Bent Coppers in Fact and Fiction
An ex-copper recommended two books to me recently, GF Newman‘s Sir, You Bastard (1970) and Bent Coppers: The Inside Story of Scotland Yard’s Battle Against Police Corruption (2004) by Graeme McLagan. I was particularly intrigued by the Newman title as most people I’ve met who worked with the police cannot stand detective fiction on the grounds that it is almost never realistic, but Sir, You Bastard, I was assured, is different. The novel covers seven years in the career of Terry Sneed, a man who who has had a meteoric rise through the police to the rank of Detective Inspector by being ruthless, intelligent, corrupt, despicable and charming in equal measure. The prologue and epilogue show Sneed with his career, and indeed his entire future in doubt, but the rest of the novel is a gripping, albeit loosely plotted journey of his ascent with chapter titles indicating his promotions ‘Detective Constable‘, ‘Detective Sergeant‘ etc. Sneed’s corruption develops from pulling cruel pranks on drivers as an uniformed policeman to brutal interrogations and abusing his position with informants. The milieu and police dialect is meticulously researched and sometimes feels like a British version of the work of Joseph Wambaugh, but Wambaugh’s cops usually grow weary and exhausted by the corruption or the drudgery of police work. Sneed, on the other hand, becomes frighteningly more confident and powerful as the story progresses.
Newman is a great writer, quite eccentric in his personal views by all accounts, and sets a cruelly ironic and blackly comic tone with apparent ease. Sneed’s Colombian mistress Billie, dismissed as a ‘spade’ by his racist colleagues, contemplates her love for a very bad man while watching a television police drama that she knows from personal experience is completely unrealistic:
The flickering colours seemed miles away in the darkened room. Billie had noticed it before; her gaze would become fixed as thoughts crossed other frontiers, and suddenly awareness o the TV would be gone. Through lifting the shutter from her eyes, it was easy picking up the threads of the plot again; the screen didn’t have to be watched or the sound listened to; it was always the same basic struggle, Good defeating Evil.
Billie watched two men in the police Buick speeding in pursuit of Evil; the chase signified that the end was nigh; Good always triumphed after the chase. In a paroxysm of sound, Evil’s car crashed into a wall, so conveniently placed. But the audience wasn’t released. Evil escaped, and ran to the fire-escape between his ricocheting bullets, his thirteen-year-old hostage, dressed symbolically in white, preventing the Good Joe Detective from shooting back. Evil climbing up the building was symbolic of his searching for God, but his reckless shooting killed thirty-nine cops, showing that his ascent heavenwards was insincere. With all fifty bullets spent, Evil threatened to throw his hostage over the edge if unscathed Good came any closer. One last emphatic appeal by Good, to no avail, and, the hostage notwithstanding, the perilous precipice-struggle ensued, Evil meeting a well-deserved fate by falling down to Hell. After the sound of Evil’s descent, Good took the trembling virgin comfortingly in his arms and, in an intimate aside with two-hundred-million viewers across the world, he imparted the message. All that was missing was a jingle: “Help our police, they’re your friends.” Billie switched off at the expense of a girl unable to get a boy-friend because she used the wrong toothpaste. For a moment she wished Terry was like that policeman hero, not especially because he was good or honest, but because he was certain to triumph. She wanted Terry always to triumph – neither for the sake of winning nor for her sake, but for Terry’s sake and what falling would do to him.
Graeme McLagan’s Bent Coppers was an interesting book to read after Newman’s fictional account of police corruption. However, his account of Scotland Yard’s attempts to confront corruption, which roughly covers the early 1990s to 2004 but also mentions cases before this timeframe, met with controversy. McLagan was sued by ex-police officer Michael Charman for libel. McLagan lost the case but subsequently won on appeal citing the ‘Reynolds Defence’. It was easy to see why many in the London Met, and even book critics, were generally upset by McLagan’s work. There is not a single footnote or reference in over four hundred pages of text. McLagan doesn’t even refer to other books on the same subject, only his own Panorama documentaries. He does refer to off the record interviews and police transcripts that have come his way but, perhaps for good reason, he was unable to reference them. There is also a stylistic problem with the writing: non-fiction subjects generally present issues with repetition but Bent Coppers really does go around in circles in its more tedious moments. That said, there are many fascinating moments to make it worth reading. The case of the detective agency Southern Investigations’ shady relationship with both the police and press seems particularly enlightening in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, a fact the author has picked up on since:
It was believed that Southern had played a part in setting up newspaper stings. It not only hired out expensive electronic listening devices to the media, but also delivered sting ‘packages’. These kept everyone happy, apart from the victims, but who cared about them? Such a sting could take place, for example, if the agency received information from one of its police contacts that someone was dealing in drugs. Southern would then mount its own sting, planting drugs on the man or arranging for someone to pretend to want to buy drugs. A newspaper would be tipped off to be at the sting to obtain evidence. On the eve of publication of the story, the newspaper would hand its evidence over to the police, who would then move in and arrest the criminal. The newspaper got its exclusive. The police were happy because they were seen to be catching criminals. Southern was paid for its help, and the agency passed on some of the money to the officer who had supplied the original information. This kind of scam worked for a while, and no one seemed too concerned.
Amid all this talk of factual and fictional corruption, however, let me end on an optimistic note. At last month’s Remembrance Day service on the steps of St George’s Hall, Liverpool, the crowds gave the police in attendance the same level of warm and enthusiastic applause as they gave to the military veterans. The reputation of the police may have taken a battering in recent years with the Hillsborough revelations to the borderline farce of Plebgate, but that hasn’t dimmed our gratitude for the good work that they do.