The David Miranda case is causing outrage for all sorts of good reasons: interference in legitimate journalism, abuse of power, excessive powers being granted in the first place, detention without advice, etc etc.
Underlying all this, however, is a set of issues that is not being talked about so much: the deliberate undermining of politics as a legitimate pursuit for anyone other than professional politicians. And the people who are increasingly enforcing this is the police.
Policing has for a long time not been about catching bad guys doing bad things – planning them, doing them, or trying to get away from them. It’s been about the calculation of risk and the deployment of resources to minimise those risks. And the results have been remarkable. While the public frequently do not recognise this, the shift from visible “bobbies on the beat” to “intelligence-led policing” and risk assessments has been associated with — note I do not say “responsible for” — a steady decrease in crime over the last several decades on pretty much every measure you can think of.
The problem is now what counts as a risk factor. When it comes to public order offences — always a terrible grey area, defined by the haves against the interests of the have-nots — the risk factors are the very things that politicians and political scientists alike say they want: high interest in politics, high personal sense of efficacy and engagement, an active sense of citizenship. The result is that the police have effectively criminalised activities that in a democracy should be perfectly ordinary: protesting, scrutinising, disrupting, investigating, and so on.
There is also, by the way, a certain amount of what I’m going to call the categorical compulsion (with apologies to Kantians everywhere): the compulsion to categorise behaviour first as a short-cut to understanding, and then as an alternative to it. Politics is done by politicians; journalism is done by journalists, employed by newspapers or broadcasters; policing is done by sworn, uniformed officers; regardless of all the myriad ways in which those functions are performed on a daily basis by other people.
This is extremely dangerous. The police are reserving to themselves the right to determine what counts as risky behaviour, regardless of all other values — democratic ones, liberal ones, take your pick — and resisting any and all attempts to hold them accountable for those determinations by appealling to the old canard, “We’re keeping you safe.”
If keeping us safe was the only relevant consideration, then we should all be put in preventive detention for our own protection. A life worth living is risky. Get over it. And do NOT reserve to yourself the right to decide which risks are tolerable and which are not. That is a complex matter of social and individual choice, not something the police in a democratic society ought to decide for themselves.
We are heading down a dangerous road if we allow this to continue, if we buy the Home Secretary’s line about “highly sensitive stolen information which could help terrorists”. She is using the classic language of scaremongers. But she is also defending the police protecting us from ourselves, despite our own preferences. That is a police state. It must stop.
The securitisation of public life is a key theme of my public space work.