"He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him."Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, Paris, 19 August 1785
Lies crafted and repeated by the Metropolitan Police and its counterparts around the country, fed through unattributed ‘police sources’ to the press, are so commonplace that it’s hardly surprising public scepticism has become almost instinctual. The police lied about the deaths in their custody of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station, of Roger Sylvester in Tottenham and of Ibrahima Sey in Ilford. They lied about Christopher Alder, who lay dying on the floor of a police station in Hull whilst officers mocked and racially abused him and they lied about Shiji Lapite, who they strangled and killed in Stoke Newington.
After over a decade as secretary of the United Families & Friends Campaign, the coalition of bereaved relatives of those who have died in custody, it’s hard for me to think of a single controversial death where the police haven’t lied repeatedly, particularly in the immediate aftermath when the press narrative is set for months to come.
But it’s not just the lies that breed scepticism and suspicion, it’s the deliberate smears that suggested that Jean Charles was acting suspiciously, that Roger was high on cocaine, that Shiji was a drug dealer, that Ibrahima was mad and had ‘superhuman strength.’ Each tried to blame the victim for causing their death and all were calculated attempts to pervert the course of justice, to block the possibility that police officers might be held to account for their decisions and actions. And although routine following a custody death, the smears are commonplace whenever there is controversy.
Back in 2006, when the police blundered into the home of two innocent brothers on the next street from mine in Forest Gate in a botched ‘anti-terror’ raid, shooting and wounding one man and then restricting the movement of a whole community for ten days, police press officers were soon busy feeding smears to the press. Lurid stories about suicide bomb vests and a ‘chemical bomb factory’ were scoffed at by my neighbours as children played football on the streets around the ‘crime scene’, but plenty of tabloid readers believed these lies, just as many still think that Jean Charles jumped the ticket barrier at Stockwell. When all else failed, the Met circulated rumours that a computer taken from the home of the two brothers contained child pornography – rumours angrily refuted by their lawyers who demanded evidence that was never provided.
The police’s management of news in the aftermath of the G20 protests followed the same pattern once it became clear there had been a fatality, although this time it was protesters rather than the dead man who were slandered (one wonders what the message would have been if a protester had died – presumably ‘violent anarchist’ with ‘superhuman strength’). The intent, however, was the same as ever – to undermine prospects of accountability of the police.
Whilst we might hope for justice for Ian Tomlinson’s family, the experiences of so many other families suggest the chances are very slim, but not as slim as an end to the police’s manipulative and unhealthy relationship with the British media. Anyone reading the bland, wilfully feeble ‘scrutiny’ by the Metropolitan Police Authority knows that the state has no stomach for reining in police fabrication of the truth.
Which leaves us with a sobering thought – that they almost got away with it, that there may have been no investigation, not even an inquest, but for the chance capture of video evidence. With little sign that the police intend on changing their heavy-handed tactics during the policing of protests, the work of the splendidly brave (and repeatedly harassed) activists from FITwatch may now need extending to our own team of camera operators, not simply to resist and oppose the surveillance on protesters but ready to record evidence of police brutality.
NOTE: The submission I wrote for Newham Monitoring Project in 2006 on selective leaks by the police to the press following the Forest Gate raids is available at the Statewatch website.