Britain does a good line in scandal. The Profumo affair, the abdication of King Edward VIII, and Prince Andrew’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein are just a few. Each one starts small, seems almost unbelievable, and then turns out to be true.

Take the latest, the Post Office scandal, which was the subject of the recent hit TV show Mr Bates vs the Post Office. In what British prime minister Rishi Sunak called “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history,” around 3,500 men and women who ran small branches of Britain’s postal service were wrongly accused of—and in some cases wrongly jailed for—theft, false accounting, and fraud. Some committed suicide. But all along a toxic combination of venal Post Office management and a faulty computer system was to blame.

Sometimes, though, a scandal can and should beggar belief. The case of Carl Beech is one. It was in 2014 that police first became aware of Beech, after he published his allegations on the news Web site Exaro. Beech, then in his 40s, was a former nurse and, using the pseudonym “Nick,” claimed that between the ages of 7 and 16 he, and other children, had been abused by a powerful pedophile ring that included former M.P.’s, secret-service chiefs, prime ministers, and other high-profile men in the British Establishment.

One of the accused was Harvey Proctor, a former Conservative member of Parliament, who in 1986 had been forced to resign after being caught having sexual relations with two male prostitutes, aged 17 and 19. (At the time, the age of consent for same-sex relationships was 21.) Beech claimed Proctor had participated in sexual-abuse parties—fatally strangling a teenage boy at one, and joining in the rape and fatal beating of a second boy at another. At a third party, Proctor was said to have threatened to castrate Beech using a penknife but was talked out of it by former U.K. prime minister Sir Edward Heath, who, Beech claimed, was another key player in the pedophile ring. Another teenage boy was killed, Beech claimed, in a staged hit-and-run “accident” in South London on the orders of the mysterious cabal who ran the ring.

Former British prime minister Edward Heath in 1963.

Beech accused Lord Leon Brittan, a home secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s, of also attending the group’s abuse parties. So depraved was Brittan’s alleged behavior that the Labour M.P. Tom Watson referred to Brittan as “close to evil.” Brittan died in 2015 aged 75, with the allegations hanging over him. The oldest alleged pedophile at the center of the sex-abuse ring was Lord Bramall, a then 91-year-old veteran of the D-day landings and former chief of the U.K. defense staff.

Although none of the alleged V.I.P. abusers were named in initial press reports and police press releases, their identities became known when their properties were later searched in a string of coordinated police raids in 2015. Two of Brittan’s homes were searched a few months after his death, much to the distress of his grieving widow, Lady Brittan. Bramall was questioned by police and his home was raided, causing great discomfort to his wife, Avril, who was suffering from dementia.

After the raids, Proctor lost his job as the Duke of Rutland’s private secretary, as well as his grace-and-favor home on the duke’s estate, in Leicestershire, home to Belvoir Castle.

Police who investigated the allegations about former prime minister Ted Heath would say later that had he not died in 2005 at the age of 89, he would have been questioned about as many as 40 criminal allegations based on Beech’s claims, and those of others, including the alleged rape of an 11-year-old boy.

Queen Elizabeth II and Lord Bramall attend a parade marking the 50th anniversary of V-J Day, 1995.

All the men involved and their families repeatedly and strenuously denied the claims made against them. They were supported by some of the most high-profile members of British society—men and women who knew them best. One, the former Conservative Cabinet minister Michael Heseltine, said during the police investigation into Heath, “I am afraid that there isn’t any evidence; there is just speculation and allegations.” Heseltine was right. They were innocent. Blameless. Unfortunately it took 14 long months for that to become known.

Why did almost no one stop to wonder if it was remotely credible that so many men, all from one political party, could have conspired to conduct such depravity and murder and get away with it for almost a decade? And all based on the testimony of one single victim? To understand why, you have to know about a man named Jimmy Savile.

“There isn’t any evidence; there is just speculation and allegations.”

Savile was a platinum-haired cigar-chomping presenter of popular BBC television and radio shows in the 1970s and 1980s. Some venerated the flamboyant northerner for his work for charity. He raised tens of millions of dollars for health-care charities and cultivated friendships with Margaret Thatcher and the then Prince, now King, Charles. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to charity and broadcasting in 1971.

But all the while, he was exploiting his status to prey on hundreds of people—girls and boys, men and women, but mostly vulnerable young girls. He assaulted and raped them in television dressing rooms, schools, children’s homes, and his mobile home. He capitalized on his position as a donor to medical charities to gain unsupervised access to hospital wards, where he would go from room to room looking for victims. The abuse was thought to have begun in the mid-1940s, when Savile was in his late teens or early 20s, and lasted until 2009, two years before his death. Many of his victims were younger than 12 years old.

A few victims complained, but their claims were dismissed. Attempts to investigate Savile, not least by the BBC itself on its late-night TV news program, Newsnight, were squelched just weeks before a tribute to the presenter was broadcast. The corporation’s then director general, George Entwistle, was forced to resign over the decision when the truth about Savile’s abuse was revealed.

Many executives at the BBC and the charities for which Savile raised money had suspected Savile was an abuser, but none dared to challenge him. Most reporters stayed clear, too—in many cases because they knew Savile was popular with their readers and viewers. “Savile was hiding in plain sight and using his celebrity status and fund-raising activity to gain uncontrolled access to vulnerable people across six decades,” concluded a 2013 report on his activities.

Politicians, the police, and the news media agreed a similar scandal could never be allowed to happen again. So, when in 2014 Beech told police officers about a “VIP pedophile ring,” they leapt to investigate. The Metropolitan Police had already launched an inquiry, called Operation Yewtree, to investigate alleged sexual abuse in the wake of the Savile scandal.

Beech during a police interrogation.

Beech told officers that over nine years he had been driven to “abuse parties,” including in central-London locations. He named names and places, including Dolphin Square, a smart apartment block in central London, which has long been home to M.P.’s. Beech claimed other boys were present at the sessions, which were said to include torture and elaborate punishments, such as electrocution and being used as a human dartboard.

After Beech alleged that three boys had died at the hands of the gang, Scotland Yard launched a full-blown murder investigation, called Operation Midland. Beech was publicly praised by the officer overseeing the inquiry, Detective Superintendent Kenny McDonald, who said he considered his account to be “credible and true.... We do believe what ‘Nick’ is saying.”

There was only one problem. “Nick”—Beech—was making it all up. None of his stories were true. Also fabricated were the witnesses he claimed had suffered abuse at the same parties he had been forced to attend. A witness named “Fred,” who had communicated with detectives via encrypted e-mail, would later be discovered to be Beech himself.

The sessions were said to include torture and elaborate punishments, such as electrocution and being used as a human dartboard.

Officers were so anxious to avoid “another Savile” that they failed to carry out basic checks on Beech’s story or spot inconsistencies in his account of the alleged abuse. They neglected to trace important witnesses. They didn’t contact Beech’s mother—with whom Beech had been living during the alleged abuse—until more than six months after he made his allegations. It took even longer for them to get around to interviewing his ex-wife, Dawn, who ultimately gave evidence against Beech at trial. In October 2016, Lord Bramall told a newspaper that the police “couldn’t stop investigating because they didn’t want to be accused of not investigating it properly.”

The wheels finally began to fall off Operation Midland in August 2015, when Proctor organized a remarkable public press conference to condemn the investigation and the allegations. Proctor publicly denied Beech’s claims: “I am a homosexual. I am not a murderer. I am not a pedophile or pederast,” he declared, tears of fury welling up in his eyes. He called for an independent investigation into Operation Midland, calling it the “worst failing in the history of policing in the last 40 years.”

A review of Operation Midland was ordered, and it was carried out by retired judge Sir Richard Henriques. He ruled that the investigation should have been abandoned in its earliest stages but had not been because of “poor judgement and a failure accurately to evaluate known facts.” After the report was published, police dropped the cases against Bramall and Proctor.

The police began to investigate Beech for perverting the course of justice. Upon searching his home in November 2016, they seized two laptops and an iPad—on which they discovered hundreds of indecent images of children, some of them category A, representing the most serious forms of abuse. Far from being a victim, Beech was a perpetrator of child abuse.

In June 2017, Beech was charged with four counts of making indecent photographs of children, one count of possessing indecent images of children, and one count of voyeurism—he had set up a secret camera to film a boy using a toilet. A year later, in July, he was charged with 12 counts of perverting the course of justice and one of fraud. Ahead of the scheduled trial, though, he fled to a remote part of northern Sweden, where he had earlier bought a cabin. He used five different aliases, six phones, and multiple e-mail addresses to avoid detection. Seven months later, though, he was spotted and arrested at Gothenburg railway station and forced to face trial for child sexual abuse in January 2019.

On the first morning of his trial, he pleaded guilty to all counts of child sexual offenses, but he denied perverting the course of justice in relation to his claims about the pedophile ring. In a 12-week-long trial, the court heard that Beech’s descriptions of locations where the sexual-abuse parties took place had been based on photographs he had found online. Beech was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in jail.

For some, the damage Beech—and credulous police officers—did can never be undone. Both Brittan and Bramall’s wife, Avril, died before Operation Midland collapsed and all the accused were cleared. Bramall and Lady Brittan received compensation from the Metropolitan Police, thought to total hundreds of thousands of dollars. Proctor sued the police for $1.3 million. Bernard Hogan-Howe, who was head of the Metropolitan Police when Operation Midland began, personally apologized to Bramall, and to Brittan’s widow, Lady Brittan. The Labour M.P. Tom Watson also apologized for his actions. Despite championing Beech’s false claims, Watson was controversially elevated to the House of Lords in 2022.

All along, Operation Midland should have focused on Beech himself, not the alleged pedophiles. Its cost? Almost $3 million for the investigation, millions more in subsequent compensation, and incalculable levels of reputational and emotional damage for those who spent the last years of their lives accused of some of the worst crimes imaginable. It’s hard to think of a worse British scandal—until the next one comes along.

John Arlidge covers business at The Times of London. He is also a fellow of the Orwell Prize for Journalism