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EDITORIAL A ban on sharing footage of police would be authoritarian and dangerous

THE Metropolitan Police Federation chief’s bid to ban sharing footage of police officers “doing their job” is arrogant and dangerous.

Such a ban would reduce police accountability at a time when concern at police brutality is rising.

The police union’s chairman Ken Marsh cites an Independent Office for Police Conduct report exonerating officers over a traffic stop and car search last year to depict the investigation as a waste of public money.

Footage of police should not be shareable, he concludes, since this provokes “trial by social media.”

Following the Inspectorate of Constabulary’s stern rebuke to the public for daring to call for Met Police chief Cressida Dick’s resignation over police violence against women on Clapham Common, Marsh’s intervention reflects a wider drive to place security agencies above criticism.

That very episode helps explain why. Images of police wading in to manhandle women holding a peaceful vigil in memory of Sarah Everard — the suspect for whose murder is a Met police officer — prompted national outrage, inspired days of massive protests outside Parliament, forced a change in policy from the Labour Party and even secured a delay in the legislation itself, which opens a window for its defeat the left and labour movement must use to the full.

How much more convenient for our rulers if sharing such footage had been illegal — and the penalty for doing so was borne, as Marsh suggests, by social media companies?

Facebook and Twitter, which have already earned a reputation for political censorship, would have blocked dissemination of the offending images. Witnesses’ reports would have been denied. The story would have been much easier to bury.

Marsh echoes a right-wing media trope — often deployed against attempts to hold soldiers accountable for war crimes — that officers are constantly harassed by vexatious complaints.

But as in France — where President Emmanuel Macron introduced legislation banning publication of images of police in the wake of police savagery against the yellow vests protesters — the proposal is really about concealing police abuse.

Evidence of such abuse is plentiful. Footage from Clapham means we do not have to agree with the Inspectorate of Constabulary that police actions were appropriate: we can make our own judgement. 

But there is a long list of prior incidents. Protesters marched in Tottenham last December after footage emerged showing an officer “repeatedly punching” a black 16-year-old in the face. 

Footage was instrumental in establishing the circumstances around the death of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson shoved to the ground by police officer Simon Harwood during a protest in 2009: it gave the lie to initial police accounts, trumpeted by the right-wing press, that police had attempted to assist a man who had “collapsed” but were prevented from doing so by a hail of missiles thrown by protesters. 

As Marsh pushes for rules that would force us to take police accounts on trust, it is as well to remember that this version of events proved to be untrue in all respects.

We know police destroyed witness statements in order to secure convictions of the Shrewsbury pickets. We know that the BBC connived with police at Orgreave in 1984 to reverse footage to show miners attacking police when police had in fact attacked miners.

We know police collaborated on false statements to slander the dead at Hillsborough, and mounted a smear campaign against the wholly innocent Jean-Charles de Menezes in 2005 after he was chased down and killed because a botched operation misidentified him as a terrorist.

Recent years have exposed police abuses on a dramatic scale. Our government has already responded with legislation giving state agents impunity to commit crimes and enhanced authority to shut down protest. 

It should be left in no doubt that exploiting the current shift towards greater regulation of social media to restrict filming police officers will meet massive resistance. This creeping authoritarianism has to be driven back.

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