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July 23, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:06am

Former Exaro editor says no need to apologise for ‘good faith’ reporting of fantasy ‘VIP child sex ring’ claims

By Freddy Mayhew

Former Exaro editor Mark Watts has said he stands by the defunct investigative news outfit’s reporting of Carl Beech’s fantasy “VIP child sex ring” claims and that he does not owe anyone an apology.

Beech, 51, was found guilty yesterday of having lied about being abused by a group of paedophiles operating at the heart of Westminster whom he also pretended had committed multiple child murders.

The divorced former nurse (pictured) faces a lengthy jail term when he returns to Newcastle Crown Court on Friday to be sentenced for 12 counts of perverting the course of justice and one of fraud.

Beech’s claims were first reported by Exaro in July 2014 under the pseudonym “Nick” after he was contacted by reporter Mark Conrad. The reports can still be read online at the time of writing.

Conrad, now a reporter for Byline Times, said today that Beech had “been exposed as a prolific, manipulative and malicious offender”.

Watts told Press Gazette that “no journalist needs to apologise for reporting on the case in good faith, as we certainly did at Exaro”.

Beech’s lies wrongly painted ex-prime minister the late Sir Edward Heath, Tory MP Harvey Proctor, war veteran Field Marshall Lord Bramall and the late Lord Leon Brittan as child abusers.

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Some had their homes raided by the Met as part of Operation Midland for which Beech was the star witness – police having learnt of his claims through Exaro’s reports.

The £2m probe, which ran from November 2014 to March 2016, was dropped without any charges being brought.

Proctor has called Exaro Beech’s “support team” and also hit out at BBC News coverage of Operation Midland. The BBC said a Panorama investigation had later helped to expose Beech’s lies.

Jurors at Newcastle Crown Court heard Exaro’s Conrad had shown Beech a series of photos of prominent men from the 1970s and 1980s and was present at his first meeting with Met police officers about his claims.

In a statement today, Conrad tweeted that the “picture test was done to avoid the situation that the BBC found itself in re: false allegation against Lord McAlpine – namely that journalists did not show the alleged victim a relevant picture of his alleged abuser early in their investigation.

“So we wanted to avoid a situation whereby Beech had named individuals but was unable to correctly pick them out from a selection of images. This was all done after he had already named his alleged abusers. The court did not make this clear.”

Conrad said Beech, a former children’s charity volunteer, had put his victims “through hell” and that they had his “heartfelt sympathy”.

A former Met detective criticised the force for its close relationship with Exaro. On condition of anonymity he told PA: “Exaro should have been told to wind their necks in. They were allowed to go on and on and were able to influence the inquiry.”

Watts, whose byline was on a number of Exaro’s reports on the fictional Westminster paedophile network, told Press Gazette today he “stands by Exaro’s reporting of the case”.

He said Exaro’s reports “never asserted” that Beech’s claims were true “because it was not possible to judge one way or the other at that stage”.

He said the news outfit “never identified any of those under investigation until the police took positive action”.

Exaro folded in July 2016, five years after it launched, and the name has now been taken on by an American firm.

In an interview with Press Gazette a week after we reported the closure, Watts said he expected Exaro’s reporting on the VIP paedophile ring to be “vindicated” and largely dismissed the idea that the police’s inability to stand up the claims was responsible for the closure.

He said today that Exaro began by publishing only a limited part of Beech’s story “where we had corroboration”, and that it only published Beech’s uncorroborated claims, such as the murder of three boys, when the Met confirmed it was investigating them.

“The Met, rather foolishly, did confirm, and we and everyone else ran the story,” said Watts.

“At the time, we knew that the Met officers on the case regarded his claims as credible, and they did not do so, as is widely assumed, simply because it was police policy to ‘believe the victim’.

“I am disappointed that the trial did not hear from Met officers about what exactly was the basis of that assessment, underlining the need for a public inquiry to ensure the right lessons are learnt from Operation Midland.”

He went on: “The story only took off on Exaro and in the wider media because of the police assessment of Carl Beech and because of their actions in the investigation.”

Asked if he owed it to Beech’s victims to apologise for Exaro’s role in bringing his fantasies to light, Watts said: “I appreciate that anyone would be very angry about being wrongly accused of a serious crime.

“The Met has to consider whether it owes any further apologies, but no journalist needs to apologise for reporting on the case in good faith, as we certainly did at Exaro.”

Watts said he was surprised to learn at Beech’s trial, which he attended and tweeted about, that the Met had not examined Beech’s computers.

“Had the Met done that, it would have seen as a result that officers would have had no basis for referring to the Crown Prosecution Service his statements alone, as I mentioned in my statement yesterday.”

Watts said in a statement yesterday that he believed Beech had not had a “fair trial” and that his convictions were “wholly unsafe”.

A BBC spokesperson said: “In 2014 BBC reported serious allegations, in the public interest, which were the basis of a police murder investigation, and which the police later described as ‘credible and true’.

“Carl Beech has since been exposed as a fantasist and serial liar, not least by an investigation from the BBC’s Panorama.

“We express our utmost sympathy to those falsely accused by Beech…”

Picture: Crown Prosecution Service/PA Wire

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