The Daily Telegraph has published a front-page exclusive alleging years of failure to act on warnings of sex abuse on St Helena – “the British island where child rape was just a game”. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has praised the paper’s investigation. SIMON PIPE reflects from a distance.
When the Daily Mail ran shock stories on child abuse on St Helena, it was denounced for irresponsible journalism by the island’s executive council. Then a lawyer published the expert report that St Helena Government had chosen not to make public, and it became clear that the Mail’s reporting was faithful and accurate. There was no retraction by ExCo.
In fact, it would have been irresponsible – reprehensible, even – for the Mail to keep quiet about such disturbing revelations, made by highly regarded experts.
Now the scandal has spread to the front page of one of the world’s most respected newspapers, backed up with a double-page spread and a piece in the leader column.
Telegraph special correspondent Tom Rowley, helped by Andrew Turner, travelled to the island and spoke to 51 people to flesh out new information about what had been going on while Britain told the world there was no problem of abuse.
Chief among them was one of the most respected people on the island: Ivy Ellick OBE, sometime head of three separate government departments during her long career in public service. The Telegraph could have added that she was also a long-standing churchwarden.
The paper quotes her saying that she warned the British government about child abuse as far back as 2002. It says at least 20 children were abused between her raising the alarm and action being taken. And that throughout this time, the UK repeatedly told the United Nations there was no evidence of sexual exploitation on the island.
The British ex-pats now occupying senior jobs on the island were not around when all this was going on. The current public crack-down on abusers has taken place during their time in office.
But the Telegraph also follows the St Helena Independent in pointing out that the St Helena Government “largely buried” the Lucy Faithfull Foundation report, publishing only a three-page summary of its 85 pages.
Governor Mark Capes claimed that the rest had been kept from the public to protect victims, but when the report was leaked on the internet, no victims were directly identified.
In fact, much of the leaked report was severely embarrassing to the police, suggesting that some officers avoided dealing with crime because they did not like confrontation.
It even named one officer, Jeromy Cairns-Wicks, as a probable paedophile. He has since been jailed for 11 years – a vindication of the Lucy Faithful investigators, one might think.
An inquiry was ordered into the police. It was not published.
The leaked report was only a first draft, but St Helena Online understands that the final version was not substantially different.
The St Helena Independent published two extracts from the report to demonstrate that a great deal of it could have been published without any harm being caused to victims.
One was a damning description of conditions at the island’s challenging behaviour unit, which was described by the investigators as being redolent of a Victorian lunatic asylum.
The rival, government-funded Sentinel newspaper denounced the Independent for exposing the scandal. No effort was made to report honestly the Independent’s reasons for publishing a story of very clear public interest and concern.
Not exactly in the highest traditions of public service journalism, then.
The Sentinel even argued that it was right that the full report should be kept secret – a strange position for any newspaper to adopt.
A legal problem then came to light, and the Independent’s revelations had to be stopped almost as soon as they had begun – for the time being.
In the meantime, reports had emerged of strained relations between police and social workers in tackling complaints of abuse. Two UK social workers turned whistle-blowers to highlight what they saw as continuing failures to act effectively. They lost their jobs, and launched employment tribunal cases. Their statements – yet to be tested in a full hearing – make disturbing claims about how they were treated.
Their case led to the first revelations in the Daily Mail. Then the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London appointed Sasha Wass QC to investigate their allegations of a cover-up.
The Telegraph quotes the FCO as saying that it believed it had done what it could.
In fact, the UK government discreetly drew attention to the problems of abuse in its 2012 White Paper on Britain’s overseas territories. Money would be made available to address the issue, it said.
No direct reference was made to St Helena, but it provided the spur for stories in the St Helena Independent and St Helena Online that made it clear the island had severe problems.
Those reports, which began appearing from July 2012, were sympathetic to the difficulties of those trying to rehabilitate known offenders in woefully inadequate conditions, on an island where victims could have no prospect of avoiding contact with their abusers – or avoiding retribution if they complained.
Given the global publicity about abuse on the far-smaller British territory of Pitcairn, it was clear that it would be possible to interest the UK media in St Helena’s troubles. There was no desire to cause the kind of reputational damage suffered by Pitcairn.
But even the suggestion of a cover-up on St Helena would be enough to draw media interest, once the story got out by other means.
In the English town of Rotherham, where more than a thousand girls were said to have been assaulted and raped, claims of concerns being suppressed by police and officials only added to the media wildfire.
Remarkably similar claims were made about the official response on St Helena: against that background, it was inevitable that the media would latch on to the island’s story once it got further afield, attracted as much by the cover-up claim as by the abuse itself.
The Mail and the Telegraph have had a go. Channel Four television is also known to be interested. The tribunal hearings – if they happen – will inevitably produce more negative publicity.
St Helena Government has welcomed the announcement of the Wass inquiry and the barrister’s expected arrival on the island in March. If nothing else, they bring the prospect of ending some of the speculation, and allowing the island to move on.
On the other hand, it is difficult to see how SHG can justify publishing only a three-page summary that presented a somewhat different picture from the full Lucy Faithfull report, while the UK government insisted on publication of nearly the whole of the very harrowing report on the Rotherham case.
Sasha Wass may or may not declare a cover-up, especially as there was never an intention that the full report would be published, even in the new era of so-called open government.
But we can expect much more of the truth to come out in the Wass report.
One thing is now clear: there will be no shortage of people willing to talk to her about St Helena’s dark secrets. Unlike the Telegraph, she will also have access to serving government officials.
And the island will suffer far more damaging publicity than it might have done, had the Lucy Faithfull report had been published in full in the first place – with a few details removed to protect victims.
- The Telegraph reported David Cameron saying: “Let me commend the Telegraph on its report from St Helena. It is a very important issue and it is absolutely right that wherever we are looking in the world we root out problems of paedophilia and sexual abuse and we are very, very tough on it, as we should be in St Helena and everywhere.”
Read more from the Telegraph:
Foreign Office ‘was warned British island couldn’t cope’
How did sex abusers get away with it for so long?
‘A lot of dark things do happen on this island’ – video
The Sundale Scandal – St Helena Independent’s Lucy Faithful extract
‘A culture of sexual abuse of children’ – Daily Mail, July 2014
Top barrister to investigate child abuse cover-up claims – November 2014