The Daily Mail was duped into publishing lurid articles that “unwittingly gave a totally misleading and distorted view” of St Helena, the Wass Inquiry has found.
It says social work manager Claire Gannon leaked a report on abuse to the paper to lend weight to her allegations of corruption and cover-ups.
But it also said the Lucy Faithfull Foundation report had been compromised by Claire Gannon herself – suggesting it had relied on unsupported evidence she herself had provided to the charity.
In July 2014, the Mail ran a story saying St Helena was “rife with child abuse, domestic violence and sexual exploitation”, and that “sexual violence and brutality were endemic” on the island of St Helena.
The Wass report points to the “absurdity” of the Mail’s claim that the island was “a safe haven for sex offenders” and a “sanctuary for paedophiles”.
The paper said only four pages of the 83-page report had been released. The Wass report says: “Conspiracy theorists drew the usual conclusions. The reality was quite different: the report was deeply flawed.”
Sasha Wass did, however, find substance in the revelations of “provisions for disabled children which were as bad as anything that could be imagined and reminiscent of a Victorian lunatic asylum.”
The shocking details of conditions at Sundale House – since closed – were exclusively made public in the St Helena Independent.
The next day, on 16 July 2014, the Daily Mail alleged that “Teenage girls are traded for food”, and reported that older women had
suffered from a practice known as “downing” in their childhood, which involved them being raped on the way to school.
On 24 July 2014 the Daily Mail revealed its source as an unnamed Social Services Manager – later revealed to be Claire Gannon.
The paper also said she had been “threatened with perjury charges”, and had been “constructively dismissed on the 8th July”.
The Wass report says: “Claire Gannon had leaked to the Daily Mail a copy of the confidential Lucy Faithfull Foundation report to back up her own inflammatory claims.”
That had “provided enough disquiet” to justify publication.
“What the Daily Mail was unaware of, and could not have discovered, was that the contents of the confidential Lucy Faithfull Foundation report… had been compromised by Claire Gannon herself.
“This device, of obtaining publicity for a story (in this case leaking the Lucy Faithfull Foundation report) and then using that story to support false allegations, has routinely been used by disaffected individuals
seeking to manipulate the news.”
The Mail report – following on from earlier private revelations from a police officer on Ascension Island – triggered the announcement of an independent inquiry by the foreign secretary of the time, William Hague.
The claims by PC Michael Anderson – deemed to be a “genuine” whistleblower acting in the public good – has already been investigated. He had alleged corruption, incompetence, maladministration and racism on both St Helena and Ascension.
“The Daily Mail’s articles had brought these investigations back to the
surface: what on earth was going on in the middle of the South Atlantic?
“The island of St Helena, along with all its 4,000 inhabitants, had been labelled ‘a Gary Glitter type tour destination’: an island of sex abusers and paedophiles.
“The absurdity of these allegations, as the Inquiry found them to be, was lost in the welter of rumour and innuendo which later news stories were only too willing to echo.”
- The inquiry team examined 34 separate reports on childcare on St Helena and Ascension, dated from 1998 to 2012, as part of its investigation.
Read the story behind the Daily Mail coverage of St Helena on pages 5-7 of the Wass Report, here