The Court of Appeal has quashed the conviction of a labour activist nearly fifty years after he was sent to prison for his role in the 1972 national building workers’ strike.
Brian Williams was a member of the Shrewsbury 24, a group of twenty-four union activists convicted of offences ranging from threatening behaviour to conspiracy during three trials in 1973-74
Mr Williams, who pleaded not guilty throughout his 1974 trial, was convicted of affray and unlawful assembly and sentenced to six months in prison.
Brian Williams passed away in 2013. However, in September 2021, his daughter in law, Samantha Williams, applied to the CCRC for a review of his case. In December 2021, the CCRC referred the case to the Court of Appeal on the same ground as his 14 co-defendants.
Samantha Williams was represented in the Court of Appeal by Paul Heron of the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC) and Piers Marquis of Doughty Street Chambers.
The Court of Appeal has today made the following judgement in the case of our clients Ricky Tomlinson, Arthur Murray and the Shrewsbury 24.
“It follows that under Ground 1, the convictions of all the appellants are unsafe. Their appeals are allowed and all the verdicts in relation to them are quashed.” (pt.99)
The convictions of the Shrewsbury 24 have been quashed. The men concerned walk from this court innocent men – as they have always been. We say they were victims of police corruption, of a political trial, and of a Conservative government out for revenge against the trade-union movement.
On the 3 & 4 February 2021 the Court of Appeal considered the cases of the Shrewsbury 24. The Court considered:
new evidence, consisting of a note dated 17 September 1973 revealing that some original statements had been destroyed. Neither this note, nor the fact that statements were destroyed, was disclosed to the defence at the time of the trial
new legal arguments relating to the screening of The Red Under the Bed, a TV programme highly critical of trade-union organising, during the 1972 trial. Arguments included an analysis, applying modern standards of fairness, of the way the airing of the documentary was handled by the trial judge.
Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray are two of the Shrewsbury 24. They were a group of ordinary trade unionists who were arrested for their involvement in the national builders’ strike in 1972. In 1973 Ricky Tomlinson, along with Des Warren, was sentenced to prison for unlawful assembly, conspiracy to intimidate and affray. This historic miscarriage of justice has now been righted, nearly 50 years after the events.
The Court of Appeal heard the case over two days.
Day One was taken up with the issues relating to ground one – that is, the destruction of witness evidence and the failure of the prosecution to disclose this to the defence at the time.
On behalf of Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray, we submitted that the destruction of the original statements (in addition to the fact that that destruction was not disclosed) was individually and cumulatively (with the fact of the non-disclosure) enough to render the trial unfair and the convictions unsafe. The number of original statements destroyed was significant. The Court accepted this.
It is important to note that the statements were destroyed rather than lost. We submitted that the firm implication is that they were intentionally destroyed. A decision was taken to actively dispose of them in such a way that they could not be recovered.
This destruction was significant as it caused Ricky Tomlinson, Des Warren, Arthur Murray and the rest of the pickets to suffer serious prejudice to the extent that no fair trial could be held and that, accordingly, the continuance of the prosecution would amount to a misuse of the process of the court. We say this was wholesale and deliberate destruction of evidence, undertaken to assist the prosecution.
Those initial statements that did survive show that witness evidence was radically altered to favour the original prosecution case. We say that witnesses were at best encouraged , and at worst pressurised, to change their initial statements.
Day Two the court considered the documentary The Red Under the Bed and its impact on prejudicing the case.
On 13 November 1973 Granada Television broadcast (in conjunction with Anglia Television and Yorkshire Television) a documentary produced by the journalist and former Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt. The documentary was broadcast during the first trial of the Shrewsbury pickets.
The programme was broadcast directly before the defendants were due to give evidence. The defence cases of Mr. Warren and Mr. Tomlinson were, in essence, that they took no part in (and were not aware of) intimidation and violence, and that allegations to that effect were exaggerated.
The opening minutes of the documentary featured footage of our client Ricky Tomlinson (and also Des Warren). The programme’s narrative concretely, but wrongly, linked our clients with disruption and violence. How did it achieve this?
A feature of the programme was the use of the journalist Simon Regan as an ‘eyewitness’ to violence during the building strike. News of the World journalist Regan gave the following account, which mirrored to a significant extent the allegations that the Shrewsbury defendants faced:
Reagan: I joined the flying picket squad in Yorkshire, which grew from a small one of about 200 into one of about 800 where pickets from Liverpool had come in with pickets from Leeds and we’d gone over a motorway site… and about 800 of us stormed this motorway site picking on individuals who were working there, telling them they had to get off the site or there would be trouble and other incidents, especially in Birmingham outside the cement works where things got very, very rough, where drivers were getting stoned, being pulled from the cabs. The Communist Party must have realised that there was physical violence going in because there were reports coming in from all over the place to Lou Lewis personally, every single day.
The programme presented the Regan allegations as fact supported by documentation, and overlaid them with supporting footage of “violence” and police lines.
The problem with the evidence given by Regan was that two separate police forces had already concluded that it amounted to lies. The Northamptonshire Police and Birmingham City Police investigated the allegations at the behest of the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions. They concluded that Regan was “never present” at the Corby site he referred to or, “…if present completely fabricated the incidents referred to and was either mistaken in the location of the [Birmingham] incident or suffered at the time a figment of imagination.”
The story doesn’t end there. The producers of The Red Under the Bed were assisted by a number of organisations. The Industrial Research Department (IRD), a branch of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and IRIS provided the programme makers with information, including an introduction to Simon Regan. These organisations were funded by the security services and the British state.
Crucially, the Northampton and County Constabulary Report into Simon Regan’s allegations was dated 16 November 1972. By that date the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Attorney General’s Office (another branch of Government) were aware that these allegations were “completely fabricated” and “a figment of imagination”.
Yet at some stage after February 1973 (the month in which Woodrow Wyatt approached the IRD for help in producing the programme) the IRD, with the authority of the Department of Employment and the Security Service, put Simon Regan forward as a reliable enough source around which to build the programme. This is despite the fact that at least one other branch of government was in possession of solid evidence that Regan had effectively made up all of his allegations.
The State colluded in the making of The Red Under the Bed and put forward a journalist they knew to be discredited as a source around which to build the ‘documentary’. The programme was then shown just as the prosecution case was concluding – and shortly before Ricky Tomlinson, Des Warren, Arthur Murray and the Shrewsbury pickets were due to give their evidence.
What did the court say and what did it rule?
With regard to Ground One, the Court accepted, as we had submitted, that the time frame for the destruction of the statements was considerably longer than even the CCRC had suggested; handwritten statements from eyewitnesses had been destroyed once i) the police were able to show the press photographs to the witnesses and ii) the officers knew what those responsible for these prosecutions were seeking to prove in the forthcoming trial. Consequently, an unidentified number of original witness statements had been destroyed and the fact of that destruction was not disclosed to the defence. Further, in front of the jury, “the prosecution [had] strongly implied that the appellants were in possession of all the potentially relevant materials”. The trial judge had “chastised defence counsel for pursuing the issue”.
Had the lawyers of Ricky Tomlinson, Des Warren, Arthur Murray and the Shrewsbury pickets in the 1973 trial (and subsequent trials) been informed of the fact of the destruction of evidence, they would have been able to properly challenge witness evidence: “We have no doubt that if that had happened the trial process would have ensured fairness to the accused.”
With regard to Ground Two, the Court was not persuaded that the programme ‘Red Under the Bed’ caused sufficient prejudice to render the trial unsafe. Further, because the Appellants were not able to conclusively establish that the government had been involved in scheduling the programme to take place in the course of the trial, “It follows that the criticisms, for instance, of the involvement of the Information Research Department and the apparent attitude of the then Prime Minister are irrelevant to this Ground of Appeal”. “The issue is the impact of the broadcast on the safety of the conviction – whether the content would have affected the jury’s fair appreciation of the evidence – rather than an assessment of the motives of those who participated in its creation”.
Yet several points still remain:
The programme included footage of defendants outside the Crown Court.
That footage included material that erroneously suggested that leaders of the building-strike pickets (which included the defendants) were effectively conspiring to “overthrow the state”.
The programme included material that mirrored the allegations that the defendants faced, and which was “fabricated”.
Three branches of government had provided that “fabricated” material to the programme-makers at a time when at least one other branch of Government knew that the material was “fabricated”.
The programme was shown in the course of the trial, even though the programme makers, broadcasters and government must have known that the trial was ongoing.
The Prime Minister signed off the programme in a Mmnisterial document – saying “we want more of this kind of thing.”
We find it hard to accept the Court’s view in rejecting Ground Two.
Ricky Tomlinson said: “Whilst it is only right that these convictions are overturned, this is a sorry day for British justice. The reality is we should never have been standing in the dock! We were brought to trial at the apparent behest of building-industry bosses and the Conservative government, ably supported by the secret state. This was a political trial not just of me, and the Shrewsbury pickets – it was a trial of the trade-union movement. My thoughts today are with my friend and comrade Des Warren. Like me he was victimised by the court for defending the interests of the working class. I’m just sorry he is not here today so we can celebrate, but I’m sure he’s with us in spirit.’’
Arthur Murray said: “We were innocent all along, yet it has taken us nearly 50 years to clear our names. We all came from respectable working-class families – sadly my mother and four of my siblings have passed away without knowing that we were innocent. This was a major miscarriage of justice involving the victimisation of innocent workers. It was also an attack on the working class and the trade-union movement as a whole. We have stood firm and we have been vindicated. However, serious questions need to be asked about the role of building-industry bosses in our convictions and the highest office of government who all had a hand in our trial and conviction. Make no mistake: our convictions were a political witch-hunt.”
Paul Heron, solicitor, said: “I am pleased that the convictions of my clients Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray have now been overturned. However, it is important to remember that following their convictions in 1973 they were blacklisted by the building industry. Many of the men could not find work and as a result suffered more punishment. Whilst we understand that the court was unwilling to consider the wider issues regarding the involvement of the secret state, we are calling for a public inquiry into blacklisting in the industry, including the role of the building industry bosses and the secret state.”
Piers Marquis, leading counsel, said “There is no question that this was a politically motivated trial that ultimately intimidated workers and broke picket lines. We now know that the police destroyed evidence, that the prosecution knew that they had and were silent about it, and that the government helped produce fabricated propaganda that was broadcast at the most damaging possible time for these men. Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson knew none of that when they each spoke from the dock and questioned where the conspiracy in this case really lay. Their vindication and that of their fellow pickets has been a long time coming. My respect to them for never stopping fighting for it.”
The Public Interest Law Centre would like to go on record as thanking our counsel Piers Marquis and Anabel Timan of Doughty Street Chambers. We also want to thank Rhona Friedman at Commons Law who worked tirelessly in the initial part of this case, particularly on the application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Finally, a massive thanks to Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray for their determination in the fight for justice over almost 50 years.
 Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray were represented by Piers Marquis and Annabel Timan of Doughty Street Chambers, instructed by Paul Heron, Public Interest Law Centre.
 In addition to Ricky and Arthur, the following cases were heard by the Court of Appeal: Dennis Michael Warren, Alfred James, Samuel Roy Warburton, Graham Roberts and John Kenneth Seaburg. All five men are deceased and were represented by family members. The cases of John McKinsie Jones, John Malcolm Clee, William Michael Pierce, Terence Renshaw, Patrick Kevin Butcher, Bernard Williams, Francis O’Shea were also heard by the Court. They were all represented by Bindmans solicitors.
 The Industrial Research and Information Service (IRIS) was a private company that monitored industrial militancy in the 1970s.