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Secrets or Lies?

Statement from David Whelan submitted to the BBC Progamme Complaints Unit, November 2005

I am dissatisfied with the rejection of my complaint about this programme by the BBC and I wish to record my dissatisfaction with the rejection of my complaint about this programme. My main purpose now is to ensure that lessons that could be learned from what I regard as faulty programme making should be taken on board by the Corporation.

The process of obtaining redress has been lengthy (over two years) and labyrinthine. I do not consider that the BBC has been as open, helpful and understanding as might have been expected in dealing with my essentially simple complaint. An apology might have sufficed had the Corporation been willing to acknowledge the undoubted faults with this programme as they relate to me. Instead it took over 22 months for the BBC Complaints Unit to make a decision, and in the meantime OFCOM has refused to entertain my complaint because it was 'out of time'.

The BBC Complaints Unit may feel they have exhausted the complaints process and exonerated their staff. I am sure we would all like to get on with our lives, but I believe the media's proper task of uncovering miscarriage of justice has been severely undermined by this shoddy programme, which was prepared to add insult to injury by seeking to present victims of crime as untrustworthy liars. That to me is an abuse of power

The programme challenged the safety of the conviction of John Porteous who was jailed for eight years in 2002 for the sexual abuse of young people in his care when he was a house parent for the Scottish charity Quarriers in the 1960s and 1970s. I was one of the people he abused, and appeared as a witness at his trial.

The BBC Scotland tried to contact me about the programme on 14 March 2003, but wrote to an old London address so I did not receive the letter immediately. They then obtained my mobile number and called me on 19 March 2003. I referred them to my solicitor and informed them I was about to go on holiday. They supplied him with questions they wanted me to answer and asking for a decision about my participation in the programme within 24 hours. I was prepared to take part in a studio interview, but that was not what they wanted. Three days later they called me again by which time I was in Romania on holiday.

What I did not know until (until over a year after the programme was broadcast) was that they had already decided that I was a liar, and had said as much in two emails to the Scottish prison authorities in February 2003 in order to gain access to my abuser John Porteous.

The campaign to challenge his conviction was led by his wife Helen Porteous from a property in Quarriers Village. She collaborated with the programme makers. Indeed children, who attend drama classes run by Mrs Porteous and her daughter, were used in the reconstructions of alleged events around the time of her husband's offences. Although the BBC claims she had no role in the dramatisation of the reconstructions, in my view it was distasteful and unnecessary to use children who are normally supervised by close relatives of a convicted paedophile about whom the programme was being made.

I also found it insensitive that they chose the name of my deceased brother with which to protect my identity. I was represented as a 13-year-old 'James' in one of the most dramatic moments of the reconstruction. In a scene that was repeated several times I was shown holding a knife to the throat of woman - who was supposed to have been the house mother (a Mrs Drennan) before Mrs Porteous took over. Yet I never threatened Mrs Drennan (as her case notes were later to show). I had reacted badly to being admonished by one of the Davidson sisters (who had been my house parents before Mrs Drennan) and Mrs Porteous herself, but the incident as shown never took place.

I believe the scene was used to bolster the impression that I was out of control and not to be trusted. The message of the programme was, in short, if a key witness was unreliable and might have lied there may have been a miscarriage of justice.

The second damaging and inaccurate assertion made against me in the film was that my motive in giving evidence against Porteous was for financial gain. In the programme, after a legal advocate claims that in cases of historic abuse one motive is financial gain, a relative of one of the other witnesses against Porteous tells the presenter that his brother had abused his own girlfriend's child and then that "Five pounds is an incentive (to lie) for somebody who is down on his luck..."

Immediately the presenter says "We understand that 'James' is now suing Quarriers for compensation, although for how much we don't know." The inference to the viewers is clear.

I am financially secure and I am not in need of money. My action against Quarriers was taken on legal advice as the only means open to me to obtain a formal acknowledgement of the failure of their duty of care and an apology. I head up a group of former boys and girls of Quarriers Homes and we run a website seeking justice for those who were abused while in their care.

I am aware that the same relative, who had questioned his brother's motive, had in the past informed others that he was aware that John Porteous had abused children in his care.

The programme makers have also made a number of other assertions about me which are untrue. For example they said that I had claimed to have been abused in the belltower of Quarriers Village over an eight-year period. In fact I made no such claim, having only lived in Quarriers Homes village between 1969 and 1974.

This raises questions about the thoroughness of their research.

The programmes use of 'experts' also raises questions. Although the BBC claims they were used to deal with generalities and were not referring specifically to the details of the Porteous case, the way their comments were edited and positioned in the programme lent credibility to the case the programme sought to make.

It is worth noting that the lawyer John McCormick achieved some notoriety when he acted for the De La Salle Brothers over abuse cases at one of their schools, accusing the victims of just being after compensation. And, since the programme was broadcast, leading child abuse expert Ray Wyre has since been retained as an advisor by Quarriers.

I did not see the programme when it was broadcast in Scotland, and was happy to wait for the outcome of any Porteous appeal. But a friend told me she had complained because she felt the programme was inaccurate, and eventually I obtained a copy.

I was shocked to see my sister apparently bolstering the BBC's case, as I had been a witness to her police statement, but it would take me a year to obtain the transcript of her full interview, and only after the intervention of my then MP Nick Raynsford.  Only then did it become clear that the programme-makers had edited out remarks that gave a very different impression to that created by the parts of the interview used in the programme.

I had no choice but to relinquish my anonymity which was protected in law, and challenged the case the BBC had put together in an interview with the Sunday Herald (4 May 03), and my sister also criticised the BBC (Sunday Herald, 14 Sept 03), although the BBC later defended itself (Sunday Herald, 5 Oct 03).

Meanwhile Porteous has never appealed conviction although he did receive a reduction in his sentence over a legal technicality, one of the alleged offences no longer being admissible in Scots Law. He is due for release in March 2005.

I would like to think that by that time the BBC Editorial Unit will have taken on board the important lessons that could be learned from this sorry tale.

David Whelan is being supported through this process by a Media Ethics Trust which looks at complaints and issues concerning the media and journalism

David Whelan

November 2005

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