Bristol ‘broken bones’ claim is latest in long line of police disinformation

For as long as the police have existed, they've been misleading the press about protesters.

The Chief Constable of Bristol’s police force has contradicted his organisation’s earlier claims that their officers suffered broken bones at a recent protest.

The police’s ‘broken bones’ claim was reported as fact by the BBC, the Independent and Sky News while the Bristol Post and The Sun said there one officer suffered a “collapsed lung” – something the chief constable has also now denied.

Police forces in the UK have a long history of making misleading statements, particularly about protests. Their claims have often been treated as fact by much of the media.

In 1979, a special needs teacher called Blair Peach was killed by the police while protesting against the National Front. A secret internal investigation concluded that police officers covered up his killing. Searches of officers’ lockers revealed knives, crowbars and Nazi regalia. The investigation identified a suspect but he never faced charges.

After 1989’s Hillsborough disaster, a South Yorkshire police officer told The Sun that Liverpool supporters had stolen from and urinated on dying victims and attacked police officers. This was reported on The Sun’s front page as ‘The Truth’ and the officer only retracted the claim in 2016. It was completely false and designed to distract from the police’s culpability for the 96 deaths.

In 2005, police officers shot an innocent man called Jean Charles de Menezes dead, leading to the Evening Standard’s headline “bomber shot dead on tube”. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair claimed police had warned the man before shooting him but an inquest later found this to be untrue. Cressida Dick, who was in charge of the police operation that day, is now in charge of the whole police force.

In 2008, police justified heavy-handed attacks on climate protesters by saying their officers had sustained 70 injuries. A freedom of information request revealed that the protesters were not responsible for any injuries. The 70 injuries included toothache, diarrhea, heat exhaustion and wasp stings.

In 2009, the Evening Standard reported police officers were “pelted with bricks as they help dying man”. In fact, crowd footage revealed that protesters had helped Ian Tomlinson up after he was pushed over by police officer Simon Harwood. Injuries sustained in his incident later led to Tomlinson’s death.

At the same G20 protest, the police attacked peaceful climate campaigners. They told the press these tactics were “controlled dispersal” and that temporary toilets and water were made available to protesters.

In 2011, the Metropolitan Police shot Mark Duggan dead. While they continue to claim he was armed and posed a threat to them, independent analysts have described their version of events as “not supported by evidence”. Heavy-handed policing of Duggan’s vigil led to nationwide riots.

In 2017, Sussex Police barred Crystal Palace fans from entering Brighton FC’s stadium, claiming they were armed with “knives and knuckledusters”. After pressure from Crystal Palace’s Five Year Plan fanzine, they admitted this was not true. No officers faced punishment over this misinformation.

In 2020, a student nurse called Jessie Mawutu was knocked unconscious after the police charged horses into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters. The police claimed, and the press reported, that protesers were violent. Neither immediately mentioned Mawutu’s injuries.

Joe Lo is a co-editor of Left Foot Forward

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