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Chris Mullin protects his sources’ confidentiality

CHRIS MULLIN addressed the February London Freelance Branch meeting about his efforts to protect the confidentiality of his sources in a ground-breaking investigation. He thanked the NUJ for the support it's giving him - "they've been very generous".

Chris Mullin

Chris Mullin addresses the meeting on 14 February

At London's Old Bailey court on 24 and 25 February, Chris will oppose an application by West Midlands Police under the Terrorism Act 2000 for him to hand over details of an investigation.

The story began on 21 November 1974, when bombs exploded in two pubs in Birmingham. These killed 21 people and injured 182 more.

Chris first got involved in investigating the case in 1975, when six Irish people were sentenced to life imprisonment for the bombings - and the late Peter Chippindale of the Guardian remarked that he thought the authorities had got the wrong people. Chris soon persuaded the publisher Chatto to take a book on the case - but "the advance wasn't enough to fund much investigation."

It wasn't until he persuaded Ray Fitzwalter, then the editor of Granada Television's World in Action programme, to take him on as a researcher that Chris was able to make much progress.

The case against the "Birmingham Six" rested on interviews - which were repudiated directly afterward. At the time police interviews were not recorded - that came in with the Police and Criminal Justice Act of 1984, in response to a number of miscarriages of justice.

Other evidence came from Griess tests for organic nitrogen compounds. These were carried out by Frank Skuse, who gave evidence that two of the six had been in contact with the explosive organic nitrogen compound nitroglycerine. The defence had pointed out that household products containing a different substance, nitrocellulose, would also trigger the Griess test - but to no avail.

So Granada Television commissioned forensic studies. It emerged that playing card coatings could contain nitrocellulose. Chris got producer Ian McBride to shuffle a pack of such cards - and got a positive Griess test after swabbing his fingers. The accused who tested positive had indeed been playing cards - on the evening after the bombing, they had been travelling by train to a funeral in Ireland.

To get anywhere, though, required a further line of enquiry. The only way to get justice for the Six was - as Peter Chippindale had said at the beginning - not to go on knocking down the case against them but to find the actual perpetrators - who were living in Ireland - and get them to say something on the record, but with a promise of anonymity.

Further details of what followed may be at issue in the court hearing. More, later.

It is very public knowledge that in 1986 Chris published his book Error of Judgement. In 1990 World in Action broadcast "Who Bombed Birmingham?". The convictions of the Birmingham Six were finally overturned in March 1991. Now in 2022 West Midlands Police are finally, and perhaps reluctantly, re-investigating.

Chris was elected Member of Parliament for Sunderland South in 1987; he served until 2010.

Chris has publicly stated: "If West Midlands Police had carried out a proper investigation after the bombings, instead of framing the first half-dozen people unlucky enough to fall into their hands, they might have caught the real perpetrators in the first place. It is beyond irony. They appear to have gone for the guy who blew the whistle."

The acquittal of the Six led to the winding-up of the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad and around 30 further convictions were quashed as a result of that. It led to a Royal Commission inquiry that in turn led to the formation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission - and that has led to more than 500 convictions being quashed.

  • The entrance to the Central Criminal Court is in the street named Old Bailey, London EC4M 7EH. The nearest Underground stations are St Paul's and Blackfriars; buses include the 8, the 15 and the 25 to City Thameslink station. We discover that the Court's code on the "What3Words" app is "unique.dock.value" - clearly the output of an algorithm operating without human supervision, Your Honour. Almost all hearings are listed to commence at 10am.