Sunday 14 November 2010

NETCU Uses Friendly Journalists To Send Message To Government

Tucked away at the end of a piece in today's Observer about the National Union of Students' plan to 'decapitate' senior Lib Dems at the next election is this passage:

"As police face continued criticism for failing to control the march, the Observer has learned that defence firms are working closely with UK armed forces and contemplating a “militarisation” strategy to counter the threat of civil disorder.

The trade group representing the military and security industry says firms are in negotiation with senior officers over possible orders for armoured vehicles, body scanners and better surveillance equipment.

The move coincides with government-backed attempts to introduce the use of unmanned spy drones throughout UK airspace, facilitating an expansion of covert surveillance that could provide intelligence on future demonstrations.

Derek Marshall, of the trade body Aerospace, Defence and Security (ADS), said that such drones could eventually replace police helicopters. He added that military manufacturers had discussed police procurement policies with the government, as forces look to counter an identified threat of civil disobedience from political extremists".

The idea of a a “militarisation” strategy is incredibly alarmist and has certainly alarmed some people - or at least those prepared to believe that links between the police and the security industry is some kind of new development.

In reality, the rise of paramilitary-style policing in Britain over thirty years has resulted in the steady growth of an industry to supply the police with new gadgets and equipment. The trade group mentioned in the report is itself the result of a merger between three older industry bodies: the Association of Police and Public Security Suppliers, the Defence Manufacturers Association and the Society of British Aerospace Companies. Companies that are members of ADS are not talking to the police because of a new threat of civil disorder - it's what they do all the time. ADS has itself denied that its comment to the Observer about sale of kit to police forces has anything to do with recent protests.

So why pretend otherwise? I believe there is a different message being conveyed here and that the presence in the byline of Mark Townsend, the Observer's Crime, Defence & Legal Affairs correspondent, should have been an immediate indicator of the need to exercise an enormous amount of scepticism.

Some may recall that Townsend was responsible for a thinly disguised propaganda-piece for the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU) in November 2008, written with a former army officer called Nick Denning, which claimed a "growing threat from eco-terrorists" and linked this to activists involved in Climate Camp. It was such blatant police spin that the Observer subsequently withdrew the story. Townsend is clearly in close contact with NETCU and today's hysteria about 'militarisation' is followed by a more telling piece of spin - another opportunity for the Observer to act as NETCU's mouthpiece, with unnamed 'police sources' claiming an increase in "the criminal intentions of political extremists" and “extreme leftwing activity”.

In September, I wrote a short piece for the Manchester Mule suggesting that as police numbers are cut, the government may be persuaded of the benefits of cheaper alternatives such as "targeting potential 'troublemakers' even more than at present." With the debate growing over why the police were so unprepared for the student protest at Millbank, it looks as though NETCU is simply issuing a few reminders through the press to its government paymasters. It is using its friend at the Observer and its contact at the Sunday Telepgraph to say to ministers that, whatever else is cut, its role must be protected or further disorder cannot be prevented.

A substantial increase in covert surveillance of anyone deemed a potential 'domestic extremist', a term that has no legal definition and can apply to almost anyone, is far more alarming - and far more likely to actually happen - than any nonsense about a supposed 'militarisation strategy'.

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