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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale Investigation Report

The Director of Public Prosecutions and the press in 1979

76. The May 1979 RAP article described a “disturbing discrepancy” at the heart of the story. Mr Bartlett had been told by the police that a file was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but his attempts to confirm this with his office drew a blank. The article explained that on the first approach for information (Mr Bartlett confirmed that this was towards the end of the process of researching and writing the article, in April or May 1979, and thought the approach was made by letter)[1] the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office initially agreed to make a search but then said no file could be found. A further approach (which Mr Bartlett thought was by telephone) brought an ‘official statement’ from the Director, quoted as follows: “The DPP cannot trace such a case being referred to us, but cannot confirm or deny receiving it.” Mr Bartlett told the Inquiry that following journalistic convention the quotation marks meant that this was exactly what he was told, although he could not remember whom he spoke to at the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office or whether they were male or female.[2]

77. Mr Bartlett also sent a letter to Sir Norman Skelhorn care of his club, The Athenaeum, and received a phone call on 25 April 1979 from a coin box from someone claiming to be Sir Norman on holiday, who said he could not remember anything about a Cyril Smith file. For the reasons set out above, it is not possible to resolve whether or not this phone call was indeed from Sir Norman and, if so, whether he was telling the truth.

78. However, the Inquiry has seen a series of four file notes made by a legal adviser at MI5, the Security Service, recording telephone conversations with Sir Thomas Hetherington, who was the Director of Public Prosecutions in 1979. According to these file notes, Sir Thomas informed the MI5 legal adviser that the Director of Public Prosecutions’ press officer had misled both RAP and the Daily Express by telling them that the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office had no record of the Cyril Smith file from Lancashire Police, when in fact such a file did exist.[3] Specifically, the first file note, dated 24 April 1979, states that “After consultations, the DPP’s press representative had untruthfully told BARTLETT that they had no record of this case. In fact their file closely accorded with the details given by BARTLETT.”[4] There is no explanation given in the file note for why this lie was told.

79. We heard direct evidence on the matter from Eleanor Phillips, who was the Director of Public Prosecutions’ private secretary, Parliamentary clerk and press officer in 1979, and who is referred to by name in the third of the MI5 file notes.[5][6] However, her testimony was not consistent with the file notes and the RAP article in part, and so it simply gave rise to further questions.

80. In terms of context she told us that, before Sir Thomas was appointed, the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office hardly communicated with the press, but he tried to modernise the approach and make it more open. There was no press policy, as such, and the office was, in Ms Phillips’ words ‘making it up as they went along’ as they did not have any measure of the number or sort of press calls they would receive. She was clear that they would not mislead the press or lie, but did concede that the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office might be “economical with the truth”.[7]

81. Ms Phillips did remember press interest in Cyril Smith in 1979. She recalled that when the first telephone call came in about the matter she was out of the office and a secretary answered. The secretary checked with the registry and confirmed to the journalist (who was probably Mr Bartlett) that the Director of Public Prosecutions did have an archived file on Smith. The next day Ms Phillips was informed about the enquiry and asked Sir Thomas whether the file should be brought up from the archives. He said no. She got the impression that Sir Thomas knew about issues surrounding Cyril Smith, because he was generally curious and she thought that, if this was entirely new to him, he may have wanted to see it but he did not explain further.[8]

82. As a result of this enquiry, which was the first Ms Phillips was aware of about an archived file, a policy was adopted of only commenting on ongoing cases, and so her recollection was that she telephoned the journalist back and told him this. She then received phone calls from other journalists about the same story and gave them the same answer.[9]

83. When she was asked to comment on the MI5 file notes and the RAP article, Ms Phillips could not explain them. She did not think her memory was wrong, and remained adamant that she did not mislead the press, but rather gave a “no comment except on ongoing cases” response.[10] Nor would she accept the suggestion that there may have been a misunderstanding, such that what she thought was a ‘no comment’ answer came across to the press as ‘we deny having a file’, as the instruction from Sir Thomas had only been given, and the no comment policy formulated, a matter of hours before.[11]

84. On the other hand, Ms Phillips could not say whether or not someone else from the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office may have spoken to the press in addition to her and the secretary.[12]

85. Ms Phillips’ testimony appeared to us to be credible and her memory reliable. On the other hand, the documents from MI5 and the RAP article itself make clear that the press were erroneously told that the Director of Public Prosecutions had no file on Smith. The complete truth of what happened remains frustratingly out of reach, but the most likely explanation in our view is that between the secretary speaking to Mr Bartlett and Ms Phillips’ return call with the formal ‘no comment’ position there was another communication that was misleading. Sir Thomas may well have been uneasy about it. Unfortunately, the precise details of those conversations we will never know and a question remains about why Sir Thomas felt it necessary to contact the MI5 legal adviser. However, the provision to the press of misleading information by the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office could have contributed to the failure of the press to publish the story, which was ultimately beneficial to Smith.

86. What is clear is that the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office’s misleading of the press by saying there was no trace of a case on Smith fuelled rumours and speculation that there had been some kind of cover-up. That problem was anticipated by Lancashire Constabulary almost immediately, as the fourth file note from MI5 shows. This is dated 3 July 1979 and records a conversation between a Security Service officer and Chief Constable Laugharne of Lancashire Police at the Regional Association of Chief Police Officers’ Conference on 23 June. Mr Laugharne had complained to the MI5 officer about the Director of Public Prosecutions having denied receiving a file about Cyril Smith, and “pointed out that there was a danger of critics of the Lancashire Police drawing the conclusion that the report had not been sent to the DPP as part of a conspiracy to assist Mr SMITH”.[13] The danger identified by Mr Laugharne is precisely what did in fact happen over the subsequent years, partly as a result of the Director of Public Prosecutions’ refusal to set the record straight. We hope that this might prove a lesson for any institution or public authority tempted to mislead the media over any issues relating to child sexual abuse or failures to address it.

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