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Why was it so hard for our justice system to admit that it had imprisoned an innocent person for 16 years? | rowan moore

HUgh Callaghan, a former welder, fan of Aston Villa football club, born in Ardoyne, Belfast, died late last month aged 93. A man who loved music, he sang for his nurses until shortly before his last heart attack. She was a sweet and generous person that I had the chance to meet. He had every right to lead a quiet life, but he spent 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit: along with other members of the Birmingham Six, as they were called, he was sentenced wrongly for killing 21 people in the 1974 bombings of two pubs in Birmingham.

One of the many shocking aspects of the case was the determination of the British establishment – the law, the police, the politicians, the media – to uphold the men’s guilt and keep them in prison. It would be ‘a dreadful sight’, Master of the Rolls Lord Denning said in 1980, if the police were found guilty of violence, threats and perjury – so much so that it would be best if the truth were suppressed . The question at the moment is whether, in a time of mounting reports of police misconduct, miscarriages and similar deletions could be happening now.

At the time of the bombings, the British police were generally seen as reliable, decent and fair, reassuring characters in their old-fashioned helmets, unarmed, portrayed in popular television series such as Dixon of Dock Green And Z-Cars as forces weighted for good. It was hardly comprehensible to much of the public that they could act as they did in the cases of the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four, who were also wrongly convicted of a bombing after they were beaten by the police.

For Denning and others, it was essential that this perception be maintained at all costs. Prior to their final acquittal, the six had previous appeals dismissed by the judges who appeared, such as the Independent said so in 1988, for “finding the prospect of police malfeasance too frightening to contemplate”. According to Irish cabinet documents from 1989, the UK Home Office indicated that its main concerns about the possible overturning of the convictions were “to avoid scandal” and “problems with the credibility of police evidence at hearings “.

Newspapers played a vigorous role, referring to the six as “the suicide bombers” even before they were first convicted. “We would have been tempted,” said the Sun in 1988, “to put them on years ago.” He also made headlines – “Loony MP backs bomb gang” – to disparage Chris Mullin, the journalist and politician whose persistent reporting ultimately led to the release of the six.

No police officer has ever been convicted for their brutal assaults, and the slander and innuendo continued even after the men were exonerated. THE Sunday Telegraph and the Sun, using police officers discredited in the case as sources, went on to allege their guilt – for which, following legal action by the six, they were forced to print an apology. In 1998, a former Tory MP, David Evans, had to pay damages for defamation, after he told a school in his constituency that the men had committed the crime.

It’s likely, as a result of this misinformation, that some people have a lingering sense that the six were somehow a little culpable. “You are one of the bad boys,” a neighbor told Callaghan, when he moved into the east London house where he spent the last years of his life. “Controversial,” said one parent, when I told him I met Callaghan last year. He wasn’t bad or controversial – even if the treatment others had of him was.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four cases and notorious events such as the Hillsborough disaster, the police have lost some of their public esteem. It has become easier to believe they might do wrong, while procedures for such things as questioning suspects have been tightened, to prevent coerced confessions.

But they continue to act with something close to impunity. Despite the widespread horror of the murder of Sarah Everard by serving officer Wayne Couzens, and revelations about the harboring of rapists and sexual assaulters within the force, and other stories of misogyny and misconduct , there are still not many signs of real responsibility.

Instead, empowered by new laws, police have felt free to (for example) arrest Night Stars volunteers trying to protect women from sexual harassment in central London, on the grounds that alarms of rape they distribute could be used to frighten the horses during the coronation. Or, at the time of the coronation, to arrest and detain peaceful demonstrators. Sections of the media encourage them: Daily mail described the volunteers, without any evidence, as “militant activists” bent on a “plot” to disrupt the ceremonies.

One of the lessons of the Birmingham Six case is that unlimited police power leads to abuse. If the media encourage them rather than hold them to account, and if politicians and the courts seek to excuse them, they only get worse. True justice for the victims of atrocities and the safety of the British public – as could have been achieved by the conviction of the real perpetrators of the Birmingham bombing – are betrayed.

Mullin once said that something like the wrongful conviction of the Birmingham Six could not happen again, due to changes to the rules around gathering evidence. It is no doubt true that such outrages could not take place in exactly the same way. But, in different ways, they sure can.

Rowan Moore is an Observer columnist

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