Sunday, 12 July 2009

Time to Stop Calling G20 Report “Critical”

Most people aren’t going to read the 107 pages of the report by Dennis O’Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, into the policing of the G20 protests, which came out last week. Instead, they’ll rely on the press to provide the key facts – which, as always, is a mistake.

For in another example of the laziness of mainstream ‘churnalism’ in Britain, O’Connor’s interim report has been described, in the words of the Guardian, as “scathing”, whilst the Times said it contains “significant reforms”. It’s clear they hadn’t read the document, for it is neither scathing, nor groundbreaking, nor even particularly critical.

Managing public perception

What the report is most concerned with is managing public perception – or in O’Connor’s words, the need “to convey a policing perspective of events.” In this respect it betrays its origins as a review requested by Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, as a direct result of the increased public scrutiny and “the influence of ‘citizen journalists’ – members of the public who play an active role in collecting, analysing and distributing media themselves.” O’Connor admits that “technology has allowed for a more flexible and responsive protest community which is capable of advanced communication and immediate reaction to events on the ground.” In part, his recommendations are aimed at providing the police with ways to deal with this fundamental shift in the control of information.

The report reveals journalists and broadcasters themselves have offered suggestions about how they might be better spoon-fed police propaganda. This includes more police briefings at the scene of a protest to “provide information that is contextualised by what is happening on the ground” (in other words, spun to favour the police) and “making frontline officers experience available after an event”, presumably to show the dangers the ‘thin blue line’ faces from ‘violent’ protesters, rather than to show off the kind of fictitious injuries seen at last year’s Kingsnorth protest. The most alarming of these ideas is embedding journalists with frontline police, a practice that should have been thoroughly discredited with the experience of war correspondents in Iraq, where journalists were seen as a ‘force multiplier’. Embedding with the police would turn them into the same sort of tactical asset, remove any credibility a journalist may have as a neutral observer, make them a target of protesters (with justification, frankly) if a confrontation arose and hand police propagandists the power to hand pick sympathetic reporters or remove embedded credentials from anyone who failed to be sufficiently ‘on message’.

The problem the report fails to properly address, however, is that embedded journalists or on-the-spot briefings would probably have made little difference following the G20 protests. Indeed, O’Connor acknowledges that “initial coverage of the event was positive but by the 5th April was becoming more critical. This intensified following the emergence of images relating to the death of Ian Tomlinson,” whose death the report largely brushes over. It does recommend new guidance on information connected to deaths and serious injuries, but avoids the fact that deliberately misleading stories that came from the police about protesters and about Tomlinson’s death are themselves the subject of complaints by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. A press statement issued by the Metropolitan police immediately after Tomlinson died said “officers gave him an initial check and cleared his airway before moving him back behind the cordon line to a clear area outside the Royal Exchange Building where they gave him CPR. The officers took the decision to move him as during this time a number of missiles - believed to be bottles - were being thrown at them." Video evidence from protesters has shown this is simply untrue and yet it is a claim repeated again in the timeline of the review report in Appendix D – which mentions nothing about the earlier contact Tomlinson had with police officers or even the now infamous assault upon him.


On public order tactics themselves, that dreaded phrase “lessons to be learnt” appears prominently in the review’s summary, but those expecting a critique of the tactic of ‘kettling’ will be disappointed - the starting point is an acceptance that containment is acceptable but that:

  • Protesters should be made aware of likely police action “in order to make informed decisions”
  • There should be a release plan for vulnerable or distressed people, or those inadvertently caught up in the demonstrations
  • Protesters should be given information as to the reasons for, duration of, and any exit routes from police containment
  • Clear signposts should be provided for amenities
  • Police should be made aware of UK press cards and should respect them

One possible solution for "helping protesters make informed decisions"?

These ‘emerging’ recommendations add little to the House of Lords decision earlier this year in Austin & another v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, which found (wrongly in my view) that police use of kettling does not infringe the right to liberty of individual members of a crowd whose freedom of movement is restricted by the containment, provided the tactic is resorted to in good faith, is used proportionately and is enforced for no longer than is reasonably necessary. The problem for O'Connor is that police clearly ignored the House of Lord judgement in planning their operation on 1 April and simply restating what should have happened but didn’t is far from groundbreaking.

Equally, O’Connor makes little comment on the potential of the use of containment to turn a situation outside the Bank of England, initially described in the Bronze commander’s log as “rowdy but reasonably complaint”, into something more confrontational, other than to say that “lack of information and understanding of the rationale for the use of containment served to increase resentment and anxiety amongst protesters.” The report fails to ask whether there really was a rationale for kettling protesters and whether its use was proportionate to a situation where its use appeared to have been pre-planned.

The review has even less to say about the kettle that was imposed on the Climate Camp at Bishopsgate and is content to offer a deeply partisan narrative of events. There is nothing about the brutal police charge into peaceful protesters, many of whom were sitting down, other than an inadequate acknowledgement that “images of police officers using force, including distraction techniques, have the potential to undermine the public’s trust in police.” Again, hardly critical or ‘scathing’.

Manufacturing consent

Perhaps the most disingenuous part of the report is an attempt to manufacture ‘public consent’ for the use of containment, in preparation presumably for the final report later this year. Chapter 3 is devoted to the results of a questionable Mori poll that seems to have been devised solely to frame the overall debate, by showing that City businesses and residents were largely favourable of the police and that there is public support for kettling – as if the vagaries of public opinion have anything to do with the rights or wrongs of the police’s conduct on 1 April.

There seems little methodological value in asking a bunch of people that haven’t been subjected to long hours of enforced containment to give an informed opinion on whether kettling is acceptable in all or some circumstances to avoid “disruption to the general public’s day-to-day activities”, as 77% of respondents concluded. Might their opinions be different if they had themselves had faced mass collective imprisonment with no access to food, water or medical treatment? And anyway, what kind of protest doesn’t involve at least some disruption to everyday activities?

It is hardly a surprise, too, that a survey that poses the statement “public transport should be suspended to allow protests to take place” against “protesters should not be allowed to protest on roads that are used by public transport” might come up with a majority (22% against 44%) who would prefer what would effectively amount to a ban on street protest in London.

Most respondents also favoured protesters needing permission to protest and subjecting themselves to ‘self-kettling’ by “agreeing to their route with the police and sticking to it” Self-kettled protest is exactly what the police would prefer but many protesters became disillusioned with this kind of sterile ‘stroll through the streets’ after the massive anti-war demonstrations failed to have any impact on the government and have therefore switched tactics, recognising that the Public Order Act 1986 does not make a protest without prior notification unlawful – its organisers may be guilty of an offence, but participants are not.

However, rather than accommodating this new reality within what the review calls "the protest community", O'Connor seems intent on using a general public distaste for disruption as a pretext for anything other than a march from Embankment to Hyde Park leading to oppressive containment. The review recommends that “where police become aware that a protest is likely to take place, with no identifiable organisers, steps should be taken to inform both the public and potential protesters that the protest may result in additional disruption, restrictions may be placed on protesters and particular tactics (including containment) may be employed to reduce disruption and the threat of disorder.”

The message is clear – go on anything other than an dull approved protest, no matter how peaceable you may be or how much of a ‘carnival atmosphere’ you generate, at your own risk. And take some sandwiches and a bottle to urinate in because our assumption is that you are likely to cause disorder.

And this is supposedly a report that is scathingly critical of the police and offers signficant reforms?

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