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Historic child abuse investigations and Operation Midland

News   •  Sep 21, 2015 17:00 BST

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) recognises the media's and the public's interest in its historic child abuse investigations, and in particular, in Operation Midland. The focus of this investigation is on allegations of the homicide of three young boys. There are also allegations of sexual abuse but the MPS has made clear from the outset that this is, and remains, a murder investigation.

The historic nature of the allegations means this is a complex case where the normal avenues of evidence-gathering from CCTV, DNA and telephone data, are not open to us. These cases take time, but the public can have confidence that allegations from witnesses will be investigated thoroughly. We can all see the legacy that has been created by police and other authorities who appeared not to take allegations seriously in the past and the impact that has had on the confidence of victims to come forward.

There are particular challenges where details of the allegations and those facing accusations are in the public domain. This can create potential conflicts between media and criminal investigations, and have an impact on vulnerable witnesses and those accused. This has been especially true in Operation Midland, and we wish to highlight to the media and to the public the risks that our investigation may be compromised. We raised this concern when we initially appealed for more witnesses and it continues to be an issue. We also need to clarify our investigative stance in cases of this kind

Our starting point with allegations of child sexual abuse or serious sexual assault is to believe the victim until we identify reasonable cause to believe otherwise. That is why, at the point at which we launched our initial appeal on Midland, after the witness had been interviewed for several days by detectives specialising in homicide and child abuse investigations, our senior investigating officer stated that he believed our key witness and felt him to be 'credible'. Had he not made that considered, professional judgment, we would not have investigated in the way we have.

We must add that whilst we start from a position of believing the witness, our stance then is to investigate without fear or favour, in a thorough, professional and impartial fashion, and to go where the evidence takes us without prejudging the truth of the allegations. That is exactly what has happened in this case.

The integrity of our investigation is paramount, and the public can have confidence that allegations of homicide are being investigated thoroughly. Our officers have the resources to test all the evidence, and we have not yet completed this task. It is then for the Crown Prosecution Service to make a decision on whether to prosecute. More significantly, only a jury can decide on the truth of allegations after hearing all the evidence. We should always reflect that in our language and we acknowledge that describing the allegations as ‘credible and true’ suggested we were pre-empting the outcome of the investigation. We were not. We always retain an open mind as we have demonstrated by conducting a thorough investigation.

In this respect, our approach in Operation Midland is the same as if we were investigating a contemporary rape allegation. Anyone familiar with the history of child abuse and rape investigations will recall that for many years, the first instinct of investigators appeared to be to disbelieve those making the allegations, which had a negative impact on people's confidence to report to the police or other authorities. This undoubtedly led to crimes going unreported and un-investigated, and we do not want to return to that situation.

The media has shown in recent years how important they are in bringing issues concerning historic abuse to public notice and has been both challenging and supportive of the way in which police and the criminal justice system have adapted our approach. Reporting has also rightly questioned the official response to allegations. The media is also valuable in witness appeals and to show possible victims that they can have confidence their claims will be investigated.

What can be overlooked, at times, is that those making allegations are very often vulnerable individuals. A useful definition of ‘vulnerable people’ is set out in the Ofcom code for broadcasters (8.22). It is important to note that the police must take account of this vulnerability at all stages, irrespective of whether the allegations can be substantiated or not. We ask the media and those asked to comment to do likewise. We also think the press should consider following Ofcom’s approach by amending its code to recognise that vulnerability in reporting of crime is not just a matter of the age of witnesses or victims.

Our other main concern is the risk that media investigations will affect the process of gathering and testing evidence in our criminal investigation. In recent weeks, one journalist reporting on Operation Midland has shown the purported real identity of someone making an allegation of sexual assault to a person who has disclosed that they have been questioned by police concerning those allegations. This action has a number of potential impacts.

First, for those who have made allegations of sexual abuse, it is extremely distressing to discover that their identity might have been given to anyone else, particularly if that is to someone who may be involved in the case. Secondly, possible victims or witnesses reading the article may believe their identities could be revealed as well, which could deter them from coming forward. Ultimately, that could make it harder for allegations to be proved or disproved. This might not just deter those who could provide information for this investigation but also concern anyone thinking of coming forward with sexual abuse allegations. Finally, the potential disclosure by a journalist of a name may possibly hamper an investigation. Names will be disclosed by police to those involved in the case, but that will be at the appropriate time for the investigation depending on how those lines of enquiry progress.

We do understand that there are occasions when people making allegations of crime - including sexual abuse - disclose their own identity to the media and disclose facts associated with the case. Again, we ask that the media exercise care and caution when these are the circumstances and recognise our earlier point about vulnerability.

We would also like to make it clear that the Metropolitan Police Service does not name or confirm names of those arrested or interviewed. That is our clear policy. We will be as open as we can be about policing activity - for example confirming arrest activity - but not confirming the names of individuals. If a police employee revealed the name that would be a clear breach of policy and dealt with in the appropriate manner. Moreover, the Commissioner told the Home Affairs Select Committee in March that he supports the proposal for granting accused people anonymity until charge.

We expect the challenges for media and police alike to continue once witnesses start to give evidence to the Goddard Inquiry. We think it is important, therefore, to offer this context now so that journalists and police officers can continue to do their job, and pursue a shared interest in justice for victims and fairness to those facing allegations.

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