Are executives at the Telegraph sitting on emails that may help the police inquiry into child abuse?

UPDATE: I am grateful to the Executive Editor of the Telegraph for responding to this blog post. I have published his comments on a separate page here: https://medium.com/@tom_watson/telegraph-confirm-the-emails-exist-now-david-cameron-can-review-them-29deac11e

The revelations that the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne has resigned, claiming that the newspaper suppressed a story regarding HSBC is no surprise.

I have had cause to write to them about a disturbing allegation shared with me by Chris Bryant MP. They just ignored me.

My letter was prompted by a conversation I had with Chris. He told me that he’d had lunch at the Qurianale restaurant with Telegraph political correspondent Matthew Holehouse. Chris said that Holehouse claimed he had been accidentally included in a series of email exchanges between senior figures at Conservative Central Office who were speculating about which Labour sitting MPs were paedophiles and how they should deploy this ‘information’.

When what he told me had sunk in I was furious. It showed that senior offices at CCHQ were either a; holding back vital intelligence from the police abuse inquiry or b; engaging in a smear campaign against their opponents. Either way, it showed appalling conduct.

I felt it needed addressing at a senior level in both the Conservative party and the Telegraph.

Here’s the letter I wrote to David Cameron about the matter on 26th January:

Dear Mr Cameron,

Child Abuse Allegations

As you know, the scandal of child sex abuse at every level of society, including in the highest reaches of political life, has caused deep distress to many thousands of sex abuse survivors. Your party, with others, has been arguing for a full, open inquiry into these matters and for the police to pursue perpetrators.

You have also rightly been among the first to deplore the fact that — amid the speculation that this scandal has caused — a number of individuals have found themselves the subject of baseless, hurtful and defamatory allegations, often spread in an irresponsible way on social media networks and by email. Just this weekend Lord Selwyn Gummer condemned online “innuendo” as “wicked”.

With the above in mind, I understand that there has been an email exchange between several members of staff at CCHQ in which the staff are reported to speculate about which sitting Members of Parliament might be paedophiles.

It is possible that it is a serious piece of investigative work. In which case I urge you to hand this evidence over to the police immediately, so that they can investigate -rather than keeping it in the confines of the party. You recently publicly declared that all documents held by party whips will be made available to the police. I trust the same is true of internal party emails.

If, however, it is a scurrilous and puerile attempt to smear sitting politicians, then that is a different but no less serious matter.

First, I am sure that you would consider it your duty to report the existence of such an email and the identities of those who originated and circulated it, in the same way that other instances of unfounded smears disseminated by political advisers have rightly been condemned by you in the past.

Second, I would hope you also see it as your duty privately to share the relevant material with the MPs who are mentioned in this email, so that they can take necessary legal action to protect their reputations if they want to do so.

I hope you would agree that it would be wholly inappropriate for you and party officials to sit on these emails and refuse either to confirm their existence, or inform those whom it defames. That would be a disservice to the public interest, it would further harm the proper process of getting to the truth of child sex abuse and it would damage your personal reputation.

I do not intend to publicise this letter at this stage, as I appreciate you may not be aware of this matter. I do not want to put undue pressure on you while you are investigating the issues I have raised and taking the necessary actions.

However, I look forward to hearing your response as a matter of urgency.

When I didn’t get a response I sent a chase up letter on 30th January:

Dear Mr Cameron,

Child Abuse Allegations

Further to my letter of 26 January about child abuse allegations, I have since received a number of media calls regarding my correspondence to you.

I feel duty bound to respond to these requests, and would, therefore, be grateful if you could let me know whether you intend to reply to my letter today. I have enclosed a copy of my letter to you for ease of reference.

I look forward to hearing from you as a matter of urgency. Please contact my constituency office on XXXXX, email XXXXXX, or write to me at Terry Duffy House, Thomas Street, West Bromwich B70 6NT.

Incidentally the “number of media calls” reference related to calls from Patrick Wintour who had heard that I was concerned about the matter. I have no idea how he knew this.

You will see that Grant Shapps was designated to respond on behalf of David Cameron. The letter denies knowledge of any wrongdoing though I don’t think he put in much effort to check the accuracy of Holehouse’s allegation. I don’t know if there was a sweep of emails for example, or if there was a discussion between people at the Telegraph and Shapps and/or Central office staff.

I made the mistake of thinking Ian MacGregor was still the editor at the Telegraph. To be honest, since Tony Gallagher left the paper I had not followed all the baffling array of changes that had happened.

This is the email I sent to Ian MacGregor on 26th January:

Dear Mr MacGregor,

Child Abuse Allegations

As you know, the scandal of child sex abuse at every level of society, including in the highest reaches of political life, has caused deep distress to many thousands of sex abuse survivors. Your paper, with others, has been arguing for a full, open inquiry into these matters and for the police to pursue perpetrators.

Your paper has also been among the first rightly to deplore the fact that — amid the speculation that this scandal has caused — a number of individuals have found themselves the subject of baseless, hurtful and defamatory allegations, often spread in an irresponsible way on social media networks and by email. Writer Dan Hodges wrote in the paper that Leon Brittan’s accusers must show their evidence in a column opening with the sentence “I hope Leon Brittan was a paedophile”.

In the context, I understand that one of your journalists, Matthew Holehouse, has been accidentally copied in to an email exchange between several members of staff at CCHQ in which the staff are reported to speculate about which sitting Members of Parliament might be paedophiles.

I have not seen this exchange. It is possible that it is a serious piece of investigative work. In which case I hope you would agree that the staff responsible — or Mr Holehouse himself — should hand this evidence over to the police immediately so that they can investigate, rather than keeping it to themselves.

If, however, it is a scurrilous and puerile attempt to smear sitting politicians, then that is a different but no less serious matter.

First, I am sure that you would consider it your duty to report the existence of such an email and the identities of those who originated and circulated it, in the same way that other instances of unfounded smears disseminated by political advisers have rightly been disclosed by your newspapers in the past.

Second, I would hope you would also see it as your duty privately to share the relevant material with the MPs who are mentioned in this email, so that they can take necessary legal action to protect their reputations if they want to do so.

I hope you would agree that it would be wholly inappropriate for your newspaper to sit on this email and refuse either to publish its existence or inform those whom it defames. That would be a disservice to the public interest, it would further harm the proper process of getting to the truth of child sex abuse and it would damage your newspaper’s reputation.

I do not intend to publicise this letter at this stage, as I appreciate you may not be aware of this matter and I do not want to put undue pressure on you or the newspaper while you are investigating it and taking the necessary action.

However, I look forward to hearing your response as a matter of urgency.

My office chased his office up for a response and they told us that he was no longer responsible for the daily side of the paper but had forwarded all emails to Robert Winnet who was dealing with the matter. I didn’t get a response from him and I’m still waiting.

One deeply irritating thing did happen though. Instead of replying to my letter directly, the Telegraph tried to get me to back off on the story by talking to a party press officer.

When I learnt this, I was incandescent and sent the following email on 29th January:

Dear Mr MacGregor,

As I explained in my previous letter, I had no intention of making the contents of our correspondence public as I did not wish to put undue pressure on you, whilst you investigated the situation at your paper.

XXXXX has relayed the contents of the conversation you had this afternoon regarding the correspondence. I can only interpret your action as an attempt to place undue pressure on me by political arm twisting.

To re-iterate some points from my previous letter. There is a possibility that the contents of the emails are useful intelligence for the police in their ongoing investigations. This is the most important issue.

If, however, they are a just ill informed speculation and smears then that is also a very important matter of public interest, but of a different order.

I still do not propose to make public a private conversation but I am very disappointed by your reaction to my letter.

I invite you to reconsider your decision not to act. To pretend that the emails do not exist would be an especially egregious example of turning a blind eye.

Please contact me directly rather than through a party press officer. Our private correspondence is not a party matter.

[Just on the above — I do not want to put a party employee’s name in the public domain here. He was doing his job and took a call and relayed the message to me through an intermediary. One other thing — I’m now pretty sure it wasn’t Mr McGregor that contacted him but another representative of the paper. The substantive point is that I interpreted their actions as an attempt to silence me over the matter, by applying political pressure.]

We tried to chase up the Telegraph for a formal response but they kept ignoring us. I even asked my researcher to call the switchboard to ask for Robert Winnet’s mobile number but they refused to give it him. If I’m being honest, at this point I gave up. You can only fight so many battles.

Despite giving up I still think that Chris’s account of Holehouse’s allegations are in the public interest and would ordinarily have been jumped at by a newspaper editor.

When I read Peter Oborne’s article yesterday I felt I should at least explain that he was not alone. He did a brave thing and today he is being mocked by his former employers and others in the industry. They’re closing ranks and trying to traduce the character of a respected journalist because he spoke truth to power like he’s supposed to, though on this occasion it was a powerful media mogul. It’s not right.

PS I’ve written this up in a hurry before I go campaigning. I managed to get hold of Chris Bryant who was travelling for a campaign visit himself. I asked Chris to send me a brief precis of his recollection of events. I reproduce it below:

“Matthew Holehouse told me at lunch at Quirinale that he had been accidentally included in a series of email exchanges between senior figures at Conservative Central Office who were speculating about which Labour sitting MPs were paedophiles and how they should deploy this ‘information’. Matthew seemed to think that this showed that CCHQ was run by a bunch of children and he said it was worse than Damian McBride. He reckoned the paper would be running the story later that week, unless the powers that be intervened. I asked him which senior figures were involved. He said ‘very senior’, but refused to elaborate. He also refused to tell me which Labour MPs were speculated about. He didn’t believe that any of the emails’ allegations were anything other than nasty vindictiveness and an attempt to smear Labour MPs.”

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