I WAS a junior reporter on the Leicester Mercury when the allegation that Greville Janner, then one of the city’s MPs, might have abused a child first filtered into the public domain 24 years ago.
As such, I was on the periphery of, well, pretty much everything, but I remember the frisson as the scale of the potential scandal began to dawn. The paper already had a national story on its hands; Frank Beck, a former councillor and officer-in-charge of several Leicestershire children’s homes, was at the centre of an investigation into sexual assaults on young people in his care. He was eventually given five life terms for abusing 100 victims.
Isn’t public interest best served by as much transparency as possible?
As part of his defence, Beck claimed he had acted to protect a 13-year-old from Janner, who had groomed and abused the boy over two years. The evidence against Janner amounted to allegations made by Beck and the boy, a witness who overheard Beck telling the boy to stop seeing the MP, and affectionate, but not sexually explicit, letters written by Janner to the boy.
The development opened up many dilemmas for a regional newspaper. On the one hand, the claims were explosive. On the other, Janner was a highly respected figure. Not only was he an MP, but he had co-founded the Holocaust Education Trust. In journalistic terms, he was an important contact. And, he hadn’t been charged with anything. Ultimately the Mercury, like everyone else, had no choice but to play it straight, reporting only what was said in court.
In the end, the Beck jury was told the Janner allegations were a “red herring” and he was exonerated. The narrative was he had been the victim of a smear campaign by Beck, and other Leicestershire MPs, including Keith Vaz, rallied to his defence. At the time, this made sense. Beck’s guilt was never in doubt and Janner had not been charged. Countless cover-ups later, it seems naive. As indeed it was. It has now emerged the original allegations were never properly investigated. Derbyshire Chief Constable Mike Creeden, then a DS with the Leicestershire force, says orders came from on high that Janner should not be arrested nor his home searched.
Two subsequent investigations in 2002 and 2007 were equally unsatisfactory, with evidence either not passed to the Crown Prosecution Service or considered insufficient to warrant a prosecution. In the meantime, the MP was elevated to the House of Lords and became vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
Last week, Janner’s alleged victims were dealt another slap in the face. After a fourth police investigation, the Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders admitted the police and CPS had missed three opportunities to prosecute. She admitted there was sufficient evidence to charge Janner, 86, with 22 sex attacks on nine children. But, she said, as he was suffering from dementia, it was no longer in the public interest to prosecute.
It’s a decision that has angered Leicestershire police, devastated the alleged victims and reinforced public perception that those in power have no will to investigate their own. Post-Savile, ageing entertainers have stood trial on charges of historic child abuse, yet, despite several investigations into allegations of a paedophile ring at the heart of Westminster, politicians appear to be untouchable.
The DPP’s decision has evoked memories of Ernest Saunders – the Guinness chief executive whose Alzheimer’s mysteriously disappeared after he used it to secure early release from his sentence for fraud – particularly as Janner continued to attend the Lords for four years after his condition was diagnosed.
But even if his mental state has deteriorated to such an extent he is no longer capable of understanding the proceedings, there are measures the authorities could take to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose.
Were Janner to be charged, he would face a fitness to plead hearing in the presence of a judge. Then, even if he were to be found unfit, a jury would still be asked to consider “whether he did the acts alleged”.
In 2010, for example, a jury found dementia-sufferer Mike Collingwood had committed 23 sex offences against under-age girls. A finding in the prosecution’s favour would leave the judge with three options: a hospital order, a supervision order or an absolute discharge. Janner is not considered dangerous, so the most likely outcome would be either an acquittal or a finding that he did the acts alleged followed by an absolute discharge. This is presumably why the DPP believes a prosecution is not in the public interest.
Certainly, a hearing in which the accused is unable to properly defend himself is not ideal, but the current situation, which leaves both Janner and his alleged victims in limbo, is worse. And against a backdrop of perceived cover-ups, isn’t the public interest best served by as much transparency as possible?
As things stand, the alleged victims plan to sue for compensation; they may also have a chance to have their voices heard in the forthcoming child abuse inquiry. But this is unlikely to bring them the kind of closure a court hearing offers. As we wait for the inquiry to get properly under way, the DPP’s decision sends out the wrong message; instead of demonstrating the establishment’s determination to get to the bottom of a succession of scandals, it suggests the climate of evasion and obfuscation prevails. «