The Hunt for a Westminster Paedophile Ring

For three years, evidence grew of a powerful paedophile network at the heart of the British Establishment. Then the trail went cold.

By Joshi Herrmann

On the 5th of March 2015, Harvey Proctor woke up and saw his face on the TV mounted above his bed. He was lying next to his longtime partner Terry, in their cottage in rural Leicestershire. They usually woke up to the radio, but on this occasion they had fallen asleep with the TV still on. “As I was opening my eyes, at 7 o’clock, there was me looking back at me,” he remembers, laughing as if still in disbelief about the turn of events that instantly changed his life five years ago.

Proctor had been missing from public life for 30 years. You had to have been born well before 1980 to have any chance of knowing who he was. His short career as a Tory MP had been ended by a sex scandal that would nowadays not be considered newsworthy let alone scandalous, and would no longer be a crime (he had sex with a man under the age of 21, then the gay age of consent). Since then he had lived a quiet life, working as a private secretary for the 11th Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle, the hereditary seat. His cottage on the estate came with the job. Proctor’s days of appearing on the tabloid front pages were receding into the distance. He spent his free time walking his two dogs through the Vale of Belvoir, a beautiful expanse of fields that dates to the Jurassic period and is popular with fossil hunters. 

The story he woke up to on the BBC’s morning news linked him to a VIP paedophile ring made up of ex-politicians and former leaders of the military and the security services. The ring had sexually abused and even murdered young boys in the 1970s and 1980s, it was claimed. When he turned on Radio 4, they were running the same story. The day before Proctor had watched in disbelief and mounting anger as officers from the Metropolitan Police searched his house for 15 hours, eventually leaving in the late evening with large quantities of his belongings, including his computer, his phones, and most of his paperwork. They also raided his office in the castle. 

That raid was part of Operation Midland, which was investigating the alleged VIP paedophile ring. And which was now leading the news bulletins. Proctor got up, called the BBC switchboard and asked to be put through to the Today programme, the BBC’s flagship news show on Radio 4. An operator asked: “Why do you want to be put through?” Proctor says he told them: “‘Look, you are mentioning my name in connection with Operation Midland and murders and paedophilia. I think I have a right to say something.” A researcher from the Today programme called back, and took some notes. Minutes later Proctor was live, in the interview spot usually reserved for senior politicians. 

“I have not been part of any rent boy ring with cabinet ministers, other members of parliament or generals or military,” he said, speaking very slowly and deliberately, like he does in person. “You are obviously aware of the rumours and allegations that are flying around in great quantity at the moment,” said the presenter Jim Naughtie. “What do you make of allegations that are being made in such profusion?” Proctor replied: “I am sure that some of the allegations are true. But I am also sure that a lot of the allegations are pure and utter fantasy.” 

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A few weeks after Harvey Proctor’s house was turned upside down, the BBC’s Newsnight came to air with an astonishing story. It alleged eye-watering corruption of law enforcement by the state to protect a politician and members of the security services from prosecution for child abuse. Without any exaggeration, Newnight’s reporter Nick Hopkins called his story, “The most egregious example of a cover-up involving police collusion”.

Newsnight reported that a police operation in the 1980s had caught the former Liberal Party MP Cyril Smith on film abusing boys. The abuse had taken place in a flat just a mile from Westminster and – as the story’s opening shot told viewers over eerie piano music – “half a mile from MI6”. Also caught on camera abusing boys, according to the story’s source, had been “a senior member of Britain’s intelligence agencies”. The report said there was evidence of abuse by police officers too. Newsnight said that officers arrested Smith and others at a sex party in South London, and brought them to a police station “within sight of Downing Street and the House of Commons”.

Without adding any further details, this was a very significant revelation. By this point in 2015, it was fairly well accepted that Smith, who died in 2010, had abused boys at care homes in his Rochdale constituency. Police had investigated Smith in the 1960s, and since his death a number of credible accounts had been reported in which people from Rochdale accused Smith of assaulting them while pretending to undertake medical examinations at the homes. Newsnight’s story was now saying that police had caught Smith red-handed in London in the 1980s – and that it was on tape. Even without the involvement of the senior member of the intelligence services and the police officers, it was explosive. 

But there was more. At that point, the officers were “stopped in their tracks” and Smith was released, Newsnight said. Days later, a senior policeman who the officers had never met before ordered them to hand over their evidence including notebooks, photos and videos. They were also told: “Speak again of this operation and you will be breaking the Official Secrets Act.” Who was protecting Smith? Newsnight invited Labour’s Simon Danczuk – Smith’s successor as Rochdale MP, who had helped to expose his offending – to provide a possible answer. Smith was “being protected by some fairly powerful people,” the MP said. Why? “Because he knew of other paedophiles in the networks in which he operated.” 

Hopkins said the story came from a retired police officer who had taken part in the operation, and who had contacted Newsnight via an intermediary. The retired officer wouldn’t go on camera, he said, because he still feared the long arm of the Official Secrets Act. 

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Little did anyone know, but March 2015 – the month when Proctor’s home was raided and when the Newsnight broadcast their story about a police cover-up – was the high watermark of the Westminster paedophile panic. It was a moment when the air was thick with stories about establishment paedophiles and elaborate cover-ups and Tory sex parties and police investigations closed on the say-so of “higher ups”. Ex-police officers like the one whose story was reported by Newsnight seemed to be coming forward by the week, calling into LBC or telling their stories to the newspapers. 

Last week, almost exactly five years on, a public inquiry set up to investigate the alleged existence of a powerful establishment paedophile ring published its findings. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse had spent years speaking to witnesses and requesting old boxes of documents from every conceivable agency of the British state, and had come up empty. “Despite the Inquiry engaging in an extensive evidence-gathering process, we have seen no material indicating the existence of a Westminster ‘paedophile ring’” the report concluded. “Similarly, no evidence of any attempts to cover up or suppress information about the existence of such a ring was found at MI5, SIS, GCHQ or in Metropolitan Police Special Branch records now held by Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command.” 

A jury at Newcastle Crown Court had come to the same conclusion last year. They had spent the best part of a summer scrutinising the claims of a man called Carl Beech, who said that as a child he was abused by an establishment paedophile ring which included Proctor, the former prime minister Edward Heath, and the former home secretary Leon Brittan, as well as the directors of MI5 and MI6 and various army generals. The jury concluded the claims were false, and that Beech was guilty of perverting the course of justice on several counts, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. 

There are some obvious reasons why Beech’s trial attracted vastly more media coverage than this week’s inquiry report. It came first; it involved graphic descriptions of alleged abuse by famous politicians; and it featured the almost unbelievable plot twist of police finding, during their investigations, that Beech was actually a paedophile himself. But the effect of that disparity in coverage means that the strange saga of the VIP paedophile ring is associated almost entirely with Beech. One fantasist, promoted by some irresponsible tabloid journalism, who falsely accused a group of former politicians, and was eventually caught. And that narrative is only likely to grow. Two production companies are competing to make a series about Beech for streaming platforms like Amazon and Netflix, and the BBC has shot a one hour documentary about him, which is expected to air this summer.

In reality though, Beech was one part of a much bigger and weirder story. For a few years, between the autumn of 2012 and some time in 2015, a set of MPs, journalists and police officers came to believe in what amounted to a wild conspiracy theory about the British establishment. The question is, why? 

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There’s no reference in the public inquiry’s report to the bombshell allegations reported by Newsnight. That’s because when investigators from the Independent Office for Police Conduct contacted the retired police officer, he didn’t want to talk. Deep in the IOPC’s submission to the inquiry, and without mentioning Newsnight, the police’s anti-corruption body notes: “Despite efforts to encourage the source, the former officer has never come forward to elaborate on the allegations made.” 

In its story, Newsnight had enacted a well-known broadcasting trope – asking an expert what they make of a story, to give it context and credibility. The expert was Clive Driscoll, a respected former Metropolitan Police detective, best known for helping to bring Stephen Lawrence’s killers to justice. Hopkins, Newsnight’s reporter, interviewed him on a park bench. 

“Mr Driscoll, you have examined these claims, what do you make of them?” asked Hopkins. 

“Well, I think I looked at them as I probably would have done when I was a police officer,” replied Driscoll, “and on the balance of probabilities you would have to say they appear very credible.” 

What Newsnight didn’t tell viewers is that Driscoll was not examining the claims for the first time. In fact, it was impossible for him to be an objective arbiter on the allegations, because he had brought Hopkins the story. When I spoke to Driscoll on the phone last year, he confirmed that he had first heard the story from the anonymous ex-officer more than 30 years ago, when Driscoll and the anonymous former officer were doing a training course together for their policing exams. The now-retired officer had told the tale of the closed-down surveillance operation to a group of policemen in a classroom. Driscoll says the officer was “doing what coppers do, you know ‘Look at me, I’m on this super super operation.’” Driscoll says the officer was “very factual” about the operation he claimed to have worked on, but admits that when he told the story to the class, “He was effectively showing off.” And he says the officer didn’t just refuse to go on camera for the Newsnight report – he refused to meet Hopkins or anyone from Newsnight at all. 

It took a long time for the story to be broadcast. Executives at Newsnight were unsure whether to go to air with the film. At one point it was shown to high ranking editors at other BBC programmes to solicit their views. But why did the retired officer refuse to meet Hopkins? Driscoll says it’s because the officer is “absolutely paranoid”. In a short phone call with me, Driscoll used the word “paranoid” to describe the man seven times. “If you sat down with him for ten minutes you would know he was paranoid,” he said . “He used to say, ‘Clive you’ve got to be careful. I’m telling you, I know what they could do.’” According to Driscoll, the retired officer believed that it was the security services, not the police, who had closed down the Smith operation and let the politician go, despite having video of him abusing boys. “He believed it wasn’t the police force pulling the strings,” said Driscoll. 

It’s unclear if Newsnight spoke to anyone else who worked on the alleged investigation – none were mentioned in the story. But when the IOPC spoke to members of the former officer’s team, they weren’t able to help. Investigators couldn’t even find a police operation like the one described on Newsnight, or any record of Smith being questioned at the police station mentioned. “No evidence has been identified supporting an operation into the building named or that Cyril Smith was arrested without charge in the circumstances described,” the report says. “No corroborative evidence was identified to support the allegations made.” 

(Neither Nick Hopkins, who is now The Guardian’s executive editor for news, nor his producer at Newsnight, wanted to speak to me about the story. A spokesperson for the BBC said: “Newsnight has seen no evidence which would cause us to doubt sources or contributors in this report.”)

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It all began in 2012. In late October, three weeks after Jimmy Savile had been exposed as a paedophile by a TV documentary, and with Britain speculating and fulminating about little else, the influential Labour MP Tom Watson stood up in the House of Commons and unpinned a grenade. Standing at the back of the chamber, Watson asked David Cameron to investigate “clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and Number 10.” 

One MP says his first reaction to Watson’s question was: “Woah, where is this going to go?” Watson had mentioned that evidence for the paedophile ring might be found in the investigative files relating to a paedophile who died in 2007. The specificity of that reference helped to lend Watson’s extraordinary question some weight. “Everyone assumed he had something strong,” says the MP, who was soon promoted to a ministerial role. He says that in parliament at that time, “There was a saloon bar assumption that some of this was true.” 

But Watson had broken a basic parliamentary rule of thumb: never ask a question unless you know the answer. In reality, Watson knew almost nothing about the supposed paedophile network he was catapulting into the public consciousness. “He was mixing a couple of things up,” says the retired child protection expert who was Watson’s primary source for the information. Watson emailed him the night before his parliamentary question, telling him about the question he was going to ask. The retired social worker’s reaction was “Blimey, no,” and he says he replied at 1am saying: “No, that’s not how I’d word it.” If Watson saw that email, he didn’t change course. And by not naming any politicians as members of the ring, he left a blank slate for wild speculation.

Within days, ITV’s Phillip Schofield ambushed Cameron live on breakfast TV, leaning over the table between them and handing the prime minister a list of alleged Tory paedophiles. Cameron urged restraint. “There is a danger if we are not careful that this can turn into a sort of witch hunt, particularly about people who are gay,” he said to Schofield. But caution was not the mood of the moment. Watson wrote to Cameron around the same time: “Your advisers will tell you to be wary of ‘opening the floodgates…They are wrong. Their decorous caution is the friend of the paedophile.” In a separate intervention in parliament, Watson upped the ante further, referring to “rape and torture” in Whitehall.

By this point, Watson’s parliamentary office had become a meeting place for all sorts of people who had suspicions about Westminster paedophiles and decades-old coverups. In November, three police officers arrived to meet Watson, who had invited two others to come along too – the ex-Guardian journalist David Hencke and a trade unionist called Mike Broad. Broad jumped straight in. Multiple sources had told him that several decades ago, Elm Guest House, a former bed and breakfast in south west London, had been the scene of extensive sexual abuse. Prominent people, including Margaret Thatcher’s home secretary Leon Brittan, had visited the premises. And when the property was raided by police in the 1980s, two transit vans had taken away ten boys and one three-year-old girl. 

Others who had dealings with Broad considered him to be unreliable. When he visited another MP around the same time as the visit to Watson, he pointed at people he said were members of Special Branch and told those he was meeting that the security services were reading his lips via the CCTV cameras. Broad was also known for calling parliamentary researchers late at night and muttering things like “Papers tomorrow, Leon Brittan, young boys, rape scars” and then hanging up. But someone who met Watson at the time observed that what Broad said about Leon Brittan and Elm Guest House had “lodged in his [Watson’s] mind.” Long before he became deputy leader of the Labour Party, Watson had fallen into a trap from which he would struggle to extricate himself. 

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In the wake of the Jimmy Savile revelations, and weeks after Tom Watson’s question in parliament, the political journalist Paul Waugh spoke to several of Cyril Smith’s victims for an article on PoliticsHome. Smith had exploited his access to a care home for troubled boys to abuse them, before he entered parliament and after. This had been known for many years among insiders in Rochdale politics and the Liberal Party, and now that it was public, his successor Simon Danczuk saw an opportunity. He raised Smith’s offending in the House of Commons in mid-November. Soon his office was deluged by witnesses, who attested to a pattern of appalling offending on Smiths’ part. They spoke powerfully about the damage his abuse had done to their lives. 

But adjudicating on the reliability of witnesses to child sexual abuse is notoriously difficult for trained police officers, let alone backbench MPs. Danczuk’s interventions in parliament gave some very credible victims the encouragement to come forward and tell their stories. But it also meant that his office became a magnet for people whose motives were more opaque. Matt Baker, a respected Labour party operative who was working as a parliamentary aide to Danczuk, started working with the MP on a book about Smith. Baker remembers that the office received some calls that didn’t add up. One caller told Baker that he was abused at a care home in Rochdale, by Smith, in a specific year. But when Baker made some inquiries, he found that the home hadn’t been built yet. Baker rang the witness back to see if he’d got his dates wrong, but the caller became abusive, and later tweeted that Baker was an establishment stooge. 

Soon MPs who had mentioned child abuse in parliament realised there was an angry grassroots campaign intent on persuading those in power that Westminster was riddled with paedophiles. “Every day we were being blitzed with emails by these people who were basically saying ‘Establishment cover-up blah blah blah,” recalls Baker. “I don’t know who they were but they were sending various YouTube videos and links and saying all these key figures are paedophiles, investigate this and investigate that.”He adds: “I’ve no doubt that with some MPs, it had probably had a bit of an effect on them.” 

The emailers were feeding off the media. If the researchers in parliament were trying hard to verify what they were being told, some journalists were setting the bar lower. “There was a huge fight to get the stories,” says another parliamentary researcher. “I had national journalists calling me on deadline at 6pm, and they were printing whatever I told them without checking. It was really worrying.” Getting the latest scoop took priority over accuracy. “There was quite a lot of alpha male competition going on – they were more interested in beating their rival titles to the story than getting to the truth,” says the researcher. “This stuff requires a lot of careful research but the tabloids went crazy” says Baker. “A lot of the splashes were nonsense. And half the genuine stuff has been lost.”

At one point the broadcaster and former police officer Mark Williams-Thomas, whose ITV documentary had outed Jimmy Savile in late 2012, met with Danczuk on the terrace of the House of Commons. He asked Danczuk to use his parliamentary privilege to publicly out the former home secretary Leon Brittan as a paedophile in parliament, so that Williams-Thomas could get the broadcasting scoop by being in position outside Brittan’s house, ready to knock on his door with the cameras rolling. (Williams-Thomas recalls this exchange differently. He denies asking Danczuk to name Brittan as a paedophile, but recalls speaking to the MP and asking to be tipped off if he was planning to out Brittan. He says he didn’t have any evidence that Brittan was a paedophile, and says a backbench Tory MP was planning to out the former home secretary around the same time). 

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Danzuk’s book, Smile for the Camera, caused a new frenzy of Westminster paedophile speculation when it came out in the spring of 2014. The book was serialised by the Daily Mail, which published its revelations on the front page for two days in a row. The stories lit up the niche online communities who took a particular interest in the idea of a Westminster paedophile ring and the establishment corruption that had sustained it. One anonymous blogger had recently started writing guest posts on a site dedicated to child abuse survivors. On May 6th he wrote: “Over the last few weeks there has been an increase in the amount of messages, tweets etc, about EGH [Elm Guest House] and its associated paedophile ring.” Then he said : “So I thought I would share my personal perspective on the group (paedophile ring) that hurt me.” His name was Carl Beech. 

Beech, whose true identity only became known years later and was known in the media by the pseudonym “Nick”, was a father and career healthcare professional from Gloucestershire. The son of a Church of England vicar, he had a managerial job, inspecting hospitals and care homes for the Care Quality Commission. Previously he has worked as a nurse at various hospitals. Beech’s middle class upbringing and responsible public sector job likely played a crucial part in his rapid evolution from anonymous blogger to central witness in a massive police investigation. 

In one of his blogs he makes it explicit that he is referring to the furore caused by Danczuk’s book, referring to “confirmation” coming from “the press and politicians (in a recent book) about possible members of that group.” And around this time, he contacted Danczuk’s office, speaking on the phone to Matt Baker. Baker says he remembers the call clearly, because he took it at his family home while he was putting his children to bed, and felt strange about it afterwards.

“It was a really grim call,” Baker says. “His voice sounded really soulless, almost like he’d been dubbed or something. I couldn’t connect with him. Unlike a lot of people I spoke to, I couldn’t empathise. It sounded like he was reading off a script.” Beech told Baker that he had a good job and worked hard, but struggled to form relationships. “He said he didn’t have any friends or anyone. He didn’t feel he could relate to human beings. He couldn’t be intimate with his child and he really struggled to have human relationships with people. “He painted a reasonable picture of being utterly dysfunctional to be honest. I remember thinking he was just a burnt-out character really.” 

The abuse described by Beech wasn’t just cruel, it was sometimes ritualistic. He said the paedophile group held Remembrance Day parties where they would pin poppies to his bare chest before raping him. The blogs soon attracted the attention of a website called Exaro News, which published some of Beech’s allegations in the summer of 2014. Exaro, which branded itself as an investigative site which held “power to account”, had leant heavily into the VIP paedophile stories, and was supplying them to the tabloids. The site partnered with the Sunday People, a sister paper of the Daily Mirror, which published Beech’s allegations on its front page. 

Ian McFadyen, who was sexually abused at his prep school and who had helped to secure criminal convictions against a teacher who abused him, met Beech around this time, on the sidelines of an event for survivors of sexual crimes. “He said he was terrified for his own life,” McFadyen told me. “The people who abused him were not only politicians but people within our intelligence services, he had witnessed murders of children. He thought he would be harmed.” When they met, Beech was “fidgety, nervous, anxious” and “couldn’t look me in the eyes.” Then Beech said he had to go “because he didn’t want to be recognised.” McFadyen told his wife after the meeting that he had his concerns about Beech, but he says he believed him. And he told him to go to the police. 

Danczuk’s book had linked Smith to Elm Guest House. The book said the guest house “became the centre of a VIP paedophile ring” and noted that “the Metropolitan Police has confirmed that Cyril Smith visited the premises.” (The police later walked back on this claim). This element of the story was reported in the press and clearly caught Beech’s eye. “It never seemed like EGH was part of the main set up for this group,” he wrote in one of his first blogs, still blogging just as “Carl”. “It almost appeared to be an entry point for men who wanted access to the main group or to simply do what they want with a boy and leave.” Beech had skillfully hitched himself to the Elm Guest House bandwagon, while simultaneously pointing at another, more interesting show in the distance. One to which only he could be the guide. 

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Inside Westminster, momentum was building in the early months of 2014 for a public inquiry to investigate the powerful paedophile ring and how it had managed to cover up its crimes for decades. Just before Danczuk’s book came out, Zac Goldsmith, then a backbench Tory MP and now a member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Environment and International Development, invited a series of MPs to meet him. They included Tom Watson, Simon Danczuk and the Liberal Democrat Tessa Munt. The emails inviting the MPs to meet were sent by Goldsmith’s assistant, but the message was from him. 

“Some of the allegations concern a guesthouse in my constituency, and I have noticed there is a familiar theme through all such cases,” he wrote. “A scandal emerges, the police are called in, nothing or very little happens, and then years later people start coming forward again and it’s discovered that it wasn’t investigated properly in the first place.” Goldsmith suggested a meeting between the MPs on April 1st, which in retrospect seems fitting. He told the MPs they would be joined by an expert on the paedophile scandal. “I’ve invited the journalist David Hencke because he has followed the issue very carefully.” Hencke is an award-winning journalist and a veteran of Westminster, where one of his articles at the Guardian led to the (first) resignation of Peter Mandelson. But by 2014 he had strayed miles off the political beat, and was intensely interested in paedophile rings and establishment cover-ups. And when he met the MPs he was working for Exaro. 

Watson, Munt and Danczuk all attended Goldsmith’s meeting in person, as did Watson’s aide Karie Murphy, who later became one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most powerful advisors. “Hencke probably spoke the most in that meeting,” someone present told me. “Hencke gave everyone sheets of paper – it was all over the place, all these scandals all around the country. There wasn’t any trace of doubt in his voice. All of this was gospel.” The MPs wanted to put pressure on the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to appoint a panel to examine the issue. They agreed that it would be useful to have another Conservatvie MP on board, and soon the former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton was part of the group. By the summer, they had drafted a letter to May. “We would ask you to set up an independent panel, similar to the inquiry you established into the Hillsborough tragedy, with powers to demand the release of all and any material from every agency involved,” the letter said.

Goldsmith seemed particularly focused on Elm Guest House. “Very serious questions around Elm Guest House, in my constituency, have gone unanswered for so long that many have simply concluded that the authorities aren’t interested in uncovering answers,” he told the Evening Standard. His group of MPs soon got their wish. Within a month of their letter, May had commissioned an inquiry, which over time expanded vastly in its powers and scope. We now know the inquiry would take almost six years to publish its findings about Elm Guest House and the Westminster paedophile ring, which it did this week. At some point during that time, Goldsmith must have realised he had fallen for a hoax.

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Elm Guest House had been a magnet for wild stories about politicians and child abuse for decades. It is difficult to overstate its importance in the emergence of the idea of a Westminster paedophile ring. If the tales about powerful padophiles and sex parties and Special Branch cover-ups told by Carl Beech, Tom Watson, Zac Goldsmith and certain ex-police officers were the box office releases, Elm Guest House was the folklore from which those stories were hewn. “These things had been part of the water for so long,” a high-ranking BBC editor told me, having just left the corporation. “The whole Elm Guest House thing was a badge of seriousness for current affairs correspondents,” he said. Knowing about it made some reporters feel like they were in a “secret club of people who knew”. 

But most of what the secret club knew was based on lies, mix-ups and a document that was almost certainly a forgery. Elm Guest House advertised itself as a gay guest house in the 1970s and 1980s, and had caught the police’s attention several times. There appears to be evidence that at least one child was sexually abused there, although that has never come to court. In April 1983, following police raids on the property, the owners Carole and Haroon Kasir were convicted of running a disorderly house, and given suspended prison sentences. The case received newspaper coverage at the time, which is where the rumours about Elm Guest House seem to have begun. 

They reached a crescendo when Tom Watson raised the spectre of a VIP paedophile ring in 2012, after which Watson invited Mike Broad to his office to talk about Elm Guest House and meet the police officers. That’s when Broad told the story about two transit vans full of abused children being taken away from Elm Guest House after it was raided by police. In 2013, a document known as the Elm Guest House List was posted online, purporting to be a “guest list” featuring various politicians and entertainers from the 1980s, including Cyril Smith, Leon Brittan and Harvey Proctor. The suggestion was that they had abused children there. 

And Zac Goldsmith would tell parliament in November 2014 that he had been “reliably told” that 12 boys had given evidence in 1982 that they had been abused at Elm Guest House. He went on to say that the guest house’s former owner “had photographs of establishment figures at her hotel”. “One of them apparently showed a former cabinet minister in a sauna with a naked boy,” he said. Goldsmith even seemed to suggest that something untoward might have happened to the guest house’s owner, who he said “died a few years after the house was raided in very odd circumstances”. Goldsmith told the House: “It is impossible to believe there was not a cover-up.”

Unfortunately for Goldsmith, he had a bad source. His information – whether directly or indirectly – came from a convicted fraudster called Chris Fay, who seems to have known the former owner of the guest house before her death. Along with Broad, Fay had enthusiastically promoted the Elm Guest House List and the story about photographs of cabinet ministers, but wasn’t able to produce an original copy of the list, or any evidence of the photographs, when police interviewed him. The BBC’s Panorama programme later reported that Fay persuaded a suggestible man with mental health problems to name Elm Guest House as a place where he had been abused. 

Fay also alleged a cover-up by MI5 and Special Branch. But when officers spoke to him, his accounts were inconsistent. Fay told police that two armed men who recognised as being from Special Branch had approached him the day after he was shown the explosive pictures by the guest house owner in 1989, and manhandled him. But in his next police interview, his story had expanded. This time the men held their gun against Fay’s head, and said: “Keep your nose out of Elm Guest House.” And this time he recalled a partial vehicle registration for their van. Officers noted in an official report that the accounts Fay offered “varied greatly” and that they couldn’t find any evidence to corroborate any of his many claims about Elm Guest House. Commander Neil Jerome of the Metropolitan Police told the public inquiry: “There is no evidence to substantiate any of Mr Fay’s claims.” 

The police also concluded that the Elm Guest House List circulating online and promoted by Fay and others had “zero evidential value”, with Jerome telling the inquiry: “I don’t think it is clear as to the origin and who the author or authors of that list are, but it’s certainly very clear that evidently that list has no value, and how it’s been created is certainly dubious.” Last week, the public inquiry declared that there was no evidence that prominent people had ever attended Elm Guest House and abused children there. 

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If the Metropolitan Police had come to their conclusions about Elm Guest House and the list earlier, it might have helped them to swerve one of the most embarrassing episodes in the force’s history. Because when the Met first interviewed Beech, he handed them a list of abusers and venues, and it included “EGH”. He told them he hadn’t been inside the guest house, but that it was a place where boys were picked up to be taken with him to the parties where he was abused by politicians. It might also have caught the investigators’ attention that two of the men named by Beech as his most prominent abusers – Leon Brittan and Harvey Proctor – were very near the top of the Elm Guest House List. In fact, Beech had googled Elm Guest House in 2014, in the course of what the prosecution at his trial described as his “extensive research on the internet”. The Elm Guest House connection was one of the major clues which detectives missed, but there were plenty of others. 

One was a basic bit of detective work that went undone. Beech’s stories about being abused by senior politicians and military figures and spies were long on famous names and short on specific details like dates and addresses. But there was one detail that could have been checked – or falsified – right out of the gate. Beech alleged that members of the paedophile ring once ran over and killed a school friend of his called Scott, in Kingston-upon-Thames. This is the kind of detail that can easily be corroborated – a fatal road traffic accident in broad daylight, and a victim with a name. But when the team at Panorama started tracking down everyone called Scott from Beech’s school, they realised they were the first to do so. The police hadn’t got round to it yet.

Another clue was that Beech had spoken to the police before – and told them something different. In 2012, after Jimmy Savile’s exposure as a paedophile, Beech had told Wiltshire Police he had been abused as a child by Savile, his stepfather and a group of others. Those others were military officers at his stepfather’s army base, but also an “inner group” which included a Middle Eastern man, an American man, and a couple who he said he couldn’t recall at all. There was no mention of any senior politicians or the directors of MI5 or MI6. And because Beech was so short on details about his abusers or the locations of the abuse, Wiltshire Police told him within months that they couldn’t take their investigation any further. 

When Beech next got in touch with police in the autumn of 2014, having blogged about the paedophile ring and Elm Guest House, and after his story appeared on the front page of the Sunday People newspaper, he told them about his dealings with Wiltshire police. Had the Met’s officers read those Wiltshire interview transcripts, they would have realised that Beech’s accounts of his abuse had changed, and that he hadn’t mentioned any politicians in 2012. The discovery would almost certainly have enabled them to close down their investigation by Christmas. 

What actually happened in late 2014 was almost the exact opposite of that. Far from figuring out that Beech was lying, the police took the highly unusual step of telling the public that they believed him. By Christmas, in a press conference that has no parallel in recent memory, the head of Scotland Yard’s murder command placed full confidence in his star witness. In a phrase that has since become infamous, Detective superintendent Kenny McDonald said Beech’s testimony was “credible and true”. 

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By late 2014, Harvey Proctor knew something was amiss. It would be months before police would search his house, and more months before he was formally interviewed, but he was getting some strange emails. “One starts to get hairs standing on end,” he told me when we first met. Someone who he recognised from Twitter emailed him asking for an interview. Then a journalist from the Independent on Sunday newspaper got in touch, and asked him about Elm Guest House. By this point he had become aware that his name was on the Elm Guest House List. But he had no idea how much trouble that was about to cause him. 

Strangest of all, one day a reporter from the Sunday Mirror newspaper turned up at the castle where Proctor works. Proctor hadn’t spoken to the media for many years, and had no idea what it was about. He assumed it related to his trial in the Eighties, and some link to the current speculation about sex abuse and Westminster. He sent the reporter away. 

Only in June 2015 did he discover what Beech had accused him of – the sexual abuse and murder of children. Beech said the paedophile ring included Proctor, Brittan, Heath, plus leading military figures like the former Chief of the Defence Staff Field Marshal Brammall, and the heads of MI5 and MI6. And he alleged that three boys had been killed, including one who Proctor had strangled and stabbed to death during a session of sadistic abuse.

It was, on its face, an extraordinarily unlikely story. It required a large group of people – some of whom, like Heath and Proctor, who were well known to dislike each other – to feel comfortable raping and murdering children in each other’s company, trusting each other to keep the secret. It involved believing that no one in Beech’s childhood life was overly concerned about finding injuries on his body, or noticed his regular absences from school, from which the paedophile ring allegedly picked him up in a chauffeur-driven car. And it meant believing that the organs of the British state were so corrupted by their involvement in the paedophile ring that they were willing to effect a massive, decades-long cover-up.

There were also the more prosaic aspects of a homicide investigation to think about. At one point during his first police interview, Proctor’s solicitor asked the Met’s officers: “Do you have any bodies?” “I can’t answer that,” one of them replied. By the time Proctor was interviewed, police had been speaking to Beech for over eight months. They had dozens of officers working on Operation Midland, to try to corroborate his claims. Proctor told me he had the impression that the police officers interviewing him were avoiding asking questions that would have raised doubts about Beech’s account. They didn’t want to falsify his claims, even though it would have been easy – and hugely advantageous for them – to have done so. He had the feeling that they believed Beech’s story – “Because they wanted to,” he told me. “They all thought it would make their reputations.” 

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On the face of it, the allegations made by Carl Beech, Tom Watson, Zac Goldsmith and dozens of others about Westminster rings and closed down police operations were criminal accusations – descriptions of sexual crimes, government corruption and grave police misconduct. But if you zoomed out a bit, they resembled something different: conspiracy theories. Beech was alleging that a group of very powerful men – who between them commanded politics, the military and the security services – were members of a secret and evil cabal, completely hidden from the public, committed to breaking the very laws that its members were entrusted by the public to enforce. Newsnight’s story about the closed down police operation – and other stories like it – completed the picture, showing the kind of cover-up that made the elite paedophiles immune from detection or prosecution. “This all sounds unbelievable, but who now among us or outside this place would want to suggest that there have been no conspiracies?” Zac Goldsmith asked parliament in his speech about Elm Guest House. 

Few were better placed to notice this resemblance than the journalist David Aaronovitch, author of an acclaimed book called Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. Weeks after Tom Watson’s reference to “a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No. 10”, and almost 18 months before Carl Beech started blogging, Aaronovitch sounded the alarm. “One fairly persistent modern meme in conspiracy theories is the idea of the paedophile network of powerful men,” he wrote in his Times column. “I say this not because such an accusation must always be false, but just to point out that the idea is somehow attractive. It unties some knots for us.” Later on, other journalists spotted the similarity between the Westminster paedophile stories and online conspiracy theories, but reacted differently. Talking about Beech on his show, LBC host James O’Brien wondered whether “this is actually one of those stories that sounds like a conspiracy theory but turns out not to be”. In late 2014, after playing an audio clip of Beech’s allegations, O’Brien said: “It does add weight to these suspicions – they’re becoming much more than suspicions – of high-level conspiracy. The higher the level of the criminal, the higher the level of the conspiracy it goes.” 

Aaronovitch’s deep scepticism about the whole spread of Westminster paedophile allegations put him in the crosshairs of a throng of angry online activists. “The position I was taking was a very lonely one – it was a minority sport,” he told me, when we met last year. Also in the firing line was Matthew Scott, a criminal barrister and popular legal blogger, who was sharply critical of the way some media outlets were reporting Beech’s claims. Both were accused of being paedophile apologists, spies, or worse. At one point Exaro News, the site that published Beech’s stories in mid 2014, tweeted that “the smears are coming from paedophiles as well as spooks. But some are one and the same”. The belief that the security services were protecting elite paedophiles was surprisingly common on Twitter, where the paedophile discourse had an aggressively anti-establishment edge. “The entire state conspired, it seems, to cover this up,” Exaro’s Editor-in-chief Mark Watts told the MP George Galloway on his show on the Russian state broadcaster Russia Today. “We’ve agreed, I think, that it’s the biggest scandal ever in Britain,” replied Galloway. In his YouTube documentary Nightmares at Elm Guest House, Bill Maloney, an anti-child abuse activist known for screaming at politicians about bodies buried under care homes, told his hundreds of thousands of viewers. “We’re talking about people who are running society, telling us how to fucking live.” 

A particular theme of Beech’s stories was the idea that his abusers had made impossible rules, which the boys they were abusing couldn’t help but break, leading to cruel punishments. A common phrase used by Beech was “If you didn’t do as you were told,” and he told police that the rules included “No crying” and “No hesitation” – and said “they didn’t like it when I passed out”. The men making the rules were deeply sadistic. “[They] were always trying to find new ways to inflict pain, or terror, fear,” he told the officers, describing one of his abusers as smart, cold, and calculating. Sitting in the courtroom at Beech’s trial, I sometimes wondered whether the abuse he described was a kind of conspiratorial metaphor for the establishment. Beech was conjuring a dark vision of the ruling class – a sadistic group of people who inflict unnecessary pain, wield their power in an arbitrary fashion, make impossible rules and spread misery by punishing the people who inevitably fall foul of them. Beech told police how the paedophile ring had held a Christmas party at Dolphin Square, an apartment block near the House of Commons, at which the boys were referred to as “presents”. “It was all a game,” he said. 

Hugo Leal, a fellow at Cambridge who helped to run the university’s Conspiracy and Democracy research project, says that conspiracy theories tend to posit the existence of secret plots by powerful people whose agenda is contrary to the common good. He describes Beech’s stories as “an archetypical conspiracy theory” but says he is surprised by the way the allegations were spread, because it doesn’t resemble most of the cases he has studied. “In this case, we have very central institutions and people disseminating the narrative,” Leal told me. “It’s very strange that so many people bought this story – including people in prestigious media outlets.” In democratic contexts, he said he can’t think of equivalent examples. “The strange thing here is how gullible public authorities, officials and journalists were.” 

In the years leading up to Brexit, with anti-establishment feelings growing in strength, the idea that the ruling elites weren’t just incompetent and out of touch but were actually evil had a certain appeal. It made things simple – black and white. At the end of 2014, protestors set up a camp on Parliament Square, as part of the Occupy movement. During the protest, one young man in particular was known to talk about the paedophiles in parliament. Two protestors I spoke to remember his blonde hair, and the chant he introduced to the demo: “Drag em out”. It fitted the moment, and became one of the protest’s most popular chants. As MPs left the parliamentary estate to go home, they could hear “Drag em out” cutting through the winter night. 

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Young journalists are often told to be extra careful when working on stories that confirm their pre-existing biases, advice which rests on solid psychological insights. The phenomenon of confirmation bias means we tend to be good at accepting information that confirms our prior beliefs, and often reject evidence that challenges them. If a story or a source comes along that meshes with something a reporter already believes, they are likely not to scrutinise it as hard as a colleague who didn’t hold any prior beliefs.

Professor Milton Lodge of Stony Brook University in New York is known in academia as the godfather of research into this part of psychology. His concept of “motivated reasoning” explains why when we encounter new information, our existing attitudes “come inescapably to mind”, leading to confirmation bias. When I contacted him two years ago to ask for an interview, I gave him a brief description of the VIP paedophile saga and a link to Carl Beech’s case in my first email. I told him I was particularly interested in why police officers, MPs and some journalists had let their guard down when dealing with Beech and some of the other stories of establishment child abuse. “Would be pleased to talk,” Lodge replied almost immediately. “This appears to be an extreme case of motivated reasoning and conspiratorial thinking.” 

On the phone, Lodge said he was taken by the credulity shown by normally sceptical professionals. “These are trained people who are trained to look at the information carefully and to be rather cynical, and yet they fell for it too,” he said. “I don’t think a simple motivated reasoning [theory] can account for that kind of credulity.” From his work he suspects “it has to do with an emotional response”. For example, if a journalist or police officer hears a source telling them that a politician was abusing children at sex parties, Lodge suggests they might immediately categorise that information according to what they already thought of that politician or how they felt about politicians of that era. This is an effect he calls “hot cognition”. 

It is compounded when the journalist or police officer or MP then puts their name to the information they have received. “A major finding in the social psychological literature is: once you go public with something, you are going to become more defensive of your position,” said Lodge. “You’re going to more actively engage in confirmation biases where you seek out only supporting evidence. Going public will result in you having a stronger view, maintaining it longer and resisting information more strongly.” This can be useful for things like giving up smoking, where telling friends and family makes it more likely we will stop. And it’s easy to see how it might operate in the opposite way in an argument between friends, when we’ve stated a position in front of a group of people and have become committed to it. 

But is this enough to explain why a group of experienced police officers wasted millions of pounds of public money and risked their reputations pursuing an investigation that should never have got off the ground? New work by the US public health specialist Sara Gorman would suggest that it might be. Her book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, shows how common it is for people to maintain their false medical beliefs even when their own life is at stake. She says neuroscience is now revealing the underpinnings of psychological phenomena like confirmation bias, showing there is actually something pleasurable about reinforcing beliefs that we already hold.

The same is true on the flipside. “When you are confronted with something that challenges your belief, the fear portion of the brain, the amygdala, is activated,” says Gorman. “And the part of your brain that reasons, and can actually take apart the information and understand it, the prefrontal cortex, is suppressed.” She agreed that going public has a material effect on how we think, and says this applies to people posting about something on social media. “There is a very strong inclination we have to not be inconsistent, and especially to not appear inconsistent to others,” she said . “That can be hard on social media – when people put down these identity markers it can be hard to go in a different direction.” It seems at least possible, therefore, that having tens of thousands of people publicly professing their confidence in a story like the Westminster paedophile ring on social media might represent an important mutation in the DNA of public panics, helping them to bed in deeper and last longer. For journalists and punters alike. 

Lodge told me that despite all the research into this aspect of our behaviour in recent decades, and despite his own work in the area, he found the VIP paedophile story confounding. “None of the studies I’ve done or seen are dealing with pieces of evidence as strong as the case you are looking at,” he said. “They are not dealing with situations as serious or improbable.” 

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If the VIP child abuse saga holds warnings about our surprising capacity for credulity when dealing with stories we want to be true, nothing illustrates those dynamics better than what happened inside the BBC. The BBC’s Home Affairs correspondent Tom Symonds was one of the first reporters to get to Carl Beech. Symonds is a respected reporter who regularly covers on important stories from outside New Scotland Yard and the Old Bailey. When the BBC broadcast a sit-down interview between Symonds and Beech in November 2014, it put the corporation’s stamp of approval on the allegations. The story led the news that night. The report opened with archive footage of a black cab driving through the West End in Seventies London. “The darkest stories from the past are returning to haunt modern Britain, and this is one of them,” narrated Symonds. Beech made his allegations on camera, in silhouette. “Nick, not his real name, has overcome decades of fear to give his testimony,” said Symonds. 

It was an extraordinary report and it had an instant effect. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is the BBC really sticking their neck out,’” one former Fleet Street editor told me. “Other reporters saw the BBC taking it seriously and took their cue from them. And then we’re off to the races, and everyone’s writing these extraordinarily lurid stories.” The tenor of the report – for example using words like “testimony” – signalled that the BBC had confidence in Beech. “I thought Tom Symonds must know what he’s talking about here,” the newspaper editor says. In fact, the BBC had not corroborated any of Beech’s claims. Crucially, before airing the interview, Symonds and his team had not stood up the detail in Beech’s story that was most open to corroboration: the hit-and-run in which Beech said the paedophile ring had killed one of his school friends. 

But they broadcast it anyway, and a month later, when the police described Beech’s evidence as “credible and true”, it looked like the BBC’s gamble on an unverified scoop had paid off spectacularly. “I’m one of the only journalists who has met him and spoken to him,” Symonds told viewers. At one point, he showed Beech a picture of a boy who had gone missing in the 1980s on his iPad and asked him if he recognised the boy as one of the boys abused alongside him – a major breach of reporting protocol which was mentioned several times at Beech’s trial. In the months that followed, having thrown in his lot with Beech so publicly, Symonds became unusually close to his source. In 2015, BBC staff discovered that Symonds and Beech had gone to the theatre together to watch Jonathan Maitland’s play about Jimmy Savile. And Symonds also seemed to be working in lock-step with the police. When Harvey Proctor was being interviewed by the Today Programme the day after his house search, one member of the Today team overheard Symonds on the phone in the show’s control room, speaking on the phone to his source at the Metropolitan Police.

Within the corporation, Symonds became increasingly evangelical about the story. Ceri Thomas, the editor of Panorama, the BBC’s premier investigative programme, was known to be dubious about claims of a VIP paedophile ring and his team began digging into Beech’s claims. It would be their film that would punch the first major holes in the story. But as they went about their work, Symonds made calls to a member of the Panorama team to chide them – half-jokingly the Panorama staffers thought – about being on the wrong track regarding Beech. “He was just saying he would be proved right and Panorama would be wrong,” recalls a BBC staffer. Eventually a senior BBC executive called a meeting to diffuse the tension between the team around Symonds at BBC News and the staff of Panorama. Representatives of both teams gathered in a dingy meeting room to make peace, only for the meeting to descend into bickering. 

“You are trying to shit on our journalism,” a producer from the news team complained. 

“What journalism?” a Panorama staffer shot back. 

(Tom Symonds chose not to speak to me for this story, and the BBC did not comment on the tensions within the corporation, but denied Symonds was speaking to his police source in the Today programme control room. A spokesperson for the BBC said: “The photographs of two boys were shown to Beech in order to test the veracity of existing newspaper reports which had contained speculation linking the boys to Beech’s allegations and the Metropolitan Police investigation. At this point Operation Midland was already underway and Beech had been interviewed at length by the police. We are satisfied our reporter’s actions did not contravene our editorial guidelines.”) 

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Police first interviewed Beech in October 2014. As 2015 drew on, they began to notice discrepancies between what he had told them, and what he had told his counsellor. Beech had been clear with officers that when his mum moved to London, he no longer saw his abusive stepfather Ray Beech, and was only abused by the politicians and other elite paedophiles. But in an email to his counsellor he had written about walking home from school one day, in Kingston-upon-Thames, and sensing that Ray was watching him. “I tried to get away and he was too strong,” he wrote in the email. “He continued where he left off. I had to meet him at various times each month.” 

Officers also noticed that in his correspondence with his counsellor, Beech had mentioned that while watching TV, he had seen one of his abusers on screen – an important detail which he hadn’t mentioned to the police. Most glaringly, Beech had mentioned a very specific detail in one of his blogs that he hadn’t remembered in his many hours of police interviews – something that could have helped officers find a medical record that corroborated his account. Beech had told the Met early on about the first time he was abused by Ray – a violent assault in the toilets of a zoo. Officers had gone over the story in immense detail, and Beech told them the assault had left him injured, but didn’t specify any particular treatment he had received. In his blogs however, he said he got a plaster cast on his arm, and remembered “it did not stop my father from raping me again as soon as I was home”. 

These inconsistencies should have set alarm bells ringing in Operation Midland. But officers were distracted by a new decoy Beech was running. He had told officers that he was still friends with one of the other boys who was abused by the ring, and acted to agree as a go-between. In February 2015, the police sent a lengthy email to “Fred” – the pseudonym Beech used for his friend – carefully composed by a clinical psychologist hired by the Met. Beech said he had forwarded it on. In March, Beech sent police a short, non-committal reply from Fred, saying he needed to “give consideration on how things might impact the life I have made for myself”. In April, records show that Beech created an encrypted email for Fred, so he could pose as the invented friend and have direct contact with the Met. Detective Chief Inspector Diane Tudway wrote to Fred herself, to try to persuade him to trust the investigation. “I would like to meet you and give you the opportunity to make your mind up about me,” she wrote. The exchanges dragged through the summer. In August, Fred wrote to Tudway that he was still hesitant to meet. “I am meeting Carl in a few weeks to talk things through with him and I will contact you again.” 

At this point, coming up to a year after police had first had contact with Carl Beech, Operation Midland was on life support. Aside from the highly elusive Fred, detectives had found no other witnesses who could corroborate Beech’s accounts, and didn’t have any physical evidence beyond what Beech had provided them. On the 25th of August 2015, five months after his home was searched, Proctor took the drastic step of calling a press conference, and revealing exactly what he was accused of, including details that the police had not not released. At one point he told the journalists who had assembled in a cramped room in a central London hotel: “Anyone of a delicate or nervous disposition, should leave the room now.” He described the assaults and murders Beech had accused him of. “It is so far fetched as to be unbelievable,” he said. “It is unbelievable because it is not true.” In the Daily Telegraph, the barrister Matthew Scott wrote: “In a year’s time Harvey Proctor’s news conference will be seen either as a chilling display of hypocrisy or as the moment a brave man finally took on the combined might of a misguided Metropolitan Police and a small, nasty and highly influential section of the press and internet.” 

When Proctor stood up to address the media, voting was already underway in the elections for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership. A few weeks later, on September 12th, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader, and Tom Watson became deputy. Watson won with a commanding 39.4% of the vote. He ran on his record of speaking up against powerful vested interests as a backbench MP, including News International during the phone hacking scandal – and the VIP paedophiles. In his campaign video, released in June 2015, he said he had “been involved in some real battles – from taking on Rupert Murdoch and the News of the World, to exposing child abuse coverups amongst the powerful.” The video featured a clip of Watson’s now-infamous 2012 question in parliament. The timing was good for Watson. Within weeks of his election, Panorama’s programme “The VIP Paedophile Ring: What’s the Truth?” effectively debunked Watson’s claim, finding no evidence of any Westminster ring – a conclusion which the public inquiry confirmed last week.

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Buried in the website of the public inquiry which published its findings last week, there’s a document which helps to explain why the stories about establishment child abuse were so convincing to so many people for so long. It’s a report prepared for the Westminster strand of the inquiry by the IOPC, the independent agency tasked with maintaining police standards, summarising 37 investigations it had undertaken following complaints about police misconduct or corruption, many of which came from police officers. As the report puts it, “Numerous allegations have been made by former, and indeed current police officers that historic allegations into child sexual abuse were halted and/or evidence surpassed following orders received from senior officers.” It went on: “All relate to persons of public prominence linked to Westminster and a concern that this association has negatively impacted upon police actions.” 

These allegations from former police officers were a major feature of the Westminster paedophile story. They produced some high profile stories, like the Newsnight scoop. But more broadly, they gave believers a lot of faith in the existence of a VIP ring, and were often cited by MPs and journalists. Serving and retired police officers seemed to most people like reliable sources, and their claims made for interesting newspaper stories. The IOPC (then called the IPCC) didn’t dampen down expectation when it said the claims were of “high-level corruption of the most serious nature.” The implication of all the claims was that there was no smoke without fire. But when the IOPC started investigating, they struggled to find any corroboration for the claims. As the report puts it: “In 36 of the 37 Operations considered here, no sufficient evidence has been obtained to support allegations of police misconduct.” In some cases, they found evidence that the allegations were clearly false, where there was “extremely significant” contrary evidence. 

In one case that was notable for its conspiratorial flavour, a former Met detective said he had executed a drugs search at a flat in Notting Hill in the 1990s, and found a suitcase containing envelopes on which it said: “Not to be opened unless in the event of my death.” Inside, written on House of Commons headed notepaper, were the names of prominent people including Cyril Smith and Leon Brittan. The retired officer says he and his colleagues were then warned to “back off from their investigation”. However, when the IOPC spoke to the other officers named as being involved in the search, none of them could remember the suitcase. The report notes: “The former officer then refused to co-operate any further in the investigation.” Just like with investigation into the allegation from the retired officer whose story was reported by Newsnight, the IOPC concluded that there was “No evidence of misconduct”. There are dozens of similar cases. Time and again, the IOPC’s investigators found that the smoke didn’t lead them to any fire.

While some of the claims seemed like intentional falsehoods, others could have been the result of mis-understandings, and the fading of memory over time. Daniel Foggo, who presented the influential Panorama programme in October 2015, which raised major questions about the existence of the paedophile ring, said the story often seemed like a house of cards. “You could see over time that things had been conflated with other things, and then later used as corroboration,” he told me. “You start wondering if the ultimate provenance of these allegations was that some of these blokes looked a bit off.”

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At about 10.30am on January 11th 2016, the police finally turned up the heat on Carl Beech. For over a year, they had struggled to corroborate any aspect of Beech’s stories about abuse by a VIP paedophile ring. Now they were ready to confront their star witness – previously described as “credible and true” – with the holes in his story. The Met’s Detective Constable Derek Young asked Beech whether he could have been mistaken about the details he provided police about Scott, his school friend who was killed in the hit and run. “All of the Scotts who attended Coombe Hill School have been traced and none have died as a result of a road traffic accident,” Young told Beech in a videotaped police interview. 

Young asked Beech why he gave the Met names of abusers that he hadn’t mentioned when interviewed by Wiltshire Police. “I think I was in a better place myself so I felt ready to do it, I felt safer in myself,” Beech replied. Then the officer turned to drawings Beech had made of the places where he was abused. The police had belatedly noticed that most of the sketches showed the outsides of buildings. And they had also noticed that the drawings were suspiciously accurate. Beech had repeatedly told officers during his interviews that all his sketches were from memory – that they constituted evidence he had been abused at those locations. Young pointed out that the number of windows in Beech’s sketch of the Carlton Club – where he says he was abused by Proctor, Brittan and others – was exactly right. As was the style and layout of the stairs on the inside of the club, of which a picture was also available online. Young showed Beech a sketch he had drawn of a building in Imber, an uninhabited village used for military training on Salisbury Plain, alongside a photograph of the building.

DC YOUNG: What would you say about the comparison and the position of those windows? In your drawing compared to that photograph. 

BEECH: Same. 

DC YOUNG: Would you agree that they’re in almost exactly the same position? 

BEECH: Mmm. 

DC YOUNG: There’s exactly the same number. Spacing. Gaps. Would you agree with that? Would you like to say anything about that? 

BEECH: No.

DC YOUNG: So that sketch there that you’ve done was done from a memory of thirty to forty years ago, is that right? 

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Just before Carl Beech’s trial, I met David Aaronovitch. “Allow me for a moment to express my intense fury at the idiots who did this,” he said soon after we had sat down in a coffee shop near King’s Cross. He said he was referring to the sections of the media who promoted stories about elite paedophile rings and cover-ups without bothering to check if they were true. A common defence of the media in relation to this story is that they were just taking their lead from the police, who after all had called Beech’s allegations “credible and true”. It’s also popular to blame Exaro News, the website that most heavily promoted Beech, and sold his story to The Sunday People, ignoring how much the Westminster paedophile story was spread by news organisations like the BBC, LBC, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail. At Beech’s trial, Exaro’s former Editor-in-chief was largely shunned by the other reporters present. One told me that they didn’t want to be seen speaking to him. Aaronovitch is certainly angry with Exaro, but he sees a wider responsibility on the part of the media, which he thinks put the police under pressure to investigate made-up stories. “They [the police] are intimidated by us,” he said. “This one is our fault.”

It’s widely accepted that after Jimmy Savile’s exposure, some sections of both the police and the media tried to atone for their failure to nail the entertainer during his life by doubling down on child abuse stories. Some wondered whether the “pendulum” had swung too far the other way – from disbelief to credulity. But the post-Savile reaction does not satisfactorily explain why so many people embraced something so elaborate and baroque as an establishment paedophile ring. In light of his 2012 column, in which he had written that the idea of powerful men abusing children “is somehow attractive,” I asked Aaronovitch to explain the appeal of these stories. “What is a VIP?” he replied. “It’s not you. It’s unknown figures – celebrities or people in satanic robes. It’s an act of taking a thing that is amongst us and putting it outside.” I had recently met Matthew Scott, another major sceptic about the paedophile ring who had been vindicated, and asked him the same question. “It’s a good story,” he said. “It’s about the willingness to believe things that you want to be true. Some people want to think people in power are evil.” 

The jury at Beech’s trial heard about some of the consequences of his allegations being believed for so long. Field Marshall Lord Bramall was in his nineties when twenty police officers searched his home for ten hours, and his wife died while police were still investigating Beech’s allegations against him. Proctor had lost his home and his job. Leon Brittan didn’t live long enough to see his name cleared, dying in January 2015. The drawn out police investigation also meant that while the Met were interviewing Beech, he was committing his own chid sex offences. After Operation Midland wound up, officers from Northumbria Police, who had been tasked with investigating Beech’s false claims, found indecent images of young boys, covert images of school boys and recordings of children on his devices, for which he was convicted of child sex offences last year, in a separate trial. During the period that Beech was telling police about his experiences with the paedophile ring, he was secretly recording one of his son’s best friends in the toilet at his house, and saving the video on his iPad.

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If you are walking down Harvey Proctor’s stairs in his cottage in Leicestershire and you’re not careful, you can easily bump your head into Carl Beech. About halfway down the stairs, there is a framed collage of newspaper stories about Beech, from the days after he was named for the first time. “Man whose ‘fake’ claims of VIP abuse sparked £2.5m police probe is named and pictured,” reads one. Proctor laughs when I ask him about it. “Terry made that to cheer me up,” he says.

In some superficial respects, Proctor’s life is back to how it was five years ago, just before the police turned up for the house search, and before he woke up to see his face on the TV. He’s still living in a slightly disheveled cottage on the Belvoir Castle estate, albeit a different one. As before, he’s sharing it with Terry, his lifetime partner, and his rowdy dogs, now three of them. But he knows his life has been changed in ways that are unalterable. The box that was opened by Carl Beech and the Elm Guest House conspiracists has been correctly labeled as containing mere fantasies, but nevertheless it can’t be shut. 

He’s clearly still angry – with the police, the media and the MPs who helped to elevate Beech from being a nobody on the internet. “Do you think I would have cared a damn if Beech had gone on social media, and made his allegations on Twitter?” he said to me on the phone this week. “But when the BBC, the Metropolitan police, the deputy leader of the Labour party and for that matter the Mail and the Mirror groups go on as if it’s all true, it was bound to have the difficulties for me that it did.” He says he hasn’t received an apology from the BBC, and isn’t holding his breath for one. He recently wrote to officials at the House of Lords to try to prevent Tom Watson from getting a peerage, and notes with anger that Zac Goldsmith and Lord Hogan-Howe, who was running the Met police, have both now been ennobled. “Has there been any move by Zac Goldsmith, after the IICSA report, to make a statement in the House of Lords, to state that what he told the House of Commons in 2014, was incorrect? He has not said a word. He ought to write to everyone affected by Operation Midland, and particularly those who were linked to Elm Guest House, to apologise for sharing lies.” 

The first time we met, about a year ago, Proctor picked me up from Grantham train station in his Land Rover, and placed one condition on our interview as he parked the car next to the local hotel. He said that the stress of the past few years had given him a form of PTSD, which meant that he sometimes broke down crying, something he said he couldn’t control. If it happened, he asked me not to mention it, because he considered it a matter of private health. I recently asked him to release me from that promise, because it seemed to be more than a matter of personal health, and he agreed. 

He had broken down a few times in our three-hour interview in the hotel, most notably when he was discussing how, soon after the police search, he had lost his job, lost his home that came with the job, and found himself hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt because of the legal costs of defending himself. At one point he and Terry were living in a friend’s outhouse, or shed, about five metres long and three metres wide. It had no shower, so they had to cross the courtyard and use the one in their friend’s house. He lived there for eighteen months. Around that time, Proctor received a death threat. It was a tweet calling for him to be murdered, and mentioning his location at the time, in Spain. The threat had a deep effect on him and he broke down sobbing when he told me about it. 

It’s almost impossible to get Proctor to talk about any feelings other than anger. He often answers questions about how he feels by robotically narrating events that he knows I already know about. The moments where tears stopped him speaking were rare indications that the Westminster paedophile saga has left him a broken man. At one point during our conversations, he let himself talk about the emotional toll of the past five years, very briefly. “Well, the whole thing has had you down,” he said. “I’m not the same person I used to be. I know that, and I know that I never will be.” 

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