Times, The (London, England)-November 12, 2003
Author: Rosemary Bennett
An alleged slur on a government race-relations expert has put Margaret Hodge in trouble, Rosemary Bennett reports
MARGARET HODGE, the Minister for Children, was facing legal action for defamation yesterday after she labelled a former child abuse victim who is now a government consultant “an extremely disturbed person”.
Demetrious Panton, a race-relations expert who works for the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, has instructed solicitors to begin proceedings against Mrs Hodge, the former leader of Islington council.
Mr Panton was abused when he was in an Islington children’s home in the 1970s, long before Mrs Hodge ran the council. However, he contacted her after he left care in 1985 seeking an explanation as to why children had not been better protected.
Yesterday his lawyers, the libel specialists David Price Solicitors, wrote to Gavyn Davies, the BBC Chairman, requesting a copy of a letter sent by Mrs Hodge in September in which she warned the corporation away from Mr Panton. She wrote: “Mr Panton is an extremely disturbed person who suffered from child abuse in Islington in the Sixties, 20 years before I became leader of the council.
“If a news item is being developed with the intention of connecting a government minister to the story for the sake of sensationalism, then I think it is deplorable.”
Accompanying the two-page letter was a nine-page account of High Court proceedings against Channel Four News for an item about child abuse in Islington that ended with an apology from the programme. That was interpreted by the BBC as a thinly veiled legal threat not to broadcast anything connecting Mrs Hodge with Mr Panton’s case.
Details from the letter, which was copied to Greg Dyke, the BBC Director General, Richard Sambrook, head of news, and Kevin Marsh, Editor of the Today programme, were broadcast on the BBC yesterday. Mrs Hodge, who became leader of the council in 1982, said in a statement that she was amazed the corporation had broadcast details from what was clearly private correspondence. “I am taken aback that Today has chosen to make a letter which was not intended for publication, public,” she said.
Her criticism threatens to reopen the rift between the BBC and Government that has partly healed since the row over the Iraq dossier story.
A BBC source said that executives had deliberated for some time over whether to broadcast the letter, which was sent in September. “We thought long and hard about using the letter, but no matter what way we looked at it, the public interest was the overriding factor.” The source added that it was considered important for the public to know the methods a minister was using to try to stop the story from running.
Mr Panton has worked for several London councils to advise on racial equality and has been at John Prescott’s office for two years. He was one of many victims of Bernie Bain, a notorious paedophile who was head of an Islington care home in the 1970s.
Mr Panton’s decision to begin legal action is no idle threat: he sued Islington council and was awarded damages of Pounds 14,000, costs and an unreserved apology in 1998.
The latest row casts fresh doubt over Mrs Hodge’s role as Minister for Children.
Although the child abuse scandal was almost 20 years ago, it has dogged her since she got the job in June. Two social workers employed during the 1970s have repeated accusations that she ignored their warnings.
However, Mrs Hodge, who set up the highly praised Sure Start Programme for disadvantaged children, has said that she has learnt from her mistakes and that the experience has made her better qualified be for the job.
She is in charge of merging all key services for children under five, a recommendation from the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie.
Speaking to The Times yesterday, Mr Panton said he knew that Mrs Hodge was not responsible for what happened to him as a child. “But I blame the political process she was head of for failing to prevent the abuse that people like me suffered,” he said.
‘Dear Gavyn, I am writing to you about an investigation…into a matter concerned with Islington…Mr Panton is an extremely disturbed person who suffered from child abuse in Islington in the Sixties, 20 years before I became leader of the council.
If a news item is being developed…for the sake of sensationalism, then I think it is deplorable.’