British justice's shaky history

The quashing of Barry George's conviction for the murder of Jill Dando puts the spotlight back on th

Barry George's success in winning his appeal against conviction for the murder of Jill Dando provides a timely reminder about the reality of British 'justice'.

George was famously convicted in 2001 for the murder of BBC presenter Jill Dando.

The case was high profile with the conviction carrying all the classic ingredients for a miscarriage of justice.

A well-known victim and massive media interest generating pressure on the police to come up with a suspect.

George cut a sad figure. Portrayed as a loner with learning difficulties he hardly fitted the profile of what in the early stages was reported to be a professional killer. Despite the unlikelihood of George having done the murder he was convicted and sentenced to life.

Prior to the recent appeal court hearing there was an extraordinary intervention by Dando's former fellow Crimewatch presenter Nick Ross who wrote to the appeal court judges insisting that the "judicial process got the right man".

Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips rebuked the action saying that justice is administered in public and that any submissions should be made in court through the lawyers conducting the process.

The Ross intervention once again underlined the contrariness of the media in miscarriages of justice down the years.

In cases like the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, the media initially played a significant role in fanning the lynch mob-style atmosphere that resulted in the convictions.

Meanwhile they managed little scrutiny of the police investigation.

Yet later, certain parts of the media played crucial roles in freeing those wrongly convicted. The World in Action team who did the docudrama Who Bombed Birmingham, Chris Mullin and journalists on the Independent and Guardian all played crucial roles.

For a time miscarriages of justice were flavour of the month. Programmes like the BBC's Rough Justice and Channel 4 's Trial and Error took up cases that often went on to the appeal court.

In the mid 1990s the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) was set up to deal with alleged miscarriages of justice, created on the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (RCCJ) - established in 1991 following the successful appeal of the Birmingham Six.

Sadly, many in the media and political sphere seemed to think the CCRC's establishment solved the problem of miscarriages even though a steady stream of innocent victims continued to make their way through the front doors of the Court of Appeal.

After the Birmingham Six came the Bridgewater Four, the East Ham Two, the Cardiff Three, Judy Ward, Stefan Kisko and Frank Johnson to name but a few.

Notably some of the people recently cleared have served much longer sentences - in the realms of 25 and 26 years - suggesting that it is more a case of justice delayed.

The reality is that there are probably far more miscarriage of justice victims in prison now than ever before. The prison population is more than 80,000. Campaigners have pointed out that if only 1 per cent of that number are unsafe convictions then at least 800 people now in prison could be innocent.

The CCRC does a comprehensive job but it is a slow process and the body is under resourced. Since it began work in 1997, the CCRC has referred 376 cases to the Court of Appeal. Some 236 convictions have been quashed and 102 upheld. The CCRC receive three or four new applications on each working day.

Despite publicity over recent years as to the plight of miscarriage victims, the aftercare and support remains piecemeal. It's almost as if the system wishes to forget they ever existed.

Yet the victims of miscarriages of justice need lots of support if they are ever to get their lives back together again.

Dr Adrian Grounds reported the Birmingham Six had suffered "irreversible psychological damage," similar to the trauma suffered by people who had been in serious car crashes. Few ever work again.

Recently, Jimmy Robinson, who was one of four men wrongly convicted for the murder of paperboy Carl Bridgewater died. He was 73. Released in 1997 after more than 20 years in prison Jimmy had struggled to get his life together again. He had some success but the compensation he received never made up for those lost years.

Dealing with the every day problems of life become traumatic for people who have spent years in prison fighting the system. One miscarriage of justice victim once told me he could deal with all the Home Office could throw at him but not with disputes in his own family.

Miscarriages of justice remain a massive problem for the criminal justice system and society as a whole. The plight of Barry George has briefly brought the issue back into the headlines.

There needs to be more resourcing provided to the CCRC so that it can deal with cases more rapidly.

There also needs to be more attention paid to the aftercare of the victims once they are released from prison.

Finally, it should be remembered that a person convicted of a crime that they did not commit is as much a victim as the old lady mugged on the street.

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.