The Irresistible Rise of a Folk Hero

Gabrielle Cox

  • Stalker by John Stalker
    Harrap, 288 pp, £12.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 245 54616 2
  • Stalker: The Search for the Truth by Peter Taylor
    Faber, 231 pp, £9.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 571 14836 0

Nothing so exposes the levels of hypocrisy in our society as the Stalker case. This cause célèbre has turned an unknown policeman into a household symbol of integrity and innocence in a wicked world, and given him the kind of public attention associated with taxi or train-drivers who win Mastermind. Now his own long-heralded account of his experiences has been published.

John Stalker had been Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police for only two months when he was asked to conduct an investigation into matters arising out of three incidents in Northern Ireland, where Royal Ulster Constabulary officers had shot and killed six men, five of whom were undoubtedly unarmed. The incidents, happening as they did within the space of a month, led to widespread concern that the RUC was operating a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy. In two of the cases police officers were charged with murder, though in one case Sir John Hermon, Chief Constable of the RUC, had personally thrown out the recommendation of the investigating officer that a murder charge should be brought. It was pressure from Sir Barry Shaw, Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, which brought the cases to court.

In the course of the two murder trials and the trial of a survivor of the third incident, it emerged that in each case the police officers involved had been instructed by senior officers to conceal the true nature of the operations on which they had been engaged. They were given cover stories which made it look as if they were on routine patrols when in fact they were all on special operations mounted as a result of tip-offs by two informers. These stories were apparently intended to protect the informers, whose lives were deemed to be at risk.

All the police officers charged with murder were acquitted. In the first case the judge criticised the Crown for bringing the prosecution on ‘such tenuous evidence’ and praised the ‘courage and determination’ of the officers in bringing the three dead men to ‘the final court of justice’. In the second case the judge observed that policemen ‘are not required to be “supermen” and one does not use jewellers’ scales to measure what is reasonable in the circumstances.’

Apart from the outrage felt in many quarters at these acquittals and the remarks made by the judges, there was also widespread concern at the evidence which had emerged at the trials showing that senior officers had organised cover-ups. At the instigation of Sir Barry Shaw, Sir John Hermon appointed John Stalker to do three things: to investigate the circumstances surrounding the cover stories and the way in which the CID had conducted their investigations; to look into the way in which RUC officers had crossed the border into the Republic on the day of one of the shootings; and to look at the problem of acting on information received whilst protecting the identity of the informant.

John Stalker’s team was shocked by the fact that not only had cover stories been manufactured, but that the CID had investigated the shootings only cursorily, and had in fact had much of the ground cut away from under them by the Special Branch’s removal of officers and evidence from the scene. The Special Branch clearly ruled the roost, and was persistently obstructive of the enquiry. Finally, when it was established that a tape had been made of one of the shootings, via a bugging device, the Chief Constable engaged in a protracted, devious and at times almost farcical attempt to prevent John Stalker hearing the tape.

These events have now been widely reported and discussed and they are cause for the deepest concern, not least because the Director of Public Prosecutions has decided not to institute criminal proceedings against any of the officers who are alleged to have conspired to pervert the course of justice. The merit of John Stalker’s book – and the supreme irony, to which I shall return – is that he gives an insider’s view of the frustrations of gaining information from a powerful, non-accountable organisation which is determined to frustrate such enquiries.

The demerit of the book is that its central rationale is to clear John Stalker’s name. As John Stalker was about to get access to the tape, he became the subject of a disciplinary investigation, and was taken off the RUC enquiry. He believes this was done deliberately to take him off the case. His book is without doubt a well-crafted apologia by a man for whom the public disgrace and anguish of a disciplinary investigation has to be explained in terms of RUC dirty tricks. It has an axe to grind, and it grinds very selectively. It therefore fails to give us the necessary objective information to answer the crucial question: did he fall or was he pushed?

For illumination it helps to turn to Peter Taylor, an investigative journalist whose Panorama programme first told the public that the scene of one of the shootings had been bugged by MI5. Taylor’s painstakingly detailed analysis reveals that the concerns which finally led to the disciplinary action against John Stalker first began to emerge in June 1984, almost two years before he was ‘suspended’ and before his RUC investigation had taken off. Essentially, the issue was John Stalker’s close personal friendship with Kevin Taylor, a local businessman who became the subject of CID investigation and whose friends and acquaintances included convicted criminals and alleged members of the ‘Quality Street Gang’, regarded by some Manchester detectives as behind most of the organised crime in the city. Stalker was Kevin Taylor’s guest on his yacht in Miami a few months after Quality Street members had been aboard, and the yacht was suspected of being used in drug running whilst still in Taylor’s ownership (though effectively not in his control). Police discipline is strict, extending even to the activities of their families: I remember, for instance, a constable whose wife was not allowed to run a taxi firm because of a potential conflict of interest. It is hard to see, therefore, how John Stalker’s intimacy with a man under active CID investigation, with apparent links into more shadowy networks, could not be a matter of immense concern and ultimately of investigation. Indeed, civil libertarians and conspiracy theorists alike, given such a scenario, would in normal circumstances cry ‘cover-up’ and ‘scandal’ if no action were taken.

John Stalker makes much of the flimsy nature of the evidence against him. That is not the point. The fact that he was able to prove that he had paid for his own holiday in Miami does not mean that the question should not have been asked. He also dismisses the problem of the Quality Street Gang by saying ‘the group no longer exists – they have moved into legitimate prosperity or bought villas in the sun.’ That is not particularly reassuring. Peter Taylor tells us that many of the gang were to be found in Puerto Banus in Spain, where Kevin Taylor had taken his yacht after Miami.

Undoubtedly, John Stalker and his family were under immense pressure at this time: sympathy for that human dilemma should not cloud the issue about whether a disciplinary enquiry should have taken place. If that seems callous, let me say that I speak from experience, not just of press pressure, but of the pressure of death threats and razor-bladed hate mail, of lying awake wondering if a petrol bomb will come through your window, fearful for your children’s safety – all because you dared to question the Police. I never thought that such pressure proved me ‘right’: the arguments have to stand independently, on their own merits. Stalker’s argument on the disciplinary issue is ultimately sustained by appeals to emotion in relation to the effect it had on his family, and by ‘rubbishing’ everyone else in sight.

There is one sense in which he was a victim. It is clear that Colin Sampson, the Chief Constable appointed to the disciplinary enquiry, in investigating Stalker’s connections with Kevin Taylor, came across and was surprised by his attendance at a Conservative party fund-raising dinner, and his use of an official car to get there. John Stalker regards this, and other discussions about the use of cars, as petty. He genuinely seems not to understand what presumably worried Colin Sampson, and certainly strikes forcibly those of us outside the Force: the amount and context of the wining and dining done by James Anderton and his Deputy. I doubt whether other Chief Constables would see attendance at a party political function as official duty: even mayors of the same party leave their chains behind and know where to draw the line. I don’t think John Stalker realises even now the distaste which many people feel for the excessive socialising which seems to go with chief officer posts in Greater Manchester. That is the extent to which he is a victim: he never thought to challenge the prevailing ethos, and never recognised the ethical issues involved. This blindness seems to underlie much of his blatant contempt for Colin Sampson. If there was anything at all mildly funny about the whole miserable business, it was to hear Conservative politicians who had defended the Police through thick and thin suddenly talking of police corruption and frame-ups when they found themselves being drawn into the questioning. None of us should underestimate the extent to which some infuriated and influential people fed the flames of conspiracy theory. When the poor and powerless complain, it’s seen as paranoia.

Peter Taylor argues that John Stalker was prevented from returning to Northern Ireland to re-commence his enquiries because the disciplinary scandal was about to break, not vice versa. That makes at least as much sense as Stalker’s assertion that the disciplinary enquiry was cooked up to take him off the RUC enquiry. Indeed, there is much to support Taylor’s view. MI5, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Sir Philip Myers, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, had all supported John Stalker’s efforts to get the tape he wanted. He had made abundantly clear where those enquiries were leading. The only obstructive figure was Sir John Hermon. Nor does Colin Sampson, who took over John Stalker’s RUC enquiry, appear to have pulled his punches – though it was undoubtedly a mistake to involve him in both enquiries. He achieved the suspension of two senior officers where Stalker had failed, and it is claimed that his findings back those of Stalker. If the Stalker enquiry was to be neutered, there are far more effective ways it could have been done than by removing the investigating officer in a blaze of publicity just when he was about to confront the Chief Constable. Sir Barry Shaw could easily have stifled the enquiry after John Stalker’s first report.

Certainly the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester handled the disciplinary process with arrogance, secrecy and scant regard for constitutional niceties: he bounced the only just appointed chairman of what was a new Police Authority into an instant decision, and left the Authority uninformed and suspicious. Such behaviour is par for the course for James Anderton. It tells us nothing about the issues. Indeed, it is arguable that the furore served James Anderton well. He was himself at the time under disciplinary investigation for behaviour which brought the Police service into disrepute (a fact which John Stalker does not mention). Bruised by the Stalker affair, the Police Authority subsequently backed away from the James Anderton disciplinary issue at an undignified rate of knots.

Much of John Stalker’s evident bitterness stems from Anderton’s treatment of him. That is hardly surprising. He had been a loyal lieutenant. Therein lies the supreme irony. For Greater Manchester had its own scandals, including buggings and cover-ups. In late 1984, for example, a local newspaper drew attention to the fact that three people, including the Chief Constable’s secretary, had been moved from their positions in Police Headquarters. John Stalker assured me (in my then capacity as Chair of the Police Authority) that these moves were unconnected and innocent: they were all for valid reasons of efficiency or career development. Shortly afterwards the Observer revealed that staff in Police Headquarters had had their phones tapped. It became apparent that the three staff had been under this surveillance. In a formal meeting with John Stalker I tried to find out what was happening. After a series of evasions he finally admitted that the Police had the technology to tap HQ phones and that it had been used in the last six months. He flatly refused to give any further information, perhaps realising it would contradict his earlier assurances. Later, at the Police Authority meeting, he denied even having told me the limited amount that he had. The Chief Constable declared the matter sub judice. Later the HMI promised to investigate, then ‘forgot’, then verbally said it was ‘all right’. So while John Stalker was trying to break the secrecy surrounding a specific bugging in Northern Ireland, he was engaged in frustrating similar enquiries in Greater Manchester.

As for cover-ups, in 1985 Manchester was hit by the notorious Battle of Brittan affair, where several students demonstrating against the Home Secretary were apparently injured by police, including a girl student who was thrown down stone steps and rendered unconscious. Even more alarming was that major complainants in the subsequent enquiry gave instances of being followed, initimidated, threatened and in one case beaten by people they alleged to be police officers. John Stalker endangered his own independence as the disciplinary officer for Greater Manchester, and the independence of the Avon and Somerset Force who were investigating the affair, by saying that he knew witness accounts were false and implying that people would be prosecuted accordingly. When challenged on the seriousness of this extraordinary intervention, he claimed a television company had breached a private confidence. I was later told that the letter in question ended: ‘I have no objection to your using this letter either in whole or in part in connection with your programme.’ Once again I felt lied to.

And while John Stalker rightly pours scorn on the competence of the RUC enquiries into the shootings, he cannot surely have forgotten how Police Authority members expressed concern about the adequacy and bias of Greater Manchester complaints investigations, and how the Chief Constable then arbitrarily refused to allow the Police Authority to see the files, despite its statutory duty to ensure that complaints processes are properly carried out. Where were John Stalker’s principles then?

This brief diversion into Greater Manchester affairs may help to put the Stalker controversy into some kind of context. The parallels are not coincidental. They stem from an overriding belief in the Police establishment that they know best, and from an implicit understanding that the ends justify the means.

The anger Stalker describes of RUC officers who objected to his talking to Republicans is matched by the fury in Greater Manchester Police at those who ask awkward questions. ‘Outsiders’ are naive. They do not understand the sensitivities of the situation. Not to stick by the party line, right or wrong, is to give succour to terrorists or criminals. Too much concern with procedures or civil liberties is a purist luxury. In the end, cutting corners is a necessary and justifiable exercise. (Indeed, John Stalker makes a throwaway reference to cutting corners, though perhaps his most chilling and revealing sentence is ‘I also know that there are less official ways of listening to people’s telephone conversations.’) It is to his credit that in Northern Ireland John Stalker held out against that corrupting and cynical view: it is extraordinary that he could not see how he endorsed and espoused it in Manchester.

Virtually the only reference Stalker makes to the complex constitutional and civil liberties issues which arose in Greater Manchester during his time as Deputy Chief Constable is to talk of ‘barren arguments of ideology’ between the Chief Constable and ‘hard-line Marxist politicians’. To talk of the 1981-86 Police Authority as Marxist is so ludicrous as to amount to a deliberate smear. Yet presumably such stereotyping is inevitable, for to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Police Authority’s concerns would be to expose his own collusion in the arbitrary exercise of power. He is less than honest in talking of James Anderton’s change of attitude after his return to work: for years he had witnessed the same moodiness, rudeness and tantrums. The only difference then was they weren’t directed at him. His depiction of a golden age before suspension fails to tally with his anguished description to me in late 1984 of the tensions and conflicts at Police HQ, the unwillingness of the Chief Constable to consult, and the strain this placed upon him. To those who know the score, John Stalker’s book is immensely revealing, not for what it says, but for what it fails to say.

At one level, the Stalker enquiry was about trying to find the truth about killings which might be murders. At another level, it was about the defensive and protective mechanisms of the Police and about the constitutional weaknesses which have given such power to Chief Constables. It is a feature of the system that it can ultimately deal with the first: individuals can be brought to book, given enough determination. Everyone runs away from the second. This is why the Government will not prosecute individual officers in the RUC case, for a whole row of dominoes would tumble, right up to the Chief Constable, and that fundamental exposé of how power can be abused would destroy the RUC.

The Stalker case has now entered into public mythology: John Stalker has become a folk hero. That is in part because of a superb public relations exercise, but mainly because people overwhelmingly want to believe him. The mythological components of evil empire and shining knight have immense popular appeal. It is also seductive to those of us who say we are concerned with justice, freedom and civil liberties. But if our commitment to those values is genuine, then we must be prepared to allow facts and not prejudices to inform our judgment. I am not known for supporting the Police establishment: but I have to say that I do not believe they set John Stalker up. He was the victim of his own naivety and of the sense of security which comes from being part of an élite which is accustomed to doing what it likes.

Now the Government must act. If it will not countenance public trials, then it must take private action. The RUC needs to be overhauled from the very top to the very bottom. To do anything less would be to give implicit backing to the abuses of power documented by John Stalker. But none of us should turn away thinking it is a peculiarly Northern Irish problem: we ignore the English parallels at our peril.