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A summer of scapegoating: Laurie Penny on being trailed by the police

Millions have urgent, legitimate grievances with government. The criminalisation of dissent should outrage us all.

Last weekend, some friends and I took a trip to the seaside. We ate ice-cream on the beach in the brilliant sun, and tiptoed out into the icy waves, negotiating bits of floating plastic, shrieking like excited children with rolled-up trousers and tucked-in skirts: five get messy in Brighton. It was, in every respect, a normal holiday. Except for the eight or nine uniformed police officers watching us paddle.

Two "forward intelligence teams" had been sent down from London specifically to keep an eye on us, taking pictures as we handed out flyers about tax avoidance with a local anti-cuts group and ate chips with little wooden forks. If this really represents a danger to the state, the state is in far more trouble than we have been led to believe.

Bad things happen to people who protest against the British government and its austerity program. You no longer even have to have committed a crime to be reported to the police. This week, the City of Westminster's "Counter Terrorist Focus Desk" issued a call for all "anarchists" to be identified, stating that anyone who thinks that the state is "undesirable, unnecessary and harmful" should be considered as dangerous as al-Quaeda. Presumably the architects of the "big society" project will soon be getting the heavy knock at the door.

The Metropolitan Police have made their priorities extremely clear. Up to 200 officers have been devoted to hunting down students and anti-cuts activists, knocking on the doors of school pupils and arresting them for their part in demonstrations against education cutbacks that took place nine months ago. Thirty UK Uncut protesters are still facing charges for their part in a peaceful demonstration in Fortnum and Mason, footage from the police recordings of which shows some dangerous anarchists waving placards in the foyer and batting a beach ball over a stack of expensive cheese. Up to 300 activists have been arrested so far, in a joint operation that has already cost the taxpayer £3.65m. By contrast, only eight man-hours were spent in 2009 investigating the allegation that feral press barons were being permitted to run what amounted to a protection racket at the Met.

When he resigned as Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson listed some of his proudest moments at the Met. These included the force at their "glorious and unobtrusive best" on the occasion of the royal wedding. Thats not how I remember it. I remember hippies and students all over the country being dragged out of their homes and arrested for crimes they hadnt even thought of committing. The disgraced former police chief also congratulated the force on their "professional and restrained approach" at the recent student demonstrations. Thats not what I saw. I saw them dragging Jody McIntyre out of his wheelchair. I saw crowds of students and schoolchildren screaming and scrambling over one another as they fled a charge by mounted police that put at least forty-three of them in hospital and left one young man fighting for his life on the operating table.

As students and activists continue to be charged with violent disorder, it seems to have been forgotten that this offence normally relates to acts of self-defence in the face of police brutality. It is now a crime to fight back when you're getting bludgeoned with batons for daring to take a stand against unfair, unnecessary cuts to public services. Police officers, meanwhile, are rarely charged in connection with violence against protesters. In 2009, despite video evidence showing Sgt Delroy Smellie assaulting Nicola Fisher, District Judge Daphne Wickham ruled that he had acted lawfully. This week, the same judge ignored sentencing guidelines to send Jonnie Marbles to prison for attempting to splatter Rupert Murdoch with shaving foam.

Marbles hurt nobody with his misguided prank. Nor did 20-year-old Frank Fernie, who is serving a year in jail for "throwing two sticks at police officers" in full body armour. Nor did Charlie Gilmour, whose drunken antics at the student demonstrations earned him 16 months in Wandsworth, where he is currently spending 23-hours a day locked in a tiny cell with an armed robber. Although some have identified these opprobrious sentences as attacks on the right to protest, the courts seem only to be making examples of certain types of protester whose principles directly threaten the ruling consensus. Stephen Lennon, the leader of the far-right English Defence League, was recently convicted of leading a street brawl and threatening members of the public, but received only a fine and a community order.

The Home Office has admitted to ongoing discussions with the Metropolitan police about operational policies and procedures concerning UK Uncut and other anti-cuts groups. So much for the separation of powers. So much for the rule of law. I am sick of it. I am sick of seeing peaceful protesters scapegoated as violent thugs and sent to prison while right-wing extremists and corrupt media tycoons walk free. At a time when millions have urgent and legitimate grievances with this government, the criminalisation of dissent should outrage us all.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder