False Witness

Justice is impossible if we can’t trust the police to tell the truth.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 12th April 2011.

“From the information I had, that is what I believed happened to me.”(1) So Simon Harwood, the police officer who pushed Ian Tomlinson to the ground at the G20 protests two years ago, told the inquest into his death. The information he had led him to believe, two weeks after the event, that he fell to the floor, lost his baton, received a blow to the head and was involved in violent and dangerous confrontations. Last week he admitted that, though he had made these claims in a signed statement, none of it happened. So what was this information? Who gave it to him? Had he been brainwashed?

We have yet to hear John Yates’s explanations for the ever-widening gulf between what he told parliament and what appears to have happened in the News of the World phone-hacking case, but they will doubtless be just as persuasive. Yates is acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police. He told a parliamentary committee that the police knew of only 10 or 12 people whose voicemail had been intercepted; that there was no evidence that MPs’ phones had been hacked; that the Crown Prosecution Service had given the police “unequivocal” advice that the paper had committed an offence only if it picked up messages before its victims did; that the police had contacted everyone targeted by the paper; and that the police had ensured that the phone companies had warned all the suspected victims(2,3). It appears that none of this is true.

A Scotland Yard briefing paper shows that “a vast number” of people had their phones hacked, including at least eight MPs. The director of public prosecutions has testified that the claims Yates made about CPS advice are false. There are plenty of victims who have not been contacted by the police, and the phone companies say that the police didn’t ask them to contact their customers(4,5,6).

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. It is hard to think of a case of alleged police misconduct which has not been surrounded by police misstatements. Harwood’s claims are the latest of the untrue stories issued by the Met about the events surrounding Tomlinson’s death. They claimed, for example, that officers tried to resuscitate him and called an ambulance while a screaming mob pelted them with bottles. In reality, demonstrators helped him and called an ambulance, and there was no hail of bottles(7,8).

After Jean Charles de Menezes was shot by the Met, the then commissioner (the head of the force), Sir Ian Blair, claimed that De Menezes “was challenged and refused to obey police instructions”(9). A statement by the police claimed that his clothing and behaviour gave grounds for suspicion(10). An account that De Menezes’ relatives believe originated with the police, and found its way into most newspapers, suggests that he was wearing a heavy jacket, that he fled from the officers when he was challenged and that he vaulted over the ticket barrier into Stockwell underground station(11). None of this is true. Similarly misleading stories surrounded the killings of Kevin Gately, Blair Peach, Richard O’Brien, Shiji Lapite, Roger Sylvester, Harry Stanley, Mikey Powell and other people killed by officers(12). The problem appears systemic and widespread: we can’t trust the police to tell the truth.

The issue is not confined to killings. Here’s a story that has received less attention, but involves a chain of alleged falsehoods that almost deprived an innocent man of his liberty.

In August 2008 Michael Doherty, who lives in Hillingdon, discovered a long series of messages exchanged by his 13-year-old daughter with someone who appeared as if he might be grooming her. The messages were sexually explicit. At one point the person proposed staging a kidnap and whisking her away. Doherty went to the police. He presented them with an 86-page dossier. When he wasn’t satisfied with the action being taken, he phoned Hillingdon police station five times to try to speak to a senior officer to complain, and to find out why, in his view, the investigation seemed to have stalled. Then a series of remarkable things happened.

Two plainclothes officers arrived at Doherty’s house at seven in the morning, when he was feeding his baby, to arrest him(13). Among other charges, the police claimed that he had been harassing the commander’s secretary. She had produced a witness statement in which, she said, he had phoned ten times in two days, that he was “raging”, “abusive”, “rude and aggressive”(14). Doherty offered to get dressed and then present himself at the station – but the officers, after threatening to smash down the door, handcuffed him and dragged him out of the house in his dressing gown.

At the same time the police dropped the grooming investigation. They hadn’t looked at his daughter’s computer. A note by a detective inspector at the Hillingdon station later justified this decision by maintaining that “there is no evidence of a crime capable of proof”. Doherty believes that this conclusion could not be supported without examining the computer; the police maintain that they have established that the correspondent was only 15, had met Doherty’s daughter, and was who he said he was(15).

Doherty had proof that the calls he had made were not rude, abusive, raging or aggressive: he had recorded them. I have listened to the recordings: he remains patient and polite – remarkably controlled for someone faced with alleged police indifference to what was happening to his daughter(16). The police failed to pass these recordings to the Crown Prosecution Service, so off to court he went. There, though she had signed a legal witness statement, the secretary admitted that her recollection of the calls was hazy, and he was acquitted(17); but had he not recorded them, and meticulously documented everything else that happened, he might have been convicted.

Having failed to interest the crown prosecutors, Michael Doherty is about to launch a private prosecution for alleged perjury. It’s the last hope he has of holding anyone to account.

Justice is impossible if we cannot trust police forces to tell the truth. The remedy I’m about to propose should not be difficult for any government to adopt. It offers, I think, the only chance we have of addressing what seems to be an endemic problem: anyone who works for the police and is found to have made false statements – to the prosecution, the defence, the courts, parliament, public inquiries or the media – should be sacked. No excuses, no mitigation, no delays. It sounds harsh; it’s not nearly as harsh as a system in which the police malign both the living and the dead, and use the law against innocent people in order to protect themselves.



1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/05/ian-tomlinson-policeman-push

2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/apr/05/phone-hacking-yates-evidence-parliament

3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/sep/06/john-yates-theresa-may-phone-hacking

4. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/05/phone-hacking-john-yates-police

5. http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/sep/10/phone-hacking-victims-list

6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/07/phone-hacking-john-yates-evidence

7. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2009/04/02/man-dies-in-g20-protests-115875-21247134/

8. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/07/ian-tomlinson-last-words-revealed

9. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4706787.stm

10. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4478188.stm

11. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/aug/21/july7.uksecurity

12. See for example http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/aug/18/media.pressandpublishing

13. I watched the footage Doherty took of this arrest on 11th April 2011.

14. Witness statement by Tracey Murphy, 19.09.08

15. I spent much of yesterday trying to get a statement out of the Metropolitan Police, without success (calls made from 10.14 until 17.00). Eventually I heard the police version of events from my conversation with staff at the IPCC.

16. I listened to the recordings on 11th April 2011.

17. R v Doherty, 18th May 2009. Transcript of hearing.