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CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: A birthday party tragedy and the controversy that rages 40 years on

Uprising

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Torn Apart: Family Courts Uncovered

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At the dawn of the internet, a Texas lawyer named Michael Godwin observed that any online argument, on any subject, usually descended into accusations of Nazism.

The longer the row went on, the more likely it was that someone would be compared to Adolf Hitler.

More true than ever today, this is now known as Godwin’s Law — a term included in the Oxford English Dictionary.

TV has its own version. Call it the Iron Lady Theory — Mrs Thatcher is to blame for all the evils of the world.

Any documentary on modern British history will feature a soundbite of Margaret Thatcher, generally backed by ominous music, her words wrenched out of context.

Whether she is slapping down an interviewer or delivering a barnstorming speech at the Tory Party conference, the footage is often screened at an off-kilter angle, to emphasise how alarming it is.

Pictured: fire crews on scene at the New Cross house fire that occurred during a party at a house in New Cross, south-east London, in the early hours of Sunday, 18 January 1981

Pictured: fire crews on scene at the New Cross house fire that occurred during a party at a house in New Cross, south-east London, in the early hours of Sunday, 18 January 1981

No film-maker can mention Maggie without wanting to stamp on her grave. It happens on every channel but the Beeb, of course, loathes her worst of all.

Uprising (BBC1), about the New Cross fire in 1981 that killed 13 people, scandalously implied that she fostered the rise of the National Front in the late Seventies.

Excerpts from a statement about immigration were edited, to give a completely false impression, and screened beside film of a thuggish skinhead rally in South London.

Such a misrepresentation — sheer nonsense to anyone who knows the politics of the period — was unworthy of this three-part account, which is otherwise excellent.

Directed by Steve McQueen and James Rogan, it pieces together the night of the fire itself, with the swirling undercurrents of violence beforehand and the demonstrations that followed.

There is no hard evidence that the blaze at a birthday party for two black teenage girls was started deliberately.

Documentary testifies to a largely untold part of London’s history. Pictured: a protest in 1981

Documentary testifies to a largely untold part of London’s history. Pictured: a protest in 1981

Many, though, believe it was racially motivated. Arsons were common — there was talk of lighter fuel sprayed through letterboxes.

A number of the survivors remain deeply traumatised and deserve great credit for telling their stories so lucidly.

Some of their descriptions were so vivid we could almost feel the heat blistering our faces.

The documentary, which continues tonight, testifies to a largely untold part of London’s history.

Television does this better than any other medium. But TV directors with a political axe to grind have to resist the temptation to refight battles from 40 years ago. Politics is not like boxing with automatic rematches.

The family courts seemed like a boxing arena in Louise Tickle’s impassioned report for Dispatches.

Ellie Yarrow-Sanders vanished with Olly in 2018, triggering a hunt by police and court officials. In her first interview since winning custody, she told C4's dispatches why she did what she did

Ellie Yarrow-Sanders vanished with Olly in 2018, triggering a hunt by police and court officials. In her first interview since winning custody, she told C4’s dispatches why she did what she did 

Torn Apart: Family Courts Uncovered (C4) showed how custody disputes can be refought endlessly until one side collapses in exhaustion.

A mother-of-two called Jane faced 37 applications over eight years from her estranged partner, a convicted paedophile who accused her of alienating their children against him.

If parents fail to comply when ordered to surrender custody, the scenes that follow are harrowing.

Phone footage showed police turning up at a woman’s house at midnight to carry away her son and daughter, who were screaming that they didn’t want to go.

Much of the evidence was circumspect, because under a 1960 law it is forbidden to report the proceedings of a family court.

Many parents feel the judges are actively hostile, meting out arbitrary decisions and even dismissing statements from the children themselves.

The programme sometimes got mired in legal jargon. But the warning was clear: never put your trust in the family courts.

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