Not Saussure

November 27, 2006

This policeman offends my common sense — make a law to stop him!

Filed under: civil liberties, Law, Panic — notsaussure @ 2:24 pm

The reason, or so I gather, that Russian wizards and witches tend to withdraw from human affairs and live in the forests, far away from everyone, is that their words and wishes have power. Consequently, the idea goes, if you live in Moscow or St Petersburg, you’re bound to at some point to find yourself angry with someone who jostles you in the street or treads on your feet on the metro, ill-wish him, and then you’ve got the consequences on your conscience. That, and the fact your hut on hens’ legs needs plenty of space for its exercise, of course.

Anyway, I’m beginning to wonder if writing a blog isn’t a bit like that. John Reid opined a little while ago that something or other ‘involves nothing less than together renewing the social contract.’ The Reactionary Snob responded that the social contract

is a hypothetical construct to justify the state’s existence. We don’t actually sign a contract… although, I wouldn’t put it past you lot to try.

and, as if by magic, a few weeks later it transpires that

A new contract between the state and the citizen setting out what individuals must do in return for quality services from hospitals, schools and the police is one of the key proposals emerging from a Downing Street initiated policy review,

a proposal memorably taken apart by Nosemonkey in a post that prompted someone to ask, of Blair,

Can’t someone just buy him a copy of SimCity and let him get on with it?


Now I write something entitled It’s grotesque — ban it, and, as if by magic, up pops the Met’s assistant commissioner, Tariq Ghaffur, asking for

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

It’s either magic or they’re combing the interwebs for policy ideas, rather as they did looking for reasons to invade Iraq to put in the dodgy dossier and ended up with a 12-year-old Ph D thesis.

Anyway, apparently the reasoning behind this is as follows:

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.”

I’m not completely sure what he means here about ‘a rise in the politicisation of middle England and the emergence of a significant challenge for capital city policing’; my first thought was that he had in mind something like the countryside march, rather later, the significant challenge for capital city policing posed by the fox hunting protest. My late wife, a lady never given to going on demonstrations before being politicised by Mr Blair, wasn’t well enough to attend either of those, and neither was she well enough to attend the big demonstration against the invasion of Iraq, though she did manage make it to a local one where she found herself progressing down the High Street alongside the local Anglican bishop.

However, I don’t think this is exactly what he means by ‘a rise in the politicisation of middle England’; no, the reference to ‘an imbalance in public perception’ about the police being ‘too soft on extremist protesters’ means, I think, that people read in the Daily Telegraph about the protestors outside the Danish Embassy back in February, chanting

slogans threatening more London bombings, praising the “magnificent” 9/11 hijackers and waving placards saying “Massacre those who insult Islam”, “Europe you will pay” and “Europe you’ll come crawling when Mujahideen come roaring,”

and want to know, ‘Why aren’t the police doing something?’.

Well, at the time, the police’s explanation wasn’t that their powers were inadequate but that

there were no arrests on Friday because of fears of a riot. A senior Scotland Yard officer said: “We have to take the overall nature of the protesters into account. If they are overheated and emotional we don’t go in.

“It’s like a risk assessment; you have to look at the crowd you are dealing with. If we went in to arrest one person with a banner the crowd would turn on us and people would get hurt.”

He said it was entirely possible that “key players” in the protests, some of whom were already known to police, could be pursued by prosecutors.

The Metropolitan Police said: “Arrests if necessary will be made at the most appropriate time. The Met has several different means of collecting the necessary evidence should it be required post-event. All complaints made to police will be passed to the Public Order Crime Unit for investigation.”

This, of course, is precisely what happened; only a couple of weeks ago, for example, Mizanur Rahman was convicted of inciting racial hatred for his role in the demonstration, and now awaits a retrial on the charge of soliciting to murder at the same event.

However, that’s clearly not sufficient for Assistant Commissioner Ghaffur;

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.

“There must be a clear message that we will not allow any extremist group to display banners or make public statements that clearly cause offence within the existing law,”

This is because ‘Islamic extremists have learned how to cause offence without breaking the law,’ the crafty Islamist buggers.

This is a ludicrous line of argument. If there’s no other element, causing offence isn’t a crime under English law, and for very good reasons. The nearest we’ve got is probably Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which covers ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour … within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby;’ note the ‘within the hearing or sight’ as opposed to ‘who might later read about it or see it reported on the TV’. The law, as it is, gets ludicrously abused;

A girl was arrested for wearing her “Bollocks to Blair” T-shirt at the Midlands Game Fair last weekend. Charlotte Denis, 20, a gamekeeper from Gloucestershire, was stopped by police as she left the Countryside Alliance stand because of the “offensive” slogan….

A tearful Denis was driven to a mobile police unit. “I asked the officers how they could arrest someone for wearing a T-shirt and they told me it was because it would offend a 70-80-year-old woman,” she said.

I have my doubts about 70-80-year-old women being that offended by ‘bollocks to Blair’, by the way; my mother’s in her 90s and, while not normally given to strong language, has been known herself to say rather worse things than that about the man.

It was the same section that was used to arrest — though the charges were subsequently dropped — an Oxford student for telling a police officer his horse was gay; the problem there, I assume, was that there was no one other than the policeman (and his horse, of course) who might be caused harassment, alarm or distress. This was the same problem encountered when the police charged teenager Kurt Walker under Section 5 when they overheard him swearing while talking to his friends; that was dropped because the police ‘didn’t have enough evidence’, and the evidential problem will have been establishing that there was anyone in earshot who might have been caused harassment, alarm or distress. That’s a question of fact; a police officer could testify that there were people about who might be upset — they don’t have to give evidence themselves — but if the only people around were the police officers, the CPS notes that

There must be a person within the sight or hearing of the suspect who is likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress by the conduct in question. A police officer may be such a person, but remember that this is a question of fact to be decided in each case by the magistrates. In determining this, the magistrates may take into account the familiarity which police officers have with the words and conduct typically seen in incidents of disorderly conduct.

As I said, there’s no legal protection against just being offended by something, and quite rightly so. We’re all of us entitled to go about our business without others causing us harassment, alarm or distress but the idea that we should be protected from anything that offends us, let alone anything that might offend us, were we to be there, which is what Tariq Ghaffur seems to have in mind, is utterly bizarre.

And it still doesn’t get round the problem identified by Assistant Commissioner Ghaffur’s colleague à propos the Danish Embassy protests; even if he gets his law, AC Ghaffur probably won’t want to wade in mob-handed and start arresting people on the spot, for fear of what’ll follow. What he seems to envisage is a catch-all power to arrest people later, on the grounds an officer saw them wearing a ‘Bollocks to Blair’ tee shirt or possibly overheard them saying something objectionable — and here’s a recording we made from 100 yards away to prove it.

It’s normally at this point in the discussion someone pops up and says, ‘there’s no question of this being used in such a way — it’ll only be used in extreme cases’.

To which I reply, doubtless putting myself at risk of arrest under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, ‘Bollocks!’. Section 5 of the Public Order Act wasn’t supposed, if you read the CPS guidelines, to be used to harass people wearing Bollocks to Blair tee shirts, either. Here’s what the CPS say it’s for:

The following types of conduct are examples, which may at least be capable of amounting to disorderly behaviour:

# causing a disturbance in a residential area or common part of a block of flats;
# persistently shouting abuse or obscenities at passers-by;
# pestering people waiting to catch public transport or otherwise waiting in a queue;
# rowdy behaviour in a street late at night which might alarm residents or passers-by, especially those who may be vulnerable, such as the elderly or members of an ethnic minority group;
# causing a disturbance in a shopping precinct or other area to which the public have access or might otherwise gather;
# bullying.

Doesn’t stop it from being used in various weird and wonderful ways. Impose an even lower bar to prosecution — causing offence, rather than harassment, alarm or distress — and take away the requirement that there must be someone around who actually could be upset by the behaviour in question, and Christ only knows what you’ve unleashed.

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  1. It seems that your work involves law; if you have a lot of experience of the police, or anyone reading this does, WHY do so many high ranking police officers seem to be pushing ludicrous proposals like this one?

    Is it that they are politicised, and are acting as proxys for the government? Is it that the cliche is true, and policemen tend to be authoritarian? Or that the authoritarian minority are more vocal – in which case where are the others? Is it that they know that society is in a much worse state than anyone realises? Or that they are constitutionally naive and genuinely can’t see the dangers of such moves? Is it simply a case of professions always pushing for more powers? Have they always been desperate for things like this and see an opening now? Has something subtely gone wrong with the fundamental training of the police?

    Comment by alabastercodify — November 27, 2006 @ 7:15 pm

  2. The cops with whom I come into contact aren’t anything like so high-ranking as Assistant Commissioners in the Met, of course.

    In my experience, and it’s just my view, they mostly view their top ranking officers as, in general, political animals who’re as interested in telling HMG what they think it wants to hear as they are in policing. In general, I find police officers’ views and personalities as varied as those of any other group of people — certainly some come over as mad fascists, but so, I’m sure, do some physiotherapists or computer programmers or whatever.

    Certainly few of the officers I know seem any more keen on many of these bright ideas than is anyone else. They’re certainly not, by and large, begging to be given still more power (less paperwork, certainly, but not more power). Most of them, I think, would primarily like to be left alone by government to get on with their jobs.

    Comment by notsaussure — November 27, 2006 @ 7:47 pm

  3. […] Further proof for my suggestion either that bloggers have some magical power inadvertantly to cause government to go out and do something stupid just by speculating about it or HMG trawls the internet looking for dodgy ideas to go its dodgy policy dossiers. […]

    Pingback by ARCH RIGHTS: First they came for the children « Not Saussure — November 28, 2006 @ 5:50 pm

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