The hilariously misnamed Bureau of Investigative Journalism is getting a lot of much-deserved flak over the Lord McAlpine scandal. It was one of the bureau’s chief reporters, Angus Stickler, who researched and presented the now notorious Newsnight report which falsely accused a “high-ranking Tory” of being a paedo. And it was the bureau’s director, Iain Overton, who cranked up the frenzied Twitter rumour mill. On 2 November, shortly before Stickler’s report was aired, Overton tweeted: “If all goes well, we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile.” It was this tweet which led to a febrile climate of “naming and shaming” across the Twittersphere and blogosphere, with false claims being made about Lord McAlpine by everyone from bedroom-bound conspiracy theorists to serious journalists like George Monbiot.
Yet this isn’t the first time that journalists now linked with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in particular Angus Stickler, have made less than airtight claims about paedophiles or child abusers or witches. Indeed, on a number of occasions over the past 10 years, Mr Stickler, who was a BBC journalist before he joined the bureau, has fronted scandalous-sounding reports about blood-curdling child-snatchers which later turned out to be quite questionable.
In 2006, in reports for both Radio 4’s Today programme and Newsnight, Mr Stickler claimed that a Tottenham-based pastor of Congolese origin, Dr Dieudonne Tukala, was diagnosing children as “witches” and encouraging their parents to “beat the devil out of them”. This led to newspaper reports about severe cruelty against “child witches” within London’s religious African communities. On the back of Mr Stickler’s reports, Pastor Tukala was arrested by the Metropolitan Police on charges of child cruelty. But after a thorough 10-month investigation, the charges against him were completely dropped; evidence for the very serious things said by Mr Stickler about Pastor Tukala was found wanting.
In 2005, someone at the Met leaked a report to Stickler, who was then at the Today programme, which said that young African boys were being trafficked to the UK and murdered in “human sacrifices”. Stickler said he had heard things that were “absolutely chilling” and said “the most gruesome details come from the African communities”. He also reported, darkly, that 300 African children had gone missing in Britain over a four-month period. Murdered in sacrificial rituals, perhaps? That was one of the implications. Newspapers leapt upon this story, too, most notably the Evening Standard, which ran with the headline, “Children sacrificed in London churches”. However, the claims were not true. The Met later said that there was “no evidence whatsoever” of human sacrifices taking place in Britain, or that boys had gone missing for this purpose. Its internal report was purely “anecdotal”, it said, and should never have been leaked, far less splashed with such seriousness on the Radio 4 airwaves. (See Private Eye, 1st-14th September 2006.)
Mr Stickler seems to have a longstanding fascination with paedophiles and witches, one which often runs ahead of the evidence. Indeed, long before this week’s Newsnight debacle, Stickler’s reporting on the North Wales children’s home scandal was being called into question by at least one well-placed expert. The late Richard Webster, author of the exhaustive, Orwell Prize-nominated Secret of Bryn Estyn, which examined in extraordinary detail the claims made about child abuse at that home, argued in 2004 that a Radio 4 report about the home by Stickler had got some things “spectacularly wrong”. Stickler interviewed Stephen Messham for that report, just as he did for Newsnight this week, even though, as Webster pointed out in 2004, there are “questions about [Messham’s] reliability and integrity”. “To any dispassionate observer, it should now be apparent that the ‘paedophile ring’ enthusiastically located by journalists and others in North Wales children’s homes belongs to the realm of higher fantasy”, said Webster.
When Stickler, isn’t seeking out political paedophiles in North Wales or African witch-killers in London, he is putting the boot into alleged paedophile rings in the Catholic Church. Indeed, according to a 2003 Guardian report, Stickler was originally recruited to the Today programme in order to “cause trouble for the Roman Catholic Church” (something the BBC loves doing, of course), which he duly did with a series of reports about Catholic paedophilia.
What the case of Stickler suggests is that when journalists go hunting for modern-day witches, they can get carried away. They risk letting their standards slide and their imaginations run riot. One of the most striking things about the McAlpine scandal in particular is that it should have been stirred up by Stickler’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which is linked to the much-respected City University journalism school and to serious broadsheet journalists like Nick Davies* and David Leigh of the Guardian. These are the very people who, over the past two years, have been campaigning against scurrilous tabloid journalism, in particular the use of phone-hacking at the News of the World, and calling instead for proper investigative, “public interest” journalism. So is this what they mean by “public interest” journalism? The fact-lite naming and shaming of wholly innocent men? In an irony so profound it is hard to get one’s head around it, that is one of the things these erudite journalists most hated about the late News of the World - its cavalier naming and shaming of paedos.
* Correction: Although Nick Davies was involved in some of the discussions that gave rise to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, he has never had any role in the BIJ itself.
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