Nick Cohen: With police and tabloids in cahoots, Colin Stagg became a sacrificial lamb

Nick Cohen: A few days after an incredulous judge threw out the case against Colin Stagg in 1994, I saw the police descend into denial.

A few days after an incredulous judge threw out the case against Colin Stagg in 1994, I saw the police descend into denial. I was working for the Independent on Sunday and with its then editor, Ian Jack, went for dinner with a senior officer at New Scotland Yard. He was impressive company and the evening went well until we raised the fiasco of the Stagg prosecution.

No one could remember seeing anything like it. You could understand why the Met was frantic to find who had stabbed Rachel Nickell 49 times on Wimbledon Common while her screaming child looked on, but the case against Stagg was preposterous. The police had handed control of the investigation to Paul Britton, a grandstanding and, in my view, faintly sinister, psychologist. He persuaded a pretty policewoman to pose as a sadistic temptress. In an attempt to wheedle a confession from the lonely Stagg, she said he would win her heart only if he would admit to sharing her love of Satanism and child murder.

He never confessed and came over as a bewildered weakling rather than a psychopath. When the policewoman said that she enjoyed hurting people, he mumbled: 'Please explain, as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you, please don't dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before.' When she said: 'If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right', Stagg replied: 'I'm terribly sorry, but I haven't.'

Other psychologists treated with scorn Britton's claim that the odd but passive man fitted the psychological profile of the killer. If anything, the judge sounded more scornful as he accused Britton and the police of 'deceptive conduct of the grossest kind'. Jack and I said to the man from the Met that the affair seemed a bit of a blunder.

The senior officer looked at us as if we were fools. He could assure us that Stagg was as guilty as Crippen. He was so self-confident that we might have believed him if we had not read up on the case. Other editors were less sceptical and the anonymous mutterings convinced them that a liberal judge had let a terrible killer walk free on a technicality. I talked to some of them recently and they seemed to be genuinely shocked that DNA evidence now shows that Rachel Nickell's killer may be a man held in Broadmoor. Shocked and a little ashamed, because what all those off-the-record briefings produced was a police-approved Stagg hunt led by a pack of C-list celebs and thoughtless hacks.

Jeremy Beadle, a Nineties prankster, proposed that Stagg face a second trial before the cameras. Roger Cook, a Nineties celebrity journalist, persuaded him to take a lie detector test on television. He passed - of course he passed, he was innocent - but Cook's producers weren't satisfied and said that he should take a truth drug as well. When he refused because he was afraid of needles, an unnamed source at the Yard whispered to the Mirror that 'it is a pity because truth drugs are the most reliable'.

Skinner and Baddiel (still with us, unfortunately) made him a part of their limp comedy routine, and the press turned him into a Myra Hindley figure whose every move would guarantee reporters space on the news pages.

The worst of it was that the police and media persuaded the family of Rachel Nickell that the crucial difference between Stagg and Hindley was that Stagg had got away with murder. The News of the World ran lipsmacking pieces on how the 'weirdo' demanded 'bizarre sex' with his 'terrified' girlfriend yards from where Rachel Nickell was murdered. The Daily Mail quoted Andre Hanscombe, father of her son, saying he was '99 per cent certain' that Stagg was guilty and the government should remove the double jeopardy law so he could be tried again. It also ran a serialisation of a self-justificatory book by the officer in charge of the case, Detective Inspector Keith Pedder, headlined 'How British Justice Betrayed Rachel's Son'.

All the harassment and the tub-thumping, the misleading of Rachel Nickell's family and the denigration by the judge was in vain; a vast exercise in distraction left the real killer free to commit other crimes.

Today, the psychology of Britton, the police officers and journalists appears more interesting than the bogus psychological profile of Stagg. The pack became fixated on its prime suspect and nothing, not the rules of good police work or the ethics of honest journalism, could stop it from barking up the wrong tree.

The debacle came about because of an over-cosy relationship between police and reporters. It doesn't do either side any good because the off-the-record briefings and anonymous comments from 'senior officers' look bad when a case collapses. If Sir Ian Blair is forced to resign because of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, what will have done for him is not that the police made a mistake - people can accept that - but the unattributable claims from nameless spin doctors that they had killed a guilty man.

As for ID cards, I predict a riot

Close to where I live in London, a NO2ID group has sprung up to persuade Conservative, Lib Dem and Green councillors to order the local authority to refuse to co-operate with ID cards.

Similar campaigns are getting going in all kinds of towns - Glossop, Rhyl, Leek, Chippenham - places you don't normally associate with militant civil disobedience. It is a small thing, which may not be worth mentioning, but there is a chance the pattern of the poll tax protests is being repeated. When the poll tax came to parliament, there was a noisy debate. Then it disappeared beneath the media's radar. It seemed as if the issue was dead, but at the grassroots, thousands of people were preparing for an explosion of protest.

If ID cards are as expensive, intrusive and useless as I believe they will be, we may see the same again.

Furthermore: The mullahs' new best friend ... CND

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, whose demonstrations older readers may have marched on with me, is 'appalled' that Gordon Brown wants to replace Trident. Kate Hudson, its chairwoman, fears that Brown will 'send the worst possible signal' and convince Third World countries that they must go nuclear.

The spread of weapons of mass destruction is indeed terrifying, but it is not at all clear that CND opposes it. Last autumn, naive members were stunned when Dr Seyed Adeli, the then Iranian ambassador, appeared as guest of honour at its annual conference.

Iranian dissidents, who oppose the theocracy's drive to get the bomb, turned up to protest. CND stewards threw out the hecklers just as Labour party conference stewards had thrown out CND's Walter Wolfgang when he heckled Jack Straw the previous month.

It doesn't stop there. In February, Hudson demanded that Iran be left alone and expressed her 'deepest concern' at the news that the UK, France, Germany, the United States, Russia and China were to report the mullahs to the UN Security Council as part of the anti-nuclear proliferation treaty enforcement procedures.

What is going on? Why is CND doing everything it can to cheer on a reactionary regime that wants to go nuclear?

The short answer is that the friends of George Galloway and Ken Livingstone have taken it over and when those charmers move in, basic principles fly out of the window.

The debate would be comic if it wasn't so bleak. On the one hand, the government is going to waste billions on Cold War weapons our poorly equipped troops will never need or use. On the other, we have an 'anti-nuclear movement' that is against Britain being a nuclear power, but not Iran.


Nick Cohen

The GuardianTramp

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