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Covering Strangeways: the riot, the siege, the boredom

By Brendan Pittaway
Journalist, PR Consultant and former BBC Reporter

Prisoners on the roof of Strangways prison in 1990
Prisoners took to the roof of Strangeways during the siege

The passing of two decades has seen significant change in the life of HMP Manchester - or Strangeways, as it will always be known to many.

Twenty years ago today, I was one of scores of reporters who arrived at the jail to find authorities who didn't quite know how to manage one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the British penal system.

That an institution less than half a mile from the centre of one of the country's largest cities was ablaze, ringed by police and under the control of inmates and not their jailers seemed surreal.

Events over the course of the following three weeks reinforced the sense of disbelief amongst the media who gathered in the streets nearby.

I had only been at BBC Greater Manchester Radio for a fortnight and, at the time the prison disturbance kicked off, had been kicking off myself in a charity football match on Merseyside.

Reporters who managed to slip past the official cordon were given a stern ticking-off, while interviews with rioters were drowned out by the sirens
Brendan Pittaway on covering the riot

So, when I got to Strangeways, I was dressed even more casually than most other reporters who'd been summoned from their homes on a Sunday afternoon.

Some muddy football kit and a thin shell-suit might not have been normally reporting attire but, at that stage, no-one knew how long the riot and the siege which followed would continue.

One of the lessons I quickly found out, however, was that thicker clothing was needed to keep the chill Mancunian nights at bay in an aged radio car, which became my second home until the specially-trained squads of prison officers brought the siege to a close 24 days later.

'A painfully-drawn out deadlock'

When it became clear that the siege had descended into a painfully-drawn out deadlock, with neither the prison authorities nor remaining inmates willing to give ground, news organisations pulled many of their reporters and cameraman away, leaving coverage of the less dramatic days of the riot to a small rump of media.

Fires at Strangways prison in 1990
Areas of the prison were set alight during the riot

Most were gathered in Julia Street, which ran parallel to the main front gate of the prison, corralled by a fairly comprehensive police cordon.

Friendships were formed but rivalries maintained as journalists endeavoured to find out the truth behind persistent sensational rumours about prisoners having murdered fellow inmates and atrocious conditions behind the forbidding and forbidden walls of the Victorian jail.

Throughout the early days of the siege, local police stationed at the prison were constantly on their guard to prevent media getting too close to events inside.

Reporters who managed to slip past the official cordon were given a stern ticking-off and sent on their way, while attempted interviews with rioters were drowned out by the sirens of patrol cars.

The authorities argued that the containment of information was needed to deny inmates 'the oxygen of publicity' and maintain security.

As journalists, though, there was an imperative to establish the facts.

Evading the cacophony

One night, having befriended local traders whose businesses had been badly affected by the riot, I and a handful of other reporters managed to evade police and make our way onto the roof of a warehouse directly opposite.

As we inched ourselves precariously along rickety guttering, we could see the prison yard and the huge volume of broken slates and pipes, hurled down at warders and police since the riot began.

Police confront a prisoner on the roof of Strangways prison in 1990
The 25 day siege saw several stand-offs between police and prisoners

In the gloom, we could also make out some of those inmates who had remained atop one of its buildings.

With a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder in hand, I managed a short, shouted exchange with two inmates before the interview, as it was, ended amid the usual cacophony of car horns.

At least the minute or so of muffled audio was a clearer idea of events than had been gleaned from either infrequent official press releases or the fevered imaginings of slaughter and destruction.

The episode was one of the few bursts of excitement over the many long nights of the disturbance, punctuated by practical jokes played upon reporters who used the spells of tedium to catch up on sleep in their cars and the shrieks of their colleagues who hadn't envisaged sharing their broadcast podiums with rats.

Changes born of the riot

The Strangeways siege marked something of a watershed.

Not only did it transform the fabric of the jail and, to a degree, the entire prison system itself but it saw a great shift in the way the news media covered such breaking stories.

In 1990, rolling news as a concept was in its infancy, the internet had yet to prove its worth and the ability of local radio to trump even the rigid schedules of terrestrial broadcast networks remained the key to alerting the world as stories unfolded.

It also demonstrated that local stations had incredibly close ties to - and represented a crucial service for - their local audiences, something which the passage of 20 years has not diminished.

Audio slideshow: Strangeways Riot
31 Mar 10 |  History
Strangeways: Ten years on
28 Mar 00 |  UK


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