A killing joke?

The evidence of firearms officer AZ8.

Yesterday the news broke that an unnamed police firearms officer ("AZ8") who may have killed the barrister Mark Saunders had been removed from firearms duty after allegedly inserting song titles into his oral evidence at the coroner's inquest. It was also reported that the matter had been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

The alleged song titles have not been publicly disclosed, though the Guardian helpfully told us:

An examination of the transcript shows that evidence given by AZ8 contained a number of phrases which are also the titles of songs, including "Enough Is Enough" by Donna Summer, "Point of No Return" by Buzzcocks, "Line of Fire" by Journey, "Quiet Moments" by Chris de Burgh, "Kicking Myself" by As Tall As Lions and "Fuck My Old Boots" by the Membranes.

I was at Bar school with Mark Saunders and, although I did not know him, we had mutual friends. But for this blog post it does not – and should not – matter whether the person shot dead by the police was a barrister or a barman.

The sole issue is whether a police firearms officer was contriving his crucial oral evidence to an inquest so as to serve an ulterior purpose.

Why would it matter? Well, as sources "close to the Police Commissioner" said, it shows "insensitivity and lack of judgement". But it goes further than that. When being examined at any inquest or hearing, a witness should be addressing the question directly and not seeking to formulate his or her answers to serve ulterior purposes. Any contrivance is likely to be at the expense of the reliability of the evidence given.

So, is the suggestion true? Were song titles inserted into the sworn evidence?

It is, of course, a matter now for the IPCC. However, for those interested in following this investigation, the following information is available. First, the Metropolitan Police's statement, which was emailed to me:

A matter was brought to MPS attention during the Mark Saunders inquest in relation to evidence given by a firearms officer to the inquest. The issue was dealt with at the time by the officer's management who reprimanded him.

On 28 October 2010 the matter came to the attention of senior officers who felt this was insufficient. As a result the matter was referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission on the 29 October.

We have now been informed by the IPCC that they will manage an investigation by the Metropolitan Police Directorate of Professional Standards.

The MPS takes this matter extremely seriously as we expect the highest standards of all of our staff.

The officer has been removed from operational firearms duty.

And there is the IPCC statement:

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) received a referral from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) on Friday 29 October 2010 in relation to the evidence given by a firearms officer to the inquest into the death of Mark Saunders.

It is alleged that, while giving evidence under oath to the inquest on 27 September 2010, officer AZ8 deliberately inserted song titles into his verbal testimony.

The IPCC has now decided that it will manage an investigation by the MPS's Directorate of Professional Standards into the allegation. This means that an IPCC investigator will have direction and control of the investigation and IPCC Commissioner Tom Davies will have oversight of it.

The investigation will examine the officer's testimony, any impact that testimony may have had on the proceedings, the way in which the allegation was initially dealt with by one of his supervisors and whether or not any other police officers were involved.

But what did AZ8 actually say? Below is attached a PDF of the oral testimony of AZ8, which has been kindly released by the coroner.

Click here to see the full PDF.

Can the supposed "inserted song titles" all be simple coincidences, perhaps spotted by some busybody either within or external to the Metropolitan Police?

One would suppose that any substantial oral evidence would, if analysed, tend to include song titles. Verbal communication often contains clichés and figures of speech, and such words and phrases will tend also to crop up as song titles. Certain cultural memes do come to mind when trying to express any idea: the title of this blog post, for example, owes something to my interest in Alan Moore's writings. To invoke a meme or to utter a cliché – especially when under pressure of formal questioning – may not necessarily be either dishonest or distracting.

Or is this a matter of contrivance, rather than coincidence? Did the officer boast of his feat? Was it the result of some cynical dare between officers? Was this a horrific misapplication of "barrack-room humour"? (And only the most earnest reader would begrudge those involved in dangerous work a certain levity, but the time and place for it surely cannot include sworn testimony to a coroner's inquest.)

Was it really a joke at the expense of someone the firearms officer may have killed?

We simply do not know the answers to these and other questions, and it is not appropriate for us to anticipate the result of the IPCC investigation. Although there would appear to be information not in the public domain but available to the Metropolitan Police which rendered the initial reprimand an insufficient sanction, what that information could be – or even that it exists – is mere speculation.

But what can be safely said is this. If it is true that the oral evidence of this police firearms officer was being contrived so as to serve any ulterior motive, rather than being provided to assist a coroner's inquest, then not only should we be disgusted at the facts in this particular case, we should also be concerned that we cannot have full confidence in the testimony of firearms officers in inquests and other hearings. And that is a confidence we dearly need to have.


David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He blogs for the New Statesman on policy and legal matters. He has recently been appointed a judge for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging, for which he was shortlisted this year

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.