The lost hour


    Kenneth Roy

    As Whitehaven looks to Dunblane for advice, the full truth about the Scottish massacre has still not emerged.

    The first many of us heard of the Cumbrian massacre last Wednesday was when the BBC reported on its website that someone had been shot in Whitehaven and that the police were advising people in the area to stay indoors. At that stage (from memory, around 9.30am), the BBC was treating the report with some reserve: it placed the item below the main news. The geographical range of the attacks, and the lapse of time between them, meant that the enormity of what had happened took some time to emerge.
          Dunblane was different. The 17 murders were committed in the same building within a few minutes. Rumours of an ‘incident’ at the primary school spread quickly; radio programmes were soon being interrupted. By late morning, Scotland was numb with disbelief.
         In more ways than the obvious, the experience of the parents was not the experience of everyone else that day. The families of the primary 1 children were assembled and immediately cut off from the outside world, shepherded from one place to another, increasingly detached from reality. As the world learned of the murders of small children and their teacher in a small Scottish town, the people closest to the atrocity – the parents themselves – were deprived of information. It was a deliberate policy on the part of the authorities; the reasons for it have never been satisfactorily explained.

    By lunchtime, the horror of Dunblane was universally known – except to the families. They still did not know whether their children were alive or dead. I have heard first-hand testimony of the insensitivities visited on those who waited. One chilling image is of a minister of religion patting a father on the shoulder but saying nothing. No doubt this was intended as a gesture of sympathy. If so, it was misguided and unappreciated by its recipient.
         At 2.45pm, more than five hours after the massacre of the children and the suicide of their killer, the parents were finally informed. Even then, there was a lack of diligence. A friend accompanying one of the parents was addressed as the parent’s wife, although he had been recently widowed – a fact that ought to have been checked at some stage during the long delay.
         The timing is important for two reasons. First there is the question, still unanswered, of why it was considered necessary or humane to wait so long before putting the families out of their unendurable misery. What was the operational expedient? What was the psychology?
         The other question is more puzzling still. The police later gave evidence which shocked the parents and caused them renewed distress. Asked when the families were told the news, they gave as the time an hour earlier.
         At this point I pause and return to the first paragraph of this piece. I have written ‘from memory’ that the BBC first reported a shooting in Whitehaven at 9.30 last Wednesday morning. But my memory, even of so recent an event, could be wrong. It might have been slightly later; or slightly earlier. Memory is fallible. And my life did not depend on getting it right.
         Memory was certainly fallible in the extreme case of Dunblane, when lives did depend on it. Either the police were correct or the parents were correct; they could not both have been correct in their recollection of the time. Yet there would have been a good reason for believing either version. The police are taught to put a precise time to every occurrence; they take a pride in the accuracy of such vital information. The families, too, had every cause to be vigilant about the time. Enough of it had elapsed. Watches would be checked almost constantly. A parent is unlikely to forget when he hears that his child is dead.
         The likelier scenario is that the police evidence, on this point at least, was inaccurate. That is what the parents believe: that the police got it wrong. If they did, it was a very strange thing to get wrong – in the presence of credible witnesses, at an ultimate moment, with the world watching Dunblane.

    Why does this hour matter? What difference does it make? It is a continuing source of upset and bitterness: that is one answer. There is a deeper one too. Just before Whitehaven, I wrote here of listening to the testimony of a couple whose son was murdered on the day after his 16th birthday. The couple were asked for a definition of justice. ‘Justice is the truth,’ the mother replied. If justice is indeed the truth, then justice has not been done in Dunblane. There is a doubt, a very considerable doubt, about a fundamental part of the police evidence; it is simply not accepted by some of those most closely involved.
         If incorrect evidence was given, the police should acknowledge it 14 long years later. They should do so, not only as a mark of respect to all those who died, but in the wider interests of that justice which is truth. They should, but I suspect they won’t.

    Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.{jcomments on}