A fine thing it would be if we could rely on paragons of virtue to administer just laws impartially at all times. But I reckon it’s wiser to imagine otherwise, as I and many others did after the killing of my good friend Blair Peach on St George’s Day, 23 April 1979. At the time we were derided as paranoid fantasists by public officials. The more time passes, however, the more the paranoid fantasists turn out to have been the public officials themselves.
Take the late Dr John Burton, the coroner who presided over the one feeble inquiry - the inquest - there has ever been into Blair’s killing. I sat through most of the wretched thing. It was pretty clear to me that Dr Burton, a foolish and cadaverous old bat, had made up his own mind well before the inquest even started.
Certainly, if Blair hadn’t been an anti-fascist, and if he hadn’t gone to Southall, West London, to resist the National Front, he would not have been killed there. But the fact that at least 10 eye-witnesses saw him struck by a police officer, and no-one saw him struck by anyone else, suggested to Dr John Burton not that Blair had been killed by a police officer, but that he, Dr John Burton - indeed, the judicial system itself - was the victim of a left-wing plot.
Thanks to Paul Lewis, the fine Guardian journalist, we now know this from the hand of Dr John Burton himself, in documents recently released from the Public Records Office.
Not only did Dr Burton express this view, even as the inquest continued, in letters to superior legal officials. He went on to compose a seven-page ‘story’ elaborating on his opinions, which he apparently regarded as ‘facts’ and meant to circulate more widely.
The shocking discovery is not that Dr Burton was a cadaverous old bat. That was plainly obvious at the time. The truly disgraceful thing is that officials, presented with such clear evidence of his prejudice, failed to conclude that the inquest over which he presided was ‘unsound’ as a result, and that a public inquiry would therefore be inescapable.
Rather, Dr Burton’s story, like widespread demands for a public inquiry, would have to be suppressed. ‘He accepted our advice,’ wrote one official, ‘that the whale which exposes his surface invites harpoons, and agreed not to publish.’ If that isn’t the statement of a paranoid fantasist, I don’t know what is.
We only know this now, 30 years on, thanks to Paul Lewis - and due to the persistence of infantile rules which keep vital public information secret. It should have been made public at the time. In some small part because it wasn’t, we’re little further forward now.
Justice has yet to reach Ian Tomlinson, the passer-by at the G20 protests in April last year, who died of internal bleeding after being assaulted by a police officer - an incident caught quite clearly on film.
The promise by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, made shortly afterwards, to publish the police report into Blair’s killing before the end of 2009 - see my earlier blog - has not been kept. Rather, we are told, the report has been sent back to the Director of Public Prosecutions, months after the promise was made and some 30 years after the report was last sent to the same place with absolutely no result.
Public officials who feel entitled to suppress the truth, to hide behind official secrecy until they can no longer be held to account, to procrastinate as if time itself belonged to them, and to treat the public with arrogant contempt, have been allowed to flourish in Britain for far too long. Their fantasies, combined with power, should be treated as the dangerous, infectious disease they truly are.