• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Operation Midland: Treating fiction as fact

Thankfully, it seems that Operation Midland, the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into an alleged establishment paedophile ring, has become so discredited that it will soon collapse.

Over the past three years, we have seen a proliferation of police operations and inquiries into historical crimes supposedly committed by dead or aged celebrity paedophiles. These official inquiries and police operations have acquired a dynamic of their own. But the search for a hidden, malevolent network of powerful predators has been at its most grotesque in the narrative informing Operation Midland.

All the recent inquiries into historical crimes committed by paedophiles seemed implicitly to presume the guilt of their targets. But it was with Operation Midland that this casual attitude towards due process was taken a step further. In December 2014, detective superintendent Kenny McDonald, the man leading Operation Midland, declared that the allegation made by ‘Nick’, the operation’s star witness, was ‘credible and true’. When the lead investigator knows the truth before the completion of an inquiry, let alone the completion of a trial, it is clear that what we have is an inquisition, not a proper inquiry.

In the case of Operation Midland, what was declared to be ‘credible and true’ soon turned out not to be. There was insufficient circumstantial evidence even for a showtrial.

Operation Midland is not the exception

It has been widely claimed that Operation Midland had simply gone a bit too far. Some argue that it is the exception to the rule, the odd one out among the plethora of solid inquiries into historical crimes. Nothing could be further from the truth. The numerous inquiries launched in the post-Jimmy Savile era all represent a new trend in the workings of the criminal-justice system. Historically, the stated aim of the police was to fight reported crimes and catch the bad guys responsible for committing them. Today, the criminal-justice system has become preoccupied with uncovering crimes that have not been reported. Its point of departure is not the evidence of an actual crime but the conviction that the ‘absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence’.

Operation Midland has drawn on precedents established by previous inquiries, principally Operation Yewtree. The tendency to treat an allegation as the truth was apparent in Yewtree’s report Giving Victims a Voice, published in January 2013. Giving Victims a Voice decided to break with the practice of treating an accusation of abuse as an allegation and instead represented it as a de facto truth. The report’s authors took it upon themselves to define accusers as ‘victims’ rather than ‘complainants’. Moreover, they decided not to regard ‘the evidence [complainants] have provided as unproven allegations’. The supplanting of the phrase ‘unproven allegation’ by the term ‘evidence’ represented an extraordinary change to the carefully calibrated terminology associated with due process. Now, the mere assertion of victimisation is all that is required to gain the status of ‘victim’. This rebranding of untested allegations as evidence all but relieves the accuser of the burden of proof.

What distinguishes Operation Midland from the other operations is not the fundamental principles on which it acted; rather, it was that it featured a preposterous over-the-top narrative that proved too complicated for generating material that could be converted into evidence. The conspiracy theory surrounding the Dolphin Square paedophile ring is at once too vague, and yet, on many points, too specific, to provide the basis for a credible inquiry report.

Don’t blame the ‘Savile effect’

Sections of the media have decided to treat the demise of Operation Midland as an unfortunate consequence of the Savile effect. According to this argument, sections of the police are simply reacting or overreacting to their past failure to take the accusations of abuse made by Savile’s victims seriously. From this perspective, Operation Midland’s behaviour is understandable and entirely forgivable. Indeed, there is an undercurrent of thought that what is really problematic about the operation is not its circulation of unjust accusations and conspiracy theories, but the mere fact these were publicly discredited. From this standpoint, the problem with the operation’s unravelling is that it might encourage scepticism towards the numerous other historical allegations under investigation in other inquiries.

In my book Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal, published in 2013, I noted that the outbreak of the Savile case was not a one-off event. Rather, it was preceded by a wave of other scandals. So the origin of the current moral crusade against historical criminals is not a reaction to Savile. On the contrary, the manner in which Savile was dramatically transformed from a national treasure into a vile paedophile that had ‘groomed a nation’ indicates that there were powerful forces at work that preceded the ‘discovery’ of Savile’s crimes.

The Savile case does mark an important shift in the political and institutional management of moral outrage. The frenzied reaction and confusion surrounding the perils of paedophilia have significantly undermined the authority of due process and have had a corrosive impact on the workings of the criminal-justice system. The gradual erosion of the important distinction between an allegation and a fact, and between a complainant and a victim, has had the effect of lowering the burden of proof. It has significantly undermined the presumption that one is innocent until proven guilty.

The manner in which evidence of historical crimes is collected increasingly resembles rituals traditionally associated with witch-hunts and inquisitions. Just recall superintendent Sean Memory posing in front of former prime minister Edward Heath’s house in Salisbury in August. The aim of this very public exercise was to encourage those who ‘have been a victim’ of Heath to get in touch with the police. You don’t need a PhD in criminology to grasp the implications of Memory’s declaration. Without the benefit of a trial, Heath was more or less declared to be guilty.

Even at the best of times, the investigation of historical crimes is fraught with danger. Relying on memory invariably introduces an element of selectivity and subjectivity into proceedings. Investigating alleged crimes that happened many decades ago carries the risk of decontextualising events and viewing them through the prism of contemporary sensibilities. In such circumstances, the line that separates fact from fiction is often blurred. The fantasies peddled by Operation Midland are the inevitable outcome of the search for historical crimes.

In the current climate, the lessons of Operation Midland are unlikely to be learned. We can expect more conspiracy theories involving powerful cabals of paedophiles. Unfortunately, the corrosive forces driving this moral crusade are far from exhausted. It’s time for sceptics to prepare themselves for the witch-hunts to come.

Frank will be speaking at the sessions ‘Is there a future for liberalism?’, ‘Goodbye Mr Chips: can research tell teachers how to teach?’, ‘From literature to Twitter: the death of the reader?’ and ‘Libertarians of the world unite?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 17-18 October. Get your tickets here.

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