Newsreal: U.K. tries to censor the Internet

An embarrassing report about a bungled satanic abuse investigation brings out the British blue pencil brigade.

Published June 12, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

a local government authority in England is attempting, with some success, to keep a damning, 7-year-old report on a scandalous child-abuse investigation off the Internet.

The original post, put up on a British Web site two weeks ago by three British journalists, has been removed by court order, and the journalists face criminal sanctions, including possible jail terms. Attempts by British Web sites to link to other Net sites that are mirroring the report have also been thwarted by threats of legal action. And in a chilling example of international reach, a Canadian webmaster removed the controversial report after receiving similar legal threats -- from 6,000 miles away.

The official 1990 report is a damning indictment of a notorious child abuse investigation, known as the Broxtowe case, which occurred in the county of Nottinghamshire in the late 1980s. Ten adults were accused of grotesquely molesting 21 children, sometimes in the course of "satanic" rituals. Ten-year prison sentences were handed down. The Broxtowe case was followed by equally bizarre "ritual abuse" cases in Rochdale, England, and the Orkney Islands, off the coast of Scotland.

As with many similar "satanic abuse" and "ritual abuse" cases in the U.S., the British cases were ultimately found to be the product of pure fantasy and fabrication that nevertheless resulted in children being removed from their homes and adults being wrongly put in prison.

"We got a whole chain of satanic abuse cases in the U.K.," said David Hebditch, one of the British journalists who attempted to put the report on the Internet. "Scores of children have been taken away unjustly from their families. All cases have been disproved. All proved to be totally baseless."

A growing chorus of doubts and criticism prompted an official investigation into the Broxtowe affair, staffed by police, academics and other experts. The chief constable and director of social services for Nottinghamshire set up a Joint Enquiry Team (JET) to re-investigate the evidence supporting the claims of satanism. An original 600-page report was re-written (and shortened) to protect the identities of the children involved. All other names -- of social workers, police and other investigators -- were either omitted or changed. Nevertheless, the Nottinghamshire council refused to publish the copyrighted report -- perhaps because it puts the local authority, and especially government-employed social workers who swallowed the stories of satanic abuse, in an extremely bad light.

"The Report's conclusions and recommendations were ignored," said John Gwatkin, one of the authors of the report. "The Report had warned that if the presentations of ritual abuse information were not stopped there was the likelihood of a 'witch-hunt' developing which would result in grave injustice and further harm to the children concerned."

Hebditch and two other journalists who had covered the Broxtowe affair, Nick Anning and Margaret Jervis, posted the report, they said in a press release, because it "could have done much to prevent later cases such as Rochdale and the Orkneys."

Unimpressed, Nottinghamshire authorities have invoked British copyright laws to keep the report suppressed. Under a British High Court injunction, the British journalists removed the report from their Web site on June 3. Three days later, a British Columbia webmaster, Jeremy Freeman, put the report up on his site, only to receive a threatening letter from the Nottingham council's solicitor, warning him that he was in violation of Britain's Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 -- which "includes storing of the work in any medium by electronic means" -- and warned Freeman that he had 24 hours to remove the offending document from his site.

"I decided to chicken out at this point and simply put a link to one of the other JET Report mirror sites on my JET Report page," Freeman explained on his site. "This went against my principles, but I could not afford a lawsuit. I sent them this note letting them know I had complied." However, as Freeman quickly found out, this was not enough. On June 7, he received another letter from the Nottingham solicitor, C.P. McKay, charging that a link to the full report was also an infringement of Nottinghamshire County Council's copyright. "Unless the link is removed forthwith the Nottinghamshire County Council will issue Court Proceedings as stated in my letter of 6th June 1997 without further notice to you," the letter stated. Freeman, afraid, removed the links.

A British Internet watchdog group, Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (U.K.), which also fears legal action if it were to put up the report or even provide links, appealed to "the online community" to set up "mirror sites all around the world" for posting the JET report.

A number of sites have done so, and coverage at CNET's, Wired News and Netly News all helped spread the story. "The idea that the publication of this important document on the Internet violates the County Council's copyright is preposterous," said Peter Junger, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University Law School, who is mirroring the JET report on a law school Web site.

Other sites that have been mirroring the full report include:

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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