Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Be Patriotic: Be Paranoid

Driving through Hampshire this week I heard the Hampshire police announcing the re-launch of an anti-terrorist hotline for members of the public to telephone in and report suspicious behaviour that they feel might be connected with terrorism. Given that the last terrorist attack in Britain (so excluding Northern Ireland which is part of the UK, but not Great Britain) was in July 2005, this seems to be an incredibly tardy response from the county which has the major port and rapidly developing airport of Southampton, the port and naval base of Portsmouth, numerous Army regiments housed across the country and the major Army base at Aldershot.

In 2006 Hampshire Constabulary set up its Special Branch Contact Unit and has been whining recently that no-one is calling its hotline and clearly felt that the public needs a new jolt of warnings about terrorism? Local authorities have been criticised by the Local Government Association and by the House of Lords Constitution Committee for abusing the powers they were granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which gave them the ability to put members of the public under surveillance. Not finding any terrorists, local councils have used these powers to keep people under surveillance suspected of applying to schools from outside the catchment area or allowing their dogs to foul the highway or putting out their dustbins on the wrong day for collection. In total 794 bodies including 474 councils as well as health service trusts and fire service can use the powers and apparently across Britain there are over 1000 covert surveillance operations (it is important to note the use of the word covert here, because for example, the used of closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) is overt surveillance) being mounted each month. The most criticised council is that of the town of Poole in Dorset (a county bordering Hampshire) which used the powers to monitor people for all kinds of suspected things in most cases they were found not to be breaking regulations, e.g. on school applications, let alone the law. Its representative Tim Martin admits that the council has put 50 such covert operations into effect since RIPA was introduced in 2000, though it is clear usage has stepped up in the past couple of years.

So being stymied in its development of our authoritarian society through the means of what previously seemed to be legal covert surveillance but is now being challenged, a new approach has been adopted which is to get people to start reporting their neighbours. The radio advertisement which has followed the announcement says 'if you are suspicious, report it'. It features the sounds of a busy nightclub saying that it is only like this because the bomb that would have been planted here was prevented by someone reporting the theft of chemicals which could have been used to make a bomb, presumably this means fertilisers, so there seems a danger thay any Muslim or Irish people shopping in a garden centre better watch out (though I advise not looking at the CCTV cameras, the reason why you will see below). It then follows with a sound of a busy shopping centres, saying that a bomb was prevented by someone reporting a person looking at the CCTV cameras in the centre. The two locations are probably intended to remind the listeners of real bomb attacks, such as the Bali nightclub bomb of October 2002 and the bombing at the Arndale Centre in Manchester in June 1996. The implication is however, that we are currently under constant threat of bomb explosions across Hampshire's town centres and it is only the hard work of the Hampshire Constabulary and its informants that is preventing carnage. Where is the evidence for this high level of threat?

Informants never need encouragement. I have worked for three branches of the civil service and every day in every office in which I have been employed we received about twenty letters from informants 'shopping' (i.e. reporting them to the authorities) their neighbours who they were sure were committing some offence. The usual accusations are that the person must be committing benefit fraud or not paying their tax. Certainly where I worked the number of genuine cases were less than 1% of the ones reported to us. If I worked for 5 days x 48 weeks per year, that meant that I saw say, on average 2000 informant letters per year and that was at just one office. In one job there were three offices of the same branch of the civil service receiving coming on for 6000 informant letters per year and I imagine the Inland Revenue offices, Social Security offices, Job Centres and the police all received similar volumes of information. These days with email it is probably even easier.

It is interesting to note what the suspicious behaviour Hampshire Constabulary want you to look out for and this comes from their website: observing security procedures and routines (such as the regular marches of regiments through Winchester, home to five regiments which seem constantly on parade?), taking photographs or video (a very unusual activity in historic Winchester and Portsmouth or the New Forest also in Hampshire and basically anywhere someone might be with their family), note taking (I will make sure not to amend my shopping list or do any train spotting in Hampshire and will advise all teachers not to send their children to do projects in town) and repeat visits to a location (so I will buy my newspapers and groceries for a different shop each week and not be a regular at any pub in Hampshire and suggest that people try not to go daily to their workplace if it happens to be in Hampshire). This is utterly ridiculous. What they do not add, but is assumed is that these things are suspicious if done by a man of Middle Eastern appearance or with an Irish accent. The ironic thing is, that in Hampshire the most active terrorists are people like the Real Countryside Alliance campaigning to reinstate fox hunting and Motorists Against Detection which burns speed cameras and are made up of the middle-aged, middle-class white males that both make up the senior ranks of Hampshire police and are presumably immune from such suspicion.

To add to the paranoia that there are terrorists lurking in every shopping centre, the Hampshire police are running a seemingly unrelated poster campaign asking 'Who's walking down your street?'. The poster tells you to keep an eye out for burglars and advises you that they may be of different age, ethnic, social or gender groups to what you might expect. So the implication is to spread the paranoia far and wide and not just suspect what young, white workling class man of being a burglar but also that elderly Asian woman too. How long is it before we have checkpoints at the end of each road where you have to show your identity card and explain why you want to walk down that street before being permitted to do so. Has no-one heard of the block wardens that the Nazis introduced to their residential areas?

Parts of the government has been trying, especially since the Bradford race riots of 2001, to try to bring communities, especially those of mixed ethnicity. Yet in one of Britain's largest counties we seem to have a policy which seems to be encouraging citizens to turn on their neighbours no matter what their background. As it is, British society is incredibly insular with people closing their front doors and only looking out surepticiously to spy on happenings in the street. This is why children get abused and the corpses of elderly people lay undisturbed for weeks. This approach is the wrong one, it will simply encourage vigilanteism and hounding of people who look a little different or are simply new or disliked or are just behaving in one of these ill-defined 'suspicious' ways. This kind of reaction does nothing to make our towns safer in fact it makes them inhospitable and dangerous. Yet, the urging of some, influential in British society, if we are not sufficiently paraniod and not reporting the suspicious people the authorities assume must be active in our towns (even though the police and Security Service cannot find them), we are being unpatriotic and of course it is a short step to lacking patriotism being seen as suspicious itself. I once read a science fiction short story in which everyone in a community reported each other to the authorities and the whole village was taken away, but I will simply return to the Del Amitri song, 'Nothing Ever Happens' (1990), which reached Number 1 in the UK: 'They'll burn down the synagogues at Six o'Clock/ And we'll all go along like before/ We'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow.'

P.P. 30/03/2009 - I notice from radio advertisements that the Hampshire initiative seems to have spread nationally very quickly. Also interesting to note is that the government has been saying that anti-G20 summit protests this week will be violent and police are saying they will have to use anti-terrorist legislation. This is an unsurprising public behaviour as agents provocateur. Clearly the government wants no protest so they are seeking to provoke a violent response and scare off peaceful protestors. Next time anyone wants to do some peaceful protesting they can say 'no, look what happened last time' and ban it. Despite the shift from Blair to Brown, the step-by-step move towards an authoritarian state in the UK is continuing. These tactics are not new and you can easily find examples from European, African, Asian and American history of the past 80 years of them all being used.

P.P. 23/07/2010 - Being unemployed I currently look through all kinds of vacancies that I would not normally have encountered; this is increased by the fact that I look for work right across the UK not just in my local area.  I was struck when at my local Job Centre Plus by the three separate advertisements on their job search computer, posted by the University of Brighton.  They were seeking recruits who have previously served in the Security Service, i.e. MI5, to work for the university at three locations in southern England, only one of which seemed to be Brighton itself, vetting their students.  Clearly this university alone (or perhaps it is simply more open about the fact than the others) believes it runs the risk of having terrorists among its intake and thinks it needs skilled people to check them out.  The salary seemed pretty desultory for the kind of skills they are seeking, but I guess that is an implication of cutbacks in higher education.  The radio advertisements encouraging paranoia may not be currently running, but the outlook they have fostered seems to be living on in various corners of UK society.

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