Richard Ingrams: How meanings change in the hands of the police


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According to the Collins English Dictionary kindly presented to me some years ago by the editor, my Oxford contemporary Patrick Hanks, the word redact means to compose or draft or "to put a literary work in appropriate form for publication".

But this week it seemed to have acquired a new and somewhat sinister meaning when it was announced by the police that the names of those officers suspected of killing teacher Blair Peach at a street protest in 1979 had been "redacted" from the internal report into his death which has finally been published. For redact, read censor or suppress.

Such redaction, if that is the right word, is commonplace where the police are concerned. We have never been told the names of the men who shot Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station even though they were widely suspected of giving perjured evidence at his inquest. We will never know the name of the female police officer who tried to lure Colin Stagg into confessing to the Wimbledon Common murder. And so on.

As for the Blair Peach report, released 31 years after the event, it reminds me more than anything of the Russian government's release this week of documents showing that the Soviet Politburo authorised the murder of 22,000 Poles at Katyn during the Second World War.

As with Blair Peach, the facts have been known for some time and it all happened so long ago that no one will now be called to account, and anyway they're all dead. We can only be grateful for the fact that Joseph Stalin's name has not been redacted.

Lessons in covering up school scandals

The reason why so many Irish priests have been found guilty of child abuse is that for years they combined the role of priest and schoolmaster. In this country we have had isolated cases involving paedophile priests but nothing on the scale of Ireland's. But if you wanted an equivalent scandal I should think it would be quite easy to find it in the annals of our private education system. Anyone like me who experienced the joys of prep and public school life will know that it attracted all manner of perverts who could indulge their sexual and sadistic tastes with relative impunity.

And like the Catholic Church, the public school system was skilled in covering up any kind of scandal. If problems arose, errant masters would quietly leave and might, like those Irish priests, get a post in another school where their misdemeanours would not be known about.

I remember well the case of notorious flogger Anthony Chenevix-Trench. Trench achieved the pinnacle of his profession when he was appointed headmaster of Eton. But even after he was forced to resign following disquiet about his distasteful habits, he was appointed to a headmastership at the Scottish school of Fettes (Tony Blair's alma mater). I doubt if the Irish church could come up with a scandal to rival that one.

Skies get quieter as birds disappear

At various intervals I have suggested in this column that the reason the number of small songbirds is falling is that the number of big birds is increasing. My suggestions have generally been pooh-poohed by the RSPB, which has been instrumental in encouraging the breeding of birds of prey, in particular the red kite and even the sea eagle.

The most noticeable decline in population of small birds has been that of the house sparrow, once a familiar sight in the country and in towns. And now a group of Cambridge scientists led by Dr Christopher Bell blames the disappearance of the sparrows on the growing number of sparrowhawks, which as their name suggests prey on the sparrows.

These scientists point out that the decline of the urban sparrow coincides with the move by sparrowhawks into cities. At the same time those pesticides like DDT which led to the near extinction of sparrowhawks have been banned.

It comes as no surprise to learn that the RSPB refuses to accept the Cambridge report, continuing to insist that there is no evidence that birds of prey are in anyway responsible for the decline in our songbirds.

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