Well if a policeman’s lot is never a happy one, it’s a bloody miserable one in the UK at the moment. It’s pile on the plod time at the moment with even the red-tops and “quality” tabloids (or oxymorons as otherwise known) featuring photos of cops with their badge numbers removed above headlines like “number’s up officer” and so on.

What could possible have led to this sudden outbreak of awareness of the autonomously repressive nature of the police force amongst the patriotic papers? Simple bullying, as always. The cops have been so battered by repeated scandals in the UK that the tabloids picked up the dying animal smell and decided to pile on.

The latest bout of misery for the Met is a full page story in the Guardian, detailing the attempts of Strathclyde police to recruit informers among the anti-airport expansion protests group “Plane Stupid” by means of financial inducements and a bit of heavy pressure. The technique is an old one — two weeks ago, the cops arrested an entire environmental camp on the grounds of “conspiracy to commit trespass” in the lead up to an airport protest. Nothing had actually been done yet and there was no indication that everyone in the camp would actually trespass. As with all conspiracy laws, it pre-criminalises, even though most of those arrested will never be charged.

But by then people are in the system and the cops can use the threat of charge to persuade the wavering, the intimidated, or the hangers-on that such movements inevitably attract, to become paid informants.

The only thing these geniuses forgot is that recording devices are now omnipresent — in every mobile phone, for example — and a would-be informant hung them out to dry, with three hours of recordings detailing the implicit belief of the cops that any form of dissent outside of the mainstream political bounds. The plod, who had threatened Matilda Gifford with following her through her life to harm future career chances, etc, even asked her a couple of times whether she was recording the conversation. When she answered “possibly” (to preserve legality) they kept on talking.

The latest fiasco came after the Pakistani student debacle, in which a dozen students, eleven Pakistani, one British, were arrested in a “terror plot” sweep — allegedly brought forward after UK terrorism super-cop Bob Quick stepped out of a car in front of photographers with documents detailing the raid openly displayed. When it became clear that there was no real evidence to charge the twelve, it was thought that the early “go” on the raid would be blamed. But the cops don’t even have the heart to do that — it now seems that the operation was chaotic from the start, due to police infighting and the plot, if there was one at all, was another one in the “pre-planning” (i.e. coffee-shop bullshit) stage.

In the usual run of things the tabloids would get right behind the cops — but even they’ve been shocked into scrutiny by the death of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper-seller who got a shove from the cops during the G20 protests and then died of a heart attack minutes later. At the time this was a version accepted by all parties — the tabloids even had a story about ambulance workers being pelted with bottles as they attempted to help Tomlinson (one plastic bottle, randomly thrown in the air, was the sum total).

Then the videos started coming, and coming. Turned out Tomlinson wasn’t pushed — he was thrown roughly to the ground by a balaclaved cop and batoned around the legs. The first, hurried post-mortem which blamed a heart-attack (and was conducted by a coroner with earlier complaints against him) was shown to be false — Tomlinson had died of internal bleeding, the sort you’d get from being thrown to the ground and having a bad fall.

Then the cops had claimed that there was no CCTV footage of the incident — which would be a first in the UK. Turned out there was. And on it went.

By this time it was clear that Tomlinson was the worst sort of victim for the cops to have killed. He was a recovering (a failing recovering) alcoholic living in a hostel, away from the most recent of his families (he had seven kids). He made a few quid a day by selling the Evening Standard in the City and was known and liked by a lot of people. On the evening of the protest he was trying to get to a pub to watch a football match with mates — he’d been frustrated by the cops’ “kettling” strategy whereby protestors and bystanders alike were penned in and not allowed to move for hours on end and he had argued with them a couple of times before they gave him a contemptuous push.

What got Tomlinson killed was his innocence — anyone actually involved in the protest knew to either go with the flow or push back with full-force. Tomlinson, disastrously, believed that a private citizen could still walk through London on an early spring evening without being treated as a potential criminal.

As that innocence became clearer with each revelation, even the tabloids could not keep up the boys-in-blue mantra any longer. This resulted in what many activists could only see as some sort of bizarre dream sequence, in which the fact that cops remove their badge numbers during protests — something they’ve done for decades — was worthy of front page treatment in the Sun.

Why the sudden turnaround? Ironically it’s because of something the police have hitherto been champions of — increased surveillance. Though none of the key images were taken from CCTV, today’s world in which recording technology is omnipresent and available to everyone has outpaced the well-named Plod, who let’s face it, are recruited almost exclusively from the slow kids at school. Nothing the police have done recently is any more brutal than protest-policing in the last thirty years — but now even tabloid readers, hitherto fed nonsense about “urine filled bottles”, “victimised cops” and so on had to accept the evidence before their eyes.

Paradoxically, one of the reasons that British policing has so easily come around to treating all citizens as simply criminals-in-embryo, is the degree of self-satisfaction by which the British have compared their cops to continental police, such as the quasi-military gendarmerie and Italian and German police forces with dark pasts. As those latter forces have become more constrained (with the exception of the Italians), the British police have quietly, in both Tory and Labour eras, accrued extra powers to themselves.

Contrary to the right-wing myth that the UK is in the grip of a left-wing police nanny state (like a silly article by Hal Colebatch in the Oz last week), the expansion of police power has been perfectly bipartisan — the Tories gave them stop-and-search powers and a toothless watchdog, while starting the flood of CCTV cameras which would festoon every corner of the island. Labour then added anti-racism etc powers, which for example had them investigating people telling off-colour jokes on TV. The sense, now deeply held by the cops, that they are not there to keep order and enforce minimum law, but to shape social behaviour, is a legacy of Thatcher, Major and Blair.

Anyone who imagines that the Tories would somehow be bastions of freedom (and if I thought there was even a reasonable chance that they’d roll back some of these laws and practices, I’d support them in a shot) should note that the first act of Mayor Boris Johnston — self-appointed scourge of “politically correct” piffle — was to ban drinking on public transport, the nanny state in exelcis.

Anyone’s who genuinely concerned about the remorseless spread of social control needs to understand that it’s not a left-right thing anymore — it has far deeper cultural and historical roots and a bit of smarter thinking is required than tired old clichés. But I suspect most of the people who whine about political correctness would be happy with the sort of policing that did for poor old Ian Tomlinson, as long as it made contact with the right sort of victim.

Peter Fray

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