13:12, July 27 54 0 theguardian.com

2019-07-27 13:12:04
Carl Beech – the plausibility of liars and the paucity of proof

Carl Beech’s QC, Collingwood Thompson, was faced with a monumentally difficult task when, just before lunch on Friday, he rose to mitigate for the recently convicted serial child abuse accuser. One point he made was that the Metropolitan police policy that “complainants will be believed has had an influence on this whole case. With another approach, Mr Beech’s allegations would have been dismissed.”

There is no harder task in advocacy than mitigating after a jury has convicted your client of every count on the indictment, and I am reluctant to criticise Mr Thompson, but the argument that the police should not have been so stupid as to take Beech seriously was probably best left to others.

Nevertheless, it was entirely correct. Beech would never have achieved such notoriety and caused such damage had many others, who should have known better, not believed him, or at least pretended to do so.

The Met’s then spokesman, Det Supt Kenny McDonald, supposedly one of the country’s top detectives, announced soon after meeting Beech that his account was “credible and true”. Whether he actually thought that or whether he was merely repeating what was then the official line that “victims must be believed” is unclear. The effect, however, was to confer plausibility upon a little-noticed internet news site called Exaro News, Beech’s handlers and publicists.

Labour’s Tom Watson had already met and been convinced by Beech, while other prominent journalists and politicians enthusiastically joined in the ensuing moral panic, ranging from LBC’s James O’Brien to RT’s George Galloway, all of whom, for various reasons, were determined to encourage the belief that the British establishment had been penetrated by a secret conspiracy of paedophiles and murderers.

That is not to say that the Met should automatically have disbelieved Beech. That would have been equally wrong. Faced with his appalling allegations, its job was to investigate them, something that it signally failed to do. It was left to a combination of a BBC Panorama team and Northumbria police to uncover the evidence that Beech was a cunning liar.

There are wider, and rather uncomfortable, lessons for the criminal justice system as a whole. Criminal trials depend on the premise that magistrates and jurors can safely spot liars. Yet it is often impossible to tell whether someone is telling the truth simply by listening to them. Those, such as top detectives and investigative journalists, who might seem likely to be well practised in spotting liars can be taken in just as easily as anyone else.

Beech’s police interviews show him behaving for all the world as you might expect a victim of long-concealed sexual abuse to behave: speaking softly, mumbling, dabbing his eyes as he fights back the tears. He was, at first blush, an entirely plausible witness.

Nor, by the time he came to speak to the Met, was there any obvious motive for him to lie. Perhaps he hoped to gain more money than the £22,000 he had already claimed for being a victim of a “group” that included Jimmy Savile, but, if so, he never made any monetary claim based upon his abuse by politicians. It seems likely that he obtained gratification from the attention that came with being seen as a victim, just as much as that which came from driving around in a fraudulently obtained Ford Mustang.

Fortunately, Beech’s dishonesty was proved beyond any doubt, but it was not an easy process. It required, among other things, the forensic examination of his computers, the uncovering of a hidden email account, the tracing of witnesses from decades earlier, the study of old school records and even a medical examination to disprove his assertions that he had had bones broken by his childhood abusers.

Every day, jurors are asked to assess the credibility of witnesses talking about events from decades earlier. Such cases are hardly ever investigated with the thoroughness with which Northumbria police investigated Beech and the danger of juries coming to erroneous conclusions on the basis of inadequate investigation is real.

Jurors these days are rightly warned not to make assumptions about how victims of sexual crime should behave. Long delays in reporting, inconsistency over details and contradictory accounts do not, for example, necessarily mean that a witness is lying. But, as the Beech case demonstrates, there are huge dangers in going too far in the other direction. Liars do exist, people sometimes lie about sexual crime, they are sometimes very convincing and the damage they do is incalculable.

Matthew Scott is a criminal barrister at Pump Court Chambers

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