As people digest the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel it should come as no surprise that it is the South Yorkshire Police who are embroiled in a disgraceful attempt to blame the victims and thereby disguise their own thoroughly despicable conduct. After all this force had some very good training in such tactics. Back in 1984 during the miners’ strike there was a major confrontation between the police and striking miners at the Orgreave coking plant on the outskirts of Sheffield. In short the police committed wholesale assault on the pickets, using the mounted police to attack groups of miners who were then picked off and arrested. Not surprisingly some of the miners reacted by throwing stones and other missiles at the police.
When the BBC showed footage of the day’s events the order had been mysteriously altered to suggest that it was miners who attacked the police first and that the police reacted only to defend themselves. Although the BBC later apologised it’s hard to believe that the South Yorkshire Police were not involved in putting pressure on the BBC to alter the film to show them in a more favourable light. But whoever was responsible the fact remains that the police lied about what had happened and tried to blame their victims. Some 50 miners were charged with common law riot, an offence carrying unlimited imprisonment at the time. Only at the trial did it become apparent that the footage of events had been manipulated and the police lies were exposed. So by the time of Hillsborough Chief Constable Wright and his men were well versed in media manipulation, how to tell bare faced lies and blame the victims.
One serious danger in all this is that it will probably not be very long before people in authority start saying that this was all a very long time ago and things were different then and of course nothing like this could happen again. Don’t believe it! It still happens. Remember Jean Charles de Menezes, killed by the police at Stockwell tube in 2005? The first we were told was that he was running away from the police, refused to stop when challenged and had vaulted over the ticket barriers in an attempt to get away. That was the police version and it was lies. Only when members of the public present at the scene contradicted them did they have to revise their version. And much the same happened even more recently in the case of Ian Tomlinson. You may recall that when reports first came in about the collapse of a man near the demonstration the account, again given by the police, was that members of public had attacked the emergency services trying to give first aid to Mr Tomlinson. All lies, invented to besmirch the victims of police brutality and all intended to deflect the blame away from the police.
Hillsborough also reminds me that part of the problem in holding the police to account is the continuing problem with the disclosure of unused material. Although this was not a criminal case the problem is the same. In this regard things are probably even worse today that they were in 1989. The current regime for the disclosure of unused material comes from the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, passed a full seven years after Hillsborough. The excuse used to restrict disclosure was that it was too costly to give the defence ‘the keys to the warehouse’ and that so-called ‘fishing expeditions’ needed to be stopped. The result is that it is the police who decide what information should be disclosed. So long as this continues to be the case the scope for further cover-ups every bit as bad as Hillsborough is just as great today as it was in 1989.
Falling over themselves
There was something faintly amusing, although still distasteful, about watching establishment figures falling over each other in their belated attempts to apologise for the behaviour of the police and the subsequent cover-up. Pity none of them thought to do so 23 years ago when the Taylor report made clear that the police had lied but there we go. But I couldn’t help thinking that coming from David Cameron these were weasel words. It is his government after all that is seeking through the justice and security bill to ensure that future government agencies like MI5 and MI6 will not have to face the embarrassment they have faced in the cases by Binyam Mohamed and others over their torture and rendition by the US by ensuring that in future such cases are heard behind closed doors. Result? Further cover-ups and miscarriages of justice.
If Cameron really is determined to avoid such dreadful events in future he should start by withdrawing the security bill.
After all, we do still live in a democracy and one of the entitlements we have is to know when our government’s agencies, which apparently exist for our protection, have behaved unlawfully, and never more so is this a vital right than when members of the public come into conflict with the agencies of the state.
Mark George QC
Mark George QC is a highly experienced defence trial advocate of more than 30 years' experience. Mark works from Garden Court North chambers