The journalist who led Exaro’s reporting about Carl Beech’s false claims has admitted to repeated doubts about his key source and said he was taken in by Beech’s middle-class credentials.
Mark Conrad wrote the stories over two years, alleging a powerful group of men from the British establishment had raped and murdered children between 1975 and 1984.
Conrad said Beech stood out from other victims claiming to have been abused as children.
In his first account of the scandal that rocked British public life, Conrad told the Guardian: “There is a degree of truth that none of us can hide from. A lot of us gave him credibility from day one because he was educated, well spoken, he holds a very middle-class job in the public sector – in the NHS.
In 2014 Beech first attracted the attention of Conrad, who found him on a website called This tangled web, where he wrote about being a victim of child sexual abuse.
Exaro’s editor in chief, Mark Watts, had decided it should focus on claims of child sexual abuse, Conrad recalled.
Beech told Conrad his claims “from memory”, talking very quietly, sometimes leaning so far over the table that their faces almost touched. He said a penknife had been brandished and threats made to castrate the children. “I found it a difficult incident to believe, as anyone would,” said Conrad: “They were the most extraordinary allegations I have ever heard. I had never worked on anything like this,” said Conrad. “I tried to keep an open mind.”
On 22 July 2014, Beech agreed to walk through Pimlico, London, looking for the sites where the alleged attacks had taken place. Conrad said when Beech reached Dolphin Square, he became terrified: “He had physical difficulties, he started digging his nails in his arms, sweating, he was visibly distressed. We had to leave the area.”
He was shown scores of pictures of random men, among which were photos of the 12 men he falsely accused. He picked all bar one out.
Exaro’s claims caught the attention of detectives at Scotland Yard.
Police used the then Labour backbencher Tom Watson to help convince Beech they could be trusted to investigate the matter thoroughly. Watson said he helped police to reach people who were alleging they had been abused.
In July 2014 Watson, Conrad and Beech met. Watson told the Guardian: “The meeting was solely to reassure him about the police’s credibility, and I did do that.”
Watson’s efforts worked. Conrad was present when Beech first met Yard detectives at a Gloucester police station in October 2014.
Beech handed police a piece of paper listing the names of 12 establishment figures: “The detective said: ‘That is a serious list’,” recalls Conrad.
But Conrad says that during the two years he worked on the story he had doubts about Beech, who had claimed one child was mown down outside a south-west London school by the paedophiles: “I went through old paper archives at Kingston and the British libraries, I went door to door but could find no evidence of the incident. In retrospect, it should have been a bigger red flag. It nagged away at me.”
He also said he became suspicious when Beech, who had applied for criminal injuries compensation, bought a new car, a Ford Mustang: “He was a divorced parent on a public-sector salary. I wondered, how did he afford it?”
Conrad said the Exaro newsroom was split about the claims, but those doubts were silenced when in December 2014 DS Kenny McDonald said Beech’s claims were “credible and true”.
Conrad recalls the effect inside Exaro: “When the police said it was ‘credible and true’, it galvanised Watts.”
Exaro believed that the police had more solid evidence leading to the conclusion that “Nick” – the alias used by Beech – was a witness of truth.
“Either ‘Nick’ was telling the truth or he was an incredible hoaxer,” Conrad said.
Exaro, which included the former Guardian reporter David Hencke among its journalists, was now at the centre of a major running story. Conrad said: “As the child sexual abuse investigations went on, Mark Watts wanted Exaro to be at the forefront of it.
Conrad said the atmosphere inside Exaro was “insane” with stories being rushed out for fear of being scooped.
Both Exaro and the Met kept going, in part for the same reason, despite doubts among some of their teams.
Speaking wholly separately, a senior source with knowledge of the Met child abuse investigations said: “There isn’t really any magic to tell if someone is lying, especially if you have circumstantial hits on some of what they are saying.”
The police source said officers treated the suspects as they would any other, but added: “The problem was their actions were being reported in parallel by Exaro and high profile figures had their reputations ruined by the media.”
Watts left Exaro and in July 2016 it closed down. It resurfaced after changing ownership and is owned now in a new incarnation by a different company, the Arador Corporation, since March 2018.
On Monday, Watts said the decision of the judge, Justice Goss, to allow jurors to hear evidence of Beech’s conviction for possession of indecent images in a separate trial and his absconding to Sweden made it “impossible” for him to have a “fair trial”. He further claimed the convictions were “wholly unsafe”.
Harvey Proctor, one of those falsely accused by Beech, called on the police and CPS to consider investigating Conrad and Watts for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice over their role in reporting the allegations for Exaro.
Watts responded: “The court has heard no evidence of criminal conduct by anyone connected with Exaro, and so far as I am aware there is none. As I say in my statement, there needs to be a public inquiry into Operation Midland to ensure that the right lessons are learnt from it.”