Investigative journalism website Exaro is facing increasing scrutiny over its reporting of claims senior politicians have been involved in child abuse and murder.
One former MP told The Mail on Sunday his life has been devastated by a “monstrous” and “totally false” report on the website.
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The site has also been criticised for suggesting a Panorama reporter investigating the abuse claims had a conflict of interest because he once lived near an alleged abuser. And a Daily Mail report said claims made by child abuse victims to Exaro do not stand up the scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Exaro's main backer – economist and financier Jerome Booth – has issued a long statement defending the website as a result of "media intrusions" at his family home.
Exaro has been investigating allegations of child abuse involving senior public figures, including MPs, for two years.
Last Tuesday, a BBC Panorama documentary raised questions over some of the abuse claims made against public figures. It interviewed a man called ‘David’ who was interviewed by police and who said he named former Home Secretary Leon Brittan as an abuser “as a joke suggestion to begin with”.
Brittan was questioned by police in 2014 and died in January this year, unaware that police and decided not to proceed against him.
Panorama also investigated a claim from an Exaro source called Nick who said that a school friend was murdered in a hit-and-run car crash in Kingston in 1979. Panorama could find no evidence that the incident happened.
Exaro editor Mark Watts said the Panorama episode in question was “brazenly biased” and said the BBC had no credibility when it came to investigating VIP paedophiles because both Stuart Hall and Jimmy Savile worked for the corporation.
A former MP told The Mail on Sunday that he believed he had been identified by an Exaro story which reported abuse claims against him, without naming him.
He said: "My concern is that vigilantes will identify me and attack me or my family over these totally false claims”. And he said that he would “prefer to be accused of murder”.
He told the paper: “I have had to tell my children what I have been accused of. I am quite robust, but to have to answer my children's questions about the whole issue is awful. They are worried, they ask me about what will happen to them and to me.
“My name has not been widely revealed but even so it has entirely disrupted my life. I have had to spend hour after hour going through old records to try to prove where I was on dates in the 1980s when these attacks were supposed to have taken place.
“When you know people are trying to invent allegations against you, no matter how much you know you are innocent, you worry.
“I worry that at any moment my family could suffer because of allegations that have no truth to them whatsoever.”
The Daily Mail said in a report on Saturday that Exaro has “published interviews with a string of victims whose evidence at times does not stand up to even basic scrutiny”.
It said that one Exaro source has been convicted in the 1990s of making hoax bomb threats and has falsely confessed in the past to both rape and murder.
It said that police have been unable to find “a shred of evidence” to support claims made by another Exaro source that he had been raped by four senior named public figures.
In advance of the Panorama documentary, Exaro noted in an article that its reporter Daniel Foggo was once a near neighbour of a senior Conservative politician who was the subject of child abuse allegations. It suggested that this was a conflict of interest.
Foggo told the Daily Mail: “I don't know what Exaro is trying to suggest, and that's what makes this such a scurrilous smear."
Nick Cohen, writing in The Observer yesterday, said the way Labour MP Tom Watson has championed the cause of alleged VIP child abuse victims.
And writing about Exaro, he said: “After Watson's allies at Exaro News ‘exposed’ the murderous cabal of Westminster paedophiles led by Leon Brittan, Harvey Proctor and Edward Heath, and operating from Dolphin Square, the hundreds of witnesses who make authentic accusations of historic child abuse stick have been conspicuous by their absence. Last week's BBC documentary on the police inquiry was old school: very balanced, very British, very fair – and all the more devastating for that.
"Hardly any witnesses had gone to the police, it told us. The one checkable fact in the stories of the handful that did was that the politicians had organised the murder of a boy in a hit-and-run accident. It was false.”
Peter Preston, also writing in The Observer, was more supportive of Exaro, saying: "Panorama was only allowed late – very late – to examine the entrails of the Savile scandal. The BBC did not distinguish itself there. The small, lonely Exaro outfit, in contrast, has been early and dogged in its hunt for political paedophile connections.
"It may have gone too far in some cases. Tragic stuff happens, exposures nobody can feel happy about. (What the police said about Leon Brittan is police business). But there's been much necessary revelation, too. If you never risk a mistake in these dangerous regions, you'll never find anything out. And, as we know now, there was and still is so much left to discover."
Exaro editor Watts was not available for comment this morning.
But economist Jerome Booth, who financially backs Exaro, has published online answers to a number of questions put to him by The Sunday Telegraph.
In this statement he said: "I rarely see Mark and when I do, we talk about general issues, rather than specific Exaro stories.
"As a result of the questions below put to me personally by The Sunday Telegraph, though, together with media intrusions at my home by other newspapers which have affected my family, I have today, for the first time since Exaro was founded, had a more detailed discussion with Mark – and some other members of the Exaro team – about these matters."
Among questions asked by The Sunday Telegraph, he said, was the following: "Does Jerome stand 100 per cent behind Exaro's paedophile investigation? Is he as certain as Exaro that these murders did take place?"
Booth said: "From my reading of the website, Exaro has always been very clear it is reporting on allegations that are under active investigation by the Metropolitan police.
"The police said at an early stage they believed [source] Nick’s allegations to be 'credible and true' – a statement they later, of course, changed to 'credible'.
"While it is very difficult for me or anyone else outside these investigations to judge, it is clear that, over recent years, many instances of genuine child abuse have come to light, resulting in numerous convictions, including of high-profile people.
"At the same time, as I again learnt from the Exaro website, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has recently announced it is now investigating allegations made by former police officers that 31 previous police investigations into child sex abuse by prominent people have been halted because of 'corruption'.
"In response to your question, Exaro has never described as 'certain' its position on any particular live police investigation – and it is wrong to suggest that they have.
"I also just read on the Exaro website that Robert Buckland QC, the Solicitor General, says the media should not prejudge the outcome of any police investigations. Neither should any member of the general public such as myself."
A note at the end of Booth's statement said: "In conclusion, I would like to add that while it has always been my intention that Exaro would become a profitable business, the nature of online journalism suggests that won’t be the case for the foreseeable future. I have anyway continued to fund Exaro and that won’t change. While I insist on sound financial management, Exaro is under no financial pressure from me.
"I believe that Exaro and its journalists are carrying out important work in the public interest, breaking stories about VIP child abuse and a range of other subjects."