Category Archives: Blair Peach

Blair Peach: the case for a public inquiry

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Three weeks ago I spoke at a public meeting organised by Southall Resists 40, alongside Suresh Grove, Gareth Pierce, Avtar Brah, Clarence Baker and others, calling for justice for Blair Peach. This is what I said:

My subject is the Inquest into the killing of Blair Peach.

The purpose of an inquest is to decide who died and how. It is not a criminal trial; and yet it plays a part in criminal proceedings. We know this, for example, from the 2016 inquest into the Hillsborough tragedy. That inquest’s verdict of unlawful killing led directly to the prosecution of the officer on charge on that day.

The inquest into the killing of Blair Peach could have resulted in a similar verdict and could have led to a similar criminal prosecution.

The reason it didn’t is down to the role played by the coroner, John Burton.

Anyone who has acted as a representative – in court maybe, or before an employer – will know what it is like when the person you are speaking to simply refuses to listen.

At the inquest, the Anti-Nazi League was represented by a senior criminal barrister, Richard Harvey. Celia Stubbs was represented by Stephen Sedley, later for many years a judge in the Court of Appeal. They were not shy people men, they were not junior lawyers, but tough, battle-hardened advocates.

But as these lawyers cross-examined the police witnesses they were repeatedly interrupted by the Coroner. When police officers who had been within yards of Peach’s death said that they could not remember anything, Burton said he admired them. When witnesses from Southall who had seen the killing described Peach’s death, including members of the Atwal family, Burton denounced them as liars.

Three of Burton’s decisions, in particular, have been criticised. First, the coroner initially refused the request of Blair Peach’s family to have the case heard by a jury. By tradition, juries were required in all inquests. Since 1926, they had been optional, except where the death occurred in circumstances whose repetition would be prejudicial to public safety.

But this was exactly the case that the victims of the police riot at Southall wanted to pursue. They said that the conduct of the police on 23 April 1979 police was in no way justifiable. That in order to keep open a meeting attended by fewer than thirty members of the National Front, the police had rioted against the local community: beating dozens of people, making 700 arrests, charging 345 people. How could a police riot not be “prejudicial to public safety”?

The refusal to call a jury was overturned by the Court of Appeal. Yet, despite the success of that appeal, Burton remained in charge of the inquest.

Second, midway through the inquest, Burton told the jury that there were two “extreme” theories as to how Peach had been killed. One, which was made up for the first time by him, no witness having ever suggested anything close to it, was that a left-wing protester had struck Peach with the idea of creating a martyr. The other, equally ‘extreme’ theory was that Blair Peach had been killed by the police.

In effect Burton told the jury that any verdict was available to them, except the most obvious: that a police officer had unlawfully killed Blair Peach.

In order to protect the police officers after Peach’s death, Burton had to discredit every piece of evidence in front of the jury:

  • the eyewitnesses who had seen police officers strike Blair Peach
  • the pathologists who identified the most likely weapon, a home-made cosh, a hosepipe filled with lead, or perhaps a police radio
  • the fact of a police raid on the lockers of the officers of the Special Patrol Group who were surrounding Peach when he was struck, and the weapons found there: a leather-covered stick, out-sized truncheons, a metal cosh.

Burton’s third, crucial intervention, was to refuse to allow the jurors to see the police’s own investigation into the killing: the Cass report.

Kept from the inquest jury, the report ran to 2,500 pages. It was a thorough document. Commander Cass identified six police officers who had disembarked from their vehicle immediately before Peach was struck. Cass also named a prime suspect for the killing: Officer E, an Inspector in the SPG, Alan Murray.

Murray had been on edge all day, arguing with a television crew.

He had lied about where his police vehicle had stopped; only changing his account when he realised that the vehicle’s location could be identified from police logs.

Inspector Murray claimed that another group of other police officers had also been at the scene. He later admitted that this was a lie.

Murray refused to attend an identification parade. He then grew a beard so as to make it impossible for the witnesses to identify him.

He sent a solicitor to Cass, in an attempt to warn him against continuing with the investigation.

Murray had control over the unit’s radio, one of the weapons identified by the pathologists as a possible cause of the unusual blow to Peach’s skull

Coroner John Burton died in 2004; no one will ever be able to prove why he went to such extraordinary lengths to keep the results of this investigation from the jury, or why he worked so hard to minimise any scrutiny of the police.

What we do know, of course, is that Blair Peach’s killers were never prosecuted. And, in that way, Blair Peach joins the 1500 other people who have died in police custody since 1990 without a single police officer or prison guard having been successfully prosecuted for manslaughter, let alone murder.

What we know above all is that the events of Blair Peach’s death are still crying out for justice.

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Learning from the past, so that we do it differently – and even better – next time

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By 1976, the National Front had become the fourth largest party in Britain. In a context of national decline, racism, and fears that the country was collapsing into social unrest, the Front won 19 percent of the vote in elections in Leicester and 100,000 votes in London.

In response, an anti-fascist campaign was born, which combined mass action to deprive the Front of public platforms with a mass cultural movement. Rock Against Racism brought punk and reggae bands together as a weapon against the right.

At Lewisham in August 1977, fighting between the far right and its opponents saw two hundred people arrested and fifty policemen injured. The press urged the state to ban two rival sets of dangerous extremists. But as the papers took sides, so did many others who determined to oppose the Front.

Through the Anti-Nazi League hundreds of thousands of people painted out racist graffiti, distributed leaflets, persuaded those around them to vote against the right. This combined movement was one of the biggest mass campaigns that Britain has ever seen.

This book tells the story of the National Front and the campaign which stopped it.

“I was gripped and loved the way it took me through different elements of popular culture, personal reflection, policy. It is the best account of the relationship between punk and the Anti-Nazi League / Rock Against Racism.” Lucy Robinson, Professor in Collaborative History, University of Sussex.

“A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the post-war history of racist and fascist movements and the strategies of resistance to them.” Hsiao-Hung Pai, author of Angry White People.

“Dave Renton’s book helps us understand a pivotal moment in the defeat of fascism; it addresses the militant tradition of anti-fascism with real consideration.” Louise Purbrick, contributor to Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism.

Never Again will be published in February 2019. It is available for order here.

 

Watch with Caution

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Channel Four’s ‘Confessions of a Copper’, to be shown tonight at 10pm, is being advertised with an image of former Inspector Alan Murray once of the Metropolitan police’s Special Patrol Group, who was identified by Commander Cass in his report 1979 as a suspect for the killing of Blair Peach.

The OED gives several definitions of confession including, “The disclosing of something the knowledge of which by others is considered humiliating or prejudicial to the person confessing; a making known or acknowledging of one’s fault, wrong, crime, weakness, etc”.

Murray has spoken to the press before, and has always maintained his innocence. It will be interesting to see if he does use this occasion to say anything amounting to a confession.

Why I wrote ‘Who killed Blair Peach?’

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The pamphlet was written with the intention of drawing readers’ attention to the inquest into Blair Peach’s death.

Inquests are the first legal investigation which takes place when a person has died violently, suddenly or in prison. They are on oath. They take place in a courtroom. They are controlled by a coroner who is, in this setting, effectively a Judge. Blair’s inquest began properly on 28 April 1980, almost exactly a year after his death. It had been delayed because of a series of decisions of the Coroner, John Burton, which had been challenged and partially overturned by the Higher Courts

One decision of Burton’s was to sit without a jury. This was a surprising decision. Juries are not mandatory in inquests but they are common, and they have to be sworn where a death occurs in circumstances whose repetition would be prejudicial to health or safety

For Blair’s family and friends, the issue was straightforward; Southall was a police riot, should it be repeated, then other people would be injured or killed.

Burton’s rationale for excluding the jury was that the family were wrong and he would not allow their argument to be heard in court. He would blame the demonstrators instead. In excluding the jury, he would exclude any possibility of blaming the police.

The Court of Appeal reluctantly overruled Burton on the principle that if justice is going to be seen to be done, then you must at least allow people the legal system to explore the remote chance that the police were at fault, before in the end finding some way to say that another factor was to blame

Burton’s second decision was to hold back from the Inquest –from the jurors, and from Blair’s family – the most important evidence into Blair’s death

Burton excluded the report of Commander Cass, head of the Met’s Complaints Investigation Bureau. But after an investigation involving 30 officers, and around 30,000 hours of police time, Cass believed that he had identified Blair’s killer

This is how Cass put it, “There is some evidence that the fatal blow was struck by a member of the first carrier at the scene, U11, and indeed an indication that it was the first officer out of the vehicle. This … was Officer E.”

Cass’s reasoning was as follows: when Blair was killed, only very few police officers were at the scene: six officers driving in a vehicle, U11

Officer E was in command. He, and at least one of his junior officers, had given an untrue account of what happened on the day, falsely suggesting that they had left their vehicles relatively early during the day’s event – and not, as they later admitted, at exactly the spot where Blair had died

Officer E – Inspector Alan Murray – had behaved violently on other occasions during the day. Afterwards, he had refused to co-operate with the police investigation.

Murray – and this is something which Cass did not notice –possessed his unit’s radio. The radio matters because the two pathologists investigating the cause of death had found that a police radio was the most likely cause of death

His police radio was the only one on Orchard Avenue when Blair was struck. Much later Murray was asked, “Where was your radio?” His answer was “I was using it a lot.” It was in his hands, in other words.

But the Cass report was never disclosed to the Inquest, and almost the information I’ve told you was kept back from the jury

The notes of the Inquest, when you read them, are troubling. When a barrister examines a witness in court, and the witness lies to you, the most powerful thing you can do is quote back at them a document which proves that they are dissembling. If you have to ask questions without those documents – it is almost impossible to control a witness.

The jury were not told that Cass has shown that the officers of vehicle U11 was the only police present at the scene

Murray insisted that many other officers were present – without the Cass report, the barristers acting for Blair’s family had no means to hand to show that he was lying

The jury were not told that Cass has shown that Murray had left the vehicle at exactly the spot where Blair was struck

All the jury were not told, although the police, the barristers for the police and the Coroner all knew Cass that had established that the demonstrators were doing nothing when the officers of U11 charged into them

Murray made it sound like a battlefield – had the barristers been given the Cass report – they could have shown he was lying

Coroner Burton told the jury that the scene was so violent that no demonstrator left there was “innocent”; he could say this only because he had suppressed the best account of the events

Where an inquest has been held and evidence has been rejected, or new evidence has been found, which makes it necessary that there should be a new inquest, the Attorney General has the power to apply to the High Court to order a second inquest.

It has happened this year with Hillsborough.

There should be a second inquest now for Blair.

The pamphlet can be order for £2 plus p+p from Defend The Right To Protest here

Who killed Blair Peach: launch

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Who killed Blair Peach? Launch

With:

  • David Renton author and barrister
  • Christine Blower NUT General Secretary
  • Suresh Grover founder member of Southall Campaign & Defence Committee and Director of The Monitoring Group
  • Susan Matthews Defend the Right to Protest & mother of Alfie Meadows
  • Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennet (United Families & Friends Campaign, twin of Leon Patterson)

Pamphlet launch

Thursday 2nd October, 6-8pm

NUT HQ, Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, WC1H 9BD

Blair Peach was a 33 year old teacher killed on a demonstration against the National Front at Southall in 1979. He died following a blow to the head by a police officer.

In 2010, following Ian Tomlinson’s death, the government finally published the Cass report into Peach’s killing. Written shortly after Peach’s death, the report had identified the six police officers who were present when the fatal blow was struck. These findings however were not disclosed to the Inquest and remained hidden from Peach’s family, and the public for 30 years.

This new pamphlet by David Renton sets out why exactly Cass reached his conclusions, how his reasoning casts a light on the identity of Peach’s killer, and calls for a fresh inquest into Blair Peach’s killing.

A call for a fresh inquest into Blair Peach’s killing and celebration of his life and the struggle against racism and fascism he died fighting. Discussion followed by refreshments

The Killing of Blair Peach

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‘As a campaign meeting, it must have been one of the biggest yet, a hundred National Front supporters, three and a half thousand police and thousands of Asian demonstrators.’ This was the way News at Ten began its report of the clashes in Southall on 23 April 1979, midway through the general election campaign that would end with the victory of Margaret Thatcher. The report contained footage of police officers arresting middle-aged men in turbans, women sitting down in the road and demonstrators with their heads swaddled in bandages. The final images showed around twenty NF supporters, all men, giving Nazi salutes as they went into Southall Town Hall.

Southall was one of the most racially diverse areas in London: in five wards surveyed in 1976, 46 per cent of the population had been born in the New Commonwealth. The National Front’s candidate, John Fairhurst, had stood in nearby Hayes and Harlington in the two 1974 elections. He wasn’t standing in Southall in the hope of securing a high vote, but because the NF thought putting up a candidate there would get them publicity. On 23 April, 2875 police officers were deployed (including 94 on horseback) to protect the NF’s right of assembly, 700 protesters were arrested, 345 of whom would be charged, 97 police officers and 64 members of the public were reported to have been injured, and one demonstrator, Blair Peach, was killed.

On 27 May the following year, an inquest jury reached a verdict in Peach’s case of death by misadventure. But the jurors had not been given access to all the relevant information. Soon after Peach’s death, Commander John Cass, chief of the Metropolitan Police’s Complaints Investigation Bureau, carried out an internal inquiry into the killing. It was a substantial piece of work: Cass was assisted by thirty police officers, the inquiry took 31,000 hours of police time, and, including interview transcripts, the complete report was 2500 pages long. It found that Peach’s killer was one of six police officers, with one clear principal suspect, and that three of the six should be prosecuted for attempting to frustrate the investigation. Counsel for the police and the coroner both had access to the report but went out of their way to conceal its findings from everyone else involved in the inquest.

The Cass Report wouldn’t be published until 2010, a year after Ian Tomlinson died, having wandered into the protests against the G20 summit and been struck on the leg and pushed to the ground by a police officer. Tomlinson’s death encouraged Peach’s family to ask again for the Cass Report to be released. Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, agreed to do so. The inquest into Tomlinson’s death resulted in a verdict of unlawful killing, which made possible the criminal prosecution for manslaughter of PC Simon Harwood. (He was acquitted.) The finding of death by misadventure in Peach’s case made any prosecution impossible, despite there being a strong argument for a second inquest. The High Court can order one, as it did recently on the Hillsborough disaster. Of that case Lord Judge, then lord chief justice, held that ‘it seems to us elementary that the emergence of fresh evidence which may reasonably lead to the conclusion that the substantial truth about how an individual met his death was not revealed at the first inquest, will normally make it both desirable and necessary in the interests of justice for a fresh inquest to be ordered.’ This statement is clearly applicable to Peach’s case….

Regular readers of this blog may enjoy my piece which has gone up on the LRB blog today setting out – in detail – what we know about the death of Blair Peach (killed by the police at an anti-fascist protest Southall in 1979) – how it happened – the officers who were identified as responsible for the killing – and why Commander Cass identified them as his primary suspects. The article can be read in full, here.

The piece is only an extract from a pamphlet, which is due to be published (with additional pieces by Soren Goard,  Richard Harvey, Balwinder Rana and Susan Matthews) by Defend the Right to Protest in June. Details here.