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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale Investigation Report

The 1979 Rochdale Alternative Paper articles

62. As has already been mentioned, the allegations about Cyril Smith assaulting boys at Cambridge House re-surfaced in 1979 as a result of two articles being published in RAP. David Bartlett, who was one of the two founders of RAP, told the Inquiry that the objective of this community-based newspaper was to “upset the establishment, challenge the powerful, and support and be the voice of the ordinary man”.[1] Mr Bartlett and his co-editor John Walker published approximately 112 editions of RAP between 1971 and 1983, with the peak circulation being around 8,000 copies.[2]

63. Mr Bartlett explained that he and Mr Walker had heard stories around Rochdale about Smith inappropriately touching boys at Cambridge House. In 1978, Smith had begun running a campaign for re-election as Rochdale’s MP, which was based entirely on his personal qualities – the campaign slogan was ‘Smith the man’. Smith had also been critical of Jeremy Thorpe, who at the time was embroiled in a scandal involving homosexual activity. Mr Bartlett and Mr Walker felt that Smith had made his character an election issue and had been hypocritical in criticising Thorpe, so that it was right to make the people of Rochdale aware of the allegations about Smith’s own behaviour.[3]

64. Mr Bartlett took time to research the story thoroughly. He tracked down several men who had been resident at Cambridge House, two of whom had previously lived with him and his wife, and described how Smith had spanked or groped them. Mr Bartlett also obtained a statement from another man who as a teenager was spanked by Smith in his parents’ home. Mr Bartlett asked these men to make sworn affidavits at a solicitors’ office as he was very aware of the risk of a libel action and wanted to ensure that RAP had the best evidence possible to defend itself.[4]

65. The first article was published in May 1979 and alleged that “during the 1960s Cyril Smith was using his position to get lads aged 15-18 to undress in front of him in order that he could then get them to bend over his knee while he spanked their bare bottoms or let him hold their testicles in a bizarre ‘medical inspection’”.[5] The article described the police investigation in 1969–70, set out the background facts about Cambridge House, quoted several extracts from the affidavits made by the men who had resided there, mentioned the involvement of Jack McCann and the Director of Public Prosecutions, and then explained why RAP had decided to publish the allegations.

66. A follow-up article was published in June 1979.[6] This raised questions about why the national press had not yet picked up on the story and suggested that it was the libel laws that prevented them from running it, despite the fact that RAP itself had not received any writ from Smith. Mr Bartlett told us that RAP had received a ‘pre-writ document’ (which would now be called a ‘letter before action’ or ‘letter of claim’) but a writ itself never materialised.[7]

67. No major national newspapers ever carried the story, either in 1979 or in the years following. Only Private Eye and the New Statesman published anything about the RAP allegations. Mr Bartlett told us that he talked with other journalists at the time but, although they were interested, none actually took the story any further. Mr Bartlett said he thought the national papers all “knew it already” and recalled that the Daily Mirror said that they were waiting for Smith to die before publishing.[8] This decision by the national newspapers not to get involved is puzzling; we would have thought a story about sexual misconduct by a high-profile national politician (as Smith was by 1979) would have been irresistible.

68. The Inquiry contacted all the major national newspapers to ask if they had any information in their archives or corporate memory that could shed light on this matter. Unfortunately, none was able to assist. Francis Wheen from Private Eye did provide a helpful letter, in which he informed us that he asked journalists from other papers why no one had picked up on the RAP story and they had all assumed it was because of “legal nervousness on the part of their editors”.[9]

69. We have not been able to establish what precisely the legal concerns were. One possibility is that the editors were afraid of a libel action, as the June 1979 follow-up RAP suggested, but this seems unlikely to be the whole explanation given the affidavits obtained by Mr Bartlett and Mr Walker, as well as Smith’s failure to start proceedings against RAP.

70. The suggestion has been made that there was some interference by the Government on security grounds. RO-A4 told us that a tabloid journalist (he was unable to say from which newspaper) contacted him some years after the RAP article, in around 1983, asked him to make another affidavit, and even gave him money to go to the seaside with his daughter to escape further press attention when the story broke. However, the journalist then telephoned him to say the story would not be published because a ‘D-notice’ had been put on it.[10] We have been unable to find any evidence to corroborate this and Mr Bartlett heard no mention of it in 1979.[11] Moreover, the Inquiry has obtained a statement from Brigadier (retired) Geoffrey Dodds, the current Secretary of the Defence and Security Advisory Committee (DSMA). This makes it clear that, while a ‘Defence Notice’ system does exist to prevent inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise national security (and also existed in a slightly different form in the 1980s), it has always been a consensual arrangement between the press and Government and it should not have been relevant to any story about the allegations concerning Cyril Smith.[12] The Inquiry may explore the workings of the DSMA system, as well as allegations that it has been misused or wrongly applied, in further detail in the context of the Westminster investigation. For the purposes of this investigation, we do not doubt RO-A4’s account that he was told something about a D-notice by a journalist, but the accuracy of this, or the possible implications, remain unclear.

71. Another possible explanation is set out in the book, A Very English Scandal, where the suggestion is made that George Carman QC, who was defending Jeremy Thorpe in his trial for conspiracy to murder in 1979, wrote to every national newspaper editor warning that if they repeated the RAP allegations about Cyril Smith they would prejudice the trial.[13] We have not been able to corroborate this assertion, and Mr Bartlett told us that none of the journalists he spoke to in 1979 mentioned this as a reason why they were not publishing the story.[14]

72. Another possibility is that the national press simply did not want to destroy Smith’s reputation in 1979. By that time he had become a very well-known politician who regularly provided the press with blunt comments, gossip and stories. In short, he was good copy. It is conceivable that the RAP allegations were simply not considered serious enough to bring down the career of a man who was entertaining and helped to sell newspapers.

73. Finally, it is possible that the allegations simply got lost among all the other news of the day because the national newspapers did not consider it a significant enough story, particularly in the midst of an election campaign in May 1979.

74. Whatever the reasons for the unwillingness of the national newspapers to run the RAP story, the fact is that the story quickly faded from view and Cyril Smith continued to build his career and fame both locally and nationally. Indeed, even if the national press had picked up on the allegations, it may not have had a significant negative effect on Smith. In Rochdale, where the RAP article had been widely read, there was no real impact. Smith was re-elected in the May 1979 election with an increased majority. Mr Bartlett described this as ‘depressing’. His best explanation for this was as follows:

“One of the reasons that we believed at the time, and I still do, looking back on it now, was that Rochdale – if you can speak in a corporate sense at all – wasn’t surprised. These stories had been circulating in most taprooms of the town for a very long time. There was nothing very new, apart from the fact it had been put into print. So a lot of people just shrugged their shoulder and relied on the man they thought they knew or the man they had known and, as you’re aware, he was extremely prominent in the town and had a considerable impact in all kinds of areas of the town, and people didn’t want to believe that someone they regarded as a hero was capable of these kind of things, but they had heard the stories.” [15]

75. Mr Bartlett’s analysis seems to be correct. It appears that people in Rochdale simply did not believe the RAP allegations and largely assumed they were merely unsubstantiated rumours, or did not care about the allegations even if they thought they might be true. One issue that we need to explore in further depth, however, is how much the refusal of the Director of Public Prosecutions to comment on the matter may have affected the public reception of the allegations.

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