We search for life on Mars, why not for Max Cliffords & Jimmy Saviles?

Respected astronomer Seth Shostak is unlikely to feature in any of the investigations into the likes of Cyril Smith, Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford and the countless banks, companies and organisations that abuse power and trust, but perhaps he should.

The author of Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence knows how to look hard for something you want to find. But we don’t do what Shostak does when it comes to seeking those who shaft us.

Reading Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith by Simon Danczuk and Matt Baker – the excellent expose of how Cyril Smith twisted his power in and over Rochdale – I was struck by the parallels with Savile’s reign of abuse. They were both calculating bullies who sought personal advantage and took it, while the people who could have stopped them did not, and now give the same raft of excuses and/or denials.

One idea to protect victims is the mandatory reporting within public bodies of abuse allegations. It is hardly cutting edge stuff – schools have been made to report allegations of racism for years.

Forcing managers to refer abuse allegations up the chain would be a start, but we could go further. Maybe it’s time we did something pro-active by establishing a system to audit companies, organisations and public bodies that are flagged up as potentially significantly dodgy, opaque or dishonest.

Transparency and behaviour that looks a lot like honesty are easy enough to identify – I wrote about them here – so the opposite should not be impossible to spot.

If we actively looked for people and organisations that were shafting others we would surely find at least some of them. It’s comforting to think that Smith’s corrupted power and the abuse suffered by so many people was something that happened ‘then’, not now. We call it historical abuse and imagine it was the result of events of another time. But both Smith and Savile were only stopped by old age and death – neither was effectively exposed while they were alive. Savile was still sexually abusing people aged 79 and Smith was working to destroy honest political opponents in his seventies.

Setting thresholds for a dodgy audit could be put out to consultation. I’d suggest resisting too many FoI requests and senior figures refusing to openly answer journalists’ questions on matters of public interest as two to start off with.

One of the better reports into why Savile wasn’t stopped – Drusilla Sharpling’s Mistakes have been made into police failings for HMIC – asks if it could happen again. Her stark conclusion: “There is a distinct possibility”

For Savile read Cyril Smith, Max Clifford, rotten banks, shifty councils, and bullying individuals and organisations of every stripe. All of them damage people and society and most of them could be found and stopped.

But unlike Seth Shostak and his alien hunting we’re not really looking, we’re just reacting – tutting and conducting investigations – when eventually the shameful evidence becomes too obvious to ignore

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English isn’t foreign in Leeds

The debate about immigration and what is “foreign” in Britain is in serious trouble if the row over a Leeds school teaching English to its pupils is anything to go by.

According to reports, City Of Leeds inner city secondary school has given up teaching English as its pupils’ first language. With 55 nationalities on the register it was claimed everyone will in future be taught to speak English as a foreign language, including the 15% of pupils born and bred in the city.

The story ignited a stream of criticism online and in emails to the school, much of it racist. A local Tory councillor suggested the school was “throwing the towel in.”

UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage went further: “I am just absolutely appalled we are allowing this to happen. It is just increasing division in our society.”

Except it’s not happening. The school does not use the word foreign and is trying to do the exact opposite of creating division. It is putting extra resources into teaching English to pupils whose first language is something else. It plans to teach English as an additional language (EAL) – not a foreign language. It’s including native English children in the programme because too many of them can’t speak English properly either.

I spent three hours in the school and only heard English being spoken, even to children who spoke very little of it themselves. This despite three quarters of the pupils speaking English as, at best, their second language and most having been in the UK for just a few years

I saw an induction class where an 11 year old boy from Gambia and two sisters aged 11 and 12 from the Czech Republic, all of whom have only been in Britain for two weeks, were receiving intensive help to learn about their new home and to improve their English.

Down the corridor an EAL lesson was taking place for a small group of 13 to 16 year olds, none of whom were born in Britain but all of whom will suffer in their GCSEs unless their use of English can be improved. And for GCSEs you can read future prospects.

Headteacher Georgiana Sale, a former Ofsted inspector with a history of improving struggling schools, is in the process of lifting City of Leeds from “In need of improvement” to something much better. She was mystified by the criticism her plan attracted and the invective that some of that criticism contained.

If we can’t discuss improving immigrants’ English language skills without obsessing about the concept of foreign what hope is there for the wider debate on immigration?

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Exposing NHS secrecy is a thankless task

It’s three years since I started an investigation into secrecy in some ambulance services over the deaths of patients treated by paramedics who were subsequently struck off.

As a result, investigations have been conducted by ambulance trusts and hospitals, procedures have been changed, and families have received apologies.

Lawyers have been engaged, two out of court settlements (at least) have been paid, two inquests have been held and two coroners have ruled that vulnerable patients were let down.

But had you sat through either inquest, the first in Alnwick, Northumberland in 2013, the second in Doncaster this week, you would never have known it was investigative journalism that exposed the serious failings they all agreed must never happen again.

In both courtrooms journalism – which had exposed the failings – was the elephant in the room. If the entire press bench had worn floppy grey ears and tusks no-one would have said a word. Authority had been successfully held to account for the public good, but would rather like to pretend it hadn’t, thank you very much.

The secrecy itself was well hidden – paramedics are struck off by the Health Professions Council (now the Health and Care Professions Council) in public hearings when they have mistreated patients. The paramedic concerned is named and the hearing transcripts are published online. Transparency – it would seem – at its best.

But the patients who have been mistreated are not named – and I found all too often their families had no idea anything was amiss. Just as bad, coroners were not informed of NHS concerns either – so deaths that should have been properly investigated in open court were not. The HPC relied (and still relies) on the ambulance service to inform families when the mistreatment is spotted by someone within the NHS.

It took hours of research to chase down what clues there were in the heavily redacted transcripts – any detail that could identify the patient was so carefully removed that in many cases I could get nowhere. But in some of the deaths discussed there was a reference to an ambulance station, a date of death, the patient’s age, or a landmark mentioned by a witness in passing.

In every case I successfully followed up the family of the dead patient had no idea their husband, father, daughter, wife, had been mistreated so badly that a healthcare professional had lost their livelihood. I identified three people whose deaths should have been flagged up to a coroner but were not, and another in Scotland which had not been referred to the procurator fiscal.

At each of the two inquests that have been held (so far) as a result of that investigation the coroner has found there was a failure of care. The Doncaster coroner went further: a verdict of death by natural causes, he said, “would be inadequate and improperly reflect the tragedy and seriousness of the case.”

He was talking about the death of a seven year old girl left on the bathroom floor by a paramedic who sent an ambulance away instead of rushing her to hospital where she just might have been saved.

The Yorkshire Ambulance Service admitted Sky News had “brought [the secrecy] to our attention,” before admitting they should have told the coroner and the dead girl’s family six years ago. That was the only mention journalism got.

Both inquests were told changes have now been made to procedures and the same thing can’t happen again – patients and their families are put first. The patients’ families both received apologies from the ambulance trusts – and both cases the families said they thought the NHS behaviour had been criminal.

The Doncaster coroner was keen to thank everyone by name or affiliation who was involved in the inquest which successfully brought out the facts of such a tragic and serious case. Except one.

If anyone in the NHS or the coroners court system is thankful for being alerted by investigative journalism to serious failings – enabling the UK’s biggest spender of public money to improve the way it operates – they certainly haven’t said so.

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Yorkshire’s place in chemical warfare history

I’m no professional historian, but I reckon a rare document from a former stately home in North Yorkshire could shed new light on one of the most frightening threats this country has ever faced – gas attack.

I’ve found 118 pages of hand-typed notes, stamped ‘For Official Use Only’ and dated 1939, which are based on what was then the government’s latest intelligence on Germany’s ability to launch air attacks and chemical warfare on Britain at the outbreak of World War II. It appears they have never been published before.

Journalism is a strange trade – just as life happens while you’re busy making plans, news stories pass you by while you’re doing other stuff and only occasionally are you lucky enough to spot them.

These notes (so far I’ve only seen the first page) were offered for sale by a collector who mentioned they came from Hawkhills. I only know its history as one of the government’s two wartime gas training schools because Hawkhills played a significant role in the Scout troop which taught me to pitch a tent, start a camp fire and tie a bowline – and for which I have become the unofficial historian.

Hawkhills Gas Training College, Easingwold

Hawkhills Gas Training College, Easingwold

The document, now mine and in the post, was written for gas school officials for lectures at what is described as the Hawkhills Air Raid Precaution School. They are “designed to provide a background for the study of ‘Air Warfare’ problems … and to help instructors whose duty it is to train others.”

Under the red official use warning stamp, page one warns that Britain is no longer an island protected by the sea and “public morale must be strengthened accordingly.”

And to lift the spirits of any journalist the writer warns: “Information drawn from these notes should not be attributed to the Air Staff or to the lecturer .. ” Clearly the unattributable briefing is nothing new.

Hawkhills gas school class photo from the 1940s

Hawkhills gas school class photo from the 1940s

At 118 pages it will be a little while before we will know what new information the document reveals. It is not classified source material – but it would undoubtedly have been drawn from the latest intelligence about threats and resilience and from cabinet decisions on how to cope.

By definition the lectures these notes underpinned would have been a mix of intelligence and propaganda – but this is a document written at the height of tensions by government officials preparing for possible invasion in a country steeling itself for a repeat of the horrors of the gas attacks witnessed in the trenches just two decades earlier.

There can’t be many jobs that make grown men want the postman to come early. Watch this space

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Glasgow and Boston show Britain is far from broken

It’s been a long week of news: eight days, almost 1,000 miles of driving and two very different communities facing disastrous events. In both Glasgow and Boston people have pulled together; given one another support; talked to reporters, who asked, in the main, sensitive questions; and complained about officials when they thought they deserved it. In short, they have demonstrated that when things get bad, despite claims to the contrary, Britain is far from being broken.

Recovery operation, Clutha Vaults, Glasgow

Recovery operation, Clutha Vaults, Glasgow

The police helicopter crash at the Clutha Vaults in Glasgow was as startling as news events get – an appalling tragedy with nine people dead and a dozen so badly injured they spent at least one night in hospital. But the response from people in the city was respectful and dignified. Locals passing the crash site gathered at the police cordon and just stood in the cold, a constantly-changing audience watching the slow progress of the recovery operation in silence. Others more personally involved made their way through to the inner cordon that was busy with news crews and photographers, to share their experiences and thoughts with one another and with those of us reporting on it. The courage and reserve they displayed was remarkable – even the traumatised relatives of some of those lying dead in the wreckage of the bar directed their frustration in well-aimed bursts and thanked us afterwards for giving them a chance to have their say. Everyone I met at the Clutha Vaults was a credit to their city.

Skirbeck Road, Boston, Lincolnshire

Skirbeck Road, Boston, Lincolnshire

No sooner had the last bodies been driven out past the emergency services’ guard of honour than the warnings began of coastal flooding. By Thursday night I was in Boston on the wide open Lincolnshire fens, watching another community cope with unexpected disaster with the same good manners and determination to help one another that had been on display in Glasgow. A local policeman complained to me that people had driven into Boston at high tide just to watch events unfold – he thought they were inconsiderate, making it difficult for the emergency services to do their jobs. But it looked to me like a version of what happened in Glasgow – locals making sense of things, coming to see for themselves what was happening as three hundred homes in their town were flooded. By Friday morning some of those same locals had created a volunteer clean up crew and set to work, and the following day someone was collecting cash in the town centre to buy Christmas presents for flood victims’ children. And just as in Glasgow, the people most affected, those whose lives had been turned upside down, welcomed journalists in and thanked them for helping to tell their stories.

It’s too easy to trot out claims that we are living in Broken Britain, that we’ve lost our community spirit, that youngsters are yobs, and everyone is out for what they can get. The past week has been filled with sadness. And it has shown that in Britain we still have a tremendous spirit.

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Canoe Man: Why John Darwin should frighten the kids

If I’d been given a pound for every time someone asked me today why John Darwin thought he’d get away with breaking his parole licence to cavort with a woman in Ukraine I’d have had enough for a latte before lunchtime.

Why did he not think anyone would mind? Look to the two big lies we’re all told again and again – you can do anything if you want it badly enough and celebrity is an aspiration. Together they can ruin people’s lives. Darwin suffers from believing in both.

Even before taking the decision to avoid bankruptcy by paddling out to sea and faking his own death, Darwin has lived his life as if he’s a one-man reality TV show. Bit parts have been played by the wife who first helped, then divorced him, the cops (and the journalists) who uncovered his and her crimes, and all those whose inaction or incompetence allowed him to (almost) get away with it, but in his head he remains the hero.

He showed it when he wrote his autobiography in prison, smuggled his unconvincing tale of a loveable rogue out through the bars on his cell with the connivance of a conman in Miami, conducted pen-pal seductions with unlikely women, gave interviews on his release and wrote on his website that he was releasing more books, working on a film, and planning to travel the world.

To the rest of us, his life is a parable for the modern age: his misfortunes remind us that investments can go down as well as up; that it’s not just buy to let, it’s buy, maintain and let; and that family comes first. If you want to frighten your kids into spending their time, money and energy wisely, tell them the story of John Ronald Darwin.

We are each a sum total of our whole lives, but Darwin’s muddle in middle age should have brought anyone to their senses. Seduced by Thatcherite ideals he had acquired more buy to let houses than he could manage. He had a Range Rover on crippling finance that was costing him a third of his take-home pay. His debts were so bad that his finances were, literally, a dog’s dinner; Cleveland Police discovered he could only pay for his Rottweilers’ food with credit cards.

It was a downfall foreseen, or at least anticipated, by his bank. Worried about his ability to manage the dilapidated houses he owned it insisted on wrapping them in one mortgage to give itself the upper hand. When debt alarm bells started ringing the bank made noises about pulling the plug and forcing a fire-sale. Darwin could not face bankruptcy and starting again – so he sidestepped into the fantasy that if he really, really wanted them to, his daydreams could come true.

What happened, and keeps happening, to Darwin, to his life and to his family is the lesson for kids to learn: no matter how much you think you’re the hero and everyone else is a fool, reaching for the stars, on its own, is not enough.

It looks like Darwin will soon be back behind bars – flying home into the arms of the police to serve the rest of his sentence.

Fuelled by self-belief and utterly convinced that he is a celebrity, Darwin boasts on his website of his sense of adventure. Don’t listen to a word he says kids. Except the word sense. Think about that a lot.

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Bradford’s Paul Flowers, ex Co-op Bank chair and suspended reverend, might not have done much for the reputation of banking or the Methodists, but he has exposed some interesting crisis management over the past couple of weeks. So in the spirit of caring and sharing I bring you two examples of how to turn iffy stories to advantage. They share a golden thread – a clear conscience.

The award for averting reputational damage whilst potentially choking children to death as they walk to school must go to Terry Waldron, erstwhile PR man for ICI, who combined quick thinking with bacon butties in 1995 after a faulty light fitting sparked the biggest fire Teesside had seen since the Second World War.

As dawn broke that October morning flames were raging through buildings on the sprawling petrochemicals complex identified (unfairly, they would say) by Jimmy Nail’s Spender as somewhere to “catch cancer”. Terry was faced with a looming pall of black smoke guiding the wise men of journalism to his door like an apocalyptic star of Bethlehem.

Unphased by biblical imagery as locals drove to work under darkening skies and in fear of their lives ICI calmly opened up the splendidly situated Wilton Castle, owned by the company and overlooking the chemical site they managed, and invited us to join them. Official spokespeople were soon on hand, but the clever bit was extending the invitation to critics, concerned campaigners, MPs and anyone else who wanted to chip in. This was not spin or command and control PR – it was a company, in adversity, saying “Look, we’re not hiding anything and we’re doing all we can.”

When a chef in whites appeared with hot bacon rolls and coffee we journalists had everything we could have asked for. Hardly surprisingly Terry, who’s still on Teesside as PR Manager for Sembcorp Utilities, remembers the reporting that day as being fair and accurate. Genius.

Meanwhile, what to do when some journo rings up and asks awkward questions? Promise to call back in due course, then don’t? If dodging, bluster and evasion is your default response the alarm bells should be ringing – they certainly are for the hack making the call.

For a breath of non-dodging fresh air, step forward Andrew Pern, chef and co-owner at York’s swanky new Star Inn The City. I don’t know for sure what his firm is like to work for, but I’d hazard a guess at not bad. One call to his restaurant on a recent Sunday morning got me his mobile number – how many organisations run by ogres have a sufficiently relaxed culture for staff to hand out the boss’ number? To reinforce the point he answered my unrecognised number, then agreed to me turning up that lunchtime with a camera to discuss why his sector claims not be able to afford to pay workers the living wage. He let me into his pride and joy of a new business venture at the busiest time to ask him anything I wanted to about low wages. In exchange he got some publicity – and my respect. He didn’t even complain when I stupidly pushed the kitchen door open without checking and sent a waiter flying.

The lesson is surely that the well-organised outfit, confident that it is doing the right thing, has little to worry about. Questions? Ask away. You can only say that with complete confidence when you know you have nothing to hide. If you can’t say it, maybe it’s time to rethink things.

To the blusterers and dodgers I’d say talk to Terry, he might help you get things in order. Or pay Andrew a visit, then at least you’ll have a nice lunch.

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