WHEN Bob Henderson QC died in 2012, the obituaries were glowing. The casual reader would have taken Henderson for a legal establishment type.

He was painted in the papers as a talented advocate and social raconteur who moved in all the social circles you’d expect – criminal defence lawyer, Conservative candidate, friend and associate of some the country’s most senior legal figures.

Getting the fact the dead man was a ­member of Muirfield Golf Club into their obituary is possibly the most Edinburgh thing ever – of course the QC was there with his putters, contributing to the picture of conventional respectability. A bowler-hatted lawyer in pinstripe stepped straight out of central casting, a bit affected, a bit old-fashioned perhaps – but a character.

In The Scotsman, retired judge Lord ­McCluskey described Henderson as a man “free of malice”. Given what we know now, this claim can only be described as the opposite of the truth. But even at the time, the shine on Shiny Bob’s obit should have raised eyebrows.

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During his lifetime, he seems to have earned the widespread reputation for being a human corkscrew. And before his death, the Times had already published revelations implicating him in child sexual abuse. None of this, apparently, was a barrier to writing him up as one of the leading lawyers of his generation. I suppose both claims could be true at the same time. Charisma is entirely compatible with being an utter bastard.

Among other vices extending to ­domestic abuse, infidelity, mortgage fraud and involvement in prostitution, Bob ­Henderson was accused of abusing his daughter Susie and facilitating her abuse by a circle of senior legal figures. These including fellow lawyer and long-term associate John Watt QC and Sir Nicholas Fairbairn.

At the time, Fairbairn served as the Tory MP for Perth and Kinross and was ­appointed solicitor-general for Scotland by Margaret Thatcher. Another figure – still active in the legal world – was implicated but has not been publicly identified, despite being interviewed under caution by Police Scotland in connection with the inquiry.

The legal system has already established there is substance to these ­allegations. Watt was extradited, ­indicted and ­convicted in 2022 of abusing Susie ­Henderson and three other people he ­targeted as children. Susie ­Henderson testified that this abuse was not only ­connived at but facilitated by her ­father. Despite the explosive ­nature of the Crown’s case, Watt’s prosecution ­attracted only a trickle of publicity.

The reasons for neglecting this story are less than obvious. Newsrooms ­struggle with resources. Court reporting isn’t ­always prioritised. But there were no ­legal impediments to the papers publishing fair and accurate accounts of the evidence adduced against Watt – or to sharing ­allegations that senior legal figures were informed about his predilections and did nothing about them.

Why the reluctance? Perhaps it’s post-Operation Yewtree squeamishness. ­Perhaps it’s an editorial judgment that the facts of these cases are too troubling for the breakfast table. Whatever the reason, the net effect of the media’s reluctance to engage with this story was that it didn’t get nearly the traction it merits.

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In a commendable effort to put this right, BBC Scotland have produced a new podcast series. Shiny Bob: The Devil’s Advocate, produced by Kevin Anderson and Myles Bonnar, reveals ­Henderson’s instrumental role not only in abusing and facilitating the abuse of his daughter but in a series of legal and ­media scandals which gripped the ­Scottish news agenda during the late 1980s and early 1990s – the so-called Magic Circle, Fettesgate, and Operation Planet affairs.

I was asked to review the series with ­investigative journalist Karin Goodwin on last week’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s Feedback programme. The six-part series takes you through these complex stories in brisk half-hour episodes, managing to tell the often convoluted and many-peopled stories of these connected controversies while conjuring up a broader picture of legal Edinburgh, media Edinburgh and gay Edinburgh at the time. Henderson sits in the middle of it all like a spider.

For older readers, these names may evoke memories of the early 1990s. Many younger folk may never have heard of these scandals – but they have ­powerful contemporary resonances. These are stories set against the backdrop of a ­dying Tory government, as John Major’s ­struggling regime went “back to basics”, sleaze was in the news, and Scotland’s ­as­-yet undevolved legal system wasn’t much used to public scrutiny.

And as social attitudes towards ­sexuality were gradually evolving, the Scottish media got its teeth into a moral panic. While England decriminalised ­consensual same-sex relations in 1967, Scots law wasn’t reformed until 1980.

The social cost of coming out was ­vividly ­underscored by the Magic Circle affair, which was given further impetus by the publication of the stolen Fettesgate files, where officers from Lothian and ­Borders Police expressed disquiet about the ­decision to discontinue prosecutions of several men accused of engaging in ­consensual homosexual activity with young men under the age of 21.

In a nutshell, the Magic Circle ­conspiracy theory was premised on the idea that there was a group of secretly gay judges and lawyers who make ­prosecutions against homosexual criminals disappear. And Henderson? He was right in the ­middle of it all, gossiping away like a fishwife, claiming he’d been given a lavender list of gay judges and lawyers by one of his clients, putting it around that this list could be circulated – if necessary.

The podcast secured surprising levels of access. Lord Hope – who was lord ­president during the scandal – talks ­candidly about this conversations with Lord Dervaird, who he effectively forced to resign after being presented with ­intelligence about Dervaird having same-sex encounters outside of his marriage – as well as his disastrous decision to summon all the editors of Scotland’s ­national news titles to his New Town home to brief them on all the allegations he’d been handed about potentially gay senators of the College of Justice.

Instead of shutting down the story, this press briefing only threw petrol on the fire. The Scottish media erupted into a series of screamer headlines, avid for any story about the alleged “gay threat to ­justice”.

As Bonnar and Anderson show, ­however, Operation Planet was on to something. There was no real evidence that judges were pocketing compelling cases based on the sexualities of the ­perpetrators – but by modern standards, care-experienced young men were ­being lifted, groomed and abused, and the ­perpetrators were getting away with it. In one of the series’s most troubling ­disclosures, it transpires that almost all of these sexualised teenagers of the 1990s are already dead.

As social history, the podcast is a ­fascinating but troubling tour around parts of establishment Edinburgh our ­culture doesn’t often visit and is highly evocative of time and place.

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Less clearly highlighted in the ­documentary is how much both ­journalism and the law were then a man’s world – and constantly soaked in booze. Alcohol also played a significant role in ­Henderson’s social circle, which seems to have been liquored-up from dusk to dawn, in court and out of it. Women in positions of power and sobriety seem missing from both social worlds.

That’s certainly now changed on both fronts. But the story also poses questions for the rest of us. As Karin observed sharply on Radio 4, “nobody who was interviewed had done anything wrong or would do anything differently. So the lawyers didn’t feel that they had done anything that they wouldn’t do now. The journalists didn’t feel that they’d change their reporting.”

The fundamental question posed by the podcast is an arresting and troubling one. Were these Scottish legal scandals a smokescreen for child abuse? The ­producers make a persuasive prima ­facie case that they were. Henderson was ­clearly a manipulative man with a ­negotiable relationship with the truth – and a lot to hide.