When the Jersey police this week confessed that – contrary to so many ghoulish news stories – they have, in truth, no evidence of children being murdered and buried in an old children’s home on the island, they laid the blame at their own door. That tells only part of the story.
The new head of the inquiry, Deputy Chief Officer David Warcup, expressed ‘much regret’ for inaccurate information, which, he said, had been released by Jersey police. One of the force’s most senior officers, Graham Power, has been suspended from duty. The guilty party who escaped unnamed from Warcup’s account was the press. This should be no secret. In May, in MediaGuardian, I analysed three months of stories about secret graves and torture chambers, all of which were provably false. Any journalist with their brain engaged could see that the stories were unsound. And yet everybody published them.
The story behind the stories of the home at Haut de la Garenne is a classic of modern media failure, different in its detail but repeated in its essence in countless daily distortions as well as in the great global tales from the millennium bug to the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Look back at the origins of the Jersey story and you see the two toxic elements whose chemistry now routinely poison the news – tactical PR spin and a journalism which has been corrupted by commercialism.
A couple of weeks before they started digging at the home the Jersey police team, then led by Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper, met to discuss their media strategy. The normal course would have been to send off any finds to be checked by specialists and then to release the information to the press or at a trial. Harper chose to disclose all finds immediately even if that meant they were unchecked.
He did this for two reasons: first because he feared that some Jersey politicians might try to conceal the truth; second, because he wanted to send a message to adults who had once been residents in the home that this was a serious inquiry which they could trust and which they should approach.
So it was that on Saturday February 23, when his team found a fragment in the earth which was cautiously identified on site as part of a child’s skull, Harper didn’t wait for a check but immediately put out a press release. News reporters, who now routinely convert press releases into news stories without checking them, reproduced that and added their own flourish. Within 24 hours, the News of the World were describing this as a whole skull, while the Sunday Times and the Observer turned it into parts of a child’s skeleton.
Two months later, when the specialists had examined the fragment, they reported that it had been there since before the 1940s and could not be part of the alleged abuse which dated from the 1950s. To their credit, the Jersey police put that out in a press release. The Sun and the Mail mentioned it in small stories, on nothing like the scale of their original coverage. The other nationals said nothing.
We heard about the bath that was suspicious because it was “screwed to the floor”, as though most bathtubs were mobile; about the cellars that were remarkable for being “very dark”; about manacles that turned out to be rusty scrap and burial pits which turned out to be holes in the ground; about bones which dated back to medieval times.
We heard over and over about the possibility that police would find six or more bodies, when the truth was simply that a dog called Eddie had barked at six or more points on the site. What we really heard was the sound of the modern media at work.