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Just the sort of place the BNP loves

Stoke is a town in decline and it is in declining towns that the far right is taking hold. Daniel Tr

‘‘They’re a bunch of robbin’ bastards and I’m not voting for any of them,” spits a passer-by in his fifties, in typically blunt Midlands fashion. Sheltering from the rain in the porch of a defunct Woolworths in Hanley, the main retail district of Stoke-on-Trent, anti-racism campaigners are doggedly trying to convince Saturday morning shoppers to vote in the imminent European elections. They are one of many local groups across the UK taking part in Hope Not Hate, a drive to keep the British National Party from gaining a seat – and several hundred thousand pounds of funding – in the European Parliament on 4 June. Thanks to the unfolding MPs’ expenses scandal in Westminster, the campaigners’ task has just got a lot harder.

“This has come at exactly the wrong moment for us – people are now saying they won’t vote at all,” says Olwen Hamer, chair of the North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, which is run by a handful of committed – and, right now, soaking wet – volunteers. Fringe parties such as the BNP benefit from a low turnout; in the West Midlands region, of which Stoke is a part, the far-right party needs only 11 per cent of the vote to win a seat. Voters, who are lukewarm towards European elections at the best of times, now express an unprecedented anger at the political system.

The BNP sees this as an opportunity to expand its support, with a campaign slogan inviting the electorate to “punish the pigs” (an irony, considering the well-documented track record of corruption among the party’s councillors). Its leader, Nick Griffin, may boast about the BNP being about to go mainstream, but in reality it remains tiny, having attracted fewer than 200,000 votes in the 2005 general election. Stoke, however, provides the strongest example of how the party, which is desperate to hide its roots in racist violence and appear respectable, has become adept at exploiting apathy. Nine BNP members sit on the city council; Griffin describes it as his party’s “jewel in the crown”.

While the media and politicians have had their eyes trained on Islamic extremism during the past decade, the far right has consolidated its position in local politics. Peter Hain, the former Labour minister and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, confirms this. “It’s crept up on everybody. It’s been very evident for a number of years that the BNP have got a serious strategy for establishing a platform for racist and fascist politics in suits. People in the mainstream parties, with the odd exception, have tended to be very complacent about that.”

Received wisdom says that the BNP does well in deprived former industrial areas, capitalising on the prejudices and frustration of the white working class. Stoke would appear to fit the bill. The city, a conurbation with a population of 250,000, was once supported by ceramics and coal mining (“pots and pits”, as it’s known locally). The pits were killed off in the 1980s – people here still talk about the miners’ strike as if it were yesterday – and the pots have been depleted by overseas competitors. Now, the landscape is dotted with the towers of derelict bottle kilns and factories. Sandy McLatchi, an unemployed pottery worker, tells me that racism is endemic in Stoke, mainly directed against the city’s 9,000 inhabitants of Asian descent, many of whom moved here in the 1960s. “The city is split and completely insular, each town is like a tribe of its own, and the culture lends itself very well to the BNP. They don’t like outsiders here.”

The local MP, Mark Fisher, is a rebellious Labour backbencher and former arts minister who has represented Stoke Central since 1983. When we meet, I ask if his constituency has been badly hit by the recession; he half-jokes that it has never recovered from the last one. Unemployment has been high since the 1980s and manufacturing jobs have been replaced by service industry jobs that come and go with the fluctuations of the financial markets.

But this tells only part of the story. I suggest voters in towns like Stoke are angry at the expenses scandal not because of the sums involved, but because it is yet more evidence that Westminster politicians think of themselves as a class apart, deserving of a lifestyle comparable to that of bankers and “wealth creators”. He agrees: “We’ve got a new class of politicians who are

careerists. MPs are younger now, they come straight from university to being a research assistant to becoming a candidate to becoming an MP. Everyone wants to be a minister.”

Meanwhile grass-roots support for mainstream parties has declined as ordinary people feel increasingly cut off from politics. This is particularly true in Labour’s case, where membership has plummeted from over 400,000 in 1997 to well under 200,000. The collapse is keenly felt in Stoke, which has been dominated by the Labour Party for decades. Effective opposition from the two other main parties is non-existent – the Conservative party branch is rumoured to have as few as 17 members.

Fisher points to two factors that have increased the rate of decay: Margaret Thatcher’s reform of local government, which transferred more power to Westminster, and New Labour’s enthusiasm for elected mayors, which he derides as a Blairite gimmick.

“I never felt that Blair had anything except the most superficial media-grabbing interest in elected mayors. He was never interested in local government; he didn’t understand the checks and balances that it requires.”

As a result, Stoke has a political culture that wouldn’t look out of place on The Wire. I wanted to speak to the mayor, Mark Meredith, but he has been arrested as part of a police investigation into alleged corruption and is on bail, along with Roger Ibbs, the former leader of the council’s Conservatives, and Mo Chaudry, a swimming pool owner who once appeared on Channel 4’s reality show The Secret Millionaire. On 8 May, the local government minister John Healey intervened with a series of measures intended to repair the “damaged” council.

It is in this context that the BNP has stepped in to fill a gap. Its activists have attracted votes in council wards neglected by other parties, in many cases by offering to cut residents’ lawns or collect their rubbish.

Alby Walker, the owner of a small joinery firm, and his wife, Ellie, are councillors in the Abbey Green ward of the city and candidates for the European Parliament. The BNP is hoping voters will find them the acceptable face of the far right. Sitting in their shared council office, calmly extolling the virtues of hard work, they could pass for run-of-the-mill Tory councillors, were it not for the wall plastered with far-right propaganda (“People like you – voting BNP”) and anti-Muslim headlines torn from the Sun and Daily Express newspapers.

Alby chooses his words carefully (“Oswald Mosley? Who’s that, Daniel?”), insisting that accusations of racism are slurs against the BNP. Ellie is less adept at staying on-message. Last year, interviewed on local television, she described herself as “racialist but not a racist”. Yet even Alby admits that when he first became a councillor, three years ago, “I didn’t fully understand the role. I’d just got the political ideology.”

The BNP’s ideology, he insists, is nationalist, rather than racist or fascist. But it is a nationalism based on race – only white people have the right to be British. Any non-whites, even if their families have lived here for generations, “can never be British, they are guests of Britain”.

The atmosphere in the wider community is more openly sinister. Mohammed Khan, a taxi driver whose parents migrated from Pakistan in the 1970s, tells me there are parts of the city he won’t visit for fear of being attacked. And the anti-racism campaigners I met speak of a pervasive atmosphere of intimidation. Black-suited bodyguards accompany BNP councillors on election platforms and fraternise with police at demonstrations. An often-used tactic for sowing disharmony is for a BNP activist to turn up at a pub and befriend regulars by talking about football, before moving on to untrue stories about preferential treatment for foreigners.

Most worrying is the party’s involvement with education. In May 2001, the BNP distributed a leaflet outside Longton High School, a Stoke comprehensive with a large contingent of Asian pupils, that spoke of a “race war” between children. Challenged by journalists from the local newspaper, Michael Coleman, the BNP’s branch secretary, acknowledged the leaflets were racist. He is now a councillor who sits as chair of the children and young people’s overview and scrutiny committee. Since June 2008, he has also been a governor at Longton High.

 

Ivan Hickman, secretary of the Stoke branch of the National Union of Teachers, confirms that the BNP has been making a determined effort to get its members elected to governing bodies of schools in order to look like a respectable political party. And a shortage of ordinary people willing to take up governors’ posts means that there are plenty of opportunities.

The evidence from Stoke suggests that the far right is being allowed to wrap its tendrils around the roots of democracy, helped by the collapse of public enthusiasm for its institutions. After 12 years in government, Labour can point to various attempts to promote “community cohesion”. But, says Fisher, these have been largely cosmetic. “We’ve done incredible things in

this city. We’ve got 90 new primary schools, a really good Sure Start programme. But that’s not community cohesion. We’ve been good on spending the money, but we’ve been bad at grass-roots politics and empowering people at

a local level.”

 

Rather than confront the problem, however, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, tells me curtly that her government “has always been building strong communities”. By contrast, her Conservative shadow, Paul Goodman, identifies a need to “focus more rigorously on the extremism that underlies violence”.

Nor is Blears’s view shared by some of her colleagues. Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP who has made a name for himself by fighting the BNP in his Essex constituency, Dagenham, is adamant that, despite the public’s anger at mainstream politics, the BNP need not profit – but only if politicians acknowledge their mistakes.

“Voters have material frustrations around housing and work and take offence that all political parties are preoccupied with Middle England,” he says. “But we are witnessing the biggest anti-fascist mobilisation ever seen – thousands of people are pitching in.

 

It’s about not resigning ourselves to accepting that they will win.”

Back in Hanley, the sky has cleared a little and the campaigners are attracting a steady stream of people. A youthful organiser of the city’s Gay Pride festival drops by to lend his support. “The BNP try and stop us marching,” he says. “But we take that with a pinch of salt – we don’t care what they think.” Politicians may have written off the city, but its people certainly haven’t. If the left is going to rebuild itself, Stoke-on-Trent wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Rough justice: who is looking out for the wrongfully convicted?

How internet sleuths - and secret courts - have changed the reporting of miscarriages of justice.

The letter from Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire was in poor English but its message was clear. The writer claimed he was serving a life sentence for a murder that he had not committed. What was also clear was that this was no ordinary case. Not only was the victim a respected author and photographer who lived in one of the most expensive streets in London, but his alleged killer was the grandson of Chairman Mao’s third-in-command and an informant for MI6 whose entire defence at his Old Bailey trial had been heard in secret, with reporters excluded from the court.

It took some weeks to unravel the story of Wang Yam, who was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow at his home in Hampstead in 2006. Wang had supposedly broken in to Chappelow’s letter box at his front gate to steal bank details and, according to the prosecution, probably killed him when confronted. The victim’s body was discovered several days later.

In his letter, Wang claimed that because the press had been barred from reporting his defence he had not received a fair trial. With my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor, I wrote a story about the case that appeared in the Guardian in January 2014. Shortly afterwards, a former close neighbour of Chappelow contacted us to say that, after Wang was already in custody, someone had tried to break into his letter box, too, and that the intruder, when discovered, had threatened to kill him and his family. In April, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that, as a result of this fresh evidence, the case was going back to the Court of Appeal. It is now expected to be heard soon.

Even though no murder trial had ever been heard in such secrecy at the Old Bailey before or since, the media largely ignored the story. Tales of alleged miscarriage of justice don’t make many waves these days.

As it happens, Wang Yam’s referral to the Appeal Court came just as a large book entitled The Nicholas Cases arrived in my mail. It is by Bob Woffinden and the slightly obscure title is a reference to St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus, who in early Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted. And, boy, do they need a saint these days. The author takes ten cases, introduces us to the accused, tells their stories and shares the frustration of the convicted men and women as well as their lawyers and families.

Some of the cases may be familiar. Jonathan King, the former singer and music entrepreneur, was sentenced to seven years in 2001 for sexual offences against boys aged 14 and 15. What is less well known is that he was convicted not of offences relating to his original arrest, but of others that came to light as a result of the media publicity surrounding his case. Another case is that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in the Lake District in August 1997 (the media named it the “Lady in the Lake trial”). Park was convicted in January 2005. He hanged himself in prison and in despair in January 2010.

Other cases, such as that of Emma Bates, received less press coverage. In 2009 Bates was convicted of the murder of her violent and abusive ex-partner Wayne Hill in Birmingham. She killed Hill with a single stab wound in a confrontation at her home, and it is hard, reading her story, to understand why she is now serving a minimum of 15 years. Woffinden believes that all ten suspects should not have been convicted but he tells their stories in enough detail for one to understand why they were. Each tale unfolds like an intriguing television drama, with our judgements and preconceptions
of innocence or guilt tugged both ways.

Woffinden has ploughed an increasingly lonely furrow on the subject, following in the footsteps of two other campaigning authors. The first was Ludovic Kennedy, whose book 10 Rillington Place, published in 1961, exposed the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans. The second was Paul Foot, who campaigned relentlessly in Private Eye, the Daily Mirror and in books on many cases, including that of the Bridgewater Four, convicted of the murder of a newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater, in 1978. Woffinden produced a volume called Miscarriages of Justice
in 1987, and in 2015 he published Bad Show, in which he suggests that Major Charles Ingram, convicted of rigging the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by placing allies in the audience who coughed strategically, was innocent.

What is striking about Woffinden’s latest volume, however, is his criticism of the media on three counts. “It is not merely that the media fails to draw attention to wrongful convictions when they occur; it is not just that trials leading to these injustices are misleadingly reported; it is that, in some instances, the media itself has played a key role in bringing about the wrongful conviction,” he writes.

***

For over two centuries, the media have been crucial to both freeing and convicting innocent suspects in murder cases. In 1815 Eliza Fenning, a household cook, appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in their steak and dumplings. It was suggested that she had done so after being scolded for consorting with young male apprentices.

She protested her innocence and a radical writer, William Hone, took up her case, visited her in Newgate Prison and launched a newspaper, the Traveller, to fight for her release. It probably did no harm to her cause that she was young and beautiful; the artist Robert Cruikshank drew her reading the Bible in her cell. It was all to no avail: Fenning was hanged. And yet, ever since, writers and journalists have taken up such cases.

Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned in the Daily Telegraph for George Edalji, ­convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse in Staffordshire in 1903. Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, served three years’ hard labour but was eventually pardoned and concern about his conviction led partly to the creation in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeal. (Julian Barnes’s book Arthur & George is based on the case.)

Conan Doyle, too, was active in the campaign to prove the innocence of Oscar Slater, a German Jew convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly single woman. Class and anti-Jewish prejudice clearly played a part in the police investigation, and the initial press coverage of the campaign to free him was dismissive. “Efforts most harmful and ill-advised are being made to work up popular feeling and to receive signatures with the object of obtaining a reprieve,” the Scotsman sniffed. “However amiable may be the sentiments that may have prompted some of those who have taken part in the movement, it is one that cannot be otherwise than mischievous and futile.” It took nearly two decades to prove Slater’s innocence. Scottish journalists played an important part in keeping the story alive.

Yet for many years there remained the feeling that such miscarriages of justice were very few. Those who sought to question convictions in contentious cases were often mocked, as was the case when the earliest doubts were expressed about the guilt of the Birmingham Six. “Loony MP backs bomb gang” was the headline in the Sun when the Labour politician and journalist Chris Mullin challenged their conviction. But with the vindication of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and suspects in other so-called “Irish cases”, there was finally a recognition that something was very rotten in the justice system.

There followed a flowering of investigations into dubious cases. In 1982, the BBC launched the TV series Rough Justice, which carried out investigations over the next quarter-century. Some of its journalists went on to found Trial and Error, which did the same for Channel 4 from 1993 to 1999. Concerns about the extent of such cases led to the formation in 1997 of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has since referred 629 cases back to the Court of Appeal, 414 of which had been successful; a further 689 cases are under review. But both Rough Justice and Trial and Error were discontinued, victims of media austerity.

Investigations into such cases take time and money. With broadcasters and news­papers forced to tighten their belt, there is little appetite for researching complex claims that may lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the introduction in 2013 of new rules affecting funds for criminal cases has sharply reduced access to legal aid lawyers. Lawyers also suffer from the arcane effects of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, with some solicitors still unsure about what can be released to the media.

There has been a change in the political climate, too. Tony Blair encapsulated this in 2002 when he said: “It is perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished.” The subtext to this is that we shouldn’t be too soft-hearted with every plea of innocence. This attitude is reflected in the way that even those who are eventually cleared on overwhelming evidence are treated.

Previously, victims of miscarriages of justice were compensated financially for their lost years. No longer. Victor Nealon, a former postman, was convicted of attempted rape in 1996 and served 17 years – ten years longer than his recommended tariff, because he continued to protest his innocence. In 2013, after new DNA evidence from the clothes of the assault victim pointed to “an unknown male” as the one responsible for the crime, he was freed with just £46 in his pocket. The Ministry of Justice has declined to compensate Nealon financially because, under the new rules, his innocence has to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – that is to say, someone else has to be convicted of the crime. It is an absurd state of affairs.

***

The internet – social media in particular – has given platforms and publicity to those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Yet, as Woffinden points out, the web has also had a negative effect, because there are now hundreds of sites dedicated to claims of miscarriages of justice. “The whole history of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the postwar era was based on the ‘top of the pile’ principle,” he argues. “A case reached the top of the pile. It was focused on; it was rectified. Another case then took its place at the top of the pile. Now there are far too many cases jostling for attention, with the result that no case gets adequate attention. As the newspapers’ ability to campaign on these issues has been weakened, so they are less inclined to publish stories that they think aren’t going anywhere.”

It is also much harder for journalists to meet people who claim to be victims. When I wanted to visit Kevin Lane, who has long protested his innocence of the 1994 murder of Robert Magill, shot in a hitman killing in Hertfordshire, it took months before officials granted permission. I was accompanied by a Home Office official and our entire interview at Frankland Prison in County Durham was tape-recorded.

Wang Yam, the MI6 informant, was told at Whitemoor after his story first appeared in the Guardian that he was not allowed to correspond with us again, though the Ministry of Justice claims this is now no longer the case. In the United States, a prisoner who wants to contact a journalist has an automatic right to do so, making investigative reporting much easier.

What about the Innocence Project? This US organisation was founded in 1992 and harnessed the energy of law students to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction. For a while, the idea flourished in Britain, too; Bristol University launched a version in 2004. However, such projects now struggle to overcome the same hurdles of access and resources as the media.

Not everyone who claims to be innocent is telling the truth, especially if the crime is especially heinous. One case which received much publicity was that of Simon Hall, who was convicted in 2003 of the horrific murder of Joan Albert, aged 79. It was taken up by Rough Justice after an active campaign on Hall’s behalf but then, in 2013, he told prison officials that he was guilty. In doing so, he gravely undermined the claims of many of the genuinely innocent. He hanged himself in prison the following year. As the former armed robber Noel “Razor” Smith notes in his wry poem “The Old Lags”, prison is full of people who claim they were wrongly convicted:

Yeah, I been stitched right up

It’s funny you should ask

I’m here for what I didn’t do

I didn’t wear a mask!

But there is little editorial outrage about a murder trial being held in secret and scant concern that so many dubious convictions slip by, unreported for reasons of economy, indifference or fashion. Contrast those sil­ences about the law with the apoplectic response to the Supreme Court decision last year to uphold an injunction against the Sun on Sunday reporting the names of the “celebrity threesome”. The Sun called it “the day free speech drowned” and quoted the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the decision as “a legalistic hijack of our liberty”. The Daily Mail informed readers soberly: “Supreme Court judges yesterday declared that people in England and Wales have no right to know about the sex lives of celebrities.” As if. All that was missing was Tony Hancock: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

***

Where now for wrongful convictions? Louise Shorter, a former producer on Rough Justice, sees a glimmer of hope. She now works for Inside Justice, the investigative unit attached to the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, that was set up in 2010 to investigate wrongful convictions. She acknowledges the current difficulties: “Unravelling a miscarriage of justice case can take a decade or more. Television wants a beginning, middle and end to any story and wants it now, and that’s hard to achieve when the criminal justice wheels turn so very slowly.”

Yet Shorter says that her phone has been ringing off the hook following two successful American ventures: the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In September, she presented the two-part BBC documentary Conviction: Murder at the Station, in which she investigated the case of Roger Kearney, who protests his innocence of the murder of his lover Paula Poolton. Her body was found in her car at Southampton train station in 2008. “The media finally latched on to what the public has known for years: real-life whodunnits – or did-they-do-its – always have been and remain immensely popular,” Shorter says.

As Wang Yam awaits his appeal hearing and hundreds of others hope that their cases are heard, let us hope that she is right and that we have not returned to the days when only a “loony MP” or the “mischievous and futile” could challenge the law. 

“We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain” by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit