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Things the BBC didn't tell us about the Brixton riots - TelegraphThings the BBC didn't tell us about the Brixton riots
Radio 4's The Reunion is an unilluminating and biased perspective on the Brixton riots, writes Charles Moore.
The Brixton riots Photo: PA
By Charles Moore 7:06AM BST 28 Mar 2011 159 Comments
As cuts, and therefore riots, are once more in fashion, it is a good moment to remember the first really big London riots of modern times. They began in Brixton 30 years ago next week. The idea of The Reunion is explained by its title. People who took part in something are brought together to discuss it years later. Sue MacGregor conducts it with her usual professionalism, courtesy and almost complete inability to ask anything penetrating.
The Reunion's line-up to discuss Brixton offered five people Brian Paddick, then a police sergeant, later a controversial Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police; Darcus Howe, the black "thinker"; "Red" Ted Knight, who led Lambeth Council at the time; Alex Wheatle, now a novelist and then a young rioter; and Peter Bleksley, then a junior policeman caught up in the riots.
Their selection was a parody of BBC bias. We were not reminded that Knight declared, in the aftermath of the riots: "We want to break the Metropolitan Police." He was probably the hardest-Left of all the Labour leaders in London. Sue MacGregor said admiringly that he had been banned from public office for five years because he had refused to accept Tory cuts. That is a propaganda way of putting it. A more accurate one would be to say that he was banned because his council refused to perform its legal duty to set a budget, thereby making itself unable to function.
Howe and Wheatle, though both exhibiting considerable charm and wit, were also on the side of the rioters. (Wheatle briefly went to prison for crimes related to the events.) So, in effect, was Peter Bleksley. He told the programme that at the time he was a racist copper, but now he saw the error of his ways. Paddick is famous for his weedy views on policing: he thinks, as he told Miss MacGregor, that "keeping the peace is more important than enforcing the law", as if the one were almost the opposite of the other. So all five men were on the same side!
Who was missing? There were no women witnesses. A woman might have given an interesting account of the lawless neighbourhood where sexist young West Indian men, often dealing drugs, ruled the streets through intimidation. There were no shopkeepers the people with whom Mrs Thatcher, to much mockery, sympathised. One of them could have explained how they were looted, burnt out, and in some cases, assaulted. There were no policemen defending the force's actions (though Paddick inserted the odd, bleating qualification to the general tide of denunciation). And there were no ordinary white (or indeed, black) residents of Brixton present to describe the fear, crime and disorder that had come to the once-peaceful community because of poorly planned mass immigration.
Here are some things which the programme did not mention. It did not say that this was the first time Molotov cocktails were used by rioters in England. It did not tell us that it was also the first time that mobs attacked ambulances and fire engines. It did state that the riots began when police stopped to help a black man who had been stabbed; but it did not reveal that even Lord Scarman, the liberal judge who reported on the Brixton disturbances, found that the police were not to blame in any way for the fact that rioting then ensued.
It was left to Wheatle, speaking for his own side, to admit that "we wanted that confrontation. We saw fire: it's exhilarating." The fact that 300 police officers were injured and only 65 civilians was taken solely as evidence of police incompetence. Mightn't it also suggest that the brutality of the mob greatly exceeded that of the police?
As for the wider political situation, well, as usual with the BBC, that was all Thatcher's fault. Darcus Howe explained that she was "getting into Falklands mode" and spoiling for a fight, though how she could have been doing so almost exactly a year before she heard any news of the Argentine invasion of the islands is a mystery. It was darkly suggested by Knight and Howe that the fact that so many policemen quickly came in to assist their comrades in Brixton showed that there was a political plan to break the will of those who opposed government cuts. Actually, the riots revealed the opposite the lamentable unpreparedness of the authorities to deal with these matters. Riots spread across the country, almost unchecked.
People such as Knight, working flat out to break the elected government, were readier. In the month after the riots, Labour won the Greater London Council elections. Knight's hard Left on the GLC (though not Knight himself who, interestingly, had failed to be elected) immediately conducted a coup against the moderate Labour leader and put in lovely Ken Livingstone, who has been with us ever since. If your knowledge of the period were confined to this programme, you would assume that Mrs Thatcher and her police lackeys were forever discredited by their harshness over Brixton. It would come as a shock to discover that, two years later, she won the largest parliamentary majority since 1945.
The discussion of the aftermath was also unilluminating. It is certainly true that the police in those days were often prejudiced against black people and untrained in the efficient control of public disorder which is proving so important today. There is now greater professionalism. On the other hand, the effect of Brixton was to enshrine the pernicious idea that racial groups should have collective rights that set them apart from the rest of society. We are a more ghettoised country as a result.