The latest Lobster has some interesting reflections on the controversy over historical child abuse. Garrick Alder questions the role being played by negative evidence of a kind summed up by Donald Rumsfeld's dictum that 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'.1
Alder suggests that some of those pursuing the alleged Barbara Castle dossier may be guilty of inferring a cover-up from the very absence of evidence in a Rumsfeld-like way. In other instances, however, Alder is more sympathetic to negative evidence
Quite a different kettle of fish, however, is the Home Office ‘missing child abuse files’ review conducted by Peter Wanless, who announced his findings shortly before the Castle yarn hit the headlines. Mr Wanless stated in his report that he had found no evidence that files were removed or deliberately destroyed. But hold that scorn: immediately after publication Mr Wanless was to be heard on BBC Radio 4 and 5 making it quite clear that he was not ruling out a cover-up at all.
Rather ironically, David Cameron used the Wanless review’s conclusions to remark that ‘people seeking conspiracy theories will have to look elsewhere’, which goes to show what a double-edged sword negative proof can be, in the wrong hands.
The discovery by Dr Chris Murphy of a file which surely should have been disclosed to Wanless suggests that the Prime Minister's comments were ill-judged. However, there may have been another important reason why both Wanless and Theresa May refused to rule out a cover-up following the report. That is that Wanless did in fact find significant new evidence, which did not prove Home Office complicity with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), but which did corroborate important claims by a key witness.