The headline summed it up: “Is this the film that should never have been made ?”.
Just as telling was that the article under it – in the TV Times – was the only national press coverage of the film. Ten years after the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis not a single newspaper reported on a documentary which told – for the first time – the truth about what had happened to the children at the heart of a “scandal” which had gripped and divided the entire country. Not for nothing was the film called “Cleveland: Unspeakable Truths”.
For those too young to recall it – and for those who still do – it’s worth recalling the events as they unfolded.
In the spring of 1987, 121 children from the (then) county of Cleveland – an area of some 583 square km and including the economically depressed towns of Hartlepool, Redcar and Middlesbrough – were taken into temporary local authority care on suspicion of having been sexually abused. Many – in fact the majority – of the children were very young: most were pre-pubescent and in some cases so young (or developmentally delayed) as to be pre-verbal.
This was not just the biggest sexual abuse case Britain had then encountered but the very first involving multiple victims and multiple perpetrators. Others – Rochdale, Orkney, Broxtowe – would follow on in quick succession, but Cleveland was the first and it set the template.
Newspaper coverage that spring led readers to believe that the children had been “snatched” from their parents as the result of a new and untested physical diagnosis – Reflex Anal Dilatation. The press – led by the Daily Mail – reported that two paediatricians, Dr Marietta Higgs and Dr Geoffrey Wyatt, who had recently arrived at Middlesbrough General Hospital had begun using RAD to diagnose sexual abuse on children who had been brought to the hospital for petty and unrelated problems – “a child with a sore finger” became the familiar trope of these stories.
Worse, or so the papers claimed, RAD involved looking up inside children’s bottoms and was a new and “experimental” technique. Cleveland’s senior police surgeon – a local GP called Alistair Irvine, made a series of statements to the media in which he damned both RAD and Drs Higgs and Wyatt. He was backed by local MP Stuart Bell who gave a succession of highly inflammatory interviews to local television stations.
The media response was swift and overwhelming. Reporters from national newspapers, radio and television descended on Middlesbrough. The Daily Mail alone sent seven. And what were these journalists looking for ? One thing and one thing only – “innocent parents” wrongly parted from their children. And these parents – aided by Stuart Bell who had become their self-appointed champion – quickly told (and frequently sold) their stories. In a matter of weeks Cleveland went from being a small local story to a national “scandal”. All the papers and broadcasters repeated the parents claims and Stuart Bell’s allegations, and viciously attacked the paediatricians. They, along with Cleveland Council’s most senior child abuse advisor Sue Richardson, were ordered by their employers not to give any interviews or make any comment to the media.
The Tory government set up a judicial enquiry under Lord Justice (Elizabeth) Butler Sloss. The enquiry sat for a year, heard evidence from parents, social services, police, doctors, nurses and – without any apparent unease – from a champion of paedophile rights, Ralph Underwager. It cost £5 million.
But there was one very odd aspect to the enquiry. Its remit from Whitehall prohibited it from asking – let alone answering – the most important question of all: how many of the 121 children at the centre of the crisis had been abused ?
By the time the enquiry report was close to publication I had made a high-profile documentary (and written a book) about child pornography. I approached Marietta Higgs to ask if she would, on the day of publication, be interviewed by me for ITN News. After a week of negotiation it was agreed that she would do one television interview (with me), one radio interview for Woman’s Hour and speak to one newspaper (The Guardian).
I was freelance and arranged to do the interview at the studios of Tyne Tees, ITV’s franchise in the north-east. It would be quicker to feed the piece down to ITN from Newcastle than to film it and bike the tape down to London.
I read the Butler Sloss report from cover to cover. I was – given the prevailing public story – surprised to see that it did not suggest anywhere that Drs Higgs and Wyatt had wrongly diagnosed the 121 children, nor that RAD had been the sole medical evidence in most cases. The report also made clear that no child was recorded as a suspected victim of sexual abuse on medical evidence alone: Butler-Sloss had heard a wealth of testimony from social services indicating that in the vast majority of cases, there were serious concerns about the children’s welfare long before they were seen at Middlesbrough General Hospital.
The report did criticise the doctors for the problems their diagnoses caused at the hospital which had been overwhelmed. It placed restrictions on them working on child abuse cases. But it reserved its most serious and stinging criticism for Stuart Bell MP, who it found had made false ad inflammatory statements about the parents, the children and the doctors – and refused to correct them even when presented with the evidence. It also strongly criticised Alastair Irvine, the police surgeon who had been instrumental in sparking the crisis.
The headlines that afternoon (and the next morning) were extraordinary: they bore no resemblance to the findings of the report. “Sack Her” [Marietta Higgs] was one of the more moderate. I interviewed Dr Higgs – calmly and politely for half an hour. I put to her all the criticism in the report and the complaints made by the parents. She answered honestly and frankly.
While the tape was being fed to London, I was approached by Tyne Tees news journalists and by the news anchor. The former screamed at me that I had “let Higgs off the hook”; the anchor threatened to beat me up. ITN ran the interview that evening.
Eight years later I was working at Yorkshire Television’s documentaries department – the best place in the world to make serious and important films. I had produced one such film two years earlier about a major child sexual abuse network in the United States [Conspiracy of Silence – there are references on this site to this] which had been pulled by its funder, The Discovery Channel. Perhaps that should have warned me.
I happened to meet Sue Richardson at a child abuse conference during the summer of 1996. In passing she mentioned that she was very concerned about what had happened to the Cleveland children. For the next six months I quietly spoke to as many people involved in the crisis as I could. A picture quickly emerged: many – probably most – of the 121 children had been returned to their parents, even where there was clear evidence of sexual abuse. In an alarming number of cases there was a convicted sex offender living in the house – one of the trigger factors for Sue Richardson’s initial concerns. The court system had broken down under the weight of hostile news reporting: one judge refused to allow evidence “relating to children’s bottoms” in his court room. Children had been sent back to parents about whom there was a lengthy history of concern. And then there was RAD itself.
It turned out that this was not some new and experimental technique, as alleged by the police surgeon and Stuart Bell, but was more than 100 years old and was formally included in the Association of Police Surgeons’ own manual as a diagnostic tool raising suspicions of sexual abuse and requiring further enquiries if it was observed.
Late in 1997, with the wholehearted agreement of Yorkshire Television’s Head of Documentaries, I pitched the idea for a documentary about Cleveland to Channel 4. It agreed to commission the film and we went into production: Channel 4 was to pay to Yorkshire TV the sum of £150,00 to produce it and a first instalment was transferred to the company’s coffers.
My colleagues and I spent nearly three months researching and investigating. We met and informally interviewed everyone who would speak to us. Stuart Bell MP and Alastair Irvine refused point blank.
We also advertised for parents who had been caught up in the crisis. Only two came forward: a mother whose children had been sexually abused by their father (he was convicted of the abuse) and ho had tried – in vain – to get her story heard by reporters back in 1987, and a couple whose children had been among the first to be taken into care. We were also contacted by a young woman from the area who had been sexually abused by her father at the time but who was not part of the 121 taken into care.
At some point a large brown parcel arrived for us at Yorkshire TV’s studios. Anonymously-sent, it contained all the social service evidence relating to the 121 children which had been presented in camera to Butler-Sloss. This posed a dilemma: although the children’s identities had been hidden by code letters in these documents, simply by receiving them – let alone broadcasting their contents -we were committing a serious offence. Yet the evidence in the documents clearly answered the question Butler-Sloss had been forced to duck: had these children been abused ? The papers showed that the children had long histories of involvement with social services and painstakingly documented injuries. In many cases a convicted paedophile was living in their houses, and many had made very convincing disclosures of sexual activity with adults. In the end, and with Yorkshire TV’s backing, we decided they were too important to throw away.
We drove to Northallerton on a Wednesday evening, ready to begin filming the following day. At 6pm I was phoned by Yorkshire Television’s Head of Documentaries: the company’s Director of Programmes – essentially his direct boss – had issued an instruction that we were to abandon all filming and that I was to tell Channel 4 that Yorkshire TV would not make the documentary. It turned out that Stuart Bell MP had leaned on the Director of Programmes. It was a surreal – and deeply disturbing – moment. When I spoke to Channel 4 its commissioning editor couldn’t believe his ears.
Happily, Chanel 4 was then a far more serious broadcaster than it is now. Within days it had brokered a deal whereby my own production company would make the film; I would take leave of absence from Yorkshire TV to do so, and – under pain of having its lucrative daytime Countdown quiz-programme terminated by Channel 4 – Yorkshire TV would then take me back on a longer contract. The row even made the front page of the industry’s trade magazine.
But our troubles were nothing compared to those of Drs Higgs and Wyatt or Sue Richardson. The health authorities for whom the paediatricians worked refused them permission to be interviewed, and Sue Richardson was informed by her then employer – a child welfare charity – that if she appeared in it she would be dismissed. She resigned instead – and her interview was vital in conveying the truth about Cleveland.
Two telling sections of the film summed up the entire crisis. The first was a section which showed file footage of one of the Cleveland parents making an emotional appeal on a breakfast television programme: in it – and egged on by host Anne Diamond – he said he had never abused his children and demanded they be allowed home. Yet the truth was that he had been convicted of buggering his children – sometimes in front of his wife: apparently that truth was ignored by Ms Diamond and her team.
The second was the discovery that in the wake of the Butler-Sloss enquiry, the Department of Health ordered all records of all the children as a group to be destroyed. When we asked for an explanation, the Department refused to comment.
Just what was Cleveland really about ? For me it was clear: it was about the plight of children – some just toddlers – who were abused and – briefly – rescued; then re-abused by a child protection system which could not bear the pressure from politicians and press. The truth of what happened to those children was too difficult to hear. Which is why we called the film Cleveland: Unspeakable Truths.
by Tim Tate – Producer/Director of Cleveland: Unspeakable Truths