Back in April I posted a blog about the publication - 30 years on - of the police report into their own killing of Blair Peach, the teacher from New Zealand who was a good friend of mine, during an anti-fascist demonstration in Southall, London, on 23 April 1979.
A vast amount of ‘redacted’ - names deleted - documentation was eventually dumped on the website of the Metropolitan Police, and I felt duty-bound to drag myself through its mire. It provides a rare, if repellent, insight into a world of prejudice, cynicism and lies.
The police investigation into themselves was conducted by one Commander Cass, head of the Complaints Investigation Bureau of the Metropolitan Police - though no ‘complaint’ was ever made. Indeed, Cass believed there was no crime.
‘My brief is to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death’, he reports, ‘so I do not propose to enlarge much further on the events of that day except to emphasise that it was an extremely violent, volatile and ugly situation where there was serious disturbance by what can be classed as a "rebellious crowd". The legal definition of "unlawful assembly" is justified and the events should be viewed with that kind of atmosphere prevailing. Without condoning the death, I refer to Archibold, 38th edition, paragraph 2526: "In case of riot or rebellious assembly the officers endeavouring to disperse the riot are justified in killing them at common law if the riot cannot otherwise be suppressed."’
No-one ever established that the demonstration had been ‘unlawful’, ‘rebellious’ or a ‘riot’ (let alone that Blair himself had been violent), so Cass simply claimed for himself the right to decide that it was so. The license to kill is evidently not confined to 007.
There was, however, a problem. If anyone other than a police officer had killed Blair, then this would almost certainly have been unlawful. A police officer would have to be identified as responsible in order to prove that he had acted lawfully. But the police refused to admit responsibility. Indeed, the entire report is an apologia for their refusal: ‘Consideration has been given as to whether the injury could have been caused by a fellow demonstrator or by a missile,’ reports Cass, ‘but in the absence of evidence such speculation cannot be pursued and the remaining allegation is that police caused the injury.’ That’s as far as he’s prepared to go. A young man is brutally killed, and to the police it remains nothing more a ‘complaint’ or ‘allegation’.
At least ten eye witnesses told Cass that they had seen Blair struck by a police officer. The rest of the report is an account of how he failed to establish which police officer it was. They simply clammed up, lied, changed their stories or their appearance, refused to attend interviews or identity parades, grew beards or resigned, without sanctions of any kind. Cass gave no consideration whatever to the fact that they had illicitly removed their identifying numbers.
Nonetheless, Cass clearly knew who the killer was. ‘There is some evidence to suggest,’ he reports, ‘that the fatal blow was struck by a member of the first carrier [police van] at the scene, Unit 1.1. [of the Special Patrol Group], and indeed, an indication that it was the first officer out of that vehicle.’
Cass wanted to prosecute police officers, all the same. ‘It can be clearly seen from the various statements and records of interviews with these officers,’ he says, ‘that their explanations were seriously lacking and in the case of XXXX, XXXX and XXXX there was deliberate attempt to conceal the presence of the carrier at the scene at the vital time. The action of these officers clearly obstructed the police officers carrying out their duty of investigating this serious matter….
‘Consequently, I strongly recommend that proceedings be taken against XXXX, XXXX and XXXX for obstructing police in the execution of their duty, conspiring to do so, and attempting or conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.’
Despite the redactions, it is not difficult the deduce who these officers were.
What happened? The Cass report went to the Director of Public Prosecutions, one Sir Thomas Hetherington. He replied - with no attempt at justification - that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to prosecute any police officers, adding only: ‘The reports they [Cass] submitted were extremely thorough and well prepared, and certainly it is no fault of theirs that we cannot at this stage take any criminal proceedings following the enquiries.’
As a result, police officers waltzed into the subsequent inquest with their conspiracy to pervert the course of justice intact and unchallengeable. Here (as I posted in a previous blog) a clearly deranged coroner did his level best to ensure that a perverse verdict of ‘misadventure’ was duly reached. And, as a result of that, the Metropolitan Police’s internal ‘disciplinary’ procedures offered only ‘advice’ to the police officers concerned. No police officer was disciplined.
The report on the police’s disciplinary procedures is among the other published documents, and in some ways it is much more revealing than the Cass report.
First, it makes clear that the police operation in Southall went out of control. Large numbers of police officers failed to comply with regulations, struck people on the head at random and went on unsupervised rampages. Violent the events in Southall undoubtedly were; but it’s impossible not to conclude - as many knew at the time - that the police were themselves largely responsible for triggering them. In any event, they failed in their duty to ‘keep the peace’.
Second, it accepts the inescapable conclusion. ‘From the evidence available,’ it states, ‘it is clear that the injuries sustained… were received at the hands of the police. In these circumstances these… allegations must be classified as substantiated against unidentified officers, because there is no evidence to prove that force could properly be used.’
Nonetheless, for 30 years the Metropolitan Police refused to admit that they had killed Blair, only coming clean when forced to publish their own reports.
Towards the end of his life, Blair lived in some quite reasonable fear of the police - they had singled him out. Just before 23 April 1979 he told friends that he was being followed. The documents disclosed here claim that Blair was mistaken because police had been providing witness protection near to one of Blair’s previous addresses, subsequently occupied by his friends - though this does not account for why Blair said he was being followed elsewhere.
The Cass report begins to touch on Blair’s previous arrests and the threats made against him by police officers, if not the violent assault on him by members of the National Front. But then (on page 57) the account comes to an abrupt and obviously premature halt - something is clearly missing.
There is nothing on how the police must have prepared for Southall, nor on their well-established policy of ‘taking out’ ‘ringleaders’ at demonstrations, so they had to know who they were looking for. ‘If he [Blair] was true to form he may have been in dispute, conflict, obstructing or interfering with police,’ muses Cass - a reprehensible speculation for which there is no evidence whatever, but which inadvertently confirms prevailing police attitudes.
Just a day after Blair’s death, on 24 April 1979, an unidentified Deputy Assistant Commissioner wrote to the Home Office to claim that ‘from my experience of demonstrations I am convinced that the violent attacks on police and property were pre-planned.’ Had the police or the ‘security’ services really made absolutely no plans of their own? No-one has been told what they were.
In a bizarre incident some time later, two former police officers were overheard boasting in a bar on a Greek island that they had been the ones who ‘got’ Blair - and had been hastily evacuated from Britain. The police report, published here, claims to have established that they were not in Southall on 23 April 1979. At first they denied, but then confessed that they knew the informant - so the fact of the boast remains.
‘A much publicised case with the anti-police elements capitalising to the full for their own ends.’ Commander Cass concludes his investigation much as he began. One can be thankful only that Blair is not around to see it.