Paul Lewis: Met told us to 'lay off' Tomlinson story

I was on the bus when my editor called. A man had died the previous evening during the G20 demonstrations, which I had been reporting.

All we knew about Ian Tomlinson at that time was he was a man wearing a Millwall shirt. I called the Millwall Football Supporters Association – no answer. I got my pad out on the bus and started calling all the mobile numbers of people I took quotes from the previous day, to see if they had seen anything.

One of them had, and I waited an hour at an estate in Shepherd’s Bush for some teenagers to bring me photos of Tomlinson, and another hour convincing them not to sell the pictures to the tabloids.

The images showed Tomlinson on the pavement, in front of a line of riot police. Another showed a protester picking him up. A quick look at Google Streetmap showed the pictures were taken at a different place to where he finally collapsed and died.

Back in the office, it was decided not to run all the pictures, but David Taylor, the editor who shepherded me through the story, took me off a web shift so I could dig deeper. David kept the email I sent to him: ‘I know there are thoughts I’m a conspiracy theorist, but the more I discover about dead man, the more suspicious I get. Things don’t add up and the police are cagey. Post-mortem postponed. Again.”

That day we started running stories questioning the police version of events. I got hold of ten witnesses, three of whom had seen police attack Tomlinson. I met the witnesses separately near the Bank of England, concerned they should not hear each other’s testimony, and asked them to walk me through events as they saw them.

Police official statements and briefings seemed to have discouraged others from looking into the story, and the Met and City of London police press offices are currently under investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

I think there was a lot of briefing. My seniors at the paper were being told there was nothing in the story, and I should lay off. The Tomlinson family’s police liaison officer personally told me that my articles were upsetting them. (I later found out this was untrue.)

The breakthrough came from a New York hedge fund manager. He was in contact with Bloomberg about a digital camera video of the attack but, persuaded that the Guardian was the only news organisation questioning the police account, he decided to give it to us.

It was 2am that night that the file to drop arrived. I emailed David: ‘He has his hands in his pockets. Two officers with dogs surround him. A third officer hits him on his back with a baton and a great deal of force. He goes flying to the ground and hit his head. He remonstrates with police from the floor but they leave him there until a bystander helps him to his feet. Will be in first thing (ish) to show you.”

This piece first appeared in the August 2009 edition of Press Gazette magazine and is published here online for the first time.

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