Richard Ingrams’s Week: We will never know the truth about the A6 killer

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The name Peter Alphon will mean nothing to today's generation. But because I was a close friend of Paul Foot, who spent years investigating the A6 murder of 1961, for which James Hanratty was later hanged, I lived with the name Alphon almost as closely as he did.

The A6 killer – apparently proved to be Hanratty by recent DNA tests – murdered Michael Gregsten and raped and attempted to murder his girlfriend Valerie Storie, after holding them up with a gun in their car in a field near Taplow.

Alphon was the police's first suspect and he bore a marked resemblance to the original identikit picture produced with the help of Valerie Storie. But it was Hanratty, a small-time crook who had prison sentences for house-breaking and stealing cars, who was later charged and eventually hanged.

The case would have been forgotten had it not been for Alphon's subsequent behaviour, all of which suggested a man suffering acute feelings of guilt. In phone conversations with Paul and other campaigners he spoke obsessively about the case, frequently incriminating himself. In 1967 he called a press conference and announced that he was the murderer. Previously he had even visited Hanratty's parents and offered to compensate them for the loss of their son.

Aside from the details of the evidence was the obvious point that the murderer had been an excitable and unbalanced man, unable to control his sexual urges. The description fitted Alphon but not Hanratty.

The DNA tests of 2002 were generally accepted as proof of Hanratty's guilt. But Paul Foot continued to believe in Hanratty's alibi which he had personally checked out. Any hope that Alphon might finally reveal the truth has now gone. He died in a London hospital last month, following a fall at his home.

There is no need to apologise

Personally I blame Denis. Carol Thatcher, his daughter and biographer, was, I am sure, used to words like golliwog, pansies and pinkoes being banded about over breakfast. But Denis, who wisely lived by the maxim that "whales only get shot when they spout" was careful not to give vent to his feelings in public, and as a result came to be regarded as a bit of a national treasure.

But Carol earns her living as a spouter, and not surprisingly has now run into trouble with the BBC, an organisation which Denis was convinced was in the hands of Trotskyites and other left-wing subversives. In this he was mistaken. But what nobody can deny is that the BBC of today is run by assorted non-entities with little contact with the real world. The latest to emerge blinking into the spotlight is a Ms Jay Hunt, the head of BBC1. It is she who has sacked Carol for referring to a tennis player as a golliwog and refusing to apologise.

This business of apologising has become a vexed issue – not surprising when Tony Blair can, with a straight face, issue an apology for the Irish potato famine. To whom is Carol expected to apologise? Did someone who overheard the remark complain and, if so, who? Should she apologise to the unnamed (by the BBC) tennis player? The black community? Or is the nation at large entitled to an apology to be made on peak-time TV? Carol should stick to her guns and say nothing. If anyone should apologise it is Ms Jay Hunt for once again showing that the BBC has become a laughing stock.

Only the Triffids were missing ...

As it happens, I have been rereading John Wyndham's sci-fi classic The Day of the Triffids. It begins, you may remember, with the hero waking up in the morning in a London hospital and being struck by the total silence. When he ventures out into the streets, they are empty of people and traffic.

I had much the same kind of experience in London on Monday. For the first time in my life no buses were running. Many shops, restaurants and offices were closed. Even my NatWest bank had shut its doors. What's more, they were to remain shut the following morning. It was tempting for old fogeys like myself with memories of the winter of 1962-3 to conclude that the British nation had gone soft. Either that or it had succumbed to the hysteria of the health and safety brigade.

From my personal experience, a lot of it had to do with the difficulty of acquiring information. Nowadays we are led to believe that all kinds of information is instantly available thanks to all our wonderful new technologies. But it isn't.

In the event of a major snowfall I would, in the past, have rung up my local railway station to find out the situation. But you can't do that any more. Ring the train company and you will probably find yourself talking to someone in India.

Go online, you will say. But so many callers tried to do this on Monday that the whole system crashed. And in the meantime, the BBC, which seemed to be no better informed than the rest of us, kept quoting traffic controllers telling us not to travel unless our journey was absolutely vital. It's not surprising that so many decided not to risk it.

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