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Monday, November 27, 2006 

Sleepwalking into the arms of busybodies.

I try not to stray into hyperbole, or scaremonger for no good reason. That's their job. As you might expect, there is now a huge but coming. But, you have to wonder if in years to come they'll look back and decide if 2006 was the tipping point when Britain became a true surveillance state. Let's face it, when that friend of authoritarians everywhere, David Blunkett, starts speaking out, something has to be wrong.

POLICE and councils are considering monitoring conversations in the street using high-powered microphones attached to CCTV cameras, write Steven Swinford and Nicola Smith.

The microphones can detect conversations 100 yards away and record aggressive exchanges before they become violent.

The devices are used at 300 sites in Holland and police, councils and transport officials in London have shown an interest in installing them before the 2012 Olympics.

Right. In the best possible circumstances then, police might be able to get to the scene of a fight slightly quicker. They're unlikely to be able to break it up before it starts. While the first thought for why they're thinking of installing them prior to 2012 must be in case a jihadist decides to discuss his martyrdom with his fellow bombers before they proceed to explode with extreme prejudice, it also occurs that they might be interested in them for other reasons. Like making sure that those unsightly inhabitants of any big city, beggars, the homeless and prostitutes, are tucked away out of sight and out of mind, away from the shining regenerated smiling happy new East End of London. Not that properly regulated women of the night will necessarily be prohibited;
Athens did exactly that prior to their games. The article continues:

Derek van der Vorst, director of Sound Intelligence, the company that created the technology, said: “It is technically capable of being live 24 hours a day and recording 24 hours a day. It really depends on the privacy laws in a particular country.”

The possibilities are endless for snoopers. It also has depressing echoes of 1984, when O'Brien plays back tapes of Winston and Julia making love out in the countryside, where they thought they were safe.
Thank God then for possibly the least likely knight in shining armour in the country sticking his oar in:

But the former home secretary David Blunkett called publicly on the government to block the scheme.

He told BBC Radio Five Live's Weekend News programme that the suggestion was "simply unacceptable", and smacked of the "surveillance state".

"As you walk down the street you expect to be able to have a private conversation," he said.

"If you can't guarantee that - and here is someone speaking who has been pretty tough in terms of what should be available to protect society - I believe we have slipped over the edge."

Not that the government will take the word of one authoritarian over another - if John Reid wants it, no doubt we'll get it.


Then there's the police themselves to worry about. With the politics of terrorism increasingly becoming a party political issue, thanks partly to the government and partly to the screams of the tabloids, demands that once would have been dismissed out of hand suddenly become attractive to a home secretary determined to make the opposition look soft due to their stance.
We've seen Ian Blair time and again demand 90 day detention without trial, even when the Attorney General himself has said that he's seen no evidence to back up such a lengthy time period, and that's a year after the government first attempted to ram it through parliament.

According to the Grauniad, the ever reactionary plod have even more radical and draconian plans than yet seen. Tarique Ghaffur, assistant Met commissioner,
who has already recommended that flag burning and the wearing of masks be banned, has drawn up his own wish list for Lord Goldsmith to cast his eye over.

Police are to demand new powers to arrest protesters for causing offence through the words they chant and the slogans on their placards and even headbands.

Great. And what's the justification for such a chilling imposition on freedom of expression?

Mr Ghaffur has previously advocated banning flag burning. But this document would take the police a lot further. Mr Ghaffur says there is a "growing national and international perception" that the police have been too soft on extremist protesters, which has led to rising anger across the country. "The result has been to create an imbalance in public perception that is manifesting itself in passionate responses from elements of the community not traditionally given to publicly protesting. What we are seeing in effect is a rise in the politicisation of middle England and the emergence of a significant challenge for capital city policing."

The entire basis for potentially criminalising what are harmless and typical chants on protests is the chestnut the police have come to adore, the extremists. There have been a maximum of 3 protests which have caused widespread publicity this year by well-known extremists: the first, in February, in the aftermath of the controversy of the Danish Mohammad cartoons, involving less than 500 people, where protesters clearly incited murder, with the result of one man being convicted; the second, when
Anjem Choudary and other usual suspects, numbering less than 100, protested outside a Catholic church shortly after the Pope's quoting of a Byzantine emperor, with Choudary suggesting that the pontiff could be subject to capital punishment, although he did not say he should be executed; and the third, when a similar number of protesters made their feelings known outside the Old Bailey during the trial of Mizanur Rahman.

The protests have caused offense, the first one rightly so, and the second one predictably. The hole in Mr Ghaffur's argument is that one of those on the February protest has been successfully prosecuted under current laws; others are likely to follow. As Not Saussure also argues, this isn't about "Middle England" being politicised, it's about the Sun screaming about the "faces of evil" who dare to use their right to protest. The media's focusing and reliance on getting the views of extremists, who represent absolutely no one within the wider Muslim community, has to share part of the blame for the rising levels of Islamophobia.

The police want powers to tackle a "grey area" in the array of public order laws. At present, causing offence by itself is not a criminal offence.

God, causing offence hasn't been criminalised yet? New Labour have been slacking off. Criminalising causing offence in any way whatsoever is a recipe for absolute disaster. How can you justify criminalising extremist groups' banners and chants, without at the same time cracking down on the BNP? How can you legislate without at the same time potentially limiting the right of comedians to free speech? Many people find the stand-up routines of Roy "Chubby" Brown and Bernard Manning offensive. Creating an offence of causing offence would be a meddlesome busybodies dream. It could also be used both ways; the Sun might rejoice that the tiny bunch of extremists are stopped from covering their faces and saying that the Pope could theoretically be executed, but somehow I get the feeling it might feel the opposite if "politically correct killjoys" started targeting page 3 for offending women.

The document continues: "Is the sand shifting in our collective viewpoint around what constitutes 'causing offence'? Equally, we need to have a clearer determination of current community perceptions around what 'public offence' actually means. We also need to think more laterally around how we police public demonstrations where 'offence' could be caused, while still respecting the British position around freedom of speech."

The document, entitled "The widening agenda of public demonstrations and radicalisation", says Islamic extremists have learned how to cause offence without breaking the law. It also reveals that the government has yet to implement the bill outlawing religious hatred which received royal assent in February. It says that the law may prove useless against extremists: "Virtually all activity by protesters could constitute insulting or abusive language, behaviour or banners towards particular religions, but
would fall outside the remit of inciting religious hatred."

The police then want to have their cake and eat it. They recognise that virtually all demonstrations could be considered insulting and abusive, but Ghaffur seemingly wants to bring in a new law anyway. Their real reasoning might actually be that they want to remove all nuances; after all, it's really difficult to tell the difference between inciting murder and calling someone a murderer. Rule of thumb for all plods: calling Blair, for example, a murderer, is perfectly ok. Calling for Blair to be murdered, especially if he is to be beheaded, or killed in a suicide bombing, is not ok.


To give Ghaffur his due, his heart and motives may be in the right place. His concern could be that letting the current situation continue, with extremists causing outrage among those who don't much respect the right to protest in the first place, could well lead to more mosques and hijab-wearing women being attacked as a result by knuckledragging idiots.

The consequences of such a ban though would be multiple.
As Not Saussure again points out, we've already had a young woman wearing a "Bollocks to Blair" t-shirt arrested, as was another young man for suggesting that a police horse was gay. Protests normally involve robust denunciations of politicians, suggesting that they're the real terrorists, for example. Companies are oft accused of having blood on their hands. Both could be under threat for causing offence. If such a law was put in place, you may as well ban all protests throughout the country without prior permission, as is the current situation within a mile of parliament. This might make Ghaffur happy; those planning to attend could in advance tell the police what they intend to chant or show on placards, which the police could then check before giving the ok. Nanny knows best.

As ever, the best argument against such a potential ban is that every additional power given to the police is inevitably abused. Section 44 of the Terrorism Act has become notorious after Walter Wolfgang was refused re-entry to the Labour party conference. Stalking laws have been used against repeat protesters. If the police want to do something, they'll find a law they can justify it under.


OK, you might be saying, but parliament wouldn't let such potentially draconian laws be passed. The answer to that is that we sadly and simply can't rely on that being the case. The recent vote on the setting up of an inquiry into the Iraq war was a case in point:
the government got off the hook through sheer cowardice, by attacking the nationalists who got the debate in the first place. Voting with them would be betrayal, they said, along with potentially undermining the troops, a disgustingly mendacious argument when inquiries have on numerous occasions in the past been set-up during times of war.
Even with Labour MPs being the most rebellious ever, some will always abstain rather than face the wrath of the whips or their colleagues for helping defeat the government.

Such potential legislation then needs to be vigorously opposed before it even gets near the House of Commons. Write to your MP, write to your local council, write to your local newspaper, write to members of the House of Lords. Better yet, join Liberty. It's better to be unnecessarily concerned and do something about it than wait until it's too late.

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