Northern Irish police use water cannon on an Orangeman marcher in July 2013. Photo: Getty
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The pros and cons of water cannon policing

For sale: three water cannon. One previous owner. 90 per cent off.

Here’s the first thing to say about Boris Johnson's decision to purchase three water cannon for use in riot policing: he has got us a terrific bargain.

A brand new water cannon would generally set you back around £870,000, which is quite a lot of money, even in London. But by buying them second hand from the German federal police force, Johnson's deputy Stephen Greenhalgh has managed to get the Metropolitan Police a job lot of three, for the low, low price of just £218,000.

That's more than 90 per cent off. I mean, you would, wouldn't you? If you walked past a shop selling laptops at 8 per cent of their regular price, you'd have to stop yourself from going in. Can we really expect our leaders to show any greater restraint?

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) quite fancies some toys of its own, and last January published this briefing paper, helpfully outlined the advantages of using water cannon in riot policing. For one thing, they can be used from a distance: this not only keeps the boys in blue safe from harm, it reduces the chance of minor scuffles that can escalate into something more dangerous. A cannon’s mere presence can have a deterrent effect, too, the briefing claims: in Northern Ireland, whose police force has six of the things, they’re "often deployed without being employed".

Best of all, water cannon "provide a graduated and flexible application of force, ranging from spray or diffused mode to  forceful water jets". In other words, those who fire them have at least some control over the appropriate level of force to use.

That is not something that can be said of other approaches to crowd control at a distance. If you don’t have a water cannon, the main alternative is ‘Attenuated Energising Projectiles’ which, ACPO tells us, are more commonly known as baton rounds. In fact they're more commonly still known as rubber bullets (words that don’t appear anywhere in ACPO's briefing). These, despite being rubber, are pretty nasty things: better to disperse a crowd by giving them a light hosing than to jump straight to shooting at them.

Oh, and you can water flowers with them. That's nice, too.

That's the good news. Here's the bad: water cannon are indiscriminate. They're not used to target individuals, but to target entire crowds. If you're at the wrong protest, if you’re standing on the wrong place, it doesn't matter how well behaved you are: you're going to get blasted.

And ‘blasted’ is the word. We probably all realise by now that these things aren't Supersoakers, but what happened when they were used in Stuttgart in 2010 is really, genuinely shocking. Here’s how the BBC reported it after the event:

"Dietrich Wagner – a 69-year-old retired engineer – was hit in the face at a protest in Stuttgart four years ago. His eyelids were torn and some of the bones around his eyes fractured, causing his eyeballs to fall out of their sockets."

Let’s say that again. His eyeballs fell out of their sockets. That is an extreme case: no such injuries have ever been recorded in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, it’s a reminder of quite how nasty these things can be.

The Home Secretary has yet to grant police the power to use water cannon in England and Wales. Even when that happens, senior police officers have repeatedly reassured that the technology will only rarely be used. (That briefing document identifies three protests where they may have been useful, one of which, hilariously, was the Countryside Alliance's 2004 march on Parliament Square.) As ACPO itself admits, “whilst water cannon can have a deterrent effect, it must also equally be understood that its presence alone can be inflammatory".

But the Metropolitan Police are, shall we say, not averse to using their crowd control powers to the maximum of their abilities. Inflammatory behaviour by riot police is hardly unknown either. Now they've got their toys, it seems probable that they'll want to use them.

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. He is on Twitter, almost continously, as @JonnElledge.

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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times