A good story in search of hard facts

 

This week the police inquiry into a former children's home on Jersey was dismissed as a shambles. But how did the story become an international scandal only to deflate so spectacularly, asks Carl O'Brien, Social Affairs Correspondent?

IT ALL STARTED when they discovered a piece of skull. It was mid-morning on Saturday, February 23rd, and police in Jersey were digging on the site of a former industrial school when they uncovered what appeared to be the fragment of a child's skeleton.

Minutes after the police issued a press release describing the find, their phone lines were jammed with calls from media organisations. Within hours, satellite vans were jostling for space outside the former industrial school. Newspaper reporters flooded the island asking uncomfortable questions about the island's past and why no one knew about the "house of horrors".

It was easy to see how it gripped the public imagination. Here was an inquiry that had escalated into a macabre tale of children being killed and buried in the dark basement of an old Victorian building. That the story was unfolding in the notoriously closed society of Jersey only added to the sense of morbid intrigue.

Deputy police chief Lenny Harper, a former PSNI and Scotland Yard officer, soon became a daily fixture in the media, providing detailed briefings on each new aspect of the investigation.

Within days, police said sniffer dogs had indicated there could be human remains in as many as six other locations on the grounds of the building. A few days later detectives said they had discovered "finds of some significance", including a bath which appeared to be spattered with blood in the basement. By the next weekend police announced they had a trapdoor leading to a cellar, where victims said they had suffered abuse.

Newspapers, feverish with anticipation, upped the ante even further. "Does Colditz cellar hide a mass grave?" asked one newspaper. "More remains in secret chamber," asserted another. "'Six or more' bodies at Jersey children's home," an evening newspaper speculated.

Soon, a toxic mixture of rumour, imagination and speculation was swirling around the island and through the international media.

Today, almost eight months later, the police tents covering the excavations have been dismantled. The packs of reporters have left, while the satellite vans left long ago for somewhere more newsworthy. Yet, even more questions remain than when the investigation began.

This week the inquiry into child abuse was dismissed as a shambles after the island's most senior officer was suspended for his role in the investigation.

Senior detectives who took over the inquiry after Harper retired in August discredited key pieces of evidence and said there was nothing to support suggestions there had been any murders.

"There are no credible allegations of murder, there are no suspects for murder and no specific time period for murder," said detective superintendent Michael Gradwell, who took over from Harper.

FORENSIC TESTS HAVE since established that the "skull" was more likely to be a piece of wood or coconut shell. The shackles found in rubble turned out to be "a rusty piece of metal", and there is no evidence to suggest it had been used for anything suspicious.

The underground chambers were just holes in the floor, not dungeons or cellars. Most of the 170 pieces of bone found in the search came from animals. Three were human and two of these dated from between 1470-1670 and 1650-1950 respectively.

Graffiti found in a cellar under the house that read "I've been bad 4 years and years" had been scrawled on a post that was only added to the building in 2003, when it was being turned into a youth hostel.

Andrew Lewis, Jersey's home affairs minister, said an inquiry would be launched into what went wrong with the police investigation. "It is evident that we didn't receive all the information about the historic abuse inquiry that we should have received, and that some aspects of this critically important police investigation have not been conducted properly."

Harper, for his part, has insisted that his team never claimed there had been murders; they only said that some bones indicated homicide or unexplained death.

SO HOW DID the story balloon into a major international scandal, only to deflate spectacularly?

In many ways, the story was just too good. For the police, it was a chance to restore their dented credibility and establish their public-service virtues. The media, with its voracious 24-hour rolling news schedules, was content to unquestioningly devour any morsel it could get its hands on. And politicians on the island, eager to settle old scores, rushed to throw mud at each other over whose fault it was.

In the end, though, no one has come out of the story well.

As for the police, Harper's tactics at the time of the investigation were certainly unusual. For this reporter, who covered the story for The Irish Times in Jersey - and who is long used to gardaí giving the sparest of details regarding any investigation - the level of detail being released on a daily basis was out of the ordinary.

What made it even more exceptional was the decision to feed the media suggestive information, before it had been properly verified by investigators. It was almost inevitable, then, that the information would lead to feverish speculation by the media.

The police could have continued the search in private and not released details until they were confirmed. But Harper says his team had already decided that, in order to avoid the risk of interference from the Jersey establishment, whom he distrusts, they would put everything they found into the open.

The media, too, was at fault. Almost inevitably, the suggestive reports from the police were inflated to the point where they barely resembled the reality.

In contrast, when police issued a press release last April showing that tests had found that the fragment of skull-like material in fact dated back to before the 1940s, it barely registered on the media's radar.

As Nick Davies, the author of Flat Earth News - a damning critique of the media - has noted, the media failed to sufficiently check the police's PR material and leapt to certainty on issues that were still in doubt.

The political establishment that finally blew the whistle on the whole ugly spectacle doesn't come out of the affair well either. Many see the actions of the island's political leaders this week as retribution against senior police officers who rubbed many of the establishment up the wrong way.

There is also a sense that the timing of press conferences on the issue this week were a smokescreen to distract attention from a damning report - published yesterday - on the island's care system for young people.

Senator Stuart Syvret, a maverick former minister for health and social services who campaigned for transparency over the allegations, says politicians were attempting to "smear and rubbish" the work of Harper and attempting to justify the dismissal and abandonment of aspects of the investigation.

In directing blame at Harper, the political establishment also conveniently ignored the the fact that the police investigation team had already acknowledged there was no evidence of any remains of children at the site.

"I never said we had credible evidence of murder or murder suspects. I have always said we did not have a homicide enquiry but were treating the scene as one of a potential homicide," Harper told the Belfast Telegraph this week. "I would have thought they would have understood the difference."

THE MOST UNFORTUNATE aspect of the entire affair, however, is that the abuse of as many as 80 people at the institution has been eclipsed by a war of words over how the investigation was handled. Three people have been charged and it is expected that that number will rise.

The danger is that the painful testimony of people such as Peter Hannaford, who says he was sent to Haut de la Garenne as a child after the death of his parents, will be forgotten.

"Boys and girls were abused while I was there," said Hannaford, a respected trade-union official who broke his silence to speak of his experiences shortly after the investigation began last February.

"The abuse was anything from rape to torture. It was men and women who abused us. It happened every night and it happened to everyone. I was scared to go to bed . . . My experiences at Haut de la Garenne have affected my entire life."