Thursday, 29 November 2012

NORTHERN VOICES & Cyril Smith in the Waugh Room

 For Barry Fitton, Eddie Shorrock and other former residents of a Rochdale boys' hostel, today marks a small step in something simple yet fundamental: finally being believed.

The CPS's admission* that the DPP should have prosecuted Cyril Smith in 1970 is the first ever official acknowledgement of the abuse they suffered at his hands.
The cops closest to the investigation knew they had a case, particularly with eight different witness statements. Yet the DPP rejected the case as 'NFA': no further action.

For decades, no one was interested in this story and it was only Private Eye and the blog Northern Voices that kept it alive in recent years.

I'm pleased that we at helped to bring this case back to life when we published Barry and Eddie's testimony earlier this month. You can read our original report HERE and a fuller feature HERE (as well as my blog on Rochdale's civic pride) on Tuesday this week.

Simon Danczuk was then brave enough to go public in Parliament, raising our report and referring to stories he too had been told of Smith's abuse and the possible cover-up of the allegations (read his full speech HERE).
But the real credit should go to David Bartlett and John Walker, the co-editors of Rochdale's Alternative Paper.

I remember RAP as a boy growing up in the town. An inky, irreverent newsheet, it was the blogosphere decades before the blogosphere was invented. A sharp contrast to the well-established Rochdale Observer (which until only this month never actually referred to its upstart rival by name), RAP carried titbits of controversy and gossip that others daren't carry. It even had an infamous 'Fat Man' cartoon strip which lampooned a certain larger than life MP.

Yet the paper was deadly serious when it ran its 'Strange Case' story back in 1979, just before the general election in which Cyril Smith ran for re-election. Bartlett and Walker were the real pioneers in printing the first claims that Smith interfered with boys at Cambridge House hostel.

They were amateur journalists (with dayjobs as college lecturers) but they had affadavits and produced a first class expose of a man who seemed to view Rochdale as his personal fiefdom. They weren't scared off by Smith's legal threats but he issued an injunction and threatened libel enough to deter the many national newspaper journalists who descended on the town to snap up RAP's infamous edition.

Only Private Eye had the balls to repeat the claims at the time. Tabloid and broadsheet alike, despite having lots of hacks in nearby Manchester, just didn't touch the Cyril Smith story.
Bartlett and Walker were never interested in the limelight for themselves. Even when the story resurfaced this month, they kept in the background. But tonight, hearing the CPS news, John Walker told me he felt vindicated:
"We are delighted that after 40 years, these boys - now men - are finally being listened to and given some form of public justice for what they experienced. RAP played a part 30 years ago in highlighting their story and I just hope justice will prevail. I hope they can get at least some kind of closure. It has always been about making people hear their voice."
There's perhaps another point here worth mentioning. When we first printed our allegations a few weeks ago, some media organisation were nervous. Some felt it was just 'the wrong time' to touch another story of 1960s and 1970s abuse by a public figure. Tonight they look like they will be less reluctant.

Yet it was some good old fashioned journalism - not by newspapers, but by an online-only website like ours and most of all by a 'rag' like RAP - that got this story out.

With Lord Justice Leveson due to report on Thursday, maybe there's a lesson of sorts in that.
*FOOTNOTE: The decision of the CPS to go public today took some at Greater Manchester Police by surprise. They were all set to go public tomorrow with their own announcement that they referred the case three times to the DPP. Has the CPS tried to get a quick PR win by getting its statement out today, before the cops make clear where responsibility really lay in 1970?

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