Back in October one of my colleagues felt so strongly that the BBC was wrong to invite Nick Griffin onto Newsnight that he decided to see if there was a protest outside the BBC studios in Oxford. There was indeed a demonstration, which he joined, of about 12 people. It perhaps does not need saying that the 12 protestors were accompanied by two police officers. Alas, it will also come as no surprise to many readers of Next Left to hear that one of the police officers was carrying a camera. (The other, apparently, was carrying a rifle.) The camera-wielding police officer gave my colleague a phone number he could call if he wanted an answer to any questions about why he was carrying the camera....
Such is the state of protest in Britain in 2009. The event just described was not as dramatic or tragic as the G20 protests or as heavy-handed as the mass preventive arrest of protestors in Ratcliffe-on-Soar earlier this year. But it is very telling in its own way. Particularly the presence of that camera.
However, things might be about to change.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary have today issued their second report and a set of recommendations on the future policing of protest in the wake of the controversy surrounding police operations at the G20 protests. The Guardian has an overview of the report and reactions to it. The report itself is available on the HMIC website.
I hope in the near future to take a close look at the report for Next Left. But at first sight it looks as if the HMIC have built constructively on their earlier report in July which made major criticisms of the police's handling of the G20 protests on both legal and philosophical grounds. The earlier report claimed that the police had an inadequate grasp of the law (e.g., on kettling, which is only lawful under certain specific conditions) and that the police approached protest from the wrong philosophical standpoint, seeking to prevent unlawful action rather than seeing their job as facilitating peaceful protest.
Now back to the camera-wielding police officer. If the role of the police is indeed to facilitate peaceful protest, then there must be a very large and bold question mark over the Association of Chief Police Officers' initiative to (in effect) photograph large numbers of peaceful protestors for inclusion in a database of so-called 'domestic extremists'. For fearing that one will end up on such a database must act as a strong discouragement to many citizens to go on protests that they might otherwise be sympathetic with.
The HMIC report seems to bite this bullet. It calls for:
'Clarification of the legal framework for the use of overt photography by police during public order operations and the collation and retention of photographic images by police forces and other policing bodies.'
And, in addition, it calls for:
'Review of the status of the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure transparent governance and accountability structures, especially in relation to their quasi-operational role of the commissioning of intelligence and the collation and retention of data.'
There is, of course, a lot to unpack here. But the direction of travel looks promising. I'll try to give a fuller assessment in the not too distant future.