'Official' papers may not tell whole story of historical paedophilia scandal

The discovery and release of government papers detailing the investigation into the alleged ‘unnatural’ sexual conduct of diplomat Sir Peter Hayman generated substantial press coverage. Unreported, however, were alternative contemporary accounts offering a different story of the legal proceedings brought against members of the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in the early 1980s.

The official National Archives documents confirmed what we already knew about Hayman. A retired diplomat and former High Commissioner in Canada, he was exposed in Private Eye in 1980, named by the MP Geoffrey Dickens under parliamentary privilege in 1981, and scrutinised in the press, where he was linked to PIE.

It is not surprising to learn that reports on Hayman crossed Margaret Thatcher’s desk and that a press ‘line’ was agreed. The authorities’ main concern seems to have been the possible national security implications of Hayman’s indiscretions, demonstrative of long-standing Cold War anxieties about the subversive potential of sexual blackmail.

While the National Archives files – known as PREM 19/588 – suggest there was no official protection of Hayman, that he was not immune from prosecution, and that there was no evidence linking him to specific crimes, a different story exists in alternative archival sources. In particular, the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) Gay Rights Sub-Committee documented events differently.

As with many organisations from the ‘gay left’, this sub-committee was concerned about the potential implications of the PIE prosecutions on the future policing of ‘non-normative’ sexual behaviour, including homosexuality. Civil libertarians more generally were anxious about the vagueness of conspiracy charges in general. The sub-committee was also close to the defence team, and its Gay Rights Officer, Barry Prothero, attended committal proceedings outlining the evidence gathered in relation to PIE.

In November 1980, Prothero corresponded with campaigners in Canada about the case. He wrote: ‘The DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] seems to be negotiating to drop the conspiracy charges [because] there is another man who may have been charged and who was not because of his connections and blowing the cover-up is likely to be worse for the DPP than proceeding with the prosecutions.’

Prothero noted that ‘although assisting in a "cover-up" may be distasteful, not only the defendants but the entire gay movement in this country would be delighted if this one succeeded in order to keep the case out of court.’

A second letter was more specific. Prothero wrote that the DPP used only a ‘tiny fraction of the evidence presented at the committal proceedings’ and called just four of the 13 witnesses present at the earlier hearing: ‘Of the hundred-odd boxes of material that were used at the committal, only five magazines and a handful of letters were used at the trials.’

Accordingly, Prothero observed that it was ‘clear that most of the evidence that was not used was dropped because Hayman, the erstwhile HC [High Commissioner] to Canada, was the central figure in its production. The defence barristers tell me that he began the "round Robin", as the letter writing circle is called, which generated most of the material upon which the committal was based.’

While the Gay Rights Sub-Committee’s interest in PIE was problematic, it did mean that it was well-informed about the case. Its documents suggest that questions must still be asked about these competing accounts, as well as the evidence disregarded by the DPP and how decisions were made at that level.

The contents of these documents also show some difficulties in searching for accounts of historical sex offences. Official archives are often limited and partial; there are constraints on the past that they capture. The processes permitting the assembly and compilation of material influence what has been included, excluded and catalogued.

More will be revealed if additional files can be found and those which are under closure orders are opened. Now that the official inquiry into historic child sex offences is mobilising, it is important that official reports and documents are properly investigated. It is equally vital, however, that evidence produced outside of the state and, perhaps most importantly, the testimonies of survivors, are properly and sensitively gathered and evaluated. Consideration of the abused is absent from PREM 19/588.

If the files fail to show the ‘establishment’ cover-up that NCCL members felt occurred, they are still demonstrative of an official attitude favouring protection over investigation; shutting down inquiries rather than opening them up. It remains unclear if that attitude has entirely changed.

A version of this article first appeared on the University of Birmingham’s Modern British Studies: Birmingham blog.

Dr Christopher Moores
Birmingham Fellow, School of History and Cultures, University of Birmingham