The detectives of the 70s were forced to investigate crimes using rudimentary methods. On the 40th anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings Andy Richards looks at that awful night and how police today would have fared
It is 40 years today since the Birmingham pub bombers struck – but it feels like light years in terms of technology and crime-fighting techniques.
It was on the night of November 21, 1974 that the horrific attack took place which left 21 dead and almost 200 injured, including many maimed and disfigured for life.
Bombs were detonated in The Mulberry Bush, under the Rotunda, and The Tavern in the Town, around the corner in New Street.
Five Irishmen, who together with a sixth later became known as the Birmingham Six, were arrested while about to board a ferry to Belfast and later convicted of carrying out the bombings.
West Midlands Police, in their haste for arrests and convictions, botched the original inquiry, though they had little to help them other than instinct – so dreadfully wrong in this case – and brute force. Even the forensics of the day let them down.
Home Office scientist Dr Frank Skuse's declaration that he was 99 per cent certain that two of the Birmingham Six had handled explosives because of the controversial Griess Tests he carried out was later ridiculed.
He had long been "retired" by the Civil Service on grounds of limited efficiency by 1991, when the Birmingham Six's second full appeal was allowed.
On that occasion three Court of Appeal judges – Lord Justices Lloyd, Mustill and Farquharson – stated of the forensic evidence: "Dr Skuse's conclusion was wrong, and demonstrably wrong, judged even by the state of forensic science in 1974."
There had been a huge weight of expectation on the force which, like all other forces across the UK, was relying on intelligence gathered by Special Branch and MI5 to win the war against the IRA.
That was being garnered from informants and with what now seems primitive surveillance methods, including the likes of basic phone tapping. There were no mobiles, no internet and social media had not been envisaged.
People communicated by conventional landline telephones, the Royal Mail or by fax – though many did not even have telephones in their homes at that point.
The city of Birmingham was also vastly different in those times.
There was no Brindleyplace, no International Convention Centre, no Michelin-starred restaurants, no redeveloped Bullring, no Sealife Centre and few hotels or restaurants worthy of the name.
And, crucially as far as criminals were concerned, there were no CCTV cameras anywhere. In fact, in November 1974, there were only 63 CCTV cameras in the whole of Britain.
Fast forward to today and it is believed there is one camera for every 13 people in the UK.
For several years it has been virtually impossible to cross Birmingham city centre either on foot or by car without most of your journey being recorded by CCTV.
Look up at lampposts or most buildings and you'll spot a camera looking down at you.
Some resent this Big Brother-style prying on their privacy, but there's no denying they have been an invaluable boost to fighting crime and tackling terrorism, recording road accidents and tracing lost people.
Of course, CCTV cameras wouldn't have stopped the bombers leaving their deadly, gelignite-filled holdalls in The Mulberry Bush or the Tavern in the Town.
But the chances are they would have recorded them taking them there.
The four suicide bombers who carried out the 7/7 suicide bombings in central London in July 2005, targeting civilians using the public transport system during the morning rush hour, couldn't avoid CCTV cameras.
The four – Hasib Hussain, Germaine Lindsay, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer – were captured on CCTV at Luton station at 7:21am on that dreadful day. Other photos revealed their route.
Hasib Hussain, who detonated the bus bomb in Tavistock Square, is seen on CCTV leaving a Boots store on the King's Cross station concourse at 9am.
Had the CCTV which we now have in Birmingham been operating on November 21, 1974, it is extremely likely that the bombers would have been recorded – and the implications of that are huge.
First, it would have vindicated the Birmingham Six and shown what it took almost 17 years for them to establish – that they didn't do it.
Hence one of the gravest miscarriages of justice in British criminal history would have been avoided – and indirectly the huge cost to the British purse.
Secondly, because CCTV footage is time recorded, images taken of the bombers and of everyone in and around New Street, New Street rail station and the Bullring on that night would have resolved the many ambiguities over the precise times that events happened.
Often, in cases such as this, the disparity between just a few seconds makes an awful lot of difference.
In addition, had CCTV cameras been operating in and around Morecambe Police Station in the early hours of the following morning, it would have resolved the much contested arguments over exactly when Dr Skuse carried out the controversial Griess Tests.
Furthermore, custody cameras would have shown exactly when the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad moved in – and make plain the hotly contested events which happened during those initial police interviews. Always assuming such cameras are tamper-proof, of course.
All such evidence would have been invaluable, had it been available in 1974.
Other developments which would have closed the net on the bombers today include:
DNA profiling is used everyday in criminal investigations and paternity tests.
It would have been an invaluable tool had such knowledge and skills been available to those hunting the pub bombers.
For a start, it would have rendered almost redundant the unreliable Griess Tests carried out by Dr Skuse.
Not only were those tests unreliable, they were complicated.
No doubt with this in mind, the judge at the trial of the Birmingham Six, somewhat patronisingly told the jury they would probably have to rely on the impressions they gained of Dr Skuse, and the defence forensic science expert Dr Hugh Black and the relative experience of both men, to decide who was the more accurate.
We all know the credit given to Dr Skuse's flawed findings helped convict the Birmingham Six.
DNA profiling didn't begin until 1986, courtesy of Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester.
* Bomb reconstruction techniques
Old reports on the pub bombings trial talk of scientists who examined the debris of both pubs finding the parts of alarm clocks, a battery and screws, along with the handles of the holdalls they were sure the bombs were carried in.
Looking back it all sounds almost ham-fisted.
By 1988, after Pan Am 103 was brought down over Lockerbie by an improvised explosive device, more than 1,000 police officers and soldiers began a fingertip search of the huge crash site which lasted for months and in which they retrieved more than 10,000 items from the fields and forests of southern Scotland. They were told: "If it isn't growing and isn't a rock, pick it up." They were asked to look out particularly for items which might be charred and which might therefore have been close to an explosion.
The blast fragments they eventually found included parts of a radio cassette player and a small piece of circuit board. Eventually they reconstructed the whole bomb. Admittedly, there is controversy over whether the man ultimately convicted, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, actually committed the crime.
But we are now almost 30 years on from Lockerbie and bomb reconstruction techniques are significantly further advanced.
The advent of the internet, wi-fi and broadband has given us all more options for instant communication – terrorists included.
It's also given us far more sophisticated surveillance techniques.
In 1974 there were phone-tapping and long lensed cameras. Today, we have electronic eavesdropping which can be done over telephone wires, email, instant messaging and pretty much every private method of communication.
And it's all getting extremely sophisticated. In June CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden claimed America's National Security Agency, which works in tandem with the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), could listen in to the microphone of your iPhone, even if the device is switch OFF, without you ever knowing.
Is there any teenager who doesn't take them?
Both pubs were very busy on the night the bombers struck. The Tavern in the Town was particularly popular with teenagers and students.
Had mobile phones been around in 1974, the chances are they would have been much in evidence in that pub in particular on the dreadful night.
It was pay day, Christmas was on the horizon, people were in high spirits. What other images may have inadvertently been captured inside the underground bar in the build-up to the tragedy?
And, if some of those images survived the dreadful blasts, what evidence might that have yielded for the police?
So would the real bombers have been caught had the police been armed with new technology and DNA genetic profiling available today?
Probably. The odds would have been stacked in their favour rather than against them. But we can never be sure.
Humankind's prowess in technology and science seems matched in equal measure by our cunning and ingenuity to wreak death and destruction.
Chances are, of course, that had the bombers been planning it today, they would do it differently. All the more reason for everyone to be constantly vigilant.