Saturday, 12 July 2014

Lord Steel & a letter in Private Eye

STEVE Richards in The Independent, last Monday, asked: 

'Was there a paedophile ring at Westminster?  Was there a cover-up?  The terms “cover-up and “Westminster paedophile ring” are volcanic. Put them together and there is bound to be an almighty eruption, and a further terrible breakdown in trust between voters and those who were or are public figures.'

and he answered his own question thus: 

'False rumours are an important element in this bleak saga. They make it more difficult for those with a degree of responsibility to decide how to act.  The former Liberal leader, David Steel, has been attacked for not moving against Cyril Smith in the 1970s and 1980s.  The rumours about Smith proved to be devastatingly accurate.  They seem to have understated the extent of Smith’s depravity.  But at the time Smith emphatically denied the allegations. There was no definitive evidence or the media would have rightly gone for him.' 
Clearly Steve Richards has got his history all wrong because there was solid evidence of Cyril Smith's abuse of power in 1979, which the Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP) and Private Eye published at the time.  An author on Northern Voices' Blog and former editor of RAP, John Walker, in a letter in Private Eye this week, wrote as follows:
Dear Sir, 

Lord Steel continues to wriggle about over his inadequate 1970's responses to Cyril Smith's abuse of young boys (PE edition 1368 - 13 June). He has changed the excuses for his inaction at the time with increasing rapidity. His recent letter simply being the most desperate and pathetic.   

On prominent libel barrister advice, the editors of Rochdale's Alternative Paper (RAP), sent him, as then leader of the Liberal Party,  a pre-publication (April 1979) draft of the 2,000-word well-researched article (see ref to PE web pages?) it was about to produce on Smith's sexual molestation of teenage boys, for comment. This included extracts from very explicit affidavits from the victims,.  In reply, David Steel's press officer was dismissive of the claims "It is not a very friendly gesture, publishing that. All he seems to have done is spanked a few bare bottoms".   

Following publication by RAP in May 1979, Private Eye produced a summary of the article, including some sexually graphic extracts from the lawyer-cleared story(more web refs?). The Liberal party had no public comment to make.  

Lord Steel's subsequent reasons for his inaction at this time have included, in summary: he approached Smith about the claims, but Smith denied their veracity (surprise, surprise!); what Smith did was no more than what regularly happened in public schools at the time; he (Lord Steel) was leading a political party and not a detective agency, so didn't investigate; and most recently, he didn't do anything about the piece in Private Eye because "not a single investigative journalist pursued your report". Leaving aside the fact that Private Eye's article was penned by Paul Foot, probably the most effective and respected investigative British journalist of the second half of the twentieth century, this really is scrapping the barrel of desperation.   

Yes, Lord Steel was leading political party.  Was he not concerned, therefore,  about its reputation, particularly since it  had recently had endured the excruciating embarrassment of the publicity around the Thorpe affair and trial?  His party, at the time, had barely a dozen MP's , and had a chief whip, whose job it was to be the 'eyes and ears' of the party leader. Was the then David Steel not even curious enough about allegations concerning a prominent member of his party to investigate, or ask his whip to do so, and thus head off potential future damaging revelations about the Liberals?  

We know from serving officers from the security services that they had already investigated Smith's background twice, when there was a possibility that Liberal MPs could have helped form a government (1972 and 1978). Was Lord Steel, as leader of the party, not made aware of these, even by way of an informal tip-off?   

Inaction over the publication of stories about Smith, in 1979, emboldened his audaciousness in entrapping young boys.  We understand he subsequently molested at least one boy in his rooms in the House of Commons, feet from prominent politicians, and, according to a recent victim account on the Radio 4 PM programme,  attempted to seduce a pubescent youngster, in his bedroom at the National Liberal Club, when he took the boy to his room for the night.  

Presumably these events were not brought to Lord Steel's attention, but they are unlikely to have happened, had he acted more firmly to the 1979 publications.  

As with Savile, many people chose to look away when accusations of Smith's abuse were aired, because it suited them and their purposes.  As far as the Liberal Party was concerned, in the 1970's/80s, Smith was one of the few populist links it could claim with the industrial north. So Smith was of use to them.  

Lord Steel , in his recent letter, makes much of the fact that it was under a Labour government that Smith was awarded an MBE, in the 1960's.  But he, as leader of the Liberal Party, nominated Smith for the knighthood that he was awarded in 1988.  Only the most cynical would suggest that this was an attempt to shut Smith up at the time of  the delicate negotiations to merge the Liberal and Social Democrat parties,  to which Smith was vehemently against ('Won't the knighthood and visit to Buck House be nice for your mum, Cyril?').  

Did Smith's abusing past not emerge as an issue then?  If not for Lord Steel, why not for the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, comprising of three Privy Councillors, whose job it is to ascertain the suitability of nominations for the award of "Political Honours"?.  This committee was established after the Lloyd George honours abuses, following the first World War, to weed out unsuitable candidates for honours.  Were its members not made aware of the published stories and security service investigations into Smith, in 1988?  If not, they were pretty remiss in fulfilling their functions, if they were, they were negligent in executing them.  

The blunt truth is, the more people, like Lord Steel, exhibit denial and offer excuses for inaction about Smith's behaviour, the more they encourage others, who have suspicions of on-going abuse accusations to hide for cover, and subsequently deploy the same excuses for turning a blind eye to their own concerns. 

It is surely time for some form of 'truth and reconciliation' process to emerge around historic child abuse cases, so that those in positions of authority, who in the past have turned blind eyes to accusations of abuse, can come forward, and if not wipe the slate clean for the victims, at least ensure that present continued denial  and evasion does  not provide succour, encouragement or hiding place for those choosing to ignore the behaviour of contemporary or future potential abusers.  

John Walker

(co-editor, RAP, 1971 - 1980)
The letter above is the original version of the letter which appeared in Private Eye this week.

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