We haven’t discussed the shambolic dog’s breakfast that was Operation Midland much on this blog, mostly because while it ran more or less in parallel with the Hampstead SRA hoax, its impact on this case was somewhat peripheral.
Many of our UK readers will remember, though, Det Supt Kenny McDonald’s infamous announcement about “Nick”, the fabulist whose claims started it all. For our non-UK readers, these claims alleged that a “VIP sex abuse ring” was operating in Westminster. The claims implicated former Home Secretary Lord Brittan, war hero Lord Bramall, and ex-Tory MP Harvey Proctor.
‘Credible and true’
In December 2014, Det Supt McDonald announced, “Nick has been spoken to by experienced officers from the child abuse team and experienced officers from the murder investigation team. They and I believe what Nick is saying is credible and true.”
These words would prove to have particularly long and vicious fangs, which would continue snapping at the collective posterior of the Metropolitan Police for many months to come. The idea of a police officer, no matter what his or her rank, stating unequivocally that a complainant’s evidence was “credible and true” rankled with many.
Of course, Operation Midland was not the only case in which automatic knee-jerk belief of what turned out to be confabulated claims landed the Met in hot water. Many lives have been ruined and reputations left in tatters by highly publicised police investigations which ultimately led nowhere. (Chief Constable Mike Veale, we are looking at you, among others.)
Call us naïve, but we’d always been under the impression that the task of police was to listen respectfully and courteously to any complainant’s allegations, and then investigate the evidence to determine whether the threshold is met in order for the CPS to prosecute the case. The whole “credible and true”/”incredible and false” decision comes later, we thought, rendered by judge and jury.
And now, it seems, the College of Policing agrees with us.
Change is in the wind
According to the Mail on Sunday, the policy of automatic belief may be about to end:
Police are to drop their controversial policy of automatically believing anyone who reports a crime, it can be revealed.
A top-level report obtained by The Mail on Sunday says official guidance should be changed to tell detectives they must listen to victims and take them seriously – but not automatically assume they are telling the truth. …
The U-turn has been drawn up by the College of Policing, which sets national standards, and after being considered by chief constables last week it will be sent to Home Office Ministers to become official policy.
Last night, former Police Minister David Mellor, who served under Leon Brittan, told the MoS: ‘It’s been obvious for years that the policy of automatic belief invites time-wasters and it’s an invitation to cranks to come forward with ludicrous allegations.
‘Plainly if someone complains of a crime, that has got to be looked at, but the idea police should assume they’re telling the truth invites dreadful injustice. It meant a distinguished public servant like Leon Brittan went to his grave thinking his reputation had been trashed by an individual who retains his anonymity.’
Well, cue the angelic choir.
Another swing of the pendulum
Granted, this proposed change will not meet with everybody’s approval.
In particular, concerns have been raised that dropping the “automatic belief” policy may deter people from reporting date rape or historical abuse, both crimes which are difficult to investigate in the absence of forensic evidence.
The current policy came about in 2014 in reaction to rape complainants—particularly those who’d been victimised by Jimmy Savile—feeling disbelieved and disrespected by police, who notoriously adopted attitudes of scepticism to the point of dismissiveness, and failed to initiate investigations in response to real complaints.
In an attempt to address this situation, the College of Policing advised all forces at that time: “At the point when someone makes an allegation of crime, the police should believe the account given and a crime report should be completed”.
In other words, if the problem was “lack of belief”, then the clear answer was “more belief”.
Except that it wasn’t. The automatic belief policy opened the door to every attention-seeker and fabulist who’d ever dreamt of accusing a famous (or even a non-famous) person of having sexually assaulted them, or thought that a bit of victims’ compo might be a nice idea, what with Christmas coming up.
As we’ve said here repeatedly, false allegations are not only a problem for those who’ve been falsely accused. They damage genuine victims’ cases, both by drawing away valuable police time and resources, and by poisoning the well.
A police officer who’s been taken in by a fabulist may very well decide he or she won’t be fooled again, and might give short shrift to the next genuine allegation. A flood of false allegations, reported to an increasingly jaded public, can leave people wondering whether anyone who reports a sexual crime can be believed.
It seems to us that the solution is not to swing wildly between “believe everyone” and “believe no one”, and that’s why we’re at least conditionally pleased to hear that the College of Policing seems to be taking a more thoughtful path.
According to The Mail on Sunday,
A College of Policing spokesman said: ‘The police service has worked closely with others in the criminal justice process to build confidence of victims to come forward and report allegations of crime.
‘When they do so, it is vital that they are received with empathy, feel supported and that their allegation has been taken seriously, to ensure the public’s confidence in reporting crime continues to improve.
‘The role of investigators is then to keep an open mind and carry out a full and impartial investigation, to prove or disprove allegations.
Anyone who reports a crime of any sort ought to be certain that they will be heard out, respectfully and with all due seriousness. They ought to be certain that the police will investigate the case to the best of their ability, and determine whether it meets the threshold for CPS prosecution.
An attitude of open-minded impartiality would serve complainants well, while decreasing the opportunity for opportunists and attention seekers to destroy the lives of innocent people.