Paul Foot

Confessions and repressions

(May 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.98, May 1987, p.22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE TRIAL of the Broadwater Farm Six for the killing of PC Blakelock seemed to end in a “draw”. Three defendants were unanimously found guilty of murder. Three others walked free from the court. But the draw was, in reality, an outright win for the police. The three juveniles were acquitted on the direction of the judge who said that the confessions which had put them in the dock in the first place were “repressive” for people under age. Since there was no other evidence against them, he ruled, they could not be found guilty.

Exactly the same conditions applied to the three older men in the dock. Statements had been extracted from them in the harshest possible conditions – after many hours of intense interrogation in police cells, where none of the three had any access to lawyers or to friends. These statements were the only evidence that the three had had anything to do with the killing of PC Blakelock. They were not even confessions.

Indeed, Winston Silcott, the man who gut the brunt of the abuse from the press before, during and after the trial, specifically had not confessed, claiming that there could not be any witnesses against him. This claim, the prosecution alleged, was clear proof of his complicity in the murder!

Confessions have been much in the news lately. They were the main evidence against the six men convicted of planting the IRA bombs in Birmingham pubs in 1974; against the four people convicted of the bombing of pubs in Guildford and Woolwich in the same year; and of the four men convicted of the killing of newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater in 1978.

The Broadwater Farm case was worse than all of these. At least, in the Birmingham case, an explosives test (recently discredited) had proved positive on two of the six men’s hands. At least, in the Guildford case, one of the defendants had apparently voluntarily, spilled out the names of the other people who later confessed. At least, in the Bridgewater case one confession led to another, and back to the first one again.

The importance of the Blakelock case is that police now know that if the press is on their side and if the crime is dramatic enough, they can get a conviction just by picking on anyone in the street and taking notes of a conversation which can be construed as a confession or a part-confession. It is the random nature of the arrests of all six people who allegedly “confessed” to the Blakelock killing which has the most chilling consequences.

The power and confidence of the police has increased hugely since the case. Until the Blakelock case, a jury would have insisted on some corroboration before sentencing anyone effectively to life in prison. Now that a jury has so obliged the police, the police have responded with a renewed public relations campaign to take away the powers of the jury.

Even government ministers are being forced to admit that the staggering increase in crime is associated with unemployment and poverty. How else can they explain the impotence of their law and order campaigns; their doubling of the funds available to the forces of law and order; the huge increase in police manpower? Poverty, destitution, alienation have beaten all these hollow – and crime of every kind is soaring. When people at every level of society are taught to take care only of themselves, those at the bottom can only put it into practice by stealing or savaging their neighbours. One of the saddest aspects of the crime statistics is that the poor and lower middle class areas are always the ones most affected by burglaries, assaults and rapes.

When five or six million adult people in a population of some 40 million adults are struggling on the very rim of existence, utterly without hope, the people with-property get scared.

The greater their property, the more ill-gotten their gains, the more scared they become. They seek for their protection bodies of armed and powerful men who will keep the mob at bay. The more desperate the mob become, the more repressive is the power ranged against them.

This explains the recent popularity of uncorroborated confessions. It is quite a simple matter to put a stop to all the doubt about these confessions. Technology for tape-recording, and checking tape-recording is almost infallible. But such devices are unpopular with the authorities. They prefer to leave what they call “the criminal classes” at the mercy of human beings, who know that their role is to protect property. Better by far, therefore, to have police taking down confessions in their own notes, with no way of checking their accuracy.

As the old army saying has it: “An acquittal at a court martial is bad for discipline”. The same is increasingly true in what are laughably known as Courts of Justice.


Last updated on 20.12.2004