Concocting a horror story

Published May 2008

The Guardian, May 2008

Anybody who has been plugged into the news over the past few months could be forgiven for believing that police searching a former care home in Jersey have already found evidence of children being murdered. This belief could have been encouraged by headlines such as: ” ‘Six or more’ bodies at Jersey children’s home” (Evening Standard); “Does Colditz cellar hide a mass grave?” (Daily Mail); “Police ‘on verge’ of discovering more child remains” (Daily Telegraph); “More remains in secret chamber” (the Times); “Six more bodies feared buried in Jersey home” (the Guardian).

The search is not yet over. It is possible that evidence of homicide will yet emerge. However as of today, as Jersey’s deputy chief officer, Lenny Harper, who is leading the inquiry, said last week: “We haven’t found any evidence of any death caused by foul play.”

Jersey police are running a major inquiry into some very serious allegations of sexual and physical abuse at the children’s home. This takes them back into the same very difficult territory explored by numerous mainland forces over the past two decades when former residents of homes in England and Wales came forward with chilling claims of mistreatment. That story is familiar.

What singled out the Jersey story from its predecessors – what guaranteed the torrent of news coverage – was the idea of children not only being physically and sexually attacked, but also then being killed and buried in the dark corners of the home. Thus far, that coverage has been a model of the internal mechanics of the kind of false and distorted stories which are now so common in our news media.

It started with a piece of bone. At about 9.30 in the morning on Saturday February 23, Jersey police digging under the stairwell at the former home at Haut de la Garenne found something that a forensic anthropologist on site cautiously identified as part of the back of a child’s skull. That afternoon, Harper put out a press release announcing the find.

This, in itself, was an interesting decision. It was open to Harper to continue his search without publicity, but he and his team had already decided that, in order to avoid the risk of interference from “elements of the Jersey political elite” whom he openly distrusts – and in order to reassure witnesses and to encourage others to come forward – they would go public with whatever they found. This was inherently risky since it meant releasing information before it could be checked.

And Harper had allowed himself one compromise in his strategy of openness: he would not release details that might be picked up from a newspaper and recycled by a future witness. For this reason, he chose in the press release to refer with deliberate vagueness to the discovery of “what appears to be partial remains of a child”. That opened the door to Fleet Street’s imagination.

By the time the Sunday papers got hold of this, the News of the World had found the whole skull; the Sunday Times and the Observer had found “parts” of a child’s skeleton; and others had found the entire body. By Monday morning, the London Evening Standard had even uncovered its gender: the bone fragment was “the skeleton of a girl”.
Story demolished

Armed with their dead child, Fleet Street’s warriors plunged into the fight for news. Quietly, in the background,

Jersey police sent the bone fragment off to be examined and, seven weeks later, on April 18, they put out a press release which explained that their forensic archaeologist had now determined that the bone fragment had been on the site since before the 1940s, possibly since Victorian times. This meant that it could not possibly be anything to do with the allegations of abuse that Harper was investigating, which date from the late 1950s.

In other words, this completely demolished the origin of Fleet Street’s story. The Sun and the Mail tucked that devastating information into one line in the nether reaches of an update on the police search. No other national newspaper even mentioned it to their much-misled readers. Journalists were too deep into their own narrative. And they had been led there by a dog called Eddie.

At a press briefing on the day after the discovery of the skull fragment, Harper explained that Eddie, who is trained to react to human remains, had “indicated a number of spots which are forensically interesting to us: six to eight at the moment”.

Harper recalls reporters hammering him with questions: “Are you expecting to find bodies? Is it possible you’ll find bodies?”

He says he conceded that of course it was possible that they would find bodies. This reluctant concession was rapidly converted into the angle of the day. The Sun: “Asked about the dead, deputy chief officer Lenny Harper said bluntly: ‘There could be six or more.’ ” The Evening Standard and the Guardian used similar lines.

“All this about six more bodies,” Harper told me. “We never said that. That was certainly inaccurate and out of proportion.” And now, nine weeks after the finding of the skull fragment, police have nearly completed a search of eight sites to which Eddie reacted. Three were empty. A fourth appears to be empty, though there is a little digging still to go. In the remaining four, police have found: two human milk teeth; some bone fragments, animal or human; five bloodstained items; and a bath with tiny spots of blood. All are being tested. None of these, as Harper insists, is necessarily sinister.

“It’s a children’s home. Kids lose teeth. They get cut. On the other hand, these items may be important.”

Fleet Street, however, opted to assume the most sinister implications for all the finds and went further, ominously drawing attention to the fact that the bath in the cellar was “bolted to the floor”, as though most baths were mobile; and lingering over the apparently surprising fact that, just as witnesses had said, this cellar was “very dark”. Two further finds – a set of manacles and an old pit containing lime – produced still more sinister headlines, even though as yet neither find has any explanation.
Feral coverage

Harper tried to rein in the more feral coverage. When he heard during the first week that CNN and Sky were reporting the discovery of the bodies of two children, he immediately spoke to a Sky reporter who went live with his denial (though Harper says CNN carried on running it). He tried to make clear that they had allegations of the unexplained disappearance of children, two of whom have since been found alive and well, and, as the official transcript of a press briefing records, he did tell reporters: “We have no allegations that anyone died or was murdered here.” That didn’t make the news.

The effect of the coverage in Jersey has been traumatic, with the Jersey Evening Post complaining of “a toxic mixture of rumour, imagination, political opportunism and irresponsible national media reporting”, while one Jersey politician, Deputy Sean Power, last week questioned the home affairs minister about Harper’s media handling of the original bone fragment. The Week magazine has formally and “shamefacedly” apologised for its reporting, blaming “the flavour of the reports in the British press as a whole”, as well as its own “insufficient care and attention in researching”.

Harper accepts that his strategy of openness was high-risk. And certainly some of his press releases encouraged speculation, repeatedly describing the police search as “a potential homicide inquiry”. However, the news media succumbed to some of their own most worrying endemic weaknesses.

Like so many false and distorted stories, this one was driven by PR, here from the police. That PR material was used by media outlets without sufficient checks and then recycled secondhand by masses of others, all of them falling foul of the commercialised media’s in-built preference for certainty over doubt; for fitting facts into fictional templates; for taking the safe road of running the same angle as the rest of the media; and, most of all, for running stories which sell.

He remains passionately committed to his inquiry: “What I am absolutely certain about is that horrific abuse went on in that home.” He and his team may yet find evidence of murder. They are particularly interested in test results, due soon, which may show that bone fragments which they found are human and recent and possibly linked to the milk teeth found near them. But that would be another story.

Update, November 2008: Jersey police concluded that there was no evidence of any child being murdered at the home; experts said the fragment of ‘bone’ which set off the story proved to be an old piece of coconut.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/jersey/7723860.stm

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