Carl Beech was convicted of fraud and 12 counts of perverting the course of justice on 22nd July 2019. This followed him making a series of lurid allegations about senior politicians and military chiefs which led the police to launch a £2.5m investigation into an imaginary VIP paedophile ring.
Ed Marsden, managing director of Verita, oversaw investigations for the Department of Health into Jimmy Savile in the run up to the Beech allegations with the barrister Kate Lampard. Kieran Seale, a Verita director, spoke to Ed about what lessons could be learnt from this case.
Kieran – What is your reaction to the conviction of Carl Beech?
Ed – I am sure that Beech knew what he was doing. He was a nurse by background and he previously worked for the Care Quality Commission, so he must have been aware of the trouble he caused. A number of people have suffered genuine hardship as a result of what he did and we must have enormous sympathy for them.
What is remarkable is how the largest police force in the country, using experienced detectives, allowed this to happen.
When Scotland Yard launched the investigation, code-named ‘Operation Midland’ they held an appeal for witnesses where the detective in charge of the inquiry said that he considered Beech’s account to be “credible and true”. The wording itself is strange. It is fine to say that allegations are credible, but to say that they are “true” is another thing entirely.
That is a remarkable frame of mind in which to enter an investigation before any real evidence had been collected.
Kieran – What do you think lies behind this?
Ed – It is important to understand the context of the events leading up to this. In 2012 the Jimmy Savile story broke, a year after Savile’s death. Many people came forward to say that they had been abused. The police came under a lot of pressure in the wake of this and with other historical offences coming to light.
The police said that they didn’t have the resources to investigate all these historical cases, so they did some work with the NSPCC setting up a phone line and producing a report. In that report ‘Giving victims a voice’, they pronounced on the ‘guilt’ of Savile on the basis of what people had told them, even though the evidence was largely uncorroborated.
There is a sense of the police losing track of their responsibilities. In the report they said:
“Some people have questioned why police resources are being deployed on an investigation when the suspect is dead, cannot defend himself or be criminally prosecuted. This is understandable but does not take account of the need for hundreds of victims to have official recognition of the serious crimes they have suffered and to know they have been taken seriously”.
So the police appear to have already made up their mind that these were “serious crimes” even though they hadn’t been properly investigated.
Kieran – Investigating cases where the victim is dead is particularly problematic, isn’t it? Both because the police are never going to investigate the cases in the normal way, you can’t get a direct account from the accused and even the most basic corroboration can be difficult.
Ed – Yes, that is right – they are very tricky.
Ironically, at the same time as this, the NHS was beginning its investigations into Savile. We were asked by the Secretary of State for Health to oversee the investigations that the NHS was doing (the report that I wrote with Kate Lampard is here). I think that the NHS did a more thorough job of investigating than the police. Those investigations did try to cross-reference what witnesses were saying and challenge the evidence. In some cases the investigations concluded that the accounts weren’t credible or supported by the evidence. Some accounts just couldn’t be reconciled with the other evidence and so were excluded from the report. Of course, Savile committed some very, very serious crimes, as our report demonstrated, but it is still necessary to keep an open mind about each individual allegation.
Kieran – The metaphor that I often use for investigations is a jig-saw. Sometimes individuals are concerned that too much will be built on their one piece of evidence, but I explain to them that our job is to put everything together and see the pattern – no investigation should rely on a single source of information.
Ed – Yes, seeing the context and the full picture is vital. As part of the Savile work we commissioned a piece of research from ‘History and Policy’ a national network of academics led by Kings College, London and Cambridge University. They wrote a report into the history of how complaints were handled in the 1960’s and 70’s, how the press responded to this sort of issue, how hospitals were run etc. That work revealed that attitudes were very different at that time in terms of people being more deferential and more reluctant to talk about “embarrassing” things like abuse.
Kieran – What would you say to people who say that ‘the victim should always be believed?’
Ed – Witnesses should be treated with sympathy and respect and should be heard. It is very important to be sensitive and to listen carefully to what they say. But it is simply wrong to say that they should always be believed. Evidence should always be tested and judgements made against evidence. In the Savile oversight report we set out four or five tests that investigators should apply to evidence that they were hearing from witnesses.
Investigators have to have an open mind going into an investigation. Starting an investigation with the mindset that any of the facts are true or untrue will always be problematic. For the detective in charge at the beginning of the case to say that Beech’s evidence was “true” was a recipe for disaster – the mindset is just all wrong.
Kieran – Why do think the police sided with Beech in this way?
Ed – The Metropolitan police led on the Savile case. They found it a very difficult, scarring experience. They had been criticised for being insensitive in the past. They made a decision to be victim-centric. I think that they over-compensated.
Kieran – Are there any general lessons that can be learnt from the Beech case?
Ed – It is really a lesson about following good investigatory practice. It is essential to always have an open mind, however overwhelming the evidence appears at first to be or however strong the desire is to believe or to be sympathetic to a particular witness. There is just no substitute for a thorough investigatory process.
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