John Alexander Symonds
“I'd say: ‘join the KGB and see the world’ - first class. I went to all over the world on these jobs and I had a marvellous time. I stayed in the best hotels, I visited all the best beaches, I've had access to beautiful women, unlimited food, champagne, caviar whatever you like and I had a wonderful time. That was my KGB experience. I don't regret a minute of it ...”
The Fall of Scotland Yard Part 4
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Two other policemen were charged, tried and convicted as a result of the Times inquiry but for a petty, technical offence of no significance, for ‘white lies’ which implied no corruption. When Michael Perry had been picked up in September 1969 on suspicion of stealing a van, he had been taken to Peckham police station by four officers but questioned there by two others, PCs Paul Wilson and David Lovett. When Perry was put on trial in May 1970 it came out that Lovett and Wilson had made statements saying that they had picked up the suspect themselves and taken him to the station for questioning. They had done this, they claimed, to save the other four officers the time they would otherwise have had to spend at court. In normal times this example of ‘cutting corners’ would have been overlooked, especially since it occurred in a magistrates’ court where inaccuracies and contradictions in police evidence are often discovered but where the accused are nevertheless convicted, as indeed was to happen to Michael Perry in this case (he received a two-year suspended sentence). But the atmosphere generated by the Times revelations, particularly anything concerning Perry and Peckham police station, was such that this offence had to be seen to be dealt with in an exemplary and punitive fashion. Lovett and Wilson went on trial at the Old Bailey in October 1970, pleaded guilty and were given an absolute discharge. The judge recommended, however, that they should be allowed to remain in the force. But a few days later, at a Scotland Yard disciplinary board consisting of an assistant commissioner and two commanders, they were asked to resign. This was despite the fact that their own superior officers had described them as ‘excellent policemen’ and ‘absolutely dedicated’. But the witch-hunt was on and they had to go.
However, it was not as straightforward as that. Lovett and Wilson were uniformed officers. They could be sacrificed without any of the embarrassments and local difficulties which were so crippling the Times inquiry in its investigation into the conduct of detectives. It was CID officers who were empowered to investigate both uniformed and plain-clothes men, and just as they appear to have been lethargic and unwilling to seek out and destroy corruption among their own brethren, so they seem to have been willing to go to any lengths to penalize their uniformed colleagues, however petty the offence. At the Old Bailey judge Neil McKinnon had said, ‘What strikes me most forcibly is the high sense of responsibility shown by the police authorities in dealing with a matter against two of their highly valued officers by way of prosecution in this court instead of secretly before a disciplinary board. It shows how the police are willing to be investigated at the highest level.’ The judge could not have been expected to realize that what it really showed was exactly the reverse.
It was not until January 1971 that Robson and Harris faced committal proceedings. It was decided to try Symonds separately, for his alleged offences were unrelated to those of the two men from Scotland Yard. The only thing they had in common, it seemed, was Michael Perry. Symonds was committed in March I971 and it was to be yet another year before the three of them faced their respective trials. Symonds in particular expressed his chagrin at having to wait so long, and it is true that no defendant, whatever his alleged offence, should have to wait over two years from his accusation to his trial. But in the meantime Symonds had been up to his old tricks. He had applied to have his maintenance payments to his wife greatly reduced, on the grounds that since his suspension he had been receiving a greatly reduced rate of pay. The truth was that Symonds had been suspended on full pay, less only his CID allowances.
Five more detectives who had been suspended were reinstated. From the evidence submitted in their cases the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions could only conclude that there were no grounds for further action.
The provincial inquiry team had returned to their respective forces towards the end of 1970. A year of their careers had been spent in the unsavoury and unenviable pursuit of corruption in another force, and even though that force was the Met the job could hardly have given them any satisfaction. Had it been carried through properly there would at least have been the satisfaction of a job well done, but this would have to have been measured mainly by the distasteful yardstick of the number of fellow policemen sent to prison through their efforts.
Williamson’s own nominal responsibility for the inquiry ended with the committal proceedings, but even before they had taken place he was spending most of his time on other duties which fell upon him in his continuing capacity as Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary for Crime. These duties too involved the investigation of allegations of corruption. By this time his views on the depth and breadth of corruption in the Met were cast in bronze. The apparent impossibility of eliminating it had brought him down into a mood of hopeless despair. He was in the isolated position of being a policeman who had dedicated his life to the force but whose views on his colleagues - especially in the Met - were now more hostile and alienated even than those of some left-wing political groups whose ideology he despised but whose unwitting ally his public utterances may have made him. By the end of 1971 he was so ‘fed up with banging his head against a brick wall’ that he resigned from the police service altogether, eleven years before he might otherwise have been expected to retire. It is generally acknowledged that in doing this Williamson threw away his inevitable elevation to the role of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, its far greater pension and a certain knighthood.
He officially left the service on 31 December 1971. Later he let it be reported that he had resigned because of ‘deep personal dissatisfaction with the impact he felt he had been able to make on important issues within the police service and the Home Office during his last two years’ [Guardian, 16 January 1973]. It is no secret that the biggest of these issues by far was that of corruption, above all in the Metropolitan police. For Williamson the problem could be summed up in three short, sharp verdicts on the only three sorts of detective he believed to exist in the Met: those who were themselves corrupt, those who knew that others were corrupt but did nothing about it, and those who were too stupid to notice what was going on around them. None of them were worthy of any force in Britain, and only in the Met could they have been tolerated in such numbers for so long.
Williamson had convinced himself that the Home Office was not prepared to instigate the fundamental reforms of the Met which he himself knew were necessary. What he could not have foreseen was that within four months of his going a series of sensational events were to highlight the very corruption which he knew to exist but which others, including top Home Office officials, were reluctant either to believe or to publicly acknowledge. When Robert Mark took over as Commissioner in April 1972 he was to carry out many of the reforms which Williamson himself had recommended to the authorities. But by then the Home Office had had its hand forced by publicity.
The trial of Robson and Harris was one element in this process, although the only one which Williamson knew for certain would be taking place in the open. It had been due to start in October 1971, but the defence had a tape expert who said that he had found ‘matters of great importance’ on the Times recordings and needed until the New Year to finish his investigations. As Defence Counsel James Comyn QC had indicated in the committal proceedings that his case would rest very largely on challenging the authenticity and admissibility of the tapes, the judge had no alternative but to agree to two further postponements.
When the trial of Robson and Harris eventually opened on 26 January 1972 it soon became clear how much the defence had attached to destroying the prosecution on the tapes alone. Four tape ‘experts’ were mustered to undermine their credibility, countered by another expert for the prosecution. They discoursed like medieval theologians over the cause and meaning of clicks, gaps and sudden changes of background noise. If one of the thirteen tapes could be discredited the defence would have managed to tear off the ‘cloak of responsibility’ which The Times had thrown around Perry and his associates. Comyn claimed that the prosecution was built ‘first and foremost on a very polluted base’. ‘Surely the right approach to Perry is you cannot believe the living daylights from him unless you have absolutely independent evidence.’ The central issue of the trial was, therefore, whether the tapes did indeed constitute such independent evidence.
If the tapes could be shown to have been manufactured, the defence would also convert the Times reporters into part of the same ‘polluted base’. This would have implied that Mounter, Lloyd and their associates, journalistic, electronic or criminal, had all been guilty of conspiracy and perjury, and they would have to be put on trial themselves soon after. But there was a less sensational way of discrediting the tapes. If just enough doubt could be cast on the recordings, showing that they were disjointed, edited rather than manufactured, or unclear as evidence and inconclusive, the jury might absorb enough doubt and confusion to feel able to evade that most unpleasant of duties for any jury: to find a British policeman guilty of crime.
There was even a third line of defence: that the tapes were, by and large, accurate but that Robson and Harris, in their conversations with Perry, were merely conducting the normal relationship with an informant, or potential informant. It was necessary, even essential, to intimidate, to deceive and to lie to a criminal who, you were certain, had knowledge of other criminals’ activities. Threatening to fit such a person up with gelignite might be a nasty thing to do, but it would only have happened in order to secure information and would never have been carried through to a prosecution. Though such behaviour was technically illegal, could it really be so morally reprehensible?
As for the talk of money on the recordings, it was of money going from the detectives to their informant Perry or his associates, and not the other way round. Where the rustle of paper could be heard it was either Perry receiving his informant’s fee or Perry handing over information on paper, for instance a plan of some garages where stolen goods were being stored. Provided there was no proof to the contrary, a solid British jury might be convinced that this was just a necessarily unpleasant saga of two seasoned detectives who had merely been doing their job. As the seven-week trial was drawing to a close James Comyn luridly proclaimed that they had been ‘battling through the polluted waters of Peckham’s underworld, trudging through the slime and sludge of the dirty underworld, dredging for the truth’. And in these sordid depths, he implied, who realistically would expect a detective to fight according to the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules, least of all the criminal fraternity itself?
The prosecution case was put by John Mathew, one of the foremost Treasury counsel and something of a specialist in police corruption trials. He told the full story of Perry’s criminal background and made no excuses for him: ‘He is an accomplice in this case and could as such have been in the dock as one charged with corruption.’ However, the jury were to hear tape recordings which ‘painted a picture of complete and utter corruption and completely confirmed the story of Mr Perry’. Not that Mathew was claiming they were of very high quality. ‘Some are almost devoid of anything intelligible and some have snatches of conversation.’ Yet they amounted to conclusive proof, when backed by the impeccable respectability of Mounter, Lloyd and The Times itself. As Mathew was to emphasize at the end of the trial, without either Times or tapes there would have been no corroboration of Perry’s story. Who then would have believed Perry’s word against Robson’s? ‘You would not have been in the box for seven weeks. You would have been in it only seven minutes.’
Just in case the tapes were to be discredited or judged inadmissible, Mathew had an occasional police witness to puncture the defence’s credibility. One of these was quoted early on. A few days after the Times report an Essex detective inspector came into Robson’s office at Scotland Yard and said to Robson, ‘You look deep in it.’ Robson replied, ‘I am right in it.’ He denied everything, except the gelignite: ‘It is true about the gelly. I put it in his hand.’ Robson then gave a demonstration of how he fitted Perry up, by putting his arm through Perry’s car window. Mathew told this account to the court, pointing out that it was not until many months later that the detective inspector felt it was his duty to report the matter to the authorities.
Mathew did not name the Essex man, who was Detective Inspector Ronald Larby. He had not revealed his information to the inquiry until well after the committal proceedings, indeed only a few months before the trial itself. But at his committal Robson denied the gelignite allegation. Meanwhile Harris as a witness and many of the officers who were with them that day were saying that they had seen no such incident. When Larby’s testimony was made available to the defence Robson suddenly admitted that it had happened.(4) He was to say in the trial that it was a shocking and scandalous thing to do, ‘but I felt that, wrong as it was, I considered the thousands of pounds worth of property that was being taken was even more wrong. Perhaps I had my values wrong.’
When Michael Perry was examined during the trial he was not coy about his relationships with detectives. He admitted to having bribed a total of five officers, the two in the dock and another three. Of these, Perry said he gave two of them money ‘because I wanted to and also because they asked for it. The other I paid because he was on full-time take.’ The payments were for alleged favours. To one of the officers he had handed the money over directly and to the others he had paid a lump sum of £200 through a go-between, Pegleg Birchmore, an elderly scrap-metal dealer, who was ‘a sort of stakeholder’ in such transactions. Perry said that police officers had given false evidence against him about half a dozen times. His grievance was not against the police as a whole, ‘only the crooked ones’.
When Garry Lloyd and Julian Mounter appeared they vigorously defended their actions and those of The Times, both in conducting the investigations and in not handing over their findings to the police before publication. That way, said Lloyd, ‘the whole matter could be hushed up and might not have come to light at all’. ‘We considered that it would be most unsatisfactory to ask detectives or policemen to inquire into the alleged misdeeds of their colleagues.’ Comyn asked Lloyd, ‘It was a piece of amateur detection on your part?’ ‘No, professional reporting.’ Lloyd and Mounter sternly rejected the suggestion that they were motivated by sensationalism or any thought of personal gain.
It was on the matter of the tapes that they were most adamant. Lloyd was positive that none of them were copies. When Comyn said that four of the tapes had pencil marks on them, Lloyd .retorted, ‘I know the marks did not appear on the tapes while in our custody.’ How then had they got there?
‘The fact we carried out this investigation means that we are not the most popular people with the police.’ The tapes had been handed over to the Yard, and they had stayed there for a long time. ‘... it would have been the easiest thing in the world for someone of evil intent to put the marks on.’ At The Times, they had been played back soon after recording and then kept in a locked filing cabinet. Suggestions that they were faked were ‘absolute rubbish’. On the matter of some patchy transcripts of the Army and Navy Stores conversation, Comyn said they were incomplete. Lloyd pointed out that The Times’ secretaries had been overwhelmed by paperwork. ‘We did not have time to check all the transcripts which went to the police and had to rely on our secretaries.’ Where there was a lot of swearing, Lloyd attributed the gaps in the transcripts to the fact that The Times’ secretaries were most familiar with the language of a Chelsea boutique and may have left out some of the four-letter words. It was the judge who suggested that a girl who was religiously inclined might have been offended by a remark such as ‘all those bloody crucifixes’. Comyn asked, was it not surprising that where there was a loud rustling - when money was alleged to have been changing hands – the words had been omitted from the Times transcript? ‘Not surprising, no.’ That passage was difficult to hear on their equipment. ‘We never thought of the Times transcripts as the definitive version.’
The defence’s strategy was clearly to imply that where The Times’ version was patchy the tapes had been tampered with, and this was particularly important at moments of alleged cash transfer. Judge Shaw pointed out that most of the discrepancies occurred when Perry was speaking, and implied that they were due more to Perry’s accent than to any sinister manipulation. Mounter stated that ‘we realized from the outset the importance of the tapes, so we took every precaution we could’.
Comyn: ‘Did it cross your mind to edit them?’
Mounter: ‘That is a scurrilous suggestion. It never crossed my mind at any time.’
At one point on the tapes Mounter and Lloyd had themselves exchanged expletives, but even here Mounter had refused to contemplate the sound engineer’s suggestion that they should be erased.
After the reporters a motley succession of prosecution witnesses appeared, some of them with obvious distaste. Detective Chief Inspector James Irvine, in charge of Coathanger, spoke up for Robson, but when asked about the gelignite incident he said, ‘I would never have expected him to do a thing like that.’ The judge asked Irvine what he thought of such conduct: ‘I would not entertain it in any officer under my command.’
Dermot O’Keefe, an associate of Perry, confirmed his version of the gelignite incident. Hawkey, the sound engineer, made it clear he had not edited any of the tapes but also that he found the whole affair distasteful: ‘I did not want to be involved in anything to do with the police.’ (It seems that while the recordings were being made Hawkey was not at all sure whose side he should have been on.)
When Warren Harrison, the Times photographer, testified, he surprised both the defence and the prosecution by saying that he had seen money in the back of Robson’s car during the encounter on the 5 November. When Harrison had been interviewed by Metropolitan officers on the inquiry he had said nothing about the money, but in court he explained that he had done this because his job was to take photographs and not to be an observer or an oral witness. (On this occasion he had not taken a photograph because the light was bad and he did not want to be seen by the detectives.) None of the investigators, certainly not DCS Moody, had expected Harrison to say anything about the money. Yet his casual, almost accidental, revelation may have ensured that Robson and Harris were convicted.
The Laming brothers, James and Robert, said they had each been intimidated by the accused. James said he had been given a week to ‘come up with a name’ or the choice of ‘a ride up the Ml’ or having his ‘dabs’ found in a shop. He also said that Perry had been hit over the head with one of the bottles of Scotch concerning which he was charged, during the police raid when they first met Robson and Harris.
When DCS Bill Moody appeared in the witness box, in his capacity as officer in charge of the Times inquiry, he made it clear that in no way did he condone the behaviour of the accused, but nevertheless he supported a tough and at some times brutal intimacy with criminals. Informants were a necessary evil, ‘a very dangerous breed’. Some had to be kept ‘sweet or frightened’, ‘some of them have to be jogged to a degree’. He did not have physical violence in mind, just a little ‘legitimate pressure’. Moody praised the work of Robson and Harris, especially the latter, who, he said, had received seventeen commendations, including at least ten for catching thieves. ‘During his service he must have been an extremely hard-working officer.’ (5)
When Robson spoke in his own defence, he denied that he had ever taken money from Perry or ever indicated that he was open to offers. Perry was on the contrary, potentially, a very good source of information, and Robson said that he did actually give information. As for the gelignite, ‘shocking and scandalous’ though his action was, Robson considered that the other bits and pieces found at Perry’s flat during the whisky raid must have been parts of a safe-blowing kit. Thus the use of gelignite as a frightener was ideal for attempting to disgorge information about receivers from Perry. But the gelignite was only a frightener - no more than a piece of cardboard tubing used for teleprinter paper rolls, wrapped in brown paper. Robson said he had never intended to use this device to extort money.
Robson said that the tapes were not accurate. Things appeared on them which he did not say, and things he did say were not on them. He had never told Perry he would be satisfied with the name of someone who was not genuinely a receiver. It had been Perry who had raised the name of Skipton, the tobacconist: ‘I thought Perry was telling a pack of lies about Mr Skipton and I had no intention of doing anything about it.’ On intimations of favour concerning Perry’s forthcoming van theft trial, ‘I made some empty promises that I would assist him with this, but of course this would have been impossible. I was working with him as an informant, so that he would trust me. I had to build up a bond.’
But what information had Perry provided? A sketch map of some garages where stolen property could be found. Unfortunately, said Robson, this paper had been lost during the inquiry. Robson also stated that Perry had given him this sketch on 5 November, which accounted for the rustling on the tapes of that date. It was not, as Perry alleged, the rustle of pound notes being handed over to Robson. On the same tape there was a reference to money, but again that was money to go from Robson to Perry. Similarly, on the tape of 21 November the reference was not to £50 each from Perry and the Lamings for forewarning about police raids, but of payment to them if they would divulge the name of a fourth man involved in the Hemel Hempstead robbery. Yes, Robson had tipped Perry off about the raid on the flat he shared with the Lamings, but this was legitimate provided the informer did not have a lot of stolen property in his home. ‘If one feels one will further the inquiries by giving a tip-off to a potential informer, after careful consideration ...’ one would do so. Robson also admitted that he had told no other officer of his intention to inform Perry.
The defence ploy of lowering Perry - or elevating him - to the level of an informer might, if it had succeeded, have excused at least some of the accused’s behaviour. ‘Doing business’ on the tapes did not mean bribery but paying for an informant’s knowledge. Comyn said that Robson believed Perry and the Lamings were ‘the weak links near the heart of this criminal chain’. Even the judge, in referring to associations between policemen and criminals, and the large amount of information which is derived from them, said that ‘you cannot preserve associations of that kind on the basis of suburban social good manners’.
But the defendants’ repeated assertion that Perry was potentially a good source of information had to be matched with Robson’s pathetic admission that Perry never gave him the name of a single receiver. During the trial Robson said that the whereabouts of one man, whose identity was already known, would by itself have been of terrific value. This was one Kelly, a local villain. However, ex-Woman Police Constable Everest, who was in the Coathanger squad at the time of the incidents, said that a local police constable, ‘Squirrel’ Squires, had told the squad that Kelly could be found in a local arcade café. The information did not have to be wrung from Perry. As for the sketch plan of the garages, Robson was unable to explain satisfactorily why he had done nothing about checking them for three days and why even then he had only looked around the premises. Again, it became clear that this information had not come from Perry but from the two Leicestershire officers on the Coathanger squad. After a trip north they returned with detailed information on several London premises used for receiving, including these same garages. WPC Everest even recalled going to the garages herself. During the trial the Leicestershire officers were waiting to appear for the defence, but after Everest’s revelations they were packed off to Leicestershire and never appeared for either side.
Harris also endeavoured to add Perry to his declared total of twenty active informants, some of whom ‘would inform on their own parents’. On 30 October, in Perry’s car outside The Edinburgh, said Harris, he had not been taking money from Perry, but had been giving Perry £3 out of his own pocket. When Harris was heard talking of money on the tape, he claimed that the tapes had been tampered with. When there was a reference to hundreds of pounds, it was not the size of the pay-off necessary, but ‘hundreds of pounds’ worth of stolen property I wanted to recover and that was the way I was talking to Perry’. As regards the earlier untaped incident at The Edinburgh, when Perry claimed he had paid Harris £25, Harris claimed he had been lunching with a dozen senior officers. Unfortunately, none of these officers appeared in court to confirm his version. Worse still, one officer appeared to give evidence that he had driven Harris to meet an informant, and that Harris had not said anything to him about lunching with any colleagues.
It must have been distressing to Robson and Harris that almost nothing they said to disprove the prosecution’s case could be corroborated by anyone at all. All the more reason, therefore, for the emphasis of the defence on the weaknesses or inadmissibility of the tapes. Mr Killick, for whose evidence the trial had been delayed by almost three months, said that he had spent 800 hours examining the tapes. He had come to the view that all but one of them were copies and that in some cases they had been edited. Killick stated that whole blocks of speech might have been interchanged and there were obvious interruptions of continuity. He was adamant that the recordings had been interfered with.
Another expert, Hugh Ford, said that ultraviolet ray examination showed that clicks on the tapes coincided with a very distinct change in background noise, of the sort commonly associated with editing. Where one tape was damaged, the only possible reason for causing it would have been to hide a possible edit. George Taylor, a senior audio applications engineer with EMI (to whom the Yard inquiry team had sent the tapes without the knowledge or approval of Frank Williamson), said that scientific evidence showed that three tapes were copies, and another four had defects making their authenticity doubtful. Of one recording Taylor said, ‘It is perfectly obvious that there has been an edit on this tape. It sticks out like a sore thumb.’
But the defence evidence was not as formidable as it might at first have seemed. One of the experts based his views on the scientific results of the most up-to-date spectrographic tests. However, he had to return to the witness box to say that his machine had made a mistake owing to a technical fault.
The prosecution countered with unqualified support for the veracity of the tapes. This came from Stanley Hyde, a civil servant working at the Joint Speech Research Unit of the National Physical Laboratory, to which Williamson had promptly sent the tapes when he had retrieved them from EMI. Hyde said ‘I have found no evidence that editing has taken place ... I have studied them very extensively and have particularly taken up points of criticism which I have discovered since I first began my analysis, and I can find no evidence that convinces me they are edited, and in my opinion they are genuine and not copies.
For the prosecution John Mathew emphasized that scientific evidence had to be looked at together with the realities of the situation. The evidence of the experts in no way weighed against the factual evidence of Perry, Mounter and the sound engineer. Indeed, where the defence expertise was most hostile to the tapes, it appeared also to conflict with the evidence of the defendants. Mathew said that experts could get lost in the narrow scope of their own field.
It seems that the jury preferred Mathew’s interpretations of the tapes to that of the defence experts, for Robson and Harris were found guilty on all counts. They were both sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for conspiracy to demand money from Perry with menaces by falsely accusing him of unlawfully possessing gelignite, Robson having admitted to fitting Perry up. They received a concurrent sentence of five years for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by accusing Perry of delivering or causing stolen property to be delivered.
Robson received a further two years for warning Perry regarding impending police action - again a charge which Robson had admitted - and one year for accepting £50 in payment for this information. Harris received one year for accepting £25 from Perry for showing favour over the whisky-receiving prosecution. (On this charge there had been no evidence except the conflicting versions of Perry and Harris.) Robson’s total sentence was for seven years while Harris was sent down for six.
A seven-week trial, costing around half a million pounds, was over. Considering that the result had been to find two policemen guilty of taking a total of just £275 in bribes and blackmail, it was an elaborate affair, especially since the prosecution case was little more than had been established in a newspaper report twenty-six months before. The strangest thing about the defence case was that it might well have been conducted by the old guard of Scotland Yard itself. It was based on the tolerance, almost the encouragement, of close intimacy between detectives and criminal informants. It assumed that the likes of Perry could never be believed in court against the evidence of a police officer. Above all it assumed that anyone who accused the Metropolitan Police of misconduct must themselves be worthy of the deepest distrust and the most determined investigation.
Michael Perry was to follow the two Yard men to prison very quickly. Less than two weeks after the end of the Times trial he was back at the Old Bailey, accused of forging bankers’ drafts in order to steal 100,000 cigarettes. He was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months in prison, but he also forfeited the suspension of the van-theft conviction and had to serve a further two years. One of his co-defendants who was also found guilty was James Laming, who had been Perry’s fellow-accuser of Robson and Harris.
In June 1973 the Appeal Court heard from the two detectives, on whose behalf James Comyn once more appeared, to challenge the way in which the judge had summed up the case, particularly in regard to the defence tape experts and the evidence of the photographer. He also criticized the decision to let the jury have transcripts of the tapes throughout the trial. In addition he wished to call further evidence, from the woman who had assisted the sound engineer with the recordings. But on all these points the Court of Appeal found that the Old Bailey judge could not be faulted and turned the appeal down.
Lord Justice Edmond Davies took the opportunity to pay tribute to Mounter and Lloyd: ‘It would be churlish were we to fail to make mention of the great public service rendered by these two reporters. It was, it would appear, mainly their intrepidity and skill which laid bare a hideous cancer which, if unchecked, could have done even greater and incalculable damage to law enforcement.’ But the cancer was far more extensive than either the Appeal Judge or the reporters could have realized when the story had been published back in November 1969.
In March 1972 senior detectives at Scotland Yard had accepted the guilty verdicts on Robson and Harris with resignation - though not with resignations, which might have been more appropriate. They seem to have felt even if Robson and Harris were indeed guilty it would still have been better for the force as a whole had they not been convicted. The reputation and morale of the Metropolitan Police, and particularly of its plain-clothes branch, were bound to be undermined. Other onslaughts, from the press, the authorities and even from within, might well be encouraged by the convictions.
Indeed, trouble was already springing up all over the place. The Drug Squad was known to be highly suspect and some of its members were under investigation. There were a number of other prosecutions pending against individual Metropolitan officers. Only a few days before the end of the Times trial the Sunday People dropped its bombshell about Commander Kenneth Drury’s holiday on Cyprus with Jimmy Humphreys, which was to open up the whole pornography corruption scene. In comparison with the names and sums which were now being talked about, Robson and Harris were small-time figures on the take. Yet it was the conviction of these two Regional Crime Squad men which was to legitimize a much greater consciousness of police corruption. It was forcing a previously impervious public to absorb the fact that many London plain-clothes men were very probably ‘bent’. In this sense the Times trial was a major psychological breakthrough.
But for any policemen who might have been part of the ‘firm in a firm’ there was to be one piece of good news. John Alexander Symonds failed to appear at his own trial, which would otherwise have opened at the Old Bailey on 12 April 1972. His mother stated that he and his woman friend had left the country some six weeks earlier without saying where they were going or how long they would be gone.
Appearing for the prosecution yet again, John Mathew said that Symonds had last been seen on 24 February. He had bought a motor caravan on hire purchase from United Dominions Trust, sold some property for cash and gone abroad. He had not returned on 25 March, the date for which he had booked the return passage of his vehicle. Symonds’ defence counsel read out a letter which had been posted, presumably by someone else, in London on 27 March. This made clear that the Robson-Harris trial, which was in its last week when he disappeared, had convinced him that he had little chance of staying out of prison: ‘I am not at all happy about the justice of following them with the publicity about wicked detectives.’ He wanted his trial to be delayed for as long as possible, presumably to allow the publicity to die down (earlier he had complained about how long he was having to wait for his trial). But, despite a defence request that Symonds should be allowed to surrender voluntarily to the court, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Predictably, Symonds could not be traced, despite the vigilance of the Tunisian police who, in marked contrast to Scotland Yard, were reported in mid-May to be keeping a round-the-clock vigil on the war grave of the Scots Guards father of Symonds’ woman companion. To this day Symonds still has not been found.
There must remain considerable doubt about whether there was ever any serious attempt to find him. But it is more worrying that he had been allowed to leave the country during the crucial period of the Robson-Harris trial. He was on bail for a mere £500. No one had taken the precaution of taking away his passport. It had been confidently predicted long beforehand that Symonds would disappear from Britain, by none other than the officer in charge of the inquiry, Bill Moody, when he had been questioning Julian Mounter many months earlier. Yet neither Moody nor any other police authority had requested any substantial restraint being put on Symonds’s movements. Symonds himself had taken no efforts whatsoever to conceal his purchase of the motor caravan or the sale of his property. Even his girlfriend had sold her retail business for cash. They could not have given more public notice of their intention to depart. And yet Moody had not done anything to restrain them.
The strong suspicion remains, therefore, that Moody gave Symonds a licence to abscond. Either it was negligence which allowed him the opportunity to start a new life - apparently in Rhodesia or South Africa - or he was told to get out of the country because his trial would have been too much of an embarrassment for other officers in the Metropolitan Police whom he could have implicated. This would have been the only satisfactory solution to the problem that Symonds was constituting, for he had been openly threatening to name the names in his ‘firm in a firm,’
The other serious aspect to Symonds’s disappearance is that it destroyed the only tangible achievement of the Times inquiry team - particularly of its provincial officers. If little that came out in the Robson-Harris trial owed its discovery or confirmation to any-part of the inquiry’s work, at least the provincial team had dug up a number of substantiated cases of Symonds’s corrupt activities in Peckham and Camberwell. It was not only the Times evidence which would have been offered against Symonds. When the accused took off for the Continent he took with him the only positive memorial Williamson’s provincial inquiry team would ever have had.
At Bill Moody’s trial in 1977 an unconsciously ironic postscript was added to the story of the Times inquiry by Peter Brodie, who had been Assistant Commissioner (Crime) throughout its duration. Appearing on Moody’s behalf Brodie, a man of unquestionable integrity, was asked his opinion of Moody’s performance. He replied that there had been no criticism at all of Moody’s role. He had applied himself ‘totally, with the whole of his effort’ on an extremely complicated investigation. ‘At the conclusion of the whole of the inquiry, so far as I can remember, everyone was quite satisfied. There was no question of the whole thing being opened up again, as sometimes happens.’
(4) Because Robson had now been forced to admit the incident, Larby did not even have to appear at the trial. Yet he was to suffer severely soon after it was over. It appears that an unsuccessful attempt was made to stop him from keeping to his story - he was visited by a senior Yard officer before the trial opened. But when it was over a juicy story was published in the Sunday People, on 23 April 1972. It revealed that Larby, who was stationed at Brentwood, had been having a passionate six-month affair with the attractive wife of Donald Bruce, a convict then serving a seven-year-sentence for receiving. When the affair was breaking up Larby told his superiors all about it, in order to forestall Mrs Larby, who had threatened to do the same. Perhaps if he had decided not to testify against Robson, this story might never have come to the newspaper’s attention. After disciplinary proceedings Larby was dismissed from the Essex force.
(5) During the trial Moody still seems to have been assuming that Robson and Harris were going to be acquitted. With a lack of concern that even at the time struck Mounter and Lloyd as odd in an officer in charge of such a case, Moody used to tell the reporters that the jury did not look as if they were likely to convict.
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