Over the years I have had thousands of news articles and features published in the local, regional, national and international press and broadcasting mediums. I have walked within the security cordon as an accredited journalist immediately behind Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (Sir John Moore Barracks, Hampshire 1993/4), and have met several other Royals including Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and the late Princess Diana, as well as a host of other public celebrities, stars and ordinary citizens, both good and bad. I worked hard to build a life that was well equipped and lost it overnight. This is just the way it is and as such I like to believe it is yet but a hair on the goatskin of my life.

It is unlikely that those above knew I was a ‘reformed criminal’ with an extensive ‘criminal record’, though I meant none any harm. Who made me out as a criminal is a matter for broader analysis. I never said anything about it to those I worked for and with. Why would I? I am well aware from experience that there are many bigots in life whose only pastime seems to be messing up the lives of others.

The below account is the first time I have published details of my encounter with the UK D-Notice.

My Brush with the British D-Notice
In 1970 whilst living in London I became associated with an organisation known as Release, a group committed to helping people who found themselves in trouble with the law over drugs-related issues. As well as working towards the creation of alternatives to custodial sentences for the possession of soft drugs, Release was part of a wider network of groups that included Radical Alternatives to Prison, or RAP.

RAP was also working towards a more enlightened approach to the control of 'soft' drugs, particularly cannabis. The London-based organisations had a number of respectable and forward thinking lawyers and legal advisors working with them and had a great many volunteer representatives who would often attend the court appearances of those arrested or charged with the possession of soft or 'controlled' drugs.

RAP was trying to introduce the courts to alternative measures to imprisonment for the personal possession of cannabis, while highlighting the number of people who were being held in jails and who were gaining criminal records for no 'crime' other than such possession of hashish or marijuana.

While on remand in 1970 in the under-21 detention centre at Ashford in Kent for a non-drugs related matter, I met many young people who had been arrested for possession of cannabis, many of whom also went on to serve jail sentences of varying severity—the most severe being a six-year-term imposed on a 20-year-old Texan who had been apprehended in transit at Heathrow Airport on route from India back to the USA with 1kg of hashish in his luggage.

The Texan's father was a bigwig in the Pentagon at the time, but that didn't stop the London trial judge publicly commenting that he was making an example of the young man (see account of Bill Owens' trial, published in The Times and the Sunday Times during 1970. Not available online which only covers from 1985- see library microfiche files).

I felt drawn to the work being undertaken by RAP, and made contact with the group, meeting several of its core nucleus of workers and organisers. My late teen years had been a mishmash of experience with several run-ins with the law, none of which were for drugs-related issues. A spell at a correctional 'approved' school was followed by a term at an open Borstal which was then completed at a secure unit following my escape. Then in 1969 I was arrested in London for an attempted robbery and sentenced to 18 months by the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court.

Over the years, I had acquired a 'criminal' record, albeit in the main for what would generally be considered petty offences except for the robbery charge. And being tagged in this way did not make life easy.

On my release from Wormwood Scrubs I took up residence in London and maintained my contact with Release and with RAP over the next few years. Later I was living in a small flat that included the luxury of a telephone, in Fox Hill in Crystal Palace with Eileen, my girlfriend of the time, who was expecting our child. Then I was asked to attend a RAP meeting at the London School of Economics.

There was a mere handful of people at the meeting, which was being held by a section of RAP that was receiving funding from the Church of England. The subject under discussion was a riot that had taken place at Gartree Prison in Leicester, one of Britain's top security jails.

I was asked if I would investigate the incident as it was considered that the 'official' information that was publicly released regarding the riot was misleading and was more than just a gloss-over of actual events. I agreed to conduct investigations and the meeting concluded.

My plan of attack was to prepare two dossiers, one detailing the events that had been published and broadcast about the riot, the other containing whatever I discovered through my investigations.

I had been provided with a contact at the Observer newspaper, someone who had worked on the story and who I was told would be of some assistance to me. I made contact but was not fully prepared for what I would hear.

My journalist contact said he would be glad to help me, but any help he provided would be strictly off the record. He also said he would deny having provided me with any information at all should his having done so be brought into the open.

The riot and the issues regarding it were subject to a government "D Notice", he told me.

The D Notice was (and is) a relic of the world war years. It was introduced as a measure to protect national security and was effectively an unwritten request and warning to publishers and broadcasters regarding the public release of any information deemed by the government to possibly compromise national security.

The penalties for breaching the D Notice could be severe and at worst could lead to the withdrawal of broadcast or publishing licenses. With the close of the war, the legislation was never revoked and remained on the statute books, where over the years it became abused by various government officials who used it to prevent publication of matters considered embarrassing. In the 60s and 70s, few newspapers cared to really tackle the issue head on, though some grumbling was occasionally heard. It would be a few more years until certain newspapers took the issue fully to task.

But the D Notice was still an effective tool in place when I began my investigations into the Gartree riot, and as a somewhat worldly wise but at the same time green young man, I did not effectively cover my own back.

I made open telephone contact with the former governor of Gartree, who had been transferred elsewhere, and made contact with other prison staff and medics and police who had been called to the incident. I tracked down a former inmate who had been at the jail during the riot and interviewed him in London.

Gradually my two dossiers began to take form. I learned that an escape attempt by two hardened criminals at Gartree had been foiled.

The two had managed to get out of the main prison block but were spotted moving through the prison grounds.

At the time, the other prisoners were taking their main evening meal and the dining room windows overlooked the courtyard where the escapees had been spotted.

The panic whistle was blown and I was told that a number of prison officers rushed into the grounds to apprehend the would-be escapees. I was also told that at least one of the guards had grabbed a hammer from a tool store, but all were equipped with truncheons, or Billy sticks.

My informants said that the prisoners in the dining room watched as the two escaping prisoners were severely beaten by the guards after guard dogs had been released on them. One informant said that truncheons and the hammer had been used in what he described as a 'merciless beating'.

This, I was told, was the cause of the "riot". Angered by what they saw happening to the attempted escapees, the prisoners in the dining room overpowered their guards and locked them into a store room before breaking out of the building and climbing onto the roof in protest at their witnessed treatment of the men in the yard.

Once on the roof, they began tearing off its felt covering and throwing the material into the yards below.

This contrasted sharply with the 'official' reports, which gave no real explanation for the riot other than to say it was 'spontaneous' and probably caused by the 'hot weather', or boredom or other factors.

What was not mentioned in any official reports was the escape attempt, nor the actions of the prison guards. One report referred to the rooftop inmates throwing 'heavy slates' from the roof and so not letting anyone approach the building at ground level. Unfortunately there were no heavy slates on the roof.

I began to piece together the two dossiers, gathering broadcast news report details and newspaper clippings and then typing up the results of my own investigations.

Then I discovered what I am still certain was a tap put onto my telephone line. Several times in the early hours of the morning past midnight, my telephone would ring but there would be nobody there when I picked it up, just static and subdued clicking. Then one morning when it rang at about 2am I was beside it at my desk and snatched it up almost before it had finished its first ring, saying hello in a brisk tone.

I had caught the person at the other end by surprise. A flustered male voice tried to explain that it was the telephone company 'checking the line'. I was not convinced, this had been ongoing over several days and anyway, what telephone company would ring a residential telephone line at 2am to 'check the line'?

It was my first indication that my line had been tapped, but the damage had already been done by myself.

It is pertinent at this point to say a little more of myself and of my life at the time. I had been unable to secure a steady job, though I had turned my hand to a good few. I was driving a stolen car without insurance or a valid licence and had paid for work done on the car with a dud cheque. I had also been on bail for several months due to some earlier misdemeanours.

In short, I was already known to police in addition to my past criminal record. Hidden beneath a floorboard in the flat was a passport belonging to person unknown to me, some other documentation and a non-functioning starter pistol. They belonged to my girlfriend's brother, also a good friend of mine, who had asked if he could leave the items with me. They had been under the floorboard for some weeks.

Niko, our daughter, had been born and was just a few weeks old.

Several weeks earlier police had called by with a request to examine the inside of a garage attached to the house. I had been using the garage for a time, but the person who let the flat to me had let the garage to someone else and I no longer had any keys to it.

I explained the position to the police, who after looking through a window at the back of the garage then broke the doors open. Inside were dozens of packaged television sets, radios and hi-fi players. The police seemed to accept that I knew nothing of the matters, which was the truth. A short time later a police truck pulled up and began clearing the contents of the garage. It was the last I heard of it.

The flat I shared with Eileen had two main rooms in addition to the bathroom and small kitchen, the living room and the bedroom, running from the front to the back of the ground floor of the small Victorian three floored terraced house. It was an open plan flat, and the front and back rooms each had large french windows opening respectively onto the front and back gardens.

I was awakened at dawn one day by a deliberate and heavy knocking on the rear french windows, alongside the head of our bed. Getting out of bed and peering through a slot in the heavy drapes, I saw six or seven uniformed police in the back garden, behind a burly sergeant who was demanding that I open up and let them in. I ran to the front windows only to see a number of police occupying the front garden too. There was an escape hatch leading from the kitchen to the upper floors of the house but there was no escape from the house itself. It was surrounded by police.

After delaying them for long enough to allow Eileen to get out of bed and pull on some clothes—I'd threatened to bash anyone with a heavy broom handle if they broke through the windows—I then let them in.

They separated Eileen from me and kept us at opposite ends of the flat. Neither of us was permitted to make any telephone call. Searching through the premises, the sergeant drew attention to a new hi-fi, which I had purchased through a legitimate hire purchase scheme some months ago and was up to date on payments.

"Whose is this? he asked Eileen, and when she said it was mine, he replied "well it must be stolen then," instructing his men to take it.

We were both arrested and taken to different police stations, myself to Norwood and Eileen to Streatham. She later told me that police at the station had threatened her with taking our daughter away from her if she 'refused to co-operate' with them.

Eileen was released and returned to the home of her parents, but I was refused all bail applications and was held on remand until the trial.

I obtained a defending barrister, a sharp and methodical black guy who was with a reputable central London firm. Just before the start of the two-day trial at Westminster Crown Court in Westminster Square, he left me under little illusion as to my pending fate.

Speaking to me in the holding cells beneath the courthouse, he told that he had been made aware that the trial judge had been shown papers taken from my flat. He had also obviously been briefed as to the content.

He told me that he would do everything he could, but warned me that I was facing a stacked deck. In short, he said, there was nothing he could do that would change the outcome.

The trial itself was something of a farce. Some 20 charges had been brought against me, ranging from theft of a car to motoring offences relating to tax and insurance and my lack of a licence (I think I was under a driving ban at the time too). Other charges included using dud cheques, possession of point nine of a gram of hashish, obtaining the hi-fi equipment by deception, and a bunch more nefarious charges that had been tagged on.

It was obvious that the jury 'trial' was a fixed affair. The shopkeeper who had sold me the hi-fi was called as a defence witness. He told the jury that he had used a finance company to carry out a check on me before making the hire purchase agreement and that everything was in fact in order. Despite this, because I had used my real name with the addition of a middle nickname, I was found guilty of obtaining the hi-fi—a relatively inexpensive model—by deception.

The trial closed with me being sentenced to a total jail term of 14 years, numerous sentences of different lengths that were imposed concurrently, making a total of four years to serve. That was increased by six months following my appeal against the severity of the sentence.

Closing the trial, the judge gave a sermon on how I had led Eileen astray. Quite simply, someone wanted me out of circulation for a time and I suspect it was due to my investigations of the Gartree riot.

Strangely, when the judge concluded, I suddenly found myself alone in the dock with no sign of the guards. Perhaps the 14-year-term surprised them. I slipped unnoticed out of the courtroom into the main corridor leading to the main front doors of the building which opened onto Westminster Square. I didn't get the chance to break into a run for the doors, which were some 20 or so yards away, and was grabbed from behind and hauled back into the courtroom and down into the cells. I served the bulk of the sentence on the Isle of Wight.

I never saw my documents again, nor was I able to make any progress in inquiring about them. It was simply as if they had never existed.

I received no support nor help from those who had asked me to carry out the research in the wake of my arrest.
Keith Harris, Wednesday, 12 May 2004


Related D-Notice items

And, strangely apt:
National Union of Journalists : D-Notice
D-Notice. This document may be viewed by NUJ members only. If you have a user name and password, please log in. If you are an NUJ ...

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