Lord Denning was perhaps the most beloved judge of the 20th century. He even inspired a Lord Denning Appreciation Society. But I and many others found something sinister behind his charming Hampshire accent. We noticed that his professed concern for the victims of injustice never extended to the victims of police fit-ups.
In 1980, he heard an appeal by the Birmingham Six, the men falsely convicted for the IRA’s massacre of drinkers in two Birmingham pubs in November 1974. The six were suing the police for damages for the beatings they said they had received. Although it was not a full appeal, Denning understood the implications, and rejected the claim:
‘Just consider the course of events if their action were to proceed to trial … If the six men failed it would mean that much time and money and worry would have been expended by many people to no good purpose. If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. … That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, “It cannot be right that these actions should go any further.’
Denning was prepared to refuse to hear a case from men, who later turned out to be innocent, rather than entertain the possibility that the police may lie. (His words were all the more disgraceful, because Denning believed convicted murderers should a hang — a punishment from which, somewhat notoriously, the innocent dead have no appeal.)
It is easy to knock him, but how many of us still fall into Denning’s way of thinking? My initial, almost instinctive, reaction to the Mitchell affair was that we could trust the police to investigate the scandal. But why should we? The potential damage to the police of exposing the full story is enormous. We have prima facie evidence that someone — how to put this politely? — ‘exaggerated’ or ‘misremembered’ at least parts of the case against Mitchell. The Downing Street police log says there were eyewitnesses who might support officers’ claims that Mitchell called them ‘plebs’. These simple tourists were ‘visibly shocked’ by Mitchell’s outburst, apparently. The CCTV footage Michael Crick obtained shows just one man walking past the Downing Street gates at the time — and he doesn’t seem shocked or agitated in any way. Then there was the serving police officer, who claimed to be an eyewitness, but was in fact nothing of the sort. As Crick puts it:
‘With Mitchell’s resignation, the Police Federation was triumphant and the press were jubilant. But in fact the Tory chief whip had been brought down on the say-so of a police force who may have leaked their own log, and on evidence which was only corroborated by a rather strange email from a man who claimed to be an eye witness, who later told us he was not there.’
If half the suspicions that police officers, who hate the government’s cuts, destroyed a chief whip’s career without due cause are true, the vista is indeed ‘appalling’. The prospect it raises can fit into a sentence. If they can frame a chief whip, they can frame anyone. And even those who have clung on to Denning’s naïve faith, despite the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, De Menezes and Hillsborough, will have to rethink everything they thought they knew.