Police Killings, Posturing and Public Opinion


So, I left you last week on my way to see ‘Russell Brand in conversation with Owen Jones’ in which they were discussing his book, Revolution. Well, as I sit on a late running train to Manchester it would appear that normality is very much still the norm and the revolution is still very much at the planning stage. I don’t want to dwell too much here on Brand as it is not the point of this blog, but two things interested me.

Firstly, I came from the sceptics camp, I was very much on board with the general Brand bashing, seeing his pompadoured posturings as exactly that. As he entered the Emmanuel Centre in London, he looked every bit the glitterati gladiator entering the arena, I smugly prepared for all my assumptions to be proven correct. However, I have to say I was proved wrong; In part. Brand made a strong case for his opinions. His argument that the media dictate the terms of debate and present his views flippantly as trite and irresponsible calls for mass apathy, rather than address the more worrying thought that we really do lack effective representation and choice in our current political system did seem to ring true. In future, Brand might look to Richard Ayoade for a particularly funny and engaging way to refuse engagement on the terms of your media interrogators.

Don’t thank me I’ve done nothing for you
Richard Ayoade.


There is no doubt that Brand is an engaging and passionate presenter and his refusal to stand for office, because he knows “what power does to people with his hunger for fame”, was both a humble admission and a biting critique of our structures of representation.

In the end it was not Brand, but the audience that disappointed. Believe me, I will be the last person to be lining up for the frontline of a revolution, but, by the looks of it, those who will may be found lacking. After a rabble rousing call for grass roots group activism, there was a Q&A in which people pretty much without fail asked Brand what ‘the answer was’ as if presenting at the feet of Christ – they were showing the exact cowed and questioning behaviour Brand had spent an hour railing against. if ever there was a case for revolution leading to tyrannical leaders, it was in that hall, but I admire the sentiment and passion of his preaching far more than I did previously. For a well rounded unbiased assessment of Brand’s view, this Radio 4 documentary covers it well.

One final point to make, is in a serendipitous moment, after last weeks blog on Mise en abymes, I saw a perfect modern example at the talk. I was watching in Newcastle’s Tyneside cinema which was broadcasting the live event from London, so already one step removed. At one point the cameras showed someone filming through their mobile phone, so there was Brand, trapped in time at two steps removed from me.

Now, on with the inevitable march of death.

Harry Roberts convicted of the murder of three unarmed Police Officers in 1966. Image coutresy of BBC NEWS
Harry Roberts convicted of the murder of three unarmed Police Officers in 1966. Image coutresy of BBC NEWS

This week I was walking down the awe inspiring, autumnal archway that is the coastal path behind my house, when I was violently yanked from my daydreaming state. I was listening to Radio 4’s PM addressing the recent release of Police Killer, Harry Chambers, when one of the contributors called for the return of the Death Penalty. I couldn’t quite believe it and it was fairly apparent that Eddie Mair couldn’t either. It is a view so uncommonly expressed, but then it got me thinking, why is it so uncommonly expressed – after all if polls are to be believed it is a view widely shared. Until very recently polls of the public have consistently shown a majority in favour of the death penalty.

Interestingly in the poll linked above and shown below, the most fascinating thing for me is the stat that in the US, where the death penalty is still very actively used, the percentage of people who believe it is an effective deterrent is lower than in the UK. Given how flippantly we assign scorn on the Americans for their seemingly insatiable lust for capital punishment, this poll makes it apparent that it may behoove us to throw a few less stones from our glass house.

Death Penalty Polls courtesy of Yougov.

The shame of the Radio 4 debate was the contributor (an unnamed Police Officer) was, a complete berk. I say a shame because whatever you believe regarding the reintroduction of the death penalty, it is clear that a large percentage of people are in favour (or certainly have been until very recent times). So it is not the view of a crackpot minority, it is one of those unappetising but unavoidable truths. it is also not necessarily the view of an uneducated mass as the commentariat tend to present. I should make it clear at this stage that I myself am stridently opposed to it, however I am also aware that given the strength of opinion on the subject the subject is very rarely addressed by the establishment.

It is interesting for my study as one of the more dominant schools of thought with regard to the history of punishment over the c18th and c19th is one of a process of ‘civilising.’ The idea, put simply, is that over this period we saw a move from public forms of punishment to private, because of a wider humanitarian movement. A central feature of this move was the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act that I have mentioned many times previously and was responsible for executions being moved behind the prison walls. Certain historians have labelled the act as “another landmark”¹ in the civilising process towards a more humane and private treatment of criminals.

Foucault makes fascinating criticisms of the motivations really underlying the change from public to private punishment, refusing to accept the civilisers argument, because he refuses to take the reformers of the period at their word. But more recently and arguably more effectively this notion of civilising has been questioned by historians like Vic Gatrell and Randall McGowen with recourse to the facts. Both posit that it was an increasing abhorrence of what the crowd at the execution represented combined with a growing middle class squeamishness to public violence that saw punishment removed from sight. McGowen punctures the notion most succinctly by showing that the 1868 act was only carried on the votes of people who were completely anti abolition and surely any truly civilised movement would have called for the complete retraction of capital punishment. Gatrell argues that far from starting the ultimate removal of execution the 1868 helped preserve the spectre of the scaffold for another 100 years. This rings true in the North East as following the 1868 act there is a sharp spike in executions and many of them are either double or triple hangings – relatively uncommon in the previous one hundred years in the region.

Whatever the justification for the removal of the public element of the penalty it is clear that the appetite for the punishment still remained amongst the general public, especially in cases in the North East. The crowds still gathered in their many thousands outside the gates despite there being nothing to see and in certain cases the press reported deep felt anger amongst the public when justice is not seen to be done. In the case of Hugh Slane and John Hayes, executed at Durham in 1873 the public were angry that two other people apparently involved in the crime received last-minute reprieves.

The reprieves of Terence Rice and George Beasley…is an exercise of the Royal Prerogative that will occasion as much surprise as disappointment in this part of the country

Shields Daily Gazette, January 6th 1873

Interestingly this article, as with so many goes on to deride the base assumptions of the masses, arguing that if the reprieves had not been granted two innocent men would have been killed. The relative merits of the evidence for or against Rice and Beasley are not the point of contention here, it is the refusal to countenance the opinions of the public. The people who came to watch executions became an increasingly derided and abhorred group in society, almost universally derided in the press. But this was the very same press who sold papers detailing the excruciating spectacle of execution, often describing the death struggles in minute detail. There is something acutely cynical about deriding those who observe the spectacle, but then profiting off the publishing the prurient details of it.

In the mid to latter part of the nineteenth century reports on executions are almost uniformly coloured with a sort of middling class filter. It is the refusal to countenance the views of those attendant at executions as being valid that marks these reports. It is this high-mindedness that is arguably the genus of our modern notions of a ‘civilising’ narrative. By ignoring the unhelpful and more ‘barbarous’ opinions of the majority we can pronounce ourselves as an increasingly enlightened society. It is perhaps this continual dictating of the terms that has created people like Brand and his followers anger. While, they would never countenance the reintroduction of the death penalty, they would say that their views and opinions are wilfully ignored and derided by a media with a different agenda.

The truth is that the opinions of the majority might seem wild and ugly at times, but they tend to grow wilder and uglier when ignored and unchecked – perhaps it is time to accept that controversial topics need debate and only when we accept that will people feel truly enfranchised.

1. D Cooper., The Spectacle of the Scaffold (publisher and page evade me as I am stuck on the trans pennine express!)

Distraction 1: The North East A-Team

This week I want to extend my thanks to Annika Davis. She is the Department of Culture’s Library liason and a bloody good one at that. I was struggling to track down the original copy of the Anatomy act 1832 and so dropped her an email. By the end of the day she had me a scanned copy no less, which she had got by enlisting Law Librarian Laura Wilkinson who in turn enlisted Catherine Dale at Newcastle Uni who found their copy and scanned it. Amazing, thank you all for your help. I am very grateful (although slightly worried that I’m running out of excuses for failing my PhD now!).

Distraction 2: Baths

I immediately apologise for any inappropriate image conjured up in this section, but a grand thing has happened in my house. The bath is fixed! After months of refusing to get it sorted as the shower was still fine, I finally bit the bullet and paid the plumber and it is the best thing ever. Outside of being in bed, the bath is my favourite place in the world. I can spend hours reading or listening to the radio (don’t worry the radios not near the bath – it is, but not too near!) and it is an amazing space to just be alone with your thoughts – I highly recommend regular long baths for any PhD student. As i usually have a song in this section it’ll have to be Bobby Darin, but by the sounds of it, he has a lot more fun in the bath than i do.

One thought on “Police Killings, Posturing and Public Opinion

  1. Pingback: ‘Local news’ for ‘Local people’ | lastdyingwords

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