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Campaign to reopen sex abuse case wins investigative journalism prize

A LOCAL newspaper campaign that led police to reopen their investigation into an alleged paedophile ring has won a newly launched award for investigative journalism.

The campaign, by Charles Thomson on the Basildon-based Yellow Advertiser, has won the University of Salford’s inaugural Ray Fitzwalter award, providing him with a £4,000 cash prize to fund future investigations.

Charles’ investigation began when he made Freedom of Information requests unearthing a series of compensation payments authorised by Essex Council, for ‘alleged abuse’ linked to its children’s departments, from the 1970s to the 1990s.

His campaign for more transparency around these payments led to a former NHS manager coming forward to share concerns about how authorities had handled an investigation into an alleged paedophile ring in Shoebury.

When other whistleblowers came forward with corroborating stories, Charles arranged for them to meet then Essex Police and Crime Commissioner Nick Alston – who in turn introduced them to the Chief Constable of Essex Police and a senior detective, and a decision was made to reopen a case from the early 1990s.

He later tracked down a fourth whistleblower and after learning the police were shutting down their investigation was able to produce a dossier of fresh claims, persuading them to reopen it again.

Judges, including ITV’s controller of current affairs Tom Giles and Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne, were impressed with Charles’ determination and persistence, and his ability to build up the trust of members of public and the police.

Charles beat competition from a Belfast-based Radio Ulster reporter who had trawled the Panama Papers for evidence of Northern Irish money being hidden abroad, and a MediaCityUK based BBC Radio 4 producer who made a programme introducing a 90-year-old woman to the bosses of charities who had hounded her for money.

The award, launched in honour of the former World In Action editor and recognising the best investigative journalism by early career journalists outside the M25, was presented by ITV’s Lucy Meacock as part of the Nations And Regions Media Conference at the University of Salford’s MediaCityUK campus on Thursday April 19.

Charles said: “I’m very honoured to have won this award, especially as I was up against two BBC candidates whose work was great.

“It’s a particular honour to win an award named after Ray Fitzwalter, who was a legendary investigative journalist, and it was a privilege to meet some of his friends and family.”

The award will now be an annual event, with organisers accepting submissions for the 2019 prize later this year.

Andrew Fletcher, lecturer in journalism at the University of Salford, said: “This was a brilliant piece of journalism which demonstrated that resourcefulness, determination and the nose for a story are far more important than big budgets.

“While some people may have written off local newspapers, Charles has shown the impact that smaller circulation publications can and do still have on public life, and the important role they still play within the communities they serve.”