Thursday, 2 April 2009


31/3/09, Tricycle.

1hr 10mins, no interval. The story of the deaths of four army recruits at Deepcut Barracks between 1994 and 2002, and the succession of (allegedly/deliberately) botched inquiries which leave many questions still unanswered, leading to suspicions of a cover-up. Written by Philip Ralph.

The case is still controversial, as witness this piece in the following day's Guardian:

The story is told in their own words by Des James and his wife, parents of Cheryl James, the second of the four recruits to die; by Frank Swann, a firearms expert the families of the dead soldiers retained, who rubbished suggestions that the soldiers' wounds were self-inflicted; a fellow recruit of Cheryl's, Carol Jones; Nick Blake QC, who conducted a review of the case for the MoD; and a journalist (this last, I take it, an invention of the playwright's, standing as he did for all journalists). Most of the dialogue, delivered straight to the audience, derived from interviews with the participants; Blake's came from his published report and the press conference at which he presented it.

A simple set, the James's living room, with a standard lamp in one corner downstage on which photos of the four were hung one by one; above it a "loft" stacked with boxes and papers, in which the James's at one point stashed away their daughter's things and the documents they had accumulated when fruitlessly seeking answers to why their daughter had died (it took the MoD three months to answer letters); the contents of the loft were brought down when the BBC programme Frontline Scotland began an investigation into the deaths and the James's agreed to co-operate.

We were at the side, and had to cope not only with the scaffolding that holds up the Trike's gallery and with the head of the man in front but with the lamp and the photographs blocking our view. It didn't stop it being a gripping show.

It was the case for the prosecution. Mark Lawson on the radio said it made him deeply angry. I'm not sure it made me angry: for that I would have had to be surprised, and the pattern of incompetence and official obfuscation seemed too wearily familiar. I'm also wary, because this wasn't a balanced presentation of the facts, and it deliberately set out to rubbish the one thing that could and should have been a balanced account, Nick Blake's report. And when all's said and done it's hard to focus a play like this, since so many things went wrong there's a danger of shot scattering everywhere to little effect.

But it kept us talking all the way home; and again next evening when we met S at Kafka's Monkey, so it probably achieved what it intended.

I came away with the following:

1 Deepcut was clearly a badly run establishment where rules were flouted (there was lots of drinking and sex), some recruits were bullied and the army failed in its duty of pastoral care to young people, some only 17, who for the most part were away from home for the first time. Once upon a time recruits did their training at regimental depots; presumably a central training regiment was established as the army grew smaller to save money, professionalise training and probably to create a "centre of excellence"; but I doubt it attracted the brightest and best of officers and NCOs.

2 The deaths remain unexplained and always will. Swann thought suicide was impossible in several of the cases, though given Deepcut's nature it can't be ruled out. It's also possible they were murder and that a serial killer (perhaps a former officer or NCO at the barracks) is still on the loose. Or there may have been more than one killer and perhaps one or two suicides. But unless someone confesses we will never know. The investigations by Surrey Police were, we were told, botched and perfunctory (were they intimidated by having to deal with the army?) and much of the physical evidence has been lost or destroyed.

3 Nick Blake's inquiry, whatever its merits or lack of them, failed to do the job it was intended to do and bring the whole affair to a close. This play implied (without ever stating) that it was part of a deliberate cover-up, commissioned as such by the MoD. I met Blake many years ago, and know of his work as a human rights lawyer. I don't believe for one second that he would have been party to a cover-up. I also read parts of his report when it was published and remember it seemed diligent and thorough. So why did it fail to convince? I imagine he would argue that he merely reflected the evidence, though some of that evidence was challenged in the play (for instance that Cheryl had made a previous suicide attempt -- according to her father she took five Panadol, told a schoolfriend, was whisked off to hospital by the school, drank lots of water and was fine: "End of story"). Was Blake perhaps too lawyerish, too literal, in his interpretation of the evidence, unable to see the wood for the trees? There is an interesting contrast here with Hutton in his inquiry into the death of David Kelly, who was if anything too liberal, to the point of one-sidedness, in his interpretation of the evidence, putting the worst possible construction on everything the BBC did and the best possible construction on everything the government did. Was crucial evidence withheld? We know some was: Frank Swann refused to co-operate with Blake because he was holding out for a full public inquiry with witnesses giving evidence under oath (that now looks like a mistake, as his character in the play admitted). Witnesses and the MoD may also have withheld information or simply lied. But appointing Blake, given his track record, looked like a brave move by the MoD, which could not be certain of what he would conclude; it doesn't look like part of a deliberate cover up.

4 In general, though the play implied a conspiracy, it's a difficult notion to accept. It would need to have begun early, to have involved the army, police, MoD and MPs and would surely by now have collapsed. I prefer cock-up, followed by partial and uncoordinated cover-up. Anxious not to have Deepcut's shortcomings revealed, the army hustled the police through a perfunctory investigation, perhaps deliberately "losing" some evidence, coaching witnesses and so on and reaching the most convenient conclusion (suicide). When Des James started asking awkward questions he was (successfully) stonewalled. When Frontline Scotland started investigating another suspicious death and discovered a pattern, the authorities felt moved to act but did so reluctantly and grudgingly. Surrey Police were told to review their investigations of the deaths but, though they issued a press release, full details of what they found have never been published. When there were complaints about Surrey's handling of the cases Devon & Cornwall were called in to review it: they were critical but, again, though they issued a press release their detailed findings remain confidential. (And press releases, as we know, can be spun and are sometimes a thoroughly misleading guide to the real contents of a substantial document.) Blake was then commissioned. Crucially, demands for a public inquiry were resisted, no doubt for good reasons and for bad: public inquiries are long-winded and costly; their outcome is hard to predict (though I'd have thought the outcome of Blake's review was equally unforecastable). And a select committee of MPs announced an investigation... though it turned out to be a general inquiry into army training, not an inquiry into the four deaths, much to the families' disgust (though what did they expect? A select committee is hopelessly ill-equipped to investigate what might be serious crimes; its job is to identify and investigate systemic failures). It all looks like the establishment closing ranks, not necessarily consciously, to avoid too much embarrassing scrutiny.

5 In the climate of distrust and suspicion thus engendered, the families and their sympathisers are apt to see conspiracy in routine cock-ups and mere coincidences. The inquest into Cheryl's death was rushed. Is that significant? Suspicious? The police suggest she killed herself; but the coroner records an open verdict, implying he wasn't wholly convinced by the suicide line. The families are treated badly and disrespectfully by the system throughout: is that evidence of a cover-up? Or just routine bureaucratic ineptness?

6 By this stage, every possible explanation for what happened (both the deaths and subsequent events) looks implausible or unlikely, because so much dust has been thrown up down the years and so much evidence lost.

7 "Journalism dropped the ball", as the journalist character says, particularly when it came to reporting what was in the Blake report, a massive document which journalists were given only a short time to read before Blake appeared before them. As the journalist says, it's a frequently-used government technique though it's not done simply to bury bad news but to prevent leaks: if the document is to be released, its author questioned and the journalists have time to write and record their pieces, all in the space of a single day, there are few alternatives. Faced with the mass of detail in the Blake report the news media were able to report it only cursorily. On the other hand it's worth remembering that journalism (in the shape of Frontline Scotland) was what brought the cases to public notice in the first place.

8 I fear the play was dishonest, in implying that something more can or should be done. But what? Even a public inquiry would by this stage surely produce little new. For the families this is a continuing crusade. For the authorities it's a pain in the neck and no conceivable advantage, political or practical, would be served by reopening the case and searching for a scapegoat; even Deepcut itself has now been closed.

9 When all's said and done, as D pointed out on the way back, at the end of the day it's the families who are the victims. They will never know for certain what happened. That must be dreadful for them.

No comments:

Post a Comment