An exposé of dodgy police tactics came under fire today from the very people it was intended to benefit – as activists accused The Guardian of disregarding personal privacy, and then using the same arguments as the police to justify what they had done.
The front page of today’s Guardian carries a reproduction of a real police spotter card, used by police to identify potential troublemakers attending events or demonstrations. It is claimed that this one was dropped by an unknown police officer at a demonstration against Britain's largest arms fair in 2005.
The photographs of a number of persons of interest are displayed prominently in today’s newspaper, as well as online, accompanied by the friendly request: "Are you featured on the card? How do you feel about it? Let us know."
According to sources within the activist community, many of them are hopping mad. Some of those who are still active feel that this is every bit as intrusive as the police action: others, who have not been active politically for many years, point out that displaying their pictures prominently in the national press, alongside copy that highlights the police description of such activists as "domestic extremists", could have serious implications for their jobs and livelihoods.
The public sector, in particular, has been growing increasingly intolerant of individuals "bringing their employer into disrepute" – and individuals have lost their jobs over the last couple of years simply because the press have publicised some unusual aspect of their private lives.
One activist, who is also a prominent member of Fitwatch, an organisation dedicated to watching the activities of the police's own intelligence gatherers, spoke to El Reg of correspondence she had received from the Guardian.
According to her, the Guardian claimed: "These are all pictures of people who have decided to attend public demonstrations, precisely in order to make public their own political views. They are therefore people who have voluntarily gone into the public arena to engage in political action.
"We believe that many of the people on that card will be pleased to have now contributed towards exposing and helping stop this kind of police behaviour. They will not primarily have been thinking of themselves, but of the benefit to the causes they believe in."
Any similarity between the Guardian justification for publishing the pictures and the police justification for taking them in the first place is purely coincidental.
According to our source, the Guardian had tried to identify the individuals pictured, but when they only received contact from friends of those pictured – saying that they were likely to object – decided to go ahead and publish anyway.
This episode mars what is otherwise a very significant piece of reporting. Today’s newspaper carries the first of what the Guardian promises will be a three-day exposing of "the hidden apparatus [which] has been constructed to monitor "domestic extremists"".
Our source added: "This is regrettable. By acting in this way, the Guardian has destroyed a great deal of trust that they had been building with activists on this issue."
Revelations of the role and scope of activity by organisations such as the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) are likely to raise important questions among our elected representatives. Parliament has never sanctioned a national police force: therefore this, and other police umbrella organisations, appear to be going some way towards subverting the will of parliament. ®
The Guardian has provided the following statement: "The decision to publish the police spotter card today was taken after careful consideration.
"The faces on this card have already been published in the media before. They were shown in detailed close-up in the film “Taking Liberties”, which was distributed in cinemas and is available on DVD. Most - if not all - of the people on this card would have been well aware of that.
"We made it clear in our accompanying article that no-one pictured on the spotter card had done anything amiss other than attend demonstrations, and we did not name anyone, except Mark Thomas, who has written a comment piece about the issue. The picture was published under the neutral headline ‘Faces in the crowd: a police-spotters' guide’.
"The individuals pictured on the spotter card are people who have decided to attend public demonstrations, precisely in order to make public their own political views. They are therefore people who have voluntarily gone into the public arena to engage in political action, which is their right.
"We feel it is extremely important to show the general public just what the police are doing by way of stigmatising demonstrators, and we believe that it is clear from the general thrust of the articles today that we are looking to highlight the wrong-doing of the police, not the protesters."