On this Bank Holiday, after more than 35 years in journalism and a host of awards, our Editor Phil Parry explains how he watched what happened in recent high-profile cases with fascination and horror.
I say again, conspiracy theories are extremely dangerous and big cases in the news now have once again thrown this fact into stark relief.
Just hours after the notorious financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his cell on August 10, wild and unsubstantiated theories about the death began to circulate on the internet.
Many rumours have centred on what politicians allegedly may have known about Epstein’s crimes and whether some could have wanted him dead. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest this was the case, and yet, the hashtag #EpsteinMurder trended worldwide.
Perhaps the most far-fetched conspiracy theories were pegged to the hashtags #ClintonBodyCount and #TrumpBodyCount, which both trended on Twitter afterwards. The first was primarily used by Conservatives to suggest that former ‘first couple’ Bill and Hillary Clinton were linked to Epstein’s death.
The latter, perhaps predictably, was used by liberals who speculated that Donald Trump was somehow involved, but neither side had any evidence. The baseless theory of the Clinton’s involvement harks back to a long-running conspiracy theory that originated in the 1990s and claims the couple secretly kill their enemies.
Epstein, who was about to stand trial on sex trafficking charges, killed himself in his jail cell in New York, prison officials said, after being accused of running a ‘vast network’ of underage girls for sex, and pleading not guilty to the charges last month.
Among those named in court papers was Prince Andrew, who is alleged to have groped a woman, while a video published by The Mail on Sunday showed him saying goodbye to a woman in her 20s at Epstein’s mansion in Manhattan.
Andrew has now admitted it was a mistake to associate with Epstein after he had been charged earlier with offences. It also emerged in The Sunday Times that he took a flight on Epstein’s private plane with the Russian model Anna Malova, who tried to become Miss Universe and was later jailed for her failure to attend a drug-treatment programme.
The appalling recent case of the fantasist Carl Beech, is another one where wild conspiracy theories were central.
They were, unfortunately, believed by the police.
Beech had ‘told’ the authorities of a high-ranking paedophile ring in which children were murdered.
He came to public notice five years ago on the BBC’s Six O’Clock News, and was being ‘questioned’ by the reporter Tom Symonds.
But the ‘questions’ were unbelievable.
This is an extract of what Beech (who used the pseudonym ‘Nick’) was asked: “They were sexually abusing you? (Yes) And they seem to have been powerful enough to keep this hidden? (Yes) It’s amazing. There seems to have been quite an organised network to allow this to happen? (Yes)”.
The Labour MP, and deputy leader of his party, Tom Watson warned about “a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No 10″.The same day, on ITV’s This Morning, the presenter Phillip Schofield brandished a sheet of paper in front of David Cameron, claiming it was a list of Tory paedophiles that he had “found on the internet”.
For 18 months between 2014 and 2016, Beech was the star witness in a high-profile police investigation into allegations of sexual abuse and murder, involving MPs, generals and senior figures in the intelligence service. He was even helped by detectives to get a claim processed that he had previously made to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, following the allegations he made. Yet what Beech said was all a complete fabrication and he is now serving a jail term of 18 years – sentenced for 12 counts of perverting the course of justice, one of fraud, and for several child sexual offences.
But this is not the first time that police and news about their antics have been in the dock. The BBC too is culpable, and after being in the organisation for 23 years I know this only too well.
Over a picture of an alleged crook the awful words were used: “Is it by any chance the same man?”. Of course it wasn’t the same man, who then sued and won.
In investigations you NEVER use the words “Is it by any chance the same man?”! It either IS or it ISN”T!
During many years in journalism, I know that a mantra for our stories on The Eye must be: CHECK YOUR FACTS!
This was also put centre stage for me in the example of BBC Three’s Stacey Dooley presenting a Panorama (which I have fronted) about the treatment of women by Islamic State (IS). Ms Dooley had earlier boasted of how being an ‘untrained journalist’ made her better able to connect with people and has been described as “ratings dynamite” in UK newspapers. She has even been given a £250,000 ‘golden handcuffs’ deal by The BBC to work only for the public broadcaster.
Perhaps inevitably, she made a terrible mistake in that episode of Panorama.
The programme was called ‘Stacey Meets the IS Brides’ and Ms Dooley’s voice over HAD said: “We saw women raising their index finger in an IS salute”. But this was completely wrong and several viewers who had seen the trailer about it, criticised Ms Dooley’s comment on Twitter, explaining that Muslims often use this gesture while praying.
One said a complaint had been made to the broadcast regulator OFCOM.
BBC journalist Anisa Subedar tweeted: “Raising the finger is NOT an IS salute. Does #StaceyDooley know us Muslims raise it everytime we pray (that’s 5 times a day) to remind us of the oneness of God?”
After a deluge of complaints The BBC was forced to apologise, and announced that the episode was to be re-edited before its broadcast.
Another fundamental tenet of journalism, which evidently the police did not apply in the Beech case, is: USE YOUR COMMON SENSE!
Obviously anyone who comes to you with a story about children being murdered, should be treated with extreme caution. Frankly this is unlikely to be true and you need evidence – yet it seems the Metropolitan Police believed Beech without this.
A top detective wrongly called the allegations “credible and true” before his force had completed the inquiries.
Many years ago when I was training to be a journalist, the head instructor had a golden rule: CHECK, CHECK, CHECK!
I still follow this rule today. It’s a shame that neither the police nor Ms Dooley do…
Tomorrow – why this rule became all-important in establishing the truth about the identity of another individual included with others at the heart of a police investigation into alleged bribery in a multi-million pound land deal, centred on a scandal-hit Welsh university.
Phil Parry’s memories of his extraordinary 35-year award-winning career in journalism as he was gripped by the incurable disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in a major new book ‘A GOOD STORY’. Order the book now! The picture doubles as a cut-and-paste poster!