an investigation of the investigation into the 1981 New Cross Fire

Produced by MA students at the Centre for Research Architecture and facilitated by Stafford Scott & Kamara Scott, Guest Professors, Forensic Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London, 2022-23


digital archive of research materials
diagrams and links


How did the media aid
the depoliticization
of the fire?


In 1980s Britain, the media landscape was more diverse. In addition to the mainstream Fleet Street newspapers that we still see today such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian, there were a plethora of local and independent newspapers with varying political leanings in circulation, including West Indian World, The Socialist Worker, The Socialist Challenge, and The Morning Star.

By comparing and contrasting these newspapers’ responses to the New Cross fire, inconsistencies and omissions surrounding the investigation begin to emerge. Similarly, there are a number of inconsistencies in the public, political, and media attitudes towards Black people in Britain.

Swipe to scroll through the timeline.

This timeline contextualises the New Cross Massacre as a means of countering both the media and the state’s depoliticisation of the fire.

The lack of coverage of the Massacre by the media, as well as the absence of acknowledgement by the state resulted in the evasion of any national public discourse on the evaluation of Britain’s racist violence and the legislation and state policies that cultivated the environment which made the Massacre possible. The silence of the state in acknowledging the tragedy of the fire was amplified when, one month later, the Stardust nightclub in Dublin burnt down, receiving condolences from both the Queen and then PM Margaret Thatcher.1 This depoliticisation is a calculative and intentional practice, a form of ‘organised state abandonment’, that has been employed to ensure the continuation of the pattern of racial violence.2

We can see the pattern of depoliticising racialised events, particularly with the uprisings of July 1981 across the country, in Brixton, Birmingham, Coventry, Liverpool, Southall, Manchester, Woolwich, Nottingham, Leicester, Derby, Bradford, among others. Our timeline zooms in on the month of July to emphasise the intensity of resistance action that happened nationally, inspired by a pattern of police brutality, far-right violence, sus laws, and racist British sentiment fostered by government and media rhetoric.3

The depoliticisation of these events was institutionalised through the Hytner Report and the Scarman Report, both published in 1981, which were government inquiries analysing the causation of the uprisings.4 The Hytner report concluded that the Moss Side uprising was a “spontaneous eruption(s) of hate”, placing the event in an ahistorical vacuum by refusing to acknowledge the racial violence which grounded the uprising. The Scarman Report followed suit, which came to the same conclusion regarding the Brixton uprising.5 Ultimately, the summer of 1981 was a pivotal period where the height of resistance action, police brutality, far-right groups, and state legislation coalesced to reveal how the state can depoliticise a mass uprising against racism in Britain.  

The media’s depoliticisation of the New Cross Massacre expands beyond 1981, marking the following decades, as acts of racial violence were isolated from the history of anti-immigration legislation, the colonial legacy of the British empire, and right-wing rhetoric on who belongs and does not belong in Britain. We continue to see the murder of Black people in the hands of state authority, whether that be through state neglect, such as the Grenfell Tower fire in 2011 and higher COVID-19 deaths in Black communities, or police brutality, including the murders of Stephen Lawrence, Azelle Rodney, Mark Duggan and Chris Kaba, to name only a few.6 By presenting the timeframe of 1981 to 2022, we aim to combat the ahistoricism that depoliticisation causes. By situating legislation, police violence, and non-state violence in relation to each other, we wish to formulate a pattern of state neglect which crosses over decades whilst documenting the legacy of resistance action and the mobilisation of Black communities to fight against this.

1 Aaron Andrews, “Truth, Justice, and Expertise in 1980s Britain: the Cultural Politics of the New Cross Massacre,” History Workshop Journal 91, no. 1 (Spring 2021): 189.
2 Brenna Bhandar, “Organised State Abandonment: The Meaning of Grenfell,” The Sociological Review, 4 October 2022,
3 A. Sivanandan, From Resistance to Rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean Struggles in Britain, (London: The Institute of Race Relations, 1986): 149.
4 Mary Venner, “The disturbances in moss side, Manchester,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 9, no: 3 (2020): 374-377.
5 Venner, 374-377.
6 Bhandar, “Organised State Abandonment”; Denis Campbell, “Racism contributed to disproportionate UK BAME coronavirus deaths, inquiry finds”, The Guardian, 14 June 2020,
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/14/racism-disproportionate-uk-bame-coronavirus-deaths-report; “Family Campaigns,” Inquest, accessed 15 Nov 2022, https://www.inquest.org.uk/family-campaigns.

The bubble diagram is a research tool that maps out a complex network of people, organisations, and institutions involved in the New Cross Fire investigation. The visualisation of these relationships is illustrative of alliances and overlaps between organisations.

Each bubble represents a group or institution. Key actors of each group or institution are listed within the bubbles with their current title or position in the time period. The names of party attendees and family members of victims are redacted for privacy reasons. As some individuals and organisations are part of multiple communities or groups, they are shown at the intersection of different bubbles. The borders of each bubble vary between solid and dotted lines to represent its level of transparency and thin or thick lines to represent the relative difficulty (education, class, connections, and other barriers) of joining the group/institution.

The victims are centred within the diagram and represented in inverted colours to show their importance as well as to acknowledge that their agency was taken away. The other bubbles are roughly organised by their direct or indirect relationship to the victims. Organisations with a direct relationship with the victims (like the community and the police) are positioned closer to the victims, while organisations with indirect relationships (like the media) are further away in the drawing. The state institutions are organised vertically to show a chain of command and power.

Through the development of this tool, we found that members of the community often occupied multiple positions as directly affected community members, activists, and those involved in knowledge distribution (media). Members of powerful institutions often played similar, harmful roles in other investigations, for example, Police Commander Graham Stockwell’s record of abuse and Coroner Arthur Gordon Davies’ record of questionable work in inquests.

It is our hope that conceptualising this network can be a valuable way of understanding the distribution of accountability among state institutions as well as the impressive involvement and effort of community groups and organisations in seeking justice and providing care for themselves.
Reporting on the Black People’s Day of Action, which took place on 02 March 1981, newspapers such as The Guardian, The Times and The Telegraph chose to focus on the few moments of conflict between police and demonstrators and the subsequent damage to property. However, witness testimony and other newspaper reports attest to a mostly peaceful march. To support inflammatory reporting, these media outlets, together with tabloids like Daily Mail, chose to run photographs that appeared to capture the moments of unrest. Significantly, the photographs were taken from behind the line of the police, positioning the reader amidst the action, on the side of the police and against the “violent” demonstrators.

In contrast, papers such as The Socialist Worker and The Mercury focussed on the message of the march. This is reflected in the use of photographs showing placards, which are conspicuously absent in the images published by mainstream media.

Combing through the George Padmore Institute’s collection of newspaper clippings from around the time of the inquiry, our investigation finds that mainstream newspapers such as The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Times took a pro-police stance through the use of emotive language and emphasis on the scale of the inquiry and the resources that it required. These combined to effectively divert public sympathy away from the victims and the Black community, and towards the police, the coroner and other state authority figures working on the investigation.

An example of this can be found in an article published by The Guardian on 28 January 1981, ten days after the fire. The article, which describes the investigative process as “painstaking,” goes to great lengths to detail the number of police personnel assigned to the case and the number of witnesses interviewed. The article particularly emphasises the complexity of collecting and cross referencing testimonies. In the face of a challenging and seemingly insurmountable investigation, the police are depicted as diligent and hardworking. Additional emotive adjectives such as “anxious” work to humanise them.

The language and focus on resources echoes that of the Met’s own newspaper, The Job.

The Times took this pro-police stance further by publishing an article in which the police are given space to justify the targeting of Black teenagers. No such space was afforded to members of the Black community by The Times to share their thoughts on the mishandling of the inquiry.

On 14 March 1981, the Socialist Worker featured an article explaining how the mainstream media was unfit to report on the inquiry, as their articles were based on police reports. These newspapers were, in effect, a mouthpiece for the Met.

During the course of the inquiry, there was a noticeable reluctance to thoroughly investigate the hypothesis of a racist attack. Indeed, it was actively discredited by newspapers such as The Sunday Times and The Observer, which increasingly focused on presenting the “facts'' derived from the investigation. To visually depict these facts, diagrams and annotated floorplans were deployed, characterised by simple, clean lines and an inaccurately square living room. Coupling the findings of the police’s forensic report with these kinds of diagrams invoked notions of impartiality and rationality, as well as professionalism and expertise. These worked to undermine the credibility of a racist attack, which, by comparison, was recast as irrational and spurious.

These illustrations depict the house in isolation from its surrounding environment, ignoring the street and its terraced neighbours. In some cases, only the living room is represented. From the perspective of a detached observer, looking over the crime scene from a distant and elevated position, the reader is directed to narrow their field of vision, thus reflecting the police investigation’s narrow frame. Moreover, the reader’s focus is shifted away from the broader context and towards the interior of the house, aligning with the police theory that the fire was an “inside job” initiated by a partygoer.

In contrast, The Socialist Worker provides a more expansive viewpoint through the publication of a map identifying multiple instances of firebomb attacks in the neighbourhood, all characterised by a distinct racial dimension. Notably, within the four year period leading up to – and in the days immediately after – the fire at No.439 New Cross Road, a total of seven other arson incidents took place just streets away. By adopting this zoomed-out perspective, the credibility of a racially motivated attack theory gains significant reinforcement.