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The Sun, the Met and Ronnie Biggs

Ronnie Biggs in Rio
After escaping from Australia, Ronnie Biggs went on to live in Brazil

Close relationships between Rupert Murdoch's tabloids and senior officers of the Met police are nothing new, reports Sanchia Berg.

A file just released at the National Archives shows how, in 1970, months after Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun, its editor was able to get the police to do the paper a significant favour.

In late 1969, the Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs was spotted in Australia. He had been living there quietly, under an assumed name. Police raided his home in a suburb of Melbourne - but he had gone on the run, only hours before.

The Australian police embarked on a huge manhunt, taking officers off ordinary duties, knocking on doors up and down the country. They could not find him.

Then, in April 1970, the Sun in London obtained a 77-page document purporting to be Biggs' own life story. It was being offered for sale by a lawyer in Melbourne, and another Murdoch paper in Australia was planning to run the story.

Each page was stamped with a fingerprint, and signed in Biggs' name: the problem was, how could the Sun check whether these were genuine?

Coaches of the train involved in the 2.5 million mail "great train robbery"
Some 2.5m was stolen by the so-called Great Train Robbers

The Sun approached the Metropolitan Police, saying they had an important document, relating to a significant crime. On 15 April, Cdr Wallace Virgo visited the paper's offices and was given a copy of the memoir.

Larry Lamb, the paper's editor, pointed to the signatures and fingerprints and asked if "the Yard could oblige" by authenticating them.

He also said parts of the documents were very critical of the police, libellous in parts, but he suggested that "having taken legal advice, his newspaper would not publish anything detrimental to the police".

The police did check all 77 pages - very quickly. The fingerprints matched Biggs' prison records - though their experts thought a cast might have been made and used to stamp it on every page.

Scoop

They thought the signatures were copies, possibly by a woman, having more "feminine characteristics".

The Great Train Robber, 'Buster' Edwards reads Sun newspaper article about his companion-in-crime Ronnie Biggs
Other Great Train Robbers read Biggs' international endeavours with interest

The police consulted their solicitor, according to the file. He advised they could let the paper know, in the "vaguest terms" and he said that to try to block publication might result in "unfavourable comment" about the police.

A mere two days later, 17 April, Cdr Virgo returned the documents to Larry Lamb and told him the findings.

So, the Sun had its scoop, authenticated by New Scotland Yard itself. Its Australian sister paper was quick to advertise the fact - and the Australian police were amazed.

Police Commissioner for New South Wales Norman Allan rang New Scotland Yard at 11pm on 19 April. He was due at a meeting an hour later, where the Australian authorities were going to discuss action they could take against Murdoch in Australia - for assisting a criminal.

Before that, the commissioner wanted to be sure that the claims made about Scotland Yard were false - that "neither the fingerprints nor the handwriting had been authenticated".

He was put through to a senior officer, Cdr Adams, who told him that, no, Scotland Yard had checked them.

The Australian was amazed that Scotland Yard had "supported this newspaper venture" and he felt that "it was holding both his force and ours up to ridicule".

Cash question

He felt that by confirming the authenticity of the print and signature, the police were enabling Biggs to obtain more money to assist in his escape. The Sun had told police that Biggs was going to put the money into a trust fund for his children: Mr Allan did not believe for one moment that was true.

A surveillance photo of Ronnie Biggs
Biggs was re-arrested in the UK in 2001 and released from prison in 2009

Mr Allan wanted this matter reported to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. He would be reporting it to his own Attorney General and he had already sent a senior officer to interview the management of the Australian papers. He wanted to be told if any similar step was contemplated in Britain.

There the file ends. When the Sun published its exclusive in Britain, there was some public criticism - Biggs was, after all, one of the most wanted men in Britain at the time. Questions were asked in Parliament. But there is no indication that any further action was taken.

Duncan Campbell, the investigative journalist who has written extensively on police corruption of the 70s and 80s, sees some parallel with today's events in the evident "chumminess" between editors and senior officers.

But he points out that there's a huge difference between then and now - the scale and nature of the relationship was very different.

Cdr Virgo, the man who helped out Larry Lamb, later became notorious as the most senior officer in the Met to be prosecuted for corruption after it was revealed that he had been taking regular payments from a Soho pornographer, James Humphreys.




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