The police, the media, their agenda and the law

Police van in student protest by ChrisJohnBeckett AT-NC-ND

Police van in student protest by ChrisJohnBeckett

The police know that if the media is against them, they will have to be seen to act if not to actually change. But despite brief media outrage and public calls for reform, the police maintain very little accountability and act with impunity in most situations, particularly with regard to protests. And they are using the media more and more to justify their tactics.

Police need to be able to do their jobs and they need to be able to make decisions on the spot to resolve situations peacefully. They must, however, use their powers lawfully and appropriately, take responsibility for their decisions and be held publicly accountable for their actions. We have seen what happens when they the police are allowed to act with impunity; people die.

The police media tactics have been under some scrutiny in recent years, fired up by ‘conspiracy theories’ about undercover officers, deliberately un-boarded windows, false press statements and strategically positioned police vans. Things is, all these ‘conspiracy theories’ frequently turn out to be true.

It was recently revealed that it was an undercover officer who snitched on the Nottingham 114. He had been living as an activist/undercover officer for 9 years and had built up considerable trust in many of the people he met and became friends with. Recently two Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) officers were spotted in plain clothes at a UK Uncut protest at a branch of Vodafone. Last year Commander Broadhurst of the Metropolitan Police said in evidence to parliamentary committee “The only officers we deploy for intelligence purposes at public order are forward intelligence team officers who are wearing full police uniforms with a yellow jacket with blue shoulders”. These sorts of operations demonstrates the police force’s assumption that protesters are criminals and that dissent must be crushed as well as their contempt for even the slightest attempt to hold them accountable.

During the G20 protests in London there were two particular incidents that are relevant. The first was the kettling of protesters outside the Bank of England. Whilst this is a tactic of questionable legality, it was the positioning of this that I want to mention. Knowing that there was considerable anger towards the Royal Bank of Scotland, the police made little, if any, attempt to move protesters away from the un-boarded windows of a nearby branch. Sure enough, those windows were smashed. For the day of the protest this was the predominant media image and provided the police with a perfect excuse for their heavy-handed tactics.

Over at the Climate Camp in the City the police kettled several hundred protesters outside the European Climate Exchange. They knew that this was the intended location of the protest well beforehand yet when the swoop happened there were two police vans parked right outside. I have been to many protests and their usual tactic is to hide the vans full of officers round the corner from the protest, well out of sight. For them to be left unattended at the exact location of a protest is unusual to say the least, though these vans were not damaged. This was exactly what we saw at the anti-fees protest in London a couple of weeks ago. A police van was left unattended in the middle of the kettle and sure-enough became the target of much of the protesters anger. And who can blame them when they are intimidated, beaten, kettled and charged down by mounted police, simply for exercising their right to protest. It is worth noting that there were a number of black-clad masked protesters egging people on to smash the van, whilst a large group of school kids tried to stop them. Is has been alleged that these were undercover police ‘agitators’.

Statements made by the police to the media about protest events have been consistently proved to be false. During the G20 protests newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson died after being struck by a member of the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group. The initial response of the police was to blame the protesters. They claimed that their attempts to help Tomlinson were hindered by protesters throwing ‘missiles’. A video released later disproved this and showed the police initially made no attempt to help Tomlinson back to his feet. The ‘missiles’ turned out to be a single plastic bottle which was thrown from way back to which the protesters responded by turning and shouting not to throw things.

During the Camp for Climate Action in Edinburgh, Lothian and Borders Police made allegations that ‘protesters’ had poured an ‘oil-like substance’ on a main road near the camp. This was widely reported in the media and was roundly condemned. There was, however, no evidence to suggest this had actually taken place. There were no arrests, no witnesses, there were no reports of traffic disruption to the council and no protesters claimed they had committed it, something almost unheard of within the Climate Camp movement. At the very least, if it did happen there was nothing to suggest whoever did it was connected to the camp and so this was a grave distortion and a slander on the reputation of the Camp.

The police’s desire to control the media is evident. Recently I was attending the Crude Awakening protest at Coryton Oil Refinery. As I approached the road that the protest was on I was stopped by a police officer and questioned. The officer asserted (note, did not ask) that I was a journalist and informed me that “this is a police cordon, press are not allowed past”. When I questioned the officer he replied “I am not going to discuss this with you”. I eventually argued my way past the officer, with the help of a few friends, but there were many other journalists that did not want to argue with the police and were prevented from reporting on the protest. This runs counter to the Metropolitan Police’s own guidance on the press which states:

2:”…it is much better to provide the media with a good vantage point from which they can operate rather than to exclude them… Providing an area for members of the media does not exclude them from operating from other areas to which the general public have access.”

3: “Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and we have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record…”

4: “…we have no power to prevent or restrict media activity.”

Recently it was reported that the police are seeking powers to shut down websites engaged in “criminal activity”. As we have seen with so many other police powers this will be used to extra-judicially crush dissenting voices and intimidate protesters. The police do what they want and find a power to justify it later.

They are not, however, totally untouchable.

The police came under fire back in 2008 for their indiscriminate use of stop and search powers during the Kingsnorth Camp for Climate Action. They searched everyone entering and leaving the site, both protesters and journalists, and confiscated hundreds of items including tent pegs, toilet rolls and other innocuous items. They were using Section 44 of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 which allowed them to stop and search anyone they had reasonable grounds to suspect might be a terrorist. This was recently ruled to be unlawful and a breach of Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (right to privacy).

This, however, has not deterred them. They simply moved on to another in their arsenal of stop and search powers, including Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act and most recently Section 50 of the Police Reform Act. This last piece of legislation is their current favourite as it has one major difference to the others; unlike s.1 PACE and s.60 CJA, if you refuse to give your details they have the power to arrest you.

I have come up against this particular law twice in recent weeks. Once when I was at a protest at the Lib Dem constituency office in Oxford where I was approached by a FIT officer and told “intelligence has identified you as being part of an anti-social event on a previous day” and asked for my details. I argued and the officer eventually let it go. Then again when I was filming a protest at a Barclays in Oxford. Afterwards I was grabbed by two police officers, marched to a third officer and told that filming the protest was “anti-social behavior” and they would therefore be taking my details, if I refused I was told I would be arrested. There have been many other instances of people being stopped under s.50 at the recent student fees protests. This is exactly the same situation as with s.44 & s.43 of the AT Act, the police using a law brought in for a ‘justifiable’ reason to collect intelligence on and intimidate protesters.

The police are succeeding in criminalising protest, silencing dissent and stopping freedom of the press. The IPCC are not enough to control the police. As with the banks, self-regulation when rule-breaking is the norm simply does not work. There needs to be proper public accountability.

Why Media Spin is So Dangerous for Society

The recent Camp for Climate Action at RBS’ Global HQ outside Edinburgh was typically reported with all the originality of Die Hard 4. The right-wing media rolled out the usual cliches; hippies, unwashed, posh, idiots, students etc. And the left-wing media was, mostly, supportive. Nothing new there. But then the media seemed to turn on Climate Camp. Articles on the, usually supportive, Guardian website were extremely critical accusing the camp of stifling free speech and reporting our lack of interest in Twitter as a failure of the camp as a whole.

There were also many newspaper reports that were simply not true. The Sun ran with the headline “RBS Rioters Battle Cops” illustrated with a photo of some protesters next to some police. Had The Sun used a wider crop of this image their readership would have realised the inaccuracy of the article. The protestors are not ‘battling’ the police (they all have their backs to the police) but are steadying a prop siege tower that was wheeled, painfully slowly, toward the police line. There was certainly no rioting, at all, anywhere on the site. It is a wonder that the Sun ignored the siege tower, for many of us on site we thought that it would be the image that dominated the media coverage.

There was a significant amount of coverage surrounding the phantom “oil slick” on the A8 outside RBS’ head office. This was alleged by the Lothian and Borders Police, though no evidence has turned up to suggest it actually happened. Regardless of the lack of evidence, media outlets jumped on the story and reported it without a moments thought for editorial integrity.

Again, as in years before, the police paraded a “cache of weapons” in front of the media, this year it was a hammer and a chisel, though it is still unclear where these came from – there is no press release from the Lothian and Borders police relating to the items. In the Sun article on the Climate Camp, with no regard to journalistic integrity or adherence to the truth, these were instantaneously pluralised, making the alleged crime appear greater.

Another disturbing example from The Sun comes slightly further down the page. Not only do they repeat the totally unfounded accusations that Climate Campers where responsible for the phantom oil-slick on the A8 but they, either deliberately or unknowingly, attribute more legitimacy to the story through their formatting of the quote from the Police.

The placement of these comments suggests that both the police spokesperson has made this entire comments and that someone from Climate Camp has taken responsibility for the phantom oil incident – for which, to say they have not is an understatement. In fact the two statement refer to two completely separate events that happened many miles apart from each other.

These are just a couple of examples from one article in the, famously right-wing and reactionary, Sun newspaper. Though suspiciously absent from it’s website this weekend is any reporting on the activities of the National Front with a PR strategy English Defence League in Bradford. Whilst this might be commendable (personally I think fascists should be kept as far from the media as possible) their history on reporting of the activities of the EDL suggest they might have other motives.

In July this year, they reported on the arrest of EDL member John Broomfield on charges of plotting to bomb a mosque. The circumstances of this incident are subject to question as there were no charges made, but the reporting of it seems to downright support the EDL, particularly when compared to the reporting of the Climate Camp.

The emphasis throughout the article is on the accused being innocent, whilst this may be the case, were the accused of Asian descent I can’t help but feel this might be slightly different. The image used to portray Broomfield shows him ‘defiant and patriotic’ in an England t-shirt. Look at any of the articles about Muslims accused of terrorism and they are all police mugshots.

“So what?” I hear you cry “a right-wing newspaper being right-wing, big whoop”. Thing is, though, the trend in all media is towards reporting assumptions, based on cliches and stereotypes, regardless of what actually happens. So what are peaceful protests become “riots” and “battles”, all Muslims become “terrorists” and racists are heralded as working class heroes. This sort of reporting is dangerous because it legitimises these stereotypes. It is naive and wrong to say that people don’t believe things just because they are in the media, people only believe things when they are in the media.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink he references a psychology test that demonstrates how the reinforcement of images in society really can shape how people see each other. People gave significantly more positive responses to word association tests regarding black people when they had spent 30 minutes before the test looking at pictures of people like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu or Martin Luther King.

What this shows is that the views of the EDL are based on media lies. Since the majory of UK media only, or biased to the extent that they might as well only, report negative stories about Muslims and immigrants we perceive them negatively. And so it is the same for protesters at Climate Camp, the reporting turns on them, so the people don’t support them and the association with climate change becomes negative.

If you listen to the media it seems we are almost on the verge of a race war, yet there is little (no) evidence to suggest this is actually the case. The vast majority of people get along fine and immigration is a huge benefit to the UK economy, not to mention to society.

This is why I am so angry with The Guardian for turning on the Camp. The Guardian, more than any other mainstream media outlet, has supported the Camp for Climate Action. But last week it chose to put out a series of very negative articles about Twitter “backfiring” on the Climate Camp and alleged attempts to stop freedom of speech, no doubt partly in retaliation for journalists being called “weak and cowardly” and “lazy” in a media guide, even though it was written by Guardian regular George Monbiot (does the failure to research that prove them lazy?). I don’t think the Guardian has a responsibility to always support the Camp, but they, like every other media outlet, has a responsibility to be apt and not misleading.

It seems so many of the ills of modern society can be traced back to mass representations; obsession with celebrity, fear of Islam (and the perception of any Muslim as a terrorist), mass consumption, political/environmental/sociological apathy. So this is my plea: please media, just FUCKING STOP IT! If we fill the media with positive images our wider perceptions will change and it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to do this.

Read the response from Climate Camp to the Guardian articles here, here and here.