Over the last few years there has been a steady flow of people warning how, in the west, we are sleepwalking into a surveillance state. Often this is accompanied with references to 1984 and how our government and national leadership seem to view this book as an instruction manual, rather than a stark warning. It seems, however, that we are growing a generation of people who are immune to this, they live under constant surveillance (even aspire to it in the form of Big Brother reality TV) and the idea of privacy may one day be alien.
There is (IMHO of course) a darker aspect to this. In our rush to accept everything the government tells us when it is linked to the Evil Terrorist, we are giving up the basic rights and concepts that make a country a “free” democracy. The press, and police, love the high profile terror raids (such as the “Easter Bomb Plot“) which generate torrents of media coverage – along with huge amounts of right wing outrage at how easy it is for these evil Islamic terrorists to get into our country. These events are used to justify insane amounts of secrecy about police activity and huge public funding, even though it has no apparent return in public safety. When the inevitable happens, and those arrested are released without charge, there is often a short note at the end of the news and no withdrawal of the right-wing outrage. The damage has well and truly been done, so the fact it was a pointless event doesn’t need saying… In this, we are far from a free press. As an example we can look at two events:
1 – Police raid addresses in Lurgan, Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, and trigger riots that last over a day – followed by a series of hoax car bombs and attacks on other police patrols. All this was to find the people involved in the fatal shooting of two soldiers and a police officer a few days earlier.
2 – Police raid a few addresses in Manchester and Liverpool, England, and peacefully arrest 12 people. No community response.
The first event generated almost no coverage from the national media outlets. Few people would have known it happened. Less would have cared. The second event was “Breaking news” 24hours a day for days – even when most of the coverage consisted of bored police officers standing outside a house in some unknown street. It resulted in heated diplomatic exchanges with foreign nations and untold amounts of right wing outrage about “furriners” coming into our country.
It is in the states interest to present the situation in Northern Ireland as a closed deal. Peace has broken out. Unless the terrorists are actually “lucky” enough to kill, it gets no news coverage. There are hundreds of actual attacks and bomb plots over there but these are carried out by white Christians who were born in the United Kingdom (or occasionally the Republic of Ireland). There is no where to deport them and no amount of border controls can prevent them. Crucially they look like us, so cant easily be profiled at ports and for stop & search powers. Overall the peace process is working but the dissident republicans present a clear and present danger to the security forces. They carry out attacks, they have wounded dozens of people (and killed several innocents). They carry out atrocious punishment beatings. They are real terrorists.
On the other hand, we have the Islamic terrorist cells. Yes, they got “lucky” once with devastating effect, but they have managed one attack in the UK. Ever. The biggest difference is they dont look like “us.” Often they are first or second generation immigrants. They speak a “funny” language. They (sometimes) dress differently. They are easy to spot in public. That most of this is nonsense hasn’t stopped Islamic terrorism becoming a massive bugbear, while the actual violence carried out by Republican terrorists is ignored.
The cynic in me suggests that targetting the Islamic terrorist is in the states best interest. Without turning into V for Vengeance, by generating this public fear there is little argument against draconian laws, huge spending on “anti-terror,” crazy policies (no fluids on planes for example), intrusive surveillance and out of control policing. We have to accept this because if we dont the Islamic Terrorist will get us. That the press pander to this crazy idea, and are instrumental in producing it, which can only benefit the state makes me strongly question how “free” our press is.
Without a free press, can we really have a democracy? Is it possible for the public to have an informed vote if their information is controlled by the state?
This leads on to the next bit, and the thing that really got me going. The Police.
Recently the UK enacted a law (part of the Terrorism Act) which has made it illegal to take pictures of police, military or intelligence services personnel. This has been presented as being important to prevent terrorism (how?) and the government claimed it would not be used out of context nor would it be used to restrict journalism.
This is nonsense. Every law gets used out of context. Councils use anti-terrorism powers to mount surveillance on people to see if they live in the correct district for their children’s school. This will always happen – if you give someone a legal authority to do something, they will do it if it makes their job easier. The only alternative is to right better laws – something often lacking with regards to rushed terrorism legislation.
The police are no better. The terrorism act is regularly used out of context. Be it climate change protesters or tourists, the various legislation is often misused. Crucially, looking at the tourist incident, the police not only misused their legislation but they broke the law doing so: (From the guardian):
Like most visitors to London, Klaus Matzka and his teenage son Loris took several photographs of some of the city’s sights, including the famous red double-decker buses. More unusually perhaps, they also took pictures of the Vauxhall bus station, which Matzka regards as “modern sculpture”.
But the tourists have said they had to return home to Vienna without their holiday pictures after two policemen forced them to delete the photographs from their cameras in the name of preventing terrorism.
Matzka, a 69-year-old retired television cameraman with a taste for modern architecture, was told that photographing anything to do with transport was “strictly forbidden”. The policemen also recorded the pair’s details, including passport numbers and hotel addresses.
If we assume the police were right to carry out the stop under TACT legislation, and this was information useful to terrorist, why did they destroy the evidence? Either they thought these two tourists were covert Jihadists, in which case an intelligence stop should have been conducted, with the pictures retained for the DPS to look at (and the intelligence services to brief the Daily Mail as to the plans to attack the bus station) or they knew these were innocent tourists and there was no reason to destroy the pictures. This seems to be unlawful destruction of evidence pertaining to a criminal act. Will anything be done about it?
The Metropolitan police said it was investigating the allegations.
Ok, thats “no” then. In magazines like Amateur Photographer there are regular reports of how people are stopped under similar circumstances (to the point at which a photo-friendly MP has tried tabling this in Parliment) however nothing has changed. Nothing is likely to change because the police dont care.
I am loathe to scream about how our police forces are out of control, but they appear to be under less and less force to obey the will of the people. The police enforce the rule of law with public consent. They are not an occupying army seeking to repress us. They are not here to control and dominate the public. They are public servants who have chosen to do a job which means they will protect the public. They protect no one by harassing tourists. They protect no one by killing newspaper sellers as they try to get home. The tragic death of Ian Tomlinson has opened up a whole can of worms about police behaviour, but it is unlikely to change anything.
As has happened countless times in the past (anyone remember Stockwell?), following Ian Tomlinson’s death the police were quick to issue a completely erroneous statement. It took a newspaper getting (what was actually illegal) footage of police violence before they would do anything. Even then, it took days before they actually got into action and started the investigation. Worryingly there were dozens of police officers there when Ian Tomlinson was hit, yet none thought to come forward about his death. This speaks of an institutionalised idea that hitting people from behind is acceptable. It isnt.
The police are faced with dangerous situations on a daily basis. They are also taught how to react and how to identify when the danger has passed. Although it was a few years ago, and for a different place, I have had considerable amounts of riot training (in the shield wall, as snatch squads and controlling) although thankfully I rarely had to put it into practice. However there were some basic lessons. You stood there knowing you would get abused. Verbal abuse was something to be ignored. No matter what the crowd shouted to taunt you, you were supposed to stand your ground. The idea that you would get a sly hit on someone walking away was unthinkable. It happened, but people reported it because it was a breakdown in discipline, and without that we were the same as the mob. Despite this, footage has come to light of several police officers attacking non-violent members of the public.
There is a time where the use of force by the police is acceptable. Backhanding a woman who has called you a name is not it. Hitting people who are shouting at you is not it. The police are there to PROTECT the public from violence, not be the cause of it. There is a harrowing amount of footage on the Guardian website which shows police failing in their primary duty. I have no idea if this is simply due to the group on the ground having become “maverick” or if this is a sign of larger problems with the police, but it is a problem.
For example: Police on the ground removed their ID badges to make it harder for people to identify them at a later date. This is wrong, as Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) stated. It is very wrong and borderline criminal in itself. It means the officer was intending to do something wrong and mens rea is an important part of the law. What concerns me is the comment made by the HMIC:
“I firmly hope that will be rectified with some certainty”
What? Pure weasel words. What is the point in having the HMIC? Equally disturbing is the fact that these officers were not taken to task by their seniors before deploying. Instutionalised failure. How do you rectify that if the HMIC is beating around the bush? The simple solution is to punish the Sgts and Inspectors as well as the constables (when finally identified). That would very quickly change the behaviour.
This is tied into the behavour of the police on the day. In this video, the police carry out a baton charge against the crowd (who appear to be commiting the offence of singing badly and out of tune in a public place) and attack the press in the process. They are not carrying out a controlled act to move the crowd back, they are simply trying to break heads. At 36 seconds you can see them baton a guy with a camera facing away from them. That is unjustifable. They are not using controled violence, otherwise why hit the press photographer facing away? He is no danger to them and is not part of the crowd. Force is a last resort. Not a first one. The photographer lies on the floor until the police line moves back again (what was the point in the charge if it wasnt to dominate new ground?), when some one finally helps him up.
In the next video, the police impose Section 14 of the Public Order act to make the press go away for “about half an hour.” Two big issues with this.
First off – why? Why did the senior office want the press out of view? Was it to calm the protesters down? (unlikely) or was it to remove public oversight of the police behaviour? We may never know.
Secondly – section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 provides police the power to impose conditions on assemblies “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community.” It is not a lawful use of the act to make the press move on. This act is often misused by the police so its almost understandable that they would try to misuse it here. However, how can they not have known better? Did the senior officer on the ground really think it was an appropriate use of Sect 14 powers? If so, why isnt he being sent away for retraining? Were the police just trying their luck to see if they could make the pesky press go away, hoping most wouldnt question the legality? Again we may never know.
In all, this has been a long rant (sorry) but it is infuriating that we accept this behaviour from the representatives of the public. How can we live in a free democracy while this goes on?
EDITED TO ADD: Sadly I posted this rant before I saw an excellent version written by Alun over on Archaeoastronomy. If you havent already read it, get over there now and read. As always, Aluns post is well written and to the point. I especially like his closing remarks: (emphasis mine)
policing cannot happen without the consent of a community. Otherwise it’s just a paramilitary occupation. The video shows plenty of witnesses in yellow jackets. If they won’t assist the law, who will?