The subtle art of smearing the dead

So, there’s one thing that’s been bugging me since Yates tried to put the lid on the phone hacking scandal in July 2009 – the act which has now finally bitten him in the arse so hard that he lost his job. I wondered what made the police so averse to picking a fight with News International. The generally accepted explanation is a combination of the carrot of a cushy column in retirement and the stick of them pursuing you and publishing every bit of dirt they can find.

The latter incentive also works at the institutional level and has long been one of the primary motivating factors in British public life, for the police as well as all sorts of other players. Much as I thought it was common knowledge that was how things worked, it’s nice to see the Munchkins of Westminster village finally admit it to the world, throw off their shackles and dance their little dance of victory because no-one is going to listen to evil press barons any more. Come to think of it, that carrot incentive has been quite good to politicians as well over the years, hasn’t it David Blunkett? Of course it now appears that individual cops have also been on an informant retainer for the Murdoch press, which no doubt also focussed minds vis a vis which hands to not bite.

Anyway, it occurred to me in 2009 – fresh from being roughed up and threatened with death by the cops at the G20, and fuming about the death of Ian Tomlinson – that there was another, more dubious reason why the Met was no way going to take a proper look at News International when they could just lock up Clive Goodman and Glen Mulcaire, stuff the 11,000 pages of evidence in a bin bag and get back to the important business of chasing brown men with beards and beating up hippies. Aside from being a fanatical champion of any kneejerk law-and-order measure ACPO feel like demanding from politicians, the News International papers are also the organ of choice for police PR people trying to smear the reputations of people the police have killed.

I’m not the only person to notice this. Alex has blogged about it, and Merrick drew the link today between the Met, the hacking scandal and the lies they told after they killed Tomlinson. The News of the World carried the exclusive smear suggesting that Jean Charles de Menezes was high on cocaine when he died, and I seem to remember they also had a story about Tomlinson being alcoholic the Sunday after the video of him being attacked by PC Simon Harwood was released (I’d like to dig out some links, but Google results for NOTW are clogged up with the phone hacking scandal). Alex also points to the Forest Gate raid, where the innocent man shot by police was smeared as a paedophile with an exclusive in….you’ve guessed it – the News of the World. And look – as I was writing this I just thought I’d check to see if I could find find something on Harry Stanley – shot by the Met for carrying a chair leg, and here is Tim Ireland on the case with another NOTW smear against a dead man. For my money, this is worse than hacking Milly Dowler’s phone. The police kill people, members of the public. Then police staff, paid with public money, plant stories in the Murdoch press – either outright lies or twisting the truth – blaming those people for their deaths at the hands of the police.

I wouldn’t want to give an opinion on how formal this sordid little ‘arrangement’ is, and police briefing obviously goes wider than the Murdoch press, but there’s certainly a pattern emerging here. I am past being surprised by the depths to which the cops or News International will stoop, but it’s worth mentioning that this state of affairs wouldn’t necessarily need to involve the parties doing anything as vulgar as spelling out to each other that the cops have blood on their hands and need to quickly put out some lies to deflect some of the justified public anger. All that needs to happen is a strategic leak of ‘operational details’ on the understanding that the ensuing story will have a certain slant. The filth get their story, and the scum get theirs. You know what? I think flogging really might be too good for them.

Anyway, I’ve been stewing over this little theory of mine for about two years, so why share it now? It was actually triggered by listening to Billy Bragg’s new song about the Liverpool boycott of the Sun after their coverage of Hillsborough. This is a shocking episode, even by Murdoch’s disgusting record. What did the Sun do, after police negligence resulted in the death of 96 Liverpool fans? Why, they smeared the victims of course. I was only nine when this happened, so I wasn’t so familiar with the details, but Wikipedia has a good section on it, which I’d now like to share. These quotes outline the basics:

The newspaper cited the words of unnamed police sources and a Conservative MP for information relating to the alleged incidents….It obviously wasn’t a silly mistake; nor was it a simple oversight…It was a ‘classic smear’…The story claimed that “drunken Liverpool fans viciously attacked rescue workers as they tried to revive victims” and “police officers, firemen and ambulance crew were punched, kicked and urinated upon”. A quotation, attributed to an unnamed policeman, claimed a dead girl had been “abused”, and that Liverpool fans were “openly urinating on us and the bodies of the dead”.

Note that the story also claimed that the Liverpool fans beat up police who were giving the kiss of life to the injured. Actually the police prevented fans from taking the wounded to ambulances (this is almost identical to Ian Tomlinson who attended to by protesters and a photographer, with the police impeding them; the police then press released that they had tended him under a hail of projectiles from the crowd). It’s pretty obvious that once the extent of police culpability over Hillsborough began to be apparent, they (possibly with the involvement of an unnamed Tory MP) realised that something had to be done to take the heat off them, and got on the phone to Kelvin McKenzie at the Sun. I guess this has been going on for a long time

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