Monday, 20 April 2009

Time For Our Own G20 Review?

Once upon a time, when the establishment really wanted to kick something into the long grass, it set up a Royal Commission. It has been over a decade since such a formidable opportunity for delay has been set up and the government has become just as cautious about the public inquiry, realising that for every well-respected member of the ruling class, every senior civil servant or compliant former judge like Lord Hutton, there is always the risk that, like Sir William MacPherson’s investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence, an inquiry chair might actually decide to take their role seriously.

Instead, what New Labour has really learned to love is the review, an exercise that has become a spin doctor’s presentational mainstay, ideal for pushing controversial issues off the front pages of the newspapers. It gives the impression of accountability and careful consideration of the issues in a way that is easy to control and invariably its conclusions can be decided from the start. It is little wonder then that a generation of politicised senior police officers, who have honed their presentational skills from their close contacts with government, have learnt to love the review too.

The Met’s last serious public relations disaster was the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the young Brazilian who was shot and killed at Stockwell station in 2005. Details about what really happened to Jean emerged slowly over the course of July and August 2005, as a result of a concerted family campaign and the brave decision by an employee of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, Lana Vandenberghe, to reveal the truth about the misinformation that had coloured public opinion. The aftermath of the G20 protests and the death of Ian Tomlinson on 1 April seemed at first to have the same depressing predictability about the way the police would respond. Initially they portrayed Tomlinson’s death as an unfortunate part of an exemplary operation, then tried to place the blame on someone else (in this case, ‘anarchist’ protesters) through misleading press briefings, intended to frame the media’s narrative about both police tactics and the death of a bystander for the months ahead. And just as the Menezes family realised in 2005, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, once it finally stirs into action, apparently uses as much energy in defending its dwindling reputation as it does on investigating the actions of the police.

But the G20 protests have seen a new phenomenon that has been almost impossible for the police to control in the way they usually expect to: the almost daily release of new video evidence of violent police assaults on protestors, collected by demonstrators themselves. For once, the police’s manipulative and unhealthy relationship with the British media, fueled by unattributed briefings by ‘police sources’ to the press, has been fundamentally undermined, and not by the actions of bodies charged with police accountability, but by individual citizens themselves.

So, having lost control of the message, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson made an announcement on 15 April that his masters in the Home Office would be proud of: a ‘review’ of the tactics used by London’s police during the protests against the G20 summit, conducted by Denis O’Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary.

Unfortunately it is far from being the ‘independent inquiry’ that it has been portrayed as by Stephenson. O’Connor is an old friend, a former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and can therefore hardly be described as impartial. The ‘review’ immediately looks like a classic establishment fix, designed to divert unwelcome attention on the conduct of the police during the protests. As a result, campaigners should be extremely cautious about believing the offer to submit their own evidence to O’Connor’s ‘review’ is genuine.

Perhaps what we need instead is our own review, one that pulls together the testimony and evidence that different organisations involved in the protests have started to collect and publish (see, for example, the report by the Climate Camp Legal Team).

The east-London based Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), which I’ve been an activist with for 18 years and that has monitored and provided support for those on the receiving end of police misconduct since 1980, is urging that this kind of collaboration and solidarity between groups. Working together to create a ‘G20 Alternative Review’ can ensure that the expected whitewash by Denis O’Connor does not become the accepted narrative of the demonstrations against the G20 summit.

NMP can be contacted at Harold Road Community Centre, 170 Harold Road, Upton Park, London E13 0SE. Tel: 020 8470 9541. E-mail: spw@nmp.org.uk

UPDATE

The president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Ken Jones, has been busy defending police tactics as 'proportionate'. He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, "But on the question of a review, yes, ACPO has has welcomed that, but I think we need to do it with some objectivity and have a broader perspective than I have seen in the last few days. We need to make sure that we don't condemn the many for a problem created by the few."

Who might this message be directed to? Perhaps the man responsible for the supposedly independent review and Jones' colleague, the former Vice-President of ACPO, Dennis O'Connor?

3 Comments:

bristle said...

An interesting proposal. I am not sure that there needs to be a overarching, centralised 'alternative review' - the numerous, sometimes overlapping, citizen investigations already underway are perhaps proving effective because they are numerous and overlapping. They are meticulously addressing both the big picture and the small details, of different incidents and the overall operation.

Would an all-encompassing 'alternative review' strangle the different types of citizen investigation into a single core? I don't know.

Anyhow, here are some of the current autonomous investigations currently underway that I know of:

* http://fitwatch.blogspot.com - focusing on the identity of Forward Intelligence Team members and other 'public order specialists'

* http://www.lasthours.org.uk/news/g20-another-version-of-the-truth/ - Piecing together a timeline of police activity leading up to the Tomlinson assault

* http://bristle.wordpress.com (That's me) Mainly looking at the Tomlinson assault caught on on the 'American tourist' video, and the 'dog attack' incident, and the identity of police witnesses at both
* http://www.flickr.com/photos/twothumbsfresh/ Again, piecing together the identities of police witnesses at the Tomlinson assault

There are also many other individuals and groups working on bigger or smaller pieces of the puzzle, using publicly available evidence.

PS The Climate Camp Legal Team report is I agree an important collation of material.

Kevin said...

Thanks for the info. I share the view that a overarching, centralised 'alternative review' would be a bad idea if it was 'owned' by a single campaign or group - but what I think might be worth considering is greater collaboration that draws together the different strands of testimony and evidence in order to make the greatest impact.

I haven't thought of how this might work in practice (a shared website? a joint report?), but because NMP has always been small and under-resourced, we've found from experience that mutual aid and collaborative work is essential rather than just an option. Faced with what I consider to be a concerted attempt by the state to re-shape the story of the police's actions at the G20 protests, I reckon we are all small and under-resourced if we don't try and work together!

Kevin

bristle said...

Thanks for the clarification - definitely food for thought there.

I'm going to try and wrap up the screengrab series on the Tomlinson assault witnesses tonight (the first draft at least, as it were), and have a think about your suggestion.

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