We seem to be in an age of greater accountability, although it may be said that some people are still more accountable than others.
It’s one thing prosecuting 1970s radio DJs for their tendency to regard groping mainly young girls as a perk of the job; but the establishment had to be dragged kicking and screaming to recognise that they could no longer deny justice for the Hillsborough families. It took until 2010 for the government to set up an independent review of all the material.
It was the results of the work done by the Hillsborough Independent Panel that allowed the families to apply to the High Court for the verdicts in the original inquests to be quashed.
The conclusions of the jury in the Hillsborough Inquests serve as a reminder that ordinary people can fight back against the system and given a high degree of cussed determination and a cause that cries out for justice to be done can force a reluctant establishment to do the decent thing and grant them at least a measure of justice.
- You can read Mark George QC on Hillsborough (Why saying sorry isn’t enough) and Orgreave (Orgreave 1984 – when the South Yorkshire Police were out of control)
South Yorkshire Police are now in a total shambles.
They can’t even try to get rid of a Chief Constable without messing that up – not to mention the brief appointment of the Deputy Chief Constable who then stood down before most people even knew she had been appointed. The ramifications for the South Yorkshire Police from the Hillsborough conclusions will take some time to become fully clear.
The force also has to try to deal with the fallout from the Rotherham child abuse scandal which seems to include allegations of police collusion with some of those involved in the abuse of young people. Then there is total dog’s dinner they made of their cack-handed dealings with Sir Cliff Richard.
So South Yorkshire Police are going to be in the spotlight for some time to come for all the wrong reasons and will be conducting a fire-fighting operation as the reputation of the force descends to previously unplumbed depths.
Now let’s look at Orgreave
You might think that that was quite enough to be going on with for now. But for me there is an even bigger unresolved injustice that the establishment has dodged for more than 30 years and currently shows no signs of being willing to face up to.
I speak of course of the miners’ dispute between 1984 and 1985 in general and the so-called Battle of Orgreave in particular. I have written previously on the Justice gap about Orgreave and the details that prove there was a cover-up and a blatant attempt to pervert the course of justice by senior officers up to and including the then Chief Constable Peter Wright, who was of course still Chief Constable at the time of Hillsborough. The details are as damning as they are comprehensive. It’s what police officers and lawyers call an ‘open and shut case’.
The successful resolution of the Hillsborough Inquests shows that there is not necessarily any real reason why we should not conduct proper and meaningful inquiries into matters that happened some time ago. We seem to manage to prosecute aging DJs for offences committed up to half a century ago without too much problem.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission is already in possession of a mass of material relating to Orgreave from the archives and whilst many of those who were involved may now sadly have died or will be elderly that is no reason not to hold an inquiry. All that is currently lacking is the political will and an acknowledgement that justice must be seen to be done by those affected by Orgreave.
The fact remains that Orgreave stands as one of the most serious examples of police misconduct in living memory that has never been addressed. Granted that no one died and no one ended up in prison, although not for want of trying by South Yorkshire Police, this still remains a serious blot on the English judicial landscape.
To remind readers, 95 miners faced charged of either riot or violent disorder after what was in fact a police riot, despite police claims to the contrary. Anyone convicted of those offences faced lengthy prison sentences. At the time riot was a common law offence for which the maximum sentence was the same as murder, life imprisonment.
The prosecutor’s opening speech was full of florid language and references to the sort of behaviour you might expect in a foreign country but surely not in this country. I imagine that by the end the prosecutor had wished he had not used such absurd language.
Halfway though the first of what were planned to be a series of trials the prosecution threw in the towel. Officers had been caught out lying. Many hadn’t even arrested the person they claimed to have arrested.
One officer spilled the beans when he explained how detectives had been assigned to dictate passages for inclusion in officers’ witness statements. By then it was obvious what the police had been up to. There was no alternative for the prosecution. The longer the case went on the more embarrassing it became for them.
The fate of the first trial dictated what happened next. All the other cases were abandoned. Out of 95 defendants charged with such serious offences, not a single one was convicted.
What happened at Orgreave and in the trial that followed was a scandal. On a hot sunny day miners milled around in T-shirts. Many were bared chested due to the heat of the day.
One the other side, there were huge numbers of police officers from across the country who had batons and shields. There were also many mounted officers. The police had decided in advance to teach the miners a lesson. Thatcher’s government was at war with the working class in the 1980s and, in any event, they had a serious score to settle with the mines after defeats inflicted by the miners on previous Tory governments.
Without excuse or provocation the police launched mounted attacks on unarmed miners who were gathered to protest at lorry drivers ignoring picket lines in order to carry Orgreave’s coke to the British Steel works at Scunthorpe. Of course, this provoked a reaction by the miners but nothing that justified the violence meted out not by the miners but by the police. Those who got arrested were mainly those who couldn’t run faster than the mounted police or the snatch squads who would dash out of the police lines and grab the nearest miner. Having arrested the men they were then stitched up and, but for the incompetence of the police, many of them could easily have ended up in gaol.
But the shocking thing is that after the collapse of the riot trials no one in authority asked what had happened, why there had been not a single successful prosecution and what implications this had for the policing of the miners’ dispute.
As far as I am aware no officer was ever interviewed about the events much less disciplined for their role. It was as if there was nothing much wrong. The miners had been acquitted. The police ended up paying a few thousand pounds in compensation to each of the miners involved and that was that. Business as usual, so it seemed.
Blame the enemy
And herein lies the real reason why this matter cannot be left covered up any longer and why the government must now accept that the case for an independent and thorough inquiry into the events at Orgreave and the subsequent prosecutions has been fully made out. It is precisely because there was no investigation or inquiry back in 1985 that police literally got away with it. Their tactic of fixing the news agenda and blaming ‘the enemy’ had gone unchallenged.
That was just how South Yorkshire Police dealt with such matters. But because no one challenged those tactics, when five years later the Hillsborough disaster happened and the finger of blame was once more being pointed in the direction of the police, the police used the same tactics again.
The police seized the news agenda with the assistance of the only Tory MP in South Yorkshire, smeared the fans, accused them of all manner of gross behaviour and generally demonised them. Just as ‘blame the enemy’ had worked in 1985 so it was intended that it would serve the same purpose in 1989. It was as if references to ‘striking Yorkshire miners’ had been erased and replaced with ‘rioting Liverpool football fans’.
There are serious lessons to be learned. They have yet to be learned by organisations like South Yorkshire Police. Defensive behaviour by public authorities is unacceptable.
None of us are perfect. We are all capable of making mistakes even serious ones at some point in our lives. The point about public authorities in particular is that they are there to serve the wider public. When they make mistakes they have a duty to say so, to admit it and apologise. Only by acting openly can lessons be learned and mistakes and errors not be repeated.
As one of the Hillsborough family members said a couple of days ago the police seem to be riddled with ‘institutional denial’.
That has to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
There is a strong public interest in having an independent inquiry into the events at Orgreave and the subsequent prosecutions. Thousands were affected by the behaviour of the police. It has had a massive impact on the way the police are still viewed in many of the old mining areas.
Most of all a huge injustice has never been addressed. As long as that remains the case it will appear that on that occasion the establishment got away with it scot-free.
That too is unacceptable.
Injustice cries out for resolution. The Hillsborough families proved the power of a sustained campaign to ensure its voice is heard. Like Hillsborough, Orgreave now cries out for justice. It is time the government bowed to the force of the argument in favour of a full inquiry and order one to take place as soon as possible. Only by facing up to what they did, even belatedly can there be any hope that the reputation of the South Yorkshire Police can ever be restored.
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