Student protest on December 9th 2010

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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.

Legal aid cuts will wreck lives and increase inequality

The Tory spending cuts are based on ideology, not sound economics. This is becoming more and more clear as the scope of the cuts are revealed. Recent revelations in the Tories’ plans to increase the tuition fee cap to £9000 per year will block hundreds of thousands of potential students from attending university, particularly the elite universities which already have a disproportionate number of students from private and public schools.

The latest cuts to be announced are to the legal aid system. Ken Clarke announced this week that the Tories plan to slash £350m a year from the legal aid bill. The legal aid system is already critically underfunded; it was neglected by Labour and is now being destroyed by the Tories.

There hasn’t been an increase in spending on legal aid in more than 10 years, whilst costs including inflation have soared. This amounts to a real-term 25% cut in spending over the last 10 years. Further cuts won’t just restrict access to legal representation, they risk the collapse of the entire system.

Due to the lack of funding over the last decade, the Legal Services Commission, the body that controls legal aid in England and Wales, is so underfunded that it cannot afford to hire enough staff to process legal aid bills from solicitor firms. This has the knock-on effect that these firms cannot pay their overheads. Many are on the verge of bankruptcy, others have stopped offering a legal aid service.

The cuts to the legal aid will impact on almost every area: clinical negligence, education, employment, immigration, benefits, debt, housing and certain family law cases. These are all areas that significantly affect many people on low-incomes on a daily basis, many of them needing this support to keep their homes, jobs and families. The repercussions of these cuts will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of society also.

If legal aid is taken away from employment cases, this will allow employers to exploit their low-paid workforces with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they don’t pay their staff enough for them to be able to afford legal representation. Included under employment law is sexual harassment in the workplace. If women, already disproportionately affected by the cuts as well as workplace harassment and exploitation, cannot get legal representation the pay-gap will increase and women will suffer further exploitation and oppression in the workplace.

There are exceptions for domestic violence cases written into the changes, but this won’t be sufficient to protect people, particularly women and children. It is estimated that only 2.5%-15% of domestic abuse cases are reported. If victims fear they could be left in crippling poverty due to legal fees fewer cases will be reported and more people will live their lives in fear and oppression.

Reform is desperately needed in the legal aid system but not because we need to make cuts and not by cutting peoples’ access to services. Whilst the vast majority of solicitors earn very modest sums from legal aid, particularly considering the amount of work they do, there are a handful of barristers who earn disproportionately more. Many of the top Queens’ Counsels can bill the legal aid system for up to £500,000 per year, on top of their salaries for private cases. I would suggest this is where the savings can be made, not by taking the services away from the people who need them and the overworked and underpaid solicitors.

Free access to legal representation for those who need it is a cornerstone of a fair and equal society. The cuts to the legal aid system will lead to increases in exploitation, sexual harassment, discrimination, segregation, poverty, debt, homelessness, domestic violence, abuse….

Doesn’t sound much like a fair society to me.