In an article on Arthur Koestler written in 1944, George Orwell suggested that the lack of imaginative depth in English political fictions, when these are compared with works of European origin, may be due to the fact that the English simply lack any experience of the totalitarian state: ‘The special world created by secret-police forces, censorship of opinion, torture and frame-up trials is, of course, known about and to some extent disapproved of, but it has made very little emotional impact.’ Forty years on, one wonders whether Orwell would have found his compatriots quite so effectively disqualified in this respect. Recent events in the northern part of this kingdom give rise to serious anxieties about the integrity and accountability of our Police Forces. It is not surprising that Geoff Newman’s play Operation Bad Apple, based upon the thwarted Countryman inquiry into corruption within the Metropolitan Police, is currently enjoying a successful run (to appalled audiences) at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre.
One chain of events focuses on the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester, Mr John Stalker, who was recently suspended for three months during an internal disciplinary investigation and subsequently reinstated by the lay Police Authority, despite the evident willingness of his senior colleagues to have him face a tribunal. The other concerns police action against students of Manchester University during a demonstration in March last year, and the subsequent harassment of two students involved in this incident, Sarah Hollis and Steven Shaw. The student story ends (for the present) less happily: within the last few weeks Steven Shaw has fled the country to put himself out of the reach of further police persecution, and to avoid the compounded injury of being prosecuted for ‘wasting police time’.
When ordinary citizens of this country begin to feel menaced on the streets of their cities by the very forces of law and order they expect (and pay) to protect them, then something certainly is changing or has already changed in the national consciousness. ‘To understand such things,’ Orwell wrote, ‘one has to be able to imagine oneself as the victim, and for an Englishman to write Darkness at Noon would be as unlikely an accident as for a slave-trader to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ The dangerous developments we have witnessed in police behaviour and police immunity over the last few years have obviated the need for this inconceivable leap of imagination, and connected us to the body of European feeling some years in advance of the Channel Tunnel.
On the surface, there would appear to be no more connection between the Stalker affair and the students’ case than the accidental fact that both developed in Manchester. What analogy could one draw between the public activities of the Deputy Chief Constable and the academic pursuits of two third-year undergraduates? None, except for the fact that both have been victims, over the same period, of unofficial police surveillance and intervention. The forces ranged against Stalker were no doubt directed at a high level, whereas Steven Shaw and Sarah Hollis were probably the victims (at least initially) of low-level corruption among officers concerned simply to protect themselves from disciplinary charges: and not much concerned about their methods. The irony, and the real connection, lies in the fact that John Stalker, as Deputy Chief Constable, is directly responsible for police discipline. It is he who must answer to any charges directed against his officers, some of whom have only recently been colluding against him.
John Stalker was sent to Northern Ireland in May 1984 as head of an internal police inquiry to investigate six killings which took place in November and December of 1982, and which had been laid against the RUC. Journalists have made detailed disclosures relating to the killing of three IRA men at Lurgan on 11 November; of a 17-year-old youth in a barn at Ballyneery on the 24th of that month; and of two INLA men in Armagh City on 12 December. These killings, which had been carefully planned (though this did not prevent grotesque blunders occurring), were part of what has become known as the ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy adopted by the security forces, including the RUC, for dealing with terrorist suspects. Inconveniently, it may be felt, five of the six men who were ambushed and shot were unarmed at the time; and a sixth – Michael Tighe, shot dead in the barn – had no paramilitary connections. John Stalker’s special brief was to determine the involvement of the RUC in these events. One of the most disquieting revelations made in the press has been the degree to which the activities of the Police overlapped with those of the Army; the special unit which was directly responsible for the shootings was recruited, apparently, from recently discharged soldiers. And of course both the Army and the RUC were working with the best that could be provided in the way of intelligence services.
From the very start of his inquiry, John Stalker found it difficult to make headway. Sir John Hermon, Chief Constable of the RUC, was at best unco-operative; and his officers obviously took their cue from him. Despite these adverse conditions (perhaps spurred on by them), John Stalker had gathered sufficient evidence on the case by April 1985 to request the suspension of two RUC officers pending further inquiry. Not only did Hermon refuse to act on this recommendation, but as if in defiance of it, one of the officers was promoted. Back in Manchester, Stalker worked on his interim report, which had to be submitted to Hermon (such are the arrangements with an internal inquiry) before being passed on to the Director of Public Prosecutions. This report was sent to Hermon on 18 September. Not until nearly five months later, on 13 February 1986, was the report forwarded to Sir Barry Shaw, the DPP in Belfast.
Meanwhile things were happening back on the mainland which were calculated to undermine Stalker’s position and to delay – if not entirely dismantle – his inquiry. In the same month – September 1985 – that Stalker completed his interim report, Manchester’s No 1 Regional Crime Squad began an investigation into the affairs of the Manchester businessman Kevin Taylor, a friend of John Stalker’s for many years. This investigation is currently the subject of a private prosecution brought by Mr Taylor against the Chief Constable of Manchester, James Anderton, which is due to be heard at Bury Magistrates Court in December: at a hearing in Manchester in October, Mr Taylor was refused information as to the grounds for setting up the investigation. This began with the familiar pattern of police surveillance: Mr Taylor is followed in unmarked cars; his private and business telephones are tapped; his friends are questioned; known criminal associates are put under pressure; paid informers provide what passes with the Police for evidence. Finally, on 9 May this year, his house and two business premises are searched on a warrant. The police haul includes photograph albums. There are photographs of Kevin Taylor and John Stalker at various public functions, some of which were also attended by known criminals. (There are also, incidentally, photographs of Chief Constable James Anderton in the same company.) Kevin Taylor has no criminal record; and, to date, no charges of any kind have been proffered against him. The only consequence so far is that he has become, in his own words, ‘a leper and a pariah’ within the Manchester business community.
Clearly, Kevin Taylor has featured as a pawn in a larger design: to stop Stalker. On the basis of his interim report Stalker has been appointed by Sir Philip Myers, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Police, to conduct a full inquiry into the part played by the RUC in the 1982 killings. Impatient to resume his task, he is frustrated by administrative obstacles which are put in his way: but finally decides to travel to Belfast on the second of June. This journey never takes place. Three weeks after the searches of Taylor’s premises, on 28 May, the then Chairman of Manchester’s Police Authority, Councillor Norman Briggs, is informed by James Anderton that Stalker is under investigation, and that Colin Sampson, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, is to take Stalker’s place on the RUC inquiry. Two days later, Briggs announces publicly that he has asked Sampson to conduct an investigation into a ‘disciplinary offence’ that may have been committed by Stalker. At the same time, it is announced (on whose authority it is not clear) that Stalker has been sent on ‘temporary leave’ – a phrase as ambiguous as its provenance. News of Stalker’s suspension is greeted with disbelief by many of his fellow officers, among whom he is ‘Mr Clean’. Meanwhile Stalker has been told by Colin Sampson that he has been removed ‘for ever’ from the RUC inquiry: again, the quoted phrase has something strangely purposive about it. And Colin Sampson begins to busy himself: not with the RUC inquiry, urgently required by the Belfast DPP, but with what can only be understood as a countermining operation – the inquiry into Stalker himself, asked for by Councillor Norman Briggs (deceased), but urgently required by a person or persons unknown.
What may the larger purpose be, within the imperatives of which John Stalker has become entangled? It seems reasonable to assume that more is at stake even than the protection of individual RUC officers who may be guilty of serious crimes. The true centre of this operation probably has to be located in Dublin, where the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in November 1985. Loyalist resentment of the idea and the terms of the Agreement was very strong in Belfast, where it was greeted with marches and strikes; and Unionist Members made loud protests in the House. The conclusion drawn by many observers of the Northern Irish scene has been that signatories to the Agreement in both London and Dublin realised that a major security scandal involving the Intelligence services and the RUC might prove a destabilising factor at such a sensitive time; and that the Government itself therefore decided that Stalker should be called off, before any actual prosecutions were brought. It would be intriguing to know how exactly the plan to stop Stalker was arrived at: all we can be certain of is that a Home Office official met with James Anderton, Colin Sampson, Sir Philip Myers, and Lawrence Byford (HMI for North West and Ulster) during the Police Federation Conference in Scarborough, just one week before Stalker was removed from the RUC inquiry. It is a tacit tribute to Stalker’s integrity that these men knew he would not abandon his inquiry into serious crimes for a political reason. There had to be a plot, to remove him by other means. And Chief Constable Colin Sampson drew the short straw as metteur-en-scène.
So John Stalker is in the wilderness. Suddenly the Police Force he has been running in Manchester has run him out of town; and as he mows the lawn at home he has time to reflect on the age-old irony of his situation: the investigator investigated, the arm of authority now in the grip of that same authority, the leader of men exposed to the suspicions and depositions of the men he has led. And what can he think of his colleagues and superiors? He will not forget that on the very night before the storm broke, he and James Anderton met with two researchers for the Brass Tacks TV programme, with no mention being made of the affair. But for him personally the plot has a fortunate twist: partly thanks to the incompetent dramaturgy of the Chief Constable for West Yorkshire, and partly to Manchester’s chorus of citizens. When Colin Sampson submits a summary of his report on Stalker to the Police Authority in August, the 44-member committee is unimpressed by the evidence. The ten disciplinary charges proposed against Stalker are trivial: nine relating to the personal use of police cars, and a tenth to his ‘unwise’ association with Kevin Taylor. John Stalker is immediately reinstated as Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester: but not on the RUC inquiry.
In the days that follow, Sampson’s plot is exposed in all its clumsy contrivance. People he has questioned and quoted in his report queue up to protest against misquotation and misrepresentation. These include local Labour and Tory MPs. One man, however, makes no protest: the paid informer David Bertlestein, source of several scandalous allegations against Stalker, who died of a heart attack in Preston prison in March 1985. Asked after his reinstatement about the strange circumstances surrounding his case, John Stalker is understandably cautious: ‘I’m certainly not saying there was a conspiracy, but I think it’s a wise man who says there wasn’t.’ The latest is that Stalker’s deputy on the RUC inquiry, kept on by Sampson but demoted, has resigned both from the inquiry and from the Manchester Police Force.
One crucial fact needs to be underlined. It was the Manchester public that reinstated John Stalker, through the agency of its elected councillors: not his colleagues within the Police Force, who were clearly prepared to tolerate Sampson’s ramshackle report, composed as it was of corrupt evidence, half-truth and innuendo; and certainly not the Home Office, whatever part it may have played in his dislodgment. It should also be recorded that members of the public in Manchester have spontaneously started a fund to pay Stalker’s legal expenses of over £20,000: a fact which is causing James Anderton some embarrassment, for more reasons than one. Such a vote of confidence would seem to require some reciprocation – which could take no better form than the promise of an early, complete and so far as possible public review of police objectives and methods. A recent report from the Police Monitoring Unit (Briefing Paper 1, 1985) drew attention to the inadequacy of the Chief Constable’s Annual Report in this respect. While containing no less than five photographs of himself (in respectable company), this had ‘nothing to say about the rationale and principles underpinning the Chief Constable’s policing policies and strategies’. No one is better placed than John Stalker himself to initiate such a process; and if he is not sure where to begin, I suggest that he look closely at the operation carried out by his officers last year against students of Manchester University.
One of the things that this story has in common with Stalker’s is that it has become a contest for the evidence. Who gets to write history, and on whose behalf? In what follows I draw mainly upon the Report of the Independent Inquiry Panel set up by Manchester City Council after the initial incident and published in November 1985, which is the most objective and well-documented account; also on Martin Walker’s book With Extreme Prejudice,which provides considerably more, and more recent, information on the harassment, as well as a more radical political evaluation of the events. The long-promised report of the Avon and Somerset team, amounting to nearly half a million words, is with the DPP and probably won’t be made public.
The primum mobile was the visit of Leon Brittan to the Manchester University Students’ Union on Friday 1 March 1985, in response to an invitation from the University Conservative Society. What happened on this evening was that a gathering of some five hundred University students, turning out to demonstrate peacefully and legitimately against the Home Secretary and all he stood for, was attacked without warning by a formation of Tactical Aid Group officers, in a way that invited comparison with police tactics during the miners’ strike – particularly the unprovoked police attack on demonstrating miners at Orgreave coking plant in June 1984. The students, standing eight to ten deep on the steps of the Union – which the Police had persuaded the unsuspecting Union executive to regard as ‘public highway’ for the purpose of Brittan’s visit – were pushed, punched, kicked and dragged by the hair by officers whose ostensible purpose was to clear a passage for the Home Secretary. In the course of the disturbance, 38 students were arrested: most of them before Brittan’s arrival, but some after his departure – after the Home Secretary had delivered his speech on ‘Law and Order’.
We need to focus on three separate but interweaving strands of what happened, in consequence, over the next few weeks and months, and still awaits its crisis. First, there is the collective attempt by the student body to organise the legal defence of those students who had been arrested. Second, there is the developing determination to call the Police to account for their behaviour on this occasion. Third, there is the singling out of Steven Shaw and Sarah Hollis for particular police attention.
The defence got under way with a meeting in the Students’ Union on Monday 4 March, and an urgent call for statements from witnesses. The students benefited from the advice of Steve Wright (in charge of the Police Monitoring Unit set up by the Greater Manchester Council only the month before), and the support of the Manchester City Council, whose Police Authority called immediately for a public inquiry. This request was turned down by the Home Secretary, and instead the Police set up their own internal inquiry; whereupon the City Council determined to mount an independent inquiry of their own. But the defence of the charged students was more urgent than the indictment of the Police, and this was the initial purpose of the statements that were gathered by the Union during March. The trials began on 9 April, and lasted for several weeks. Of the 38 originally arrested, 33 were charged with various public order offences; 19 were found guilty, and 14 discharged. It is significant that when seven of the cases went to appeal in October, the judge, in dismissing four of them, censured the untrustworthiness of some of the police evidence, which had clearly been contrived to procure a successful prosecution.
The Independent Inquiry Panel was appointed on 22 May, under the chairmanship of John Platt-Mills QC. The police inquiry was being conducted by the Avon and Somerset force under Deputy Chief Constable John Reddington. The two inquiries now proceeded simultaneously – with different resources and methods, certainly, and who knows with what different objectives. It is a regrettable fact that no police officer was permitted to provide evidence to the Panel. The students, however, were much more willing to cooperate with the Independent inquiry, and their scepticism of the impartiality of the police investigation was justified when, to the unavailing protests of defence lawyers, the Avon and Somerset team (itself under the supervision of the new Police Complaints Authority from 3 May) handed over copies of statements they had taken to the Greater Manchester Police at the end of that month.
The Year of 85 take their examinations and depart. Then, in late July, news of the harassment of two students concerned in the affair is carried in both the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News. Steven Shaw’s role at the demonstration was peripheral, but he was doing a thesis for his finals on police surveillance, and this academic interest (for he was a member of no political group) prompted him to become involved in organising the student defence. Only four days after Brittan’s visit, Steven Shaw’s flat was broken into and his thesis notes stolen. During the next few weeks he was followed, questioned, cautioned; finally, on 14 May, taken to Bootle Street Police Station in the centre of Manchester (by the Opera House, where the corrupt police chief Scarpia has many times sung his part in Tosca), and questioned for five hours by two officers. The questioning is threatening and aggressive, and ranges from student politics to police activity during the Moss Side riots of 1981 and in Northern Ireland. On the pretext of a suspicion of possessing drugs, he is strip-searched and physically assaulted. He takes his final examinations under great strain (and continued surveillance), and returns with some relief to his home in London.
Meanwhile Sarah Hollis has been no less seriously beset. Her first ‘mistake’ had been to intervene in the manhandling of Union Executive Officer Charles Alcock as he urged police to leave the Union building after the Brittan lecture. She herself was then pulled backwards by the hair and thrown down the steps by a police officer. She lost consciousness: photographs of her prostrate form surrounded by policemen appeared in the press next day. The Daily Mail even provided a reassuring caption: ‘Police Aid Brittan Demo Girl.’ Her second ‘mistake’ was to appear as witness for Charles Alcock’s defence, on 29 April. (He was acquitted on a charge of threatening behaviour.) During the next few days Sarah was followed by different police vehicles, and began to receive anonymous telephone calls. On 11 May she was stopped and questioned; on 13 May her flat in Hulme was burgled whilst she slept, and two witness statements material to her complaint against the Police were stolen. Two young people with criminal records were later convicted of the burglary, in circumstances that allow the suspicion of police involvement. She was bullied by Reddington at an official interview with the Avon and Somerset team, to whom she announced her intention of making a formal complaint against the Police; and then, in the weeks that led up to her examinations, telephoned, followed, questioned, threatened with rape, and slapped in the face by unidentified persons acting in pairs. During this time, on 15 June, she gave evidence in camera to the Independent Inquiry Panel, who record that ‘she looked absolutely terrified.’
The next phase of the story takes us into the next academic year, when the case was effectively re-opened. First there was the Appeals hearing, on 11 October; and then on 31 October the report of the Independent Inquiry Panel was published by Manchester City Council. Working from the evidence of 102 eye-witnesses, the report provides a very disturbing catalogue of violence and abuse from the Police, whose action is adjudged ‘unreasonable, unjustifiable, and, in the circumstances, highly irresponsible’. The Panel found that students had been ‘gratuitously assaulted’, both at and in one case after arrest, and conclude that the events of the night and their train ‘raise serious questions about police complaints procedures and the accountability and control of officers serving in the Greater Manchester Police Force’. Regarding the subsequent persecution of individual students, the report concludes, alarmingly, that ‘there has been a deliberate attempt by unknown officers to frighten and harass key witnesses to the Inquiry.’ This observation is supplemented by a chilling Note right at the beginning: ‘59 individuals [who made statements] have requested that their names be withheld because they fear police reprisals.’
Where are we now? Of course, as an unofficial inquiry, the Panel had no powers: but the incriminating document was sent for information to the Greater Manchester Police and the Avon and Somerset inquiry. It received extensive coverage in the press and on television. A letter from Deputy Chief Constable John Stalker to one programme rejected the findings of the Panel, and cited recent disturbances during a visit to the University Union by David Waddington (on 9 November) as evidence that ‘there exists within student circles a group of violent people.’
The publication of the report did not take the pressure off the two students. This is one of the most worrying aspects of the case for the Police Monitoring Unit, who began to feel that their efforts on behalf of the students might actually be endangering rather than safeguarding them. Throughout the winter of 85-6 Sarah Hollis continued to be watched, followed and accosted by the same two men; on 29 January she was abused by them (‘Here’s that little whore again’) and punched in the face. A few days later she left Manchester for her personal security. Steven Shaw had consistently refused to speak to the Avon and Somerset inquiry, but they had not ignored him. During August police officers attempted to obtain information about him from his university department; in November they contacted his solicitor in London, and finally Shaw agreed to make a statement, which would form the basis of an official complaint against the Police. Two officers interviewed him for over eighteen hours between 22 and 24 January; the statement itself ran to 58 pages. A key question being the corroboration of his evidence, Shaw agreed to travel to Manchester to see three people who might be able to help. Uniformed officers noted his arrival at Piccadilly Station on 30 January. On Sunday 2 February he was the victim of a savage attack in Longsight, half a mile from the massive Police Station that looms over the Stockport Road like a cliff of brick. He recognised his attackers as the same two men who had interviewed him in Bootle Street nine months previously. With a broken nose, cigarette-burns on his face, he was taken to Manchester Royal Infirmary, where, amazingly, the Police were called in to protect him.
A full-page article appeared in the Guardian on 24 March this year, recording in detail the harassment of Sarah Hollis and Steven Shaw. That same day, Steven Shaw himself addressed a press conference at the House of Commons. The allegations were debated in the House on 27 March, on which date the Manchester City Council also requested an interview with the new Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, over the delay in the submission of the Avon and Somerset report. (Leon Brittan had meanwhile been helicoptered from office.) What other pressures could be exerted to force the Police to face their responsibilities? Sarah Hollis still is, and Steven Shaw was at the time of the assaults, a student of Manchester University. They both received threats of intervention in university procedures (‘We know the dates of your exams’). But whereas the Administration provided house-room for the Avon and Somerset team, the university authorities have seemed strangely reluctant to become directly involved on the students’ behalf. Indeed, it was remarkable that the Administration seemed far more concerned to discipline the students accused of violent behaviour during the Waddington visit than to defend students who had themselves been the victims of much more serious indiscipline at the hands of the Police. The University Senate passed a motion (which had originated with the AUT) calling for a public inquiry, and a year later this body leapt into the fray again, reiterating this demand if ‘appropriate prosecutions’ did not proceed from the official police inquiry. There was later some argument at the University Assembly as to whether the word ‘appropriate’ had actually been included in the motion. It is not an overstatement to say that the University has not seen fit to question or to accelerate the demonstrably inadequate official procedures.
There are now indications, in advance of the decision of the DPP, that Steven Shaw may himself be prosecuted for ‘wasting police time’. This is a real risk, though it sounds incredible: it is, after all, what happened to Jackie Berkeley, a black woman who alleged that she was raped in a police cell – a case bitterly remembered in Manchester. It is now becoming not uncommon for people who lodge a complaint against the Police to be prosecuted themselves in return: a very effective deterrent to the invocation of the complaints procedure, and another reminder (if we need one) of the inherent injustice – even absurdity – of the procedure itself. The most relevant words in this connection were written by Lord Scarman in the Introduction to his Report on the 1981 Brixton Disorders: ‘I recommend a far-reaching reform of the system for investigating complaints against the Police ... What is needed is a system of independent investigation: in other words, the Police must not investigate themselves.’ More recently, reviewing three books on possible miscarriages of justice, all turning on malpractices in the securing (or suppressing) of evidence, the Shadow Home Secretary, Gerald Kaufman, remarked that those who complain of brutal treatment ‘can, in the very nature of the circumstances, offer no witness of their claimed ill-treatment but the Police’: Steven Shaw would no doubt subscribe feelingly to the argument. Kaufman, whose Gorton constituency includes the area where Steven Shaw was assaulted, was one of the Labour MPs who supported the proposal for an independent judicial inquiry into the whole episode.
However, the larger purpose of the necessary review of the complaints procedure is the establishment and the safeguarding of evidence, and the Police themselves have an important part to play in deciding whether we trade in fact or falsehood, whether we are more concerned to establish or to demolish the truth. John Stalker was looking for evidence in Northern Ireland, in order to prosecute officers of the RUC who had apparently acted outside the law. He has been frustrated in his efforts by his fellow officers, acting on whosesoever instructions. How much more frustrating must it be for members of the public, desperate for truth and justice in their own case, to find the trail silently erased by the thin blue line? Sir Thomas Browne wrote of the hazard of fame in Urne Buriall: ‘but the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy.’ It is the oblivion of iniquity that defines our contemporary predicament. Milan Kundera is one of those writers from Eastern Europe who are able to read our political fortunes for us with special clarity. It is entirely appropriate that his Book of Laughter and Forgetting should be obsessed with that very Orwellian theme, political memory: the symbolic significance of certain facts which are stored away in the memory as touchstones, and the sinister power of Power to deprive us of these primary orientations. Of course this can happen in the normal course of things: ‘The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.’ But it can also be made to happen, deliberately. ‘Husak, the seventh president of my country, is known as the president of forgetting.’ In Animal Farm one of the touchstones was the Battle of the Cowshed; during the miners’ strike it was the Battle of Orgreave. For students at Manchester, it was the Battle of the Union Steps.
The episode must be and will be remembered: but there is still a choice as to how it will be remembered, as to what kind of history we decide to make of it. It may be remembered as an instance of unprovoked police aggression in a deteriorating situation that has since got worse: and more vividly remembered because we were asked to disremember it, to believe it happened otherwise or never happened at all. Or it can, still, be remembered as an instance of police aggression which was acknowledged as such, and whose perpetrators were identified and punished. As things stand, the Police themselves have the choice of options in their own hands, and it provides the perfect opportunity, as I have argued, for John Stalker to exercise his proper powers in a positive way that might – just – restore the credibility of his Force. But if the Force proves unwilling or unable to take the second course, we may have to return James Anderton’s series of admonitions to the people of Manchester and suggest that it is the Police, on all the evidence, who need protecting from themselves.