Police, Camera, Action

David at Minority Report offers some words of warning, regarding the slow trickle of citizen generated footage of alleged brutality at the G20 protests earlier this month:

Reconstructing events by using any number of restricted viewpoints is no replacement for vital missing facts. If I present you with a black box that contains a photo I made of a scene, I’ll happily let you make as many pin holes as you like – you will still struggle to make out whats going on. Especially if I choose the image.

Different circumstances, but I felt this way after Saddam Hussein was executed.  There is a real danger in allowing snippets of grainy amateur footage to act as the definitive account of an event.  The result in this case has been yet another trial by media, only this time the police seem to be on the receiving end.  In reality, we have no way of knowing precisely what killed Ian Tomlinson, and the account of the Nicky Fisher assault makes me uneasy (although admittedly this feeling is entirely based on her sightly spaced-out media interviews).

Was it inevitable that the police would lose this PR war?  Or is that some kind of optical illusion brought about by 20:20 hindsight?  My feeling is that these stories, which trickle out over a few days, played to our preconceptions, feeding into an easily understood narrative.  Clearly, the public have lost trust in the police.

This is a desperately dangerous state of affairs, of course.  However, I think the vilification that the police now receive is a delayed punishment for earlier and more egregious clusterfucks.  Despite the fact that no-one in authority was punished for the Jean-Charles De Menezes killing, it is not unreasonable to draw a line between that incident, and the current debate.  Although neither Sir Ian Blair or Cressida Dick (or for that matter Tony Blair or his Home Secretary Charles Clarke) lost their jobs over the incident, the security services certainly lost credibility as a result.  They were ‘punished’ in the sense that they lost the public’s trust, a vital form of political capital.

There should be a bittersweet satisfaction to this: we’ve learnt that institutions simply cannot maladministrate, or violate our civil liberties, with total impunity.  We’ve learnt how to ‘police the police’, and some thuggish elements will be brought to prosecution through evidence collected by citizen photographer.  However, its also true that the men and women currently tasked with policing our capital city were not the ones who ordered a policy of violence upon us.  Those people who made such decisions still walk free, and unaccountable.  This latest success for citizen journalism is a Pyrrhic victory.

Postscript

I will just note in passing a couple of other points:

  1. The footage of Ian Tomlinson being pushed is being touted around by the Guardian – not a campaigning group, or indeed a lower market tabloid.
  2. Those arrested during a counter-terrorism operation on 8th April (following Bob Quick’s paperwork malfunction) have been released without charge.  That was 14 days in prison, well below the current 28 day limit.  Another chap was released earlier, after only a few days detention.

Cross posted at Liberal Conspiracy, where you can comment.

7 thoughts on “Police, Camera, Action”

  1. I will just note in passing a couple of points:

    1. The footage of Ian Tomlinson being pushed was touted around by the guardian in response to the police saying that they’d had no contact with the man.

    2. How are those arrested going to get their 14 days back? You refer to “ONLY” a few days’ detention as if it were no big deal. You would not think so if you were on the receiving end.

    Oh, and ps, how can you be in any doubt that pushing a man from behind who was walking away could be anything other than brutality? There is no “alleged” about it. Or are you saying the footage was faked?

  2. Clarice,

    On point 1 – fair enough, although the huge Guardian logo all over the footage irks me.

    On point 2 – You’re irritation is totally misplaced. I say “only” in comparison to the 28 day limit, and the preposterous 42 day limit the Brown attempted to enact, and the offensive 90 day limit that Blair tried to sneak past us. My point is in relation to these figures, not to the massive inconvenience faced by these men.

    Regarding the push and “brutality”, it does rather depend on what went immediately before… which I was complaining we had not seen. It could have been in response to earlier violence, and the police man in question felt threatened. Having seen more footage on channel 4 though, I think that argument loses a lot of water.

    Anway, I’m really not interested in mounting a defence of the police on this one. I am part of the group that has lost trust in them, even though I have a brother in the force. For now, I’m merely urging caution, avoiding the rush to judgement, and noting that in the 21st Century, the idea of a disinterested, neutral camera is probably a myth.

  3. Yes. But just because you don’t like the guardian logo is not a good argument against the motives or the veracity of the footage.

    Regardless of what went before, the push itself was clearly brutal. It came from behind as he was walking away (so doesn’t meet “self-defence” criteria) and it sent him sprawling. Even if he’d just committed a crime (and we have no reason to suppose that he had), the correct response would surely have been to arrest the man, not send him flying to his death.

    I think a good solution would be if all the police had guns, and were properly trained, and were truly held responsible for what they do with them. I also think there should be proper personality testing at the recruitment stage to keep the power-crazed sadistic violent psycho types out. There’s definitely too many of those on the loose, and not a good enough system to protect us from them.

  4. Oh, and I also think that being grateful that it wasn’t 42 days, or 90 days, rather undermines your argument against it, by giving credence to the possibility.

    Every attack on civil liberties could always be worse. But that’s no reason to accept something evil just because it is lesser. Where civil liberties are concerned, it has to be an all-or-nothing affair: there has to be a boundary beyond which we do not go. Being grateful that the boundary is overstepped by a small amount, that Rob, is a slippery slope. History’s victims of it bear it out (no Teutonic names mentioned).

  5. Aargh! You’re preaching to the converted.

    I’m not “grateful”. I’m saying that the fact that the police were able to release them after “only” 14 days means that 42 and 90 are utterly unnecessary. The “only” is most certainly an argument against detention without charge.

    And I’m slightly confused as to why you would read it any other way, to be honest. Has this blog been equivocal about this issue before?

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