The Killing of Blair Peach
‘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.
On the day of the proposed National Front meeting, Monday 23 April 1979, the police were on duty in Southall from the early hours. Anti-fascist demonstrators aimed to hold a sit-down protest on the roads around the town hall and there were rumours that the police aimed to get round it by smuggling National Front members into the building long before their 7.30 meeting, even before the sit-down began at 5 p.m. Between noon and 2 p.m. central Southall emptied: shops closed as the demonstrators had requested and several local factories with mixed or majority white workforces voted to strike. Central Southall was now under the control of several thousand police officers, who set up cordons around the town hall. By 3 p.m. there were already several hundred local residents stuck outside the cordons, and not allowed to go back to their houses.
The group of protesters on the main street, the Broadway, found themselves caught between two police cordons, one beside the town hall and a second several blocks west. ‘At about 7.30,’ one of them, Peter Blake, remembered, ‘a roar went through the crowd, emanating from the rear. People turned and looked westwards down the street. I saw, to my amazement, a coach being driven fast straight into the back of the crowd. It was a private coach, an ordinary thirty to forty-seat charabanc.’ It was carrying police officers and around twenty members of the National Front towards the town hall. Other police vehicles followed, and demonstrators attempted to block them, without success. Once the NF supporters were inside, the police tried to stretch their lines wide and force the anti-fascists further away from the town hall.
Blair Peach, a 33-year-old teacher, was somewhere in this crowd on the Broadway. After the bus had passed, the police made concentrated efforts to clear the area, bringing in more officers, including Special Patrol Group officers in vans. Some protesters tried to escape by heading down side streets. Most of these led the demonstrators away from trouble, but Beachcroft Avenue, a narrow residential road, just led onto another road, Orchard Avenue, which returned to the main road near the town hall and the heaviest concentration of police numbers. At about 7.45 Peach and the four friends who’d gone with him to the demonstration decided to leave the Broadway and turned into Beachcroft Avenue, which was not blocked by the police. Peach and Amanda Leon, who had agreed to stick together, were behind the others. Leon told the inquest that she heard police sirens and saw a row of police officers with shields and truncheons. She then saw a police officer hit Peach on the head from behind with a truncheon. She too was hit on the head but by a different officer. The papers released with the Cass Report show that, according to the police, six demonstrators received head injuries on 23 April, three of them (Peach, Leon and an unnamed Asian man) on Beachcroft or Orchard Avenue.
A local resident, Balwant Atwal, told the inquest that at about 7.30-8 p.m. she
saw blue vans coming down Beachcroft Avenue. They were coming very fast − as they came round Beachcroft Avenue, they stopped. I saw policemen with shields come out − people started running and the police tried to disperse them. I saw police hitting. I saw a white man standing there … The police were hitting everybody. People started running, some in the alley, some in my house … I saw Peach, I then saw the policeman with the shield attack Peach.
In her account, which was accepted by Cass, Peach was just turning the corner from Beachcroft to Orchard Avenue when a police officer with a shield in his left hand and a truncheon in his right hit him. She then saw Peach sit down, and a police constable, later identified as James Scottow, go over to him. Peach was leaning against a wall and Scottow, who said he thought Peach was hiding from the police charge, shouted at him to move on. (A police internal investigation found that, given the ‘confusion and general tension’, Scottow had not neglected his duty towards Peach.) Peach was taken into 71 Orchard Avenue by the Atwal family, who let him lie on their sofa and gave him water. An ambulance was called at 8.12 p.m. Peach was admitted to intensive care with a fractured skull, and, despite surgery, died just after midnight.
The earliest official report on Peach’s death was a memorandum placed on record in the House of Commons library in June 1979 by the home secretary, William Whitelaw, which stated that
at approximately 8 p.m., it was necessary to deal with a large group of youths near Alexandra Avenue. The throwing of missiles increased and it was necessary for police to use protective shields. It was at this time that an officer at the junction of Northcote Avenue and the Broadway was hit by a brick, which was thrown by someone in a crowd which had gathered in Beachcroft Avenue opposite. His jaw was fractured in three places. Assistance was then summoned to disperse the crowd and Mr Blair Peach was seen at the junction of Beachcroft Avenue and Orchard Avenue having sustained an injury to his head.
Alexandra Avenue and Northcote Avenue are on the far side of the Broadway from Beachcroft Avenue. They are normally just a minute’s walk away from each other, but in the conditions of 23 April, to get from Alexandra Avenue to where Peach died would have taken at least five minutes.
The inquest got properly underway on 28 April 1980, just over a year after Peach’s death. Its handling was controversial: the coroner, John Burton, regularly interrupted lawyers acting for Peach’s family, sowing confusion everywhere and acting as if his primary business was to divert attention from the only credible explanation for Peach’s killing: that he had been hit on the head, whether accidentally or deliberately, by a member of the Special Patrol Group, the only police officers on Orchard Avenue at the time. Three of Burton’s decisions were particularly problematic. First, he refused the request of Peach’s family to have the case heard by a jury. At this point, the family believed, as a result of the pathologists’ findings, that Peach’s death had probably not been caused by a truncheon but by a heavier weapon, and it seemed there was evidence that officers were routinely taking such weapons on demonstrations. This was the argument they wanted to test and it was one that made a jury appropriate. Burton, however, seemed determined to close off lines of inquiry that would be implicitly critical of the police. His refusal to summon a jury was reversed by the Court of Appeal.
Second, he refused to let the jury or Peach’s family see the Cass Report, which had already been completed. At the same time as seeking a jury, the family sought a judicial review of the coroner’s refusal to disclose all the statements and interview notes that underpinned the Cass Report. This application failed, on the grounds that the statements were the property of the police, and natural justice could not help Peach’s family to obtain them since he was accused of nothing, and justice could only succeed in protecting him from allegations, not in helping to identify how he had died.
Third, he told the jury midway through the inquest that there were two ‘extreme’ theories about Peach’s death. The first, he claimed, although no one had put it forward in court and it had no basis in any of the evidence given by any of the witnesses, was that a left-wing ‘fanatic’ had struck Peach on the head in order to create a ‘martyr’. The second theory, which Burton claimed was equally ‘extreme’, was that Peach had been killed by the police. Burton failed to mention that this was the central finding of the investigation into Peach’s killing carried out by the police themselves.
The jury had heard from ten witnesses who had seen Peach being struck, including Amanda Leon and Mrs Atwal. There was also a considerable weight of circumstantial evidence, including a raid in June 1979 on the lockers of the SPG officers who had been at Southall which found a number of offensive weapons, including a leather-covered stick, two knives, a very large truncheon, a crowbar, a metal cosh and a whip. Since the medical evidence seemed to suggest that Peach had been struck by a weapon other than a baton the raid was relevant – it was relied on by Peach’s family in their application for a jury.
There was no rational basis on which to deny that Peach had been killed by a police officer. The only matter which should have been in dispute was whether the killing had been lawful; in other words, whether the officer who killed Peach had had a lawful reason for striking him – namely, self-defence or to restore order. The theory the coroner was pressing on the jury was that the violence of other demonstrators elsewhere in Southall was so outrageous that it justified any degree of retaliatory force. But not a single police witness had suggested that Peach or the people around him had done anything to justify the officers’ charge.
Many of the police officers called as witnesses to the inquest barely co-operated, with several denying that they remembered anything at all about the protest. None of the officers incriminated any other officer, none owned up to attacking Peach, and none admitted being anywhere near him when the blow was struck. Death by misadventure was not the verdict Peach’s family or his partner, Celia Stubbs, had hoped for: a verdict of unlawful killing would have opened the way to criminal prosecution of the officers concerned. But inquest juries must be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that a killing was unlawful in order to reach this verdict. Given the information before it, the jury could not be sure that Peach had been deliberately killed. But it added significant riders to its verdict, which suggested that it believed the police operation had contributed to Peach’s killing. First, it found that SPG officers should be more closely controlled by senior officers and liaise more closely with ordinary police officers. Second, it suggested that police officers should be issued with local maps before major demonstrations. And third (although the coroner declined to accept this as a rider and recorded it merely as a ‘recommendation’), it advocated regular inspections of police lockers to ensure there were no unauthorised weapons.
The publication of the Cass Report in April 2010 made clear how much information had been kept from the inquest jury, and from Peach’s family and their lawyers. Cass had actually delivered two reports: the first 86 pages long and the second around half that length, as well as more than 2500 pages of associated documents. The first report was completed on 12 July 1979, less than three months after Peach’s death but after the Whitelaw memorandum had been laid before Parliament. It shows little sympathy for Peach or the cause he represented. One early passage makes this clear: ‘The funeral of the deceased was akin to a political demonstration with leftwing political elements most prominent … Associates of the deceased see it as a “cause célèbre” and will endeavour to obtain maximum benefit for their purposes and whatever happened [they] would never be satisfied.’ The report anonymised all references to police officers, demonstrators and observers. For example, the officer in charge is referred to as Officer A; but we know from other sources that this must have been Deputy Assistant Commissioner Helm. The 2010 version redacts almost all the names mentioned in the attached statements – blacking them out altogether, and not retaining even Cass’s original references to Officer A, Officer B and so on.
The first police presence in Orchard Avenue, Cass wrote, was an SPG carrier known as ‘U11’, driven by Officer F (we know from the inquest that Officer F was PC Raymond White). This vehicle stopped at the junction of Beachcroft and Orchard Avenues ‘at an angle … turned towards the nearside, thereby causing a bottleneck’. Officers jumped out ‘and were immediately involved with the demonstrators’. We know that Peach’s killer must have been in this vehicle, because there were no other police officers in the road.
Cass claimed that U11 had been sent to Orchard Avenue for the ‘dispersal of the demonstrators’ (although by driving into Orchard Avenue, the officers were actually pushing demonstrators back towards the main police presence at the town hall). He also suggested that it might have been in ‘hot pursuit’ of the stone throwers seen on Northcote Avenue. He didn’t suggest that the supposed stone throwers had been identified or that there was any intelligence that they had crossed the Broadway, with its heavy police presence, rather than escaping north into residential Southall. A more plausible explanation is that senior police officers were unsure of their tactics now the protest had disintegrated into clashes between police and demonstrators. The SPG officers were there not to make arrests or disperse the crowd, but to demonstrate police strength and to break the morale of the demonstrators.
Cass considered the possibility that Peach might have been struck by a fellow demonstrator, as the coroner would assert, or by a missile, but all the witnesses had seen a police officer strike Peach on the head, and no witness had seen Peach struck by anyone else. ‘In the absence of evidence,’ Cass admitted, ‘such speculation cannot be pursued and the remaining allegation is that police caused the injury.’ But who struck the blow? Six officers got out of the vehicle: officers E (whom Cass refers to as well thought of with potential for high rank, so must be Inspector Alan Murray, the only officer of any rank in the carrier), H (who is said to have left the vehicle with Murray and therefore must be PC Greville Bint, who admitted to this at the inquest), G (PC James Scottow), I (PC Anthony Richardson), J (PC Michael Freestone) and F (PC Raymond White, the driver). This is Cass’s ordering, starting with the most likely culprit.
At first sight, Cass’s conviction that White was not responsible is surprising. Much of the press coverage focused on the medical evidence given at the inquest, which tended to discount the possibility that a police truncheon had been responsible for Peach’s injury. Professor David Bowen (in Cass’s terminology, Person R), who carried out the original post-mortem, and Professor Keith Mant, who carried out a subsequent examination on behalf of the family, agreed on this. Mant noted that the blow had split Peach’s skull but not his skin and argued that a blow from a truncheon would probably have split the skin. There had been one heavy blow to Peach’s head and since police truncheons are relatively light Mant concluded that it didn’t come from a baton but could have been caused by a range of instruments, such as a lead-weighted rubber cosh, a hosepipe filled with lead, or a police radio. Bowen thought a radio was the most likely answer. The identification became significant because during the raid on the lockers of the SPG officers, it had been discovered that White possessed a cosh, which he claimed to have acquired either as a gift during a visit to America in 1969 or ‘at a road block that as a unit we had been conducting and after dealing with several cars it must have been dropped by someone’. Cass was not persuaded that a cosh was responsible. Mant had found that the injury to Peach’s skull was relatively large, and substantially larger than White’s cosh, which would probably also have cut Peach’s skin. Cass did not believe in any case that an officer would have taken an unauthorised weapon on a controversial public demonstration where it might have been seen by members of the public or photographers or TV cameramen. He noted that the pathologists believed a wooden object like a truncheon was unlikely to cause a wound of this sort, but suggested that they had limited experience of the impact of blows from such batons (because they were rarely a cause of death) and that the unusual thinness of Peach’s skull had also to be borne in mind.
Cass set out the evidence of the civilian eye-witnesses, including Balwant Atwal, whom he describes as the most important witness. ‘She says the deceased was attacked by police who came out of the van, the policeman hit him with his truncheon and the man collapsed 1½ yards around the corner in Orchard Avenue. She saw the police officer attack him more than once.’ Cass’s general approach to civilian witnesses was to assume that they were motivated by anti-police bias, but he accepted Atwal’s evidence as truthful and accurate. He was clear that ‘the officers concerned were Special Patrol Group and there is no credible evidence that any other officers were actually at the scene’.
Cass referred at several stages to having interviewed the six SPG officers ‘to the extreme’. Quite what this meant in practice is illustrated by a passing reference to Officer F having been held in detention for three days while being interviewed. The 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act changed the rules about the interviewing of suspects, and Cass wouldn’t now be allowed to detain the officers for so long, or question them without solicitors if they asked for them. Inspector Murray, Cass’s prime suspect, eventually admitted that he had got out of the police carrier at the junction of Beachcroft Avenue and Orchard Avenue, exactly where Atwal saw an officer strike Peach. He had originally denied this: in a prepared statement made the day after the demonstration, Murray stated that he had left the carrier at the junction of Beachcroft Avenue and Broadway, some distance from the killing. Cass assigned the change in Murray’s story to confusion or what he called ‘concoction’. Murray also claimed in his original report that there were non-SPG officers ahead of him in Beachcroft Avenue. Cass noted drily that, after ‘no small investigation’, he had found this was untrue.
Here is one of the exchanges between Murray and the interviewing officer:
[Murray] was seen on 17.5.79 at 8.30 p.m. I said to him: ‘This is a very serious business. I understand you made a 991 [statement] and cannot assist as to how Clement Blair Peach received the injury to his head.’
[Murray] said: ‘No, I can’t.’ I said: ‘You got out of the carrier at the corner of Beachcroft and Orchard. You were there you would have seen how it happened.’
[Murray] said: ‘Well I didn’t. How much longer have I got to stay?’
I said: ‘Why did you first of all say you got out of the carrier at the junction [of] Beachcroft and Broadway?’
[Murray] said: ‘I’ve put it right. I’ve been thinking about it fifty times a day. It came to me.’
I said: ‘It came to you because you know we know you got out at the junction of Beachcroft and Orchard. I want to know how Peach got his injury. Did you or one of your men hit him on the head?’
[Murray] said: ‘Is that what you want me to say?’
I said: ‘I want the truth.’
[Murray] said: ‘I can’t help you.’
During this ‘lengthy’ interview Murray ‘claimed illness owing to lack of food’. At a later interview, where he had a solicitor present, it was put to Murray that he was lying, and his solicitor advised him not to answer any more questions.
There were other aspects of Murray’s behaviour which troubled Cass: after the incident with Peach, the SPG officers had come across an ITN crew. ‘Here Officer E and a television camera crew had what it termed a “heated exchange” … There is no doubt that Officer E was not as cool as he should have been and the strain was showing.’ ‘He has not given a credible account of his movements,’ Cass went on, ‘and it is disturbing. There was no doubt he was suffering from stress, which together with his driving personality attaches to him grave suspicion, if not as the responsible man but for concealing it.’
Cass’s second main suspect was Officer H, PC Greville Bint. He had given the same version of events as Murray had in his first statement, and refused to budge from it, despite repeated questioning. Bint had left the carrier when Murray did, and had equal opportunity to strike Peach. Bint told the inquest he had almost no memory of what happened. Here is his cross-examination by Stephen Sedley, the barrister acting for Peach’s family:
Sedley: Who was in the front passenger seat?
Bint: I don’t know.
Sedley: Who else was in the van?
Bint: I think Murray, Richardson and the driver, but I can’t recall if anyone else was in the van.
Sedley: How many officers can a van carry?
Bint: Any amount.
Sedley: How long had you been in the van?
Bint: I can’t recall, it was a confusing incident.
Sedley: Where was PC Richardson sitting?
Bint: I don’t know.
Sedley: Did you get out of the van on your own initiative?
Bint: I don’t know.
Sedley: Did you follow anyone out?
Sedley: Was it on Inspector Murray’s orders?
Bint: I don’t know.
When Bint was interviewed for the Cass Report he had remembered more. In particular, he had been quite certain that the van had stopped at the start of Beachcroft Avenue (in other words, he gave the version of events that Murray and White had originally given, but then – not that Sedley knew this – rescinded) rather than further down the road (where Peach was struck). It was put to him ten times in his police interview that he was lying: ‘That’s not as I remember it,’ Bint answered. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide.’ He was given a list of officers who remembered him getting out at the corner of Orchard Avenue. Bint insisted: ‘That’s how I recollect it. If they recollected it different, there you go.’ It was put to him that his memory might be faulty. Still he insisted: ‘That’s how I recollect it.’ Cass was struck by the contrast between Bint’s seeming amnesia as to most details of the event and his repeated firm denial of the one fact that took him closest to Peach’s death. Cass inferred from this that Bint had indeed been near the scene of the killing.
Since Cass thought the murder weapon was a truncheon, he tended to rule out Officer F (White) as a suspect. But White, like Murray, had changed his evidence. He originally claimed he had remained in the vehicle when the others got out at the junction of the Broadway and Beachcroft Avenue. As Cass pointed out, ‘this has a disturbing ring of consistency with the first account given by Officer E.’ White later altered his evidence and told investigators that Murray and Bint had left the carrier on Orchard Avenue and gone straight into the crowd. Cass surmised that these three officers had conferred before they were first interviewed, in an attempt to produce an account that would remove Bint and Murray from the scene of the assault.
All of this comes from Cass’s first report, given to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police on 17 June 1979, a month before the date the inquest was due to begin. His second report, written while the inquest was delayed in order to hear the High Court challenge to the coroner’s decision to sit without a jury, was handed over on 14 September 1979. In the period after the first report was delivered Murray continued to behave in a way likely to arouse suspicion. He said he would not take part in an identification parade. He seemed to be making attempts to alter his appearance: he grew a beard and turned up for duty in August with a black eye, which he claimed to have suffered while playing badminton. Cass believed that if he had been forced to attend an identification parade he would have turned his face to the wall or taken other action to thwart attempts to identify him. He also took lengthy periods of leave. Cass had intended to interview Murray again, but decided it would be pointless ‘because evasive replies are expected’. On 4 September, Murray’s solicitor had attended New Scotland Yard without his client ‘to discuss the further interview and gave me the impression he wanted his client to agree but could not convince him of the desirability of full outward co-operation’. The solicitor asked for a guarantee that any further interview would take place without Cass – ‘perhaps he feels [I] would be too probing.’ Murray’s solicitor, who was also acting for Bint, told Cass that ‘it was unlikely the officers responsible would come forward at this stage,’ which Cass took as a coded signal both that there had been a closing of ranks within the group of officers under suspicion, and that this refusal to co-operate had taken place with Murray’s active involvement.
Cass then set out his conclusions. He repeated that it must be assumed that Peach had been killed by a police officer, that there was no evidence the blow had been accidental or unwitting, and so ‘in the absence of other evidence it is therefore a matter of consideration as to whether the death was unlawful, there being little evidence from any source that criminal acts were being committed by the demonstrators at the time of the death.’ For a criminal jury to find that Peach had been murdered, it would need to accept that an officer had struck him with the intention, not necessarily of killing him, but of doing him grievous bodily harm. Cass’s investigation had done nothing to support a defence of self-defence or reasonable force; if anything it had shown that Peach was killed a long way from any real trouble, while trying to get away from the main protest.
‘There is some evidence,’ Cass went on, ‘to suggest 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 of course was Officer E.’ He was particularly troubled by Bint, White and Murray’s ‘deliberate attempt to conceal the presence of the carrier at the scene at the vital time. The action of these officers,’ he wrote, ‘clearly obstructed the police officers carrying out their duty of investigating this serious matter.’ Cass then discussed the two versions of events given by White. In his original interview on 24 April, he gave the same account as Murray and Bint. But interviewed under caution on 6 June, immediately after the raid on the lockers, he marked on a map where Murray got out, and described Murray and other officers as forcing the demonstrators ‘round the corner’ into Orchard Avenue, ‘pushing them’ in ‘face to face close contact’. ‘It will be appreciated,’ Cass wrote, ‘that Officer E [Murray] and the officers named were at the immediate location where witnesses say Peach was struck down.’ In that second interview, White, who had previously denied any memory of what took place, named all the occupants of the vehicle, and appeared to have what Cass described as a ‘remarkable recall’ of the day’s events. It was suggested to White that he had been prevaricating in order to frustrate the identification and punishment of Peach’s killer and he answered: ‘In my position now, I wouldn’t be protecting anyone and that’s the truth.’
With evident reluctance, Cass did not recommend prosecuting Murray, Bint or White for murder: he felt there was too little evidence. He did believe however that the three officers had conspired to pervert the course of justice and to obstruct an investigation: ‘the false statements made by Officer E, Officer H and Officer F are all of the same content. A strong inference that can be drawn from this is that they have conspired together to obstruct police.’ Cass believed White was lying to a script written by his senior officer, the more intelligent and forceful Murray. And if Murray wrote the script, Cass appears to have deduced, Murray should be treated as the prime suspect for the killing.
Three weeks after receiving the Cass Report, the director of public prosecutions, Sir Thomas Hetherington, announced that no police officers would be prosecuted, either for murder or for conspiring to pervert the course of justice. Of the 345 people, most of them Asians from Southall, who were charged with offences arising from the events on 23 April, a majority were convicted. Conviction rates were around 85 per cent, compared to the more usual 50 per cent for trials following not guilty pleas.
Thirty-five years later it might seem that things haven’t changed much. There have been many further deaths: Ian Tomlinson died after being struck by a member of the Territorial Support Group, the successor to the SPG. More than 750 people died in police custody between 1994 and 2013, but there have been barely a dozen inquest verdicts of unlawful killing and just eight prosecutions, some of multiple officers – none succeeded. The rules about the use of truncheons are looser now than in 1979: then they were to be used only in ‘extreme’ cases, and were not to be aimed at the head; now the Association of Chief Police Officers says batons may be used to ‘protect officers, demonstrate that force is about to be/may be used, [or] facilitate dispersal and/or arrest … The level of force should be reasonable and proportionate’ (although some forces have published local guidance which is more prescriptive). Alfie Meadows was hit on the head with a truncheon in 2010 during demonstrations against student tuition fees and had to have emergency surgery. Police bloggers claimed, as the coroner had in Peach’s case, that Meadows had been hurt by another protester, not a police officer. Meadows was charged with public order offences and, following a first trial which ended in a hung jury and a second trial which was aborted after repeated delays, was acquitted at a third trial two and half years after the original incident.
Having read Cass’s findings, I find it all the more shocking that the inquest was refused access to his report. The accounts we have of the inquest emphasise the silence of the police officers, their shared refusal to remember anything much at all. But these same officers had previously given much more detailed accounts to Cass. If Peach’s family had had access to the Cass Report, there is no possibility that the witnesses would have been allowed to get away with pretending that they remembered nothing.
As for the part in the inquest played by the coroner, John Burton, it was controversial in 1980 and has become more so with time. In 2010 it was revealed following a Freedom of Information Act request by the journalist Solomon Hughes that in June 1980 Burton had sent the Home Office the draft of a paper, ‘The Blair Peach Inquest – the Unpublished Story’, which he proposed to circulate within the Coroners’ Society. In this document, Burton set out a narrative of events in which Peach’s killing was the fault of the demonstrators. The National Front, Burton was at pains to point out, had acted entirely peacefully; they ‘had not been involved in the fighting, but one of their members was attacked and severely injured at the railway station on the way home’. Burton accused the civilian witnesses at the inquest of ‘fabrication’, claiming that they told ‘palpable lies’ and that they ‘did not have experience of the English system’ sufficient to give credible testimony. The police, he wrote, had anticipated an attack involving demonstrators ‘collecting bricks behind a hoarding and then attacking the police from premises outside the hoarding. When sufficient police are brought to the scene, the demonstrators hidden and protected behind the hoarding bombard the police with the bricks.’ He used this non-existent attack to justify the actions that caused Peach’s death. ‘I’m a little disturbed at the proposal,’ a senior civil servant called Miss Wakefield-Richmond wrote after reading the paper, ‘as I feel that if it fell into the wrong hands it would be used to discredit the impartiality of coroners in general and Dr Burton in particular.’ Another official agreed: ‘It only needs one leak for a great deal of harm to be done – not only to the standing of coroners but also in respect of the home secretary’s decision that a public inquiry [into Peach’s death] should be resisted.’
Thanks to this document yet more doubt is cast on the original inquest into Peach’s death. Officers E, F and H – Murray, White and Bint – should be placed before a jury and required to explain the discrepancies between the accounts they gave.