display transparency, but the desire to hold back was too strong.
The other way to fight back was to create a powerful counter-myth, that of the "Harper Media" frenzy, and the extraordinary Mr Gradwell and Mr Warcup press conference did just that. After that was reported widely in the media, Senator Frank Walker could now say that any criticism of him was unjustified, as he had been right to deny a conspiracy all along. This story is no less a myth, and is just as potent, but it relies on an extremely selective use of sources, and its promotion as "a fact"; hence we hear the refrain "now we know...". In fact, it clearly contradicts statements made by Lenny Harper at the time.

The current situation, where debates about Mr Power's suspension are held "in camera" (because of the requirements a law which Guernsey does not need to have) shows that the desire to control and restrict the flow of information, especially where it may be bad news, is still strong. Lessons have yet to be learnt.

So I am not at all convinced by the "Harper media frenzy" story, as it seems to leave out significant facts, is extremely selective in its use of evidence, and indeed seems to be becoming the "official line" simply by dint of repetition; in this respect it is like one of those internet urban myths that circulate so widely. I suspect that future historians will wonder at the naivety of its acceptance, when they are not so close to events, and so closely involved. I think Senator Le Marquand should look just a bit more critically at his sources before taking it at face value.


Jacques Chartier said...

Thank you for a well written view.

Jill Gracia said...

Excellent stuff Tony - well disssected and presented facts.

Time for you to start a newspaper methinks!!