I was doing jokes in my brief and emotionally exhausting career as a stand up thirty years ago about Leon Brittan, Ted Heath and the restSayle). So I want to know why it took the police and crown prosecution service so long to catch up.
Over recent months two separate police forces have been carrying out enquiries into a snippet of 30-year-old gossip about a dead man. The Met and North Yorkshire Police have been interviewing people who, in the early to mid 1980s, heard a rumour that the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan had molested a young boy at a weekend retreat. I am one of them.
There are a number of oddities to this story, and, together with the rest of the strange saga of Leon Brittan, they shine a light on the frustratingly opaque progress of historic child sex abuse investigations. They also provide a litmus test for Lord Justice Goddards Independent panel Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
The rumour first. In the early 1980s I was a researcher on Roger Cooks BBC Radio 4 investigative programme, Checkpoint. The editor of the series had a source inside 10 Downing Street who was in the habit of passing on juicy titbits of scurrilous gossip about members of Margaret Thatchers cabinet.
Why he did this was something of a mystery: Checkpoint was a fine programme, but it rarely strayed into political investigations. I never met the source, but according to our editor, he simply enjoyed gossiping over drinks at a private club both belonged to. To my knowledge, nothing had ever been done with the tittle-tattle he related.
The Brittan story, though, was different. According to the source, Brittan had been attending a weekend house party somewhere in North Yorkshire (he was initially MP for Cleveland & Whitby, then Richmond, N. Yorks): at some point he was supposed to have molested a young boy. Local police allegedly attended, but very quickly were ordered off the case by Special Branch officers. There were no details of where exactly this happened, nor what exactly Brittan was supposed to have done.
Despite the sketchy nature of the rumour and perhaps because I still lived in Yorkshire and had some relevant police contacts I was instructed by my editor and the BBCs (then) assistant director-general, Alan Protheroe, to make some discreet enquiries.
Over several weeks I spoke to a succession of contacts within the police. All said they knew nothing. Finally, I approached an officer in the neighbouring West Yorkshire Police Special Branch with whom I had an occasional, if slightly uneasy, working relationship. He agreed reluctantly to make some enquiries: very quickly thereafter he told me he was not going to pursue them.
And there our own investigations stopped. We told Alan Protheroe that we could find no evidence to support the rumour and I went back to work on more regular Checkpoint stories.
We were not, of course, alone in hearing this rumour. Private Eye had also picked it up and subsequently ran a short piece suggesting that members of the security service were trying to smear Brittan with false child abuse allegations.