Question: What do the entertainers Sir Cliff Richard, Jim Davidson and Freddie Starr, as well as the late former Home Secretary Lord Brittan, have in common?
Answer: They have all lived – and in the case of Lord Brittan, died – under the shadow of being falsely accused of historical sexual abuse, although none of them was ever charged with a crime, much less convicted.
And in every case their names have been dragged through the mud thanks in part to the actions of one man, a former policeman turned award-winning TV ‘detective’ called Mark Williams-Thomas.
Williams-Thomas was the man behind ITV’s 2012 documentary revealing the late Jimmy Savile was a paedophile.
Since then he has become a regular fixture on This Morning and presenter of further documentaries, including The Investigator, made by Simon Cowell’s company Syco.
Savile, of course, became a touchstone for a widespread belief that numerous powerful paedophiles had been allowed to get away with terrible crimes.
Mark Williams-Thomas featured in The Investigator: A British Crime Story. He leaked the names of up to 20 suspects linked to Operation Yewtree
Sir Cliff Richard gives interview after record damages were awarded to him against the BBC
Understandably, perhaps, the author of Savile’s posthumous downfall became determined to build on this first success.
But a major investigation by this newspaper today poses a troubling question: in his zeal to claim further scalps did Williams-Thomas help ruin the lives of a string of famous men who turned out to be totally innocent?
For Williams-Thomas has openly boasted that he was the source of up to 20 suspects’ names being submitted to Operation Yewtree, the sprawling, multi-million-pound Metropolitan Police inquiry into alleged abuse by celebrities established after the Savile film.
Then, when he learned that officers planned to investigate particular individuals, he publicised their names, even though police inquiries were at an early stage.
The credibility he derived from the Savile documentary meant his information had a massive media impact. In some cases, he issued regular breathless ‘updates’ on police inquiries.
The result, according to one of Britain’s top detectives with experience of investigating historical abuse, was a fiasco which ‘tainted the whole investigation, created a presumption of guilt, and ruined innocent people’s lives’.
Williams-Thomas yesterday claimed The Mail on Sunday investigation was ‘littered with incorrect information’, but when asked what this was, he refused to answer.
Former Metropolitan Police Detective Chief Inspector Paul Settle headed a parallel inquiry into claims of abuse by politicians – including Lord Brittan – running at the same time as Yewtree.
Freddie Starr when it was announced on May 2014 he will not be prosecuted after spending 18 months on bail for sex crime allegations
Jim Davidson on This Morning after he was crowned the winner of Celebrity Big Brother in 2014
His staff were based in the same, open-plan office in Hammersmith, West London, as some of the Yewtree team. He says he directly experienced the extraordinary efforts made by Williams-Thomas to influence both investigations.
‘Operation Yewtree seemed to have a policy of arresting first and asking questions later,’ Mr Settle told The Mail on Sunday.
‘Their attitude seemed to be, “There’s been an allegation, go and nick him”, before they had even done the basics, such as establishing whether the accuser and the suspect had been in the same country at the relevant time.’
Then, Mr Settle says, the suspect’s name would be publicised. This, the ex-detective says, was ‘reckless in the extreme. If you put famous people’s names out there, you may not merely destroy their livelihoods. There’s a great danger it will lead to a bandwagon effect, generating further, false allegations, so the potential for miscarriages of justice is huge.’
The most prominent Yewtree victim of all was Sir Cliff Richard, whose name was leaked to the BBC – not by Williams-Thomas – allowing the broadcaster to air footage of the raid on his Berkshire apartment in 2014.
The singer faced two years of anguish before finally learning he was not going to be charged.
Williams-Thomas kept the story about Cliff Richard alive by revealing to journalists that two of the complainants had appealed to have the CPS decision not to charge him reversed
Lord Leon Brittan arriving home at the height of the allegations made against him in 2014
This newspaper has established that one of Sir Cliff’s accusers, a man known as ‘David’, had already been exhaustively investigated by Mr Settle and his team, and found to be a suggestible, vulnerable fantasist. David, who had learning difficulties and had been in care, told them he was raped as a boy by both Sir Cliff and Elton John at a sex party, at which media baron Rupert Murdoch and former Labour deputy leader Lord Prescott were also guests.
‘Needless to say, this didn’t happen,’ Mr Settle said.
Yet the South Yorkshire investigation into Sir Cliff took David seriously. Legal sources have confirmed that although the Met had already decided he was not a reliable witness, South Yorkshire detectives – who took over the Cliff Richard investigation from Yewtree – treated him as a ‘victim’.
David has told the MoS they interviewed him several times, and asked him to give evidence against Sir Cliff. Unaccountably, Mr Settle’s conclusion that he was not a reliable witness was apparently not passed on to South Yorkshire.
And the name of the man who triggered the police inquiry by telling Operation Yewtree that he had evidence that Sir Cliff had sexually abused a child? Mark Williams-Thomas. He has boasted about it in a series of tweets.
On August 17, 2014, three days after the BBC used a helicopter to film the raid on Sir Cliff’s apartment, Williams-Thomas was already claiming credit for it. ‘Some media reports are misleading,’ he tweeted. ‘I passed the original allegation and other info to Op Yewtree in 2013.’
Williams-Thomas, 48, spent 11 years with Surrey Police, leaving in 2000 with the lowly rank of detective constable. He later spent two years working for a firm that removed chewing gum from pavements.
Former police detective Williams-Thomas unmasked Jimmy Savile in his ITV documentary
Jim Davidson was told eight months after his arrest he would not face any charges of sexual assault
But his real goal was to make it in television. And starting by acting as adviser to crime dramas, he gradually began to get work.
His lucky break came when he found himself on a plane next to BBC journalist Meirion Jones, who asked him to help with a Newsnight film on Savile, which the BBC eventually, and controversially, axed.
Williams-Thomas took the story to ITV and won national acclamation and a string of awards.
In the post-Savile frenzy about other alleged celebrity abusers, Williams-Thomas boasted he was ‘working closely’ with Operation Yewtree, and was ‘sharing new leads and contact details for victims’. He claimed he had a ‘dossier’ featuring a ‘catalogue’ of allegations against about 20 suspects, including ‘some household names’.
In some cases, he stated, his information had already led to arrests – though he has not specified whose.
Celebrities investigated as a result of allegations to Operation Yewtree who were never charged include not only Sir Cliff but also Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck and Paul Gambaccini. The latter has been awarded ‘substantial’ damages by the Crown Prosecution Service, and is suing the police.
Publication of suspects’ names by police in cases like Operation Yewtree would now breach professional guidelines issued by the College of Policing, which say that if a name is released before charge, there must be ‘exceptional circumstances’. However, seasoned detectives say that the guidelines merely enshrine procedures which were already well established in the period 2012 to 2014, when Yewtree was at its height.
Lord Brittan died under the shadow of being falsely accused of historical sexual abuse
One former detective said: ‘The only time you release a suspect’s name before charge is if you don’t have the evidence to charge and there’s a real danger to the public. Otherwise, you just don’t do it – it’s reckless and unethical.’
Tweeted 24 minutes after comic’s arrest
WILLIAMS-THOMAS had close contacts with several newspapers, but his weapon of choice when breaking the news of celebrity arrests was Twitter.
His first came at 18.09 on November 1, 2012: ‘Breaking: Freddie Starr under arrest #jimmysavile’ he announced – the hashtag ensuring that readers would know exactly what type of investigation Starr was facing.
The stature conferred on Williams-Thomas by the Savile film meant his tweet was swiftly followed up by the BBC and every newspaper. The Met then put out a statement which confirmed that a ‘man in his 60s from Warwickshire was arrested at approximately 17.45 on suspicion of sexual offences and taken into custody’.
The arrest took place just 24 minutes before Williams- Thomas’s tweet.
Williams-Thomas issued further tweets about Starr as police inquiries progressed. ‘Freddie #Starr arrest which I broke yesterday dominates front pages,’ he tweeted on November 2, going on to add fresh details: ‘He was bailed after approx 6 hours in custody #jimmysavile.’
Later that day he added an update, saying Starr was still being interviewed ‘as a continuation’ of his previous interrogation. More tweets followed over the ensuing months as Starr faced the agony of waiting on bail, not knowing whether he would be charged. It wasn’t for another 18 months that he learnt he wouldn’t be. By then, his wife had left him and his physical and mental health were wrecked.
Jim Davidson with wife Alison in 1987. He was linked to Operation Yewtree by Mark Williams- Thomas
WRONGLY LINKED to Jimmy Savile
ANOTHER celebrity probed by Yewtree whose near-downfall was first announced by Williams- Thomas was comedian Jim Davidson. Unlike most of the inquiry’s targets, he was accused of sexually assaulting adult women, but that did not stop Williams-Thomas making the link with Jimmy Savile.
In a tweet posted at 19.16 on January 2, 2013, he wrote: ‘I can confirm that one of the entertainers arrested today by Op Yewtree is Jim Davidson #Savile.’
Other supposed ‘victims’ came forward after the ensuing flood of publicity, but eight months after his arrest, Davidson was told he would not face any charges.
In a book that he wrote about his ordeal, he said he first learnt of this not from the police or Crown Prosecution Service but a reporter, who told him the source was ‘the ex-detective that did the TV programme exposing Savile’s behaviour’.
GAVE SECRET ADIVCE TO fantasist
AT THE end of February 2013, Williams-Thomas told a newspaper he was investigating sexual abuse by a ‘very significant individual’ at Elm Guest House in Barnes, South-West London. By this time, claims had been circulating on the internet that in the 1980s this had been a ‘gay brothel’ where children were abused, and that among those who stayed there were Sir Cliff and Leon Brittan, the former Tory Home Secretary.
One of their sources was a former social worker and convicted fraudster called Chris Fay. He had been trying to spread claims about Elm Guest House and ‘VIP paedophiles’ for many years. In 1990 he introduced ‘David’ – the fantasist who went on to accuse Sir Cliff – to a journalist called Gill Priestly, now deceased. In a series of taped interviews with her, David made astonishing claims: that he had been sexually assaulted by Lord Brittan, and ‘trafficked’ to Amsterdam, where he was forced to watch as children were raped and murdered to make ‘snuff’ porn movies.
Police documents disclosed by the Crown Prosecution Service and seen by this newspaper say Priestly played her tapes to Williams-Thomas while he was a serving police officer. The papers say that at the time police took no action and that in 2002, after Williams-Thomas left the police, she gave some of her tapes to him for ‘safe keeping’.
Lord Brittan pictured in 1987. He was caught-up in lurid stories about the non-existent ‘Westminster paedophile ring’
In 2013, then Detective Chief Inspector Paul Settle’s team spent more than 70 hours interviewing David, who made many of the same allegations. But Mr Settle says: ‘We knew very quickly the Elm Guest House claims were nonsense. David was very vulnerable and very suggestible, and his allegations were sheer fantasy.’
His story about the ‘sex party’ with Sir Cliff, Elton John and Murdoch was, Mr Settle added, only one of many outlandish claims.
Then, in October 2013, the police records say, Williams-Thomas produced the tapes of Gill Priestly’s interviews with David. He approached Mr Settle’s boss, Detective Superintendent David Gray, and played them to him and a detective constable at the ITV studios. The full contents of the tapes have not been disclosed.
Mr Settle said: ‘We had already finished with David, but here was Williams-Thomas apparently trying to reincarnate him as a witness. It was quite apparent the tapes were the musings of a fantasist.’
However, others were taking David’s allegations seriously.
He was introduced to reporters from the now-defunct Exaro News website. This spectacularly unreliable witness became a source for multiple, lurid stories about the non-existent ‘Westminster paedophile ring’ used to support bogus claims of child rape and murder by Lord Brittan and others.
Eventually, these were debunked by a Panorama programme in 2015. David was to be one of its star witnesses, admitting he had made false allegations because he was suggestible and felt under pressure.
Williams-Thomas had promised to consider giving Panorama the Priestly tapes, but failed to do so, say BBC sources. Then, after David had been filmed, Williams-Thomas sent him an email, urging him either to insist on concealing his identity or not to appear at all, drafting messages that he suggested David should copy and send to the BBC.
‘DON’T tell the BBC we have spoken,’ he wrote, ‘just say you have spoken to a friend who has given you advice.’
Williams-Thomas refused to say why he sent this email. It is possible he believed he was acting in David’s best interests.
Cliff Richard was accused of assaulting a 15-year-old boy at Bramall Lane football ground in 1983
Attack ON POLICE WHEN star was cleared
AFTER claiming credit on Twitter for starting the police inquiry into Sir Cliff, Williams-Thomas did not appear to be anxious that publicity about the investigation might have irreparably damaged the reputation of an innocent and much-loved star.
In a further tweet, he noted the ‘incredible co-ordination btwn South Yorkshire press officer at scene and BBC so BBC chopper is in place to catch property removed’. It is not clear exactly what Williams-Thomas meant by this.
In other tweets that autumn, he was critical of the BBC filming the raid. Yet the story told by the first complainant against Sir Cliff, whose allegations had been given to Yewtree by Williams-Thomas, always seemed doubtful.
The man was claiming that Sir Cliff assaulted him in 1983 when he was 15 during a Billy Graham Christian rally in a room used to store goalposts at Bramall Lane, the Sheffield United Football Club ground.
In fact, it emerged when the claims were investigated that there was no Graham rally in Sheffield until 1985, and there was no room at Bramall Lane used to store goalposts. The man said the team’s colours were blue and white, which belong to Sheffield Wednesday, not Sheffield United, whose colours are red and white.
But Williams-Thomas continued to tweet about the case.
For example, at 5.16pm on February 25, 2015, he announced there was ‘some major news due to break shortly regarding the ongoing #CliffRichard child sex abuse investigation’.
This turned out to be the next day’s Daily Mirror – its front page headline proclaimed: ‘Sir Cliff facing new sex claims.’
On June 21, 2015, 11 months after the raid, Williams-Thomas tweeted that ‘contrary to media reports, I can categorically confirm South Yorks continues its multiple allegations investigation of Cliff Richard’.
On September 20, lest anyone think the police were easing off, he revealed: ‘Investigation into allegations against Cliff Richard is still very much alive & has grown in size over past months’.
A few weeks later, the new resources had, it seems, produced results. Williams-Thomas tweeted on November 5: ‘Breaking news – #CliffRichard has been re-interviewed under caution by South Yorkshire Police.’
On January 16, 2016, he added: ‘Cliff Richard investigation has developed new lines of inquiry – file expected to go to CPS within next 8 weeks.’
In fact, the police did not send a file to the CPS until May 10. Prosecutors took barely a month to decide Sir Cliff should not be charged.
Sir Cliff Richard with friend Gloria Hunniford at The Pride of Britain Awards last week. Williams-Thomas tweeted updates about the police investigation before any official decision to charge was announced
Yet even then, Williams-Thomas kept the story alive by revealing to journalists in August that two of the complainants had appealed via their lawyers to have the CPS decision reversed – forcing Sir Cliff to endure a further agonising, two-month wait until the appeals were rejected.
The case was closed, and like a ship’s captain headed for the rocks, Williams-Thomas coolly changed course.
He tweeted on December 22, 2016: ‘The Cliff Richard raid by South Yorkshire Police was totally mishandled.’
After the High Court issued its damning judgement over the Corporation’s coverage of the raid in July this year, he added: ‘Sir Cliff Richard has won his privacy case against the BBC… The way in which the police and BBC behaved was shocking and he deserved to win.’
It is only fair to point out that in some cases publicised by Williams-Thomas, including Rolf Harris, alleged sex offenders have been convicted and jailed. But the MoS has learnt that lawyers representing one of them, the late publicist Max Clifford, will next month fight an appeal which may see his convictions overturned.
Williams-Thomas tweeted about his case many times. Among the issues the court will consider is whether allegations made by victims who came forward following publicity were unreliable.
Yesterday both the Met and South Yorkshire Police refused to answer questions from the MoS about the falsely-accused celebrities and their relationship with Williams-Thomas.
Jim Davidson was accused of sexually assaulting adult women and his name was tweeted by the TV ‘detective’ Williams- Thomas, but he was never charged or convicted
A Met spokesman said: ‘The information regarding these individuals was passed to the Met via a number of sources. The Met does not confirm or identify sources of information.’
He said the force only names those arrested ‘in exceptional circumstances’. South Yorkshire also said it ‘would neither confirm nor deny the sources of any information’.
Last week this newspaper put 18 detailed questions to Williams- Thomas, asking for his comments – including whether he regretted publicising the names of suspects who turned out to be innocent. He refused to answer any of them, claiming we had a ‘vendetta’ against him.
He said: ‘It is clear the focus of your “investigation” into me and of your proposed article is to get me to identify my many sources in relation to the cases that I have covered and investigated.
Put simply, I will not reveal my contacts, or sources, or do anything that might lead to them being revealed.
Your approach is disappointing and very concerning and looks focused on trying to silence people from making reports to the authorities.’
He also claimed our email to him was ‘littered with inaccuracy and incorrect information’. Asked repeatedly to say what this inaccuracy was, he refused.
Meanwhile, there are signs that the air may be starting to leak from the Williams-Thomas balloon.
Last night an ITV spokesman said the channel ‘is not currently working with Mark on a new series of either The Investigator or the This Morning Unsolved feature item’.
Yet still Williams-Thomas’s hunger to expose celebrity paedophiles shows no sign of abating.
Only last week, he made fresh claims there are still high-profile paedophiles ‘out there’ who think they are ‘untouchable’ and have not been brought to justice: ‘There are two particular high-profile individuals that I know about who I’m convinced are sex offenders…’
Happily the law requires rather more evidence than the firm belief of Mark Williams-Thomas.