Boris Johnson's Water Cannon and UK's shrivelling civil liberties

Article published on Feb. 26, 2014
Article published on Feb. 26, 2014

Lon­don Mayor Boris John­son re­cently re­quested a water can­non. He wants to boost po­lice fire-power and blast pro­tes­ts off the streets as and when they arise. Lon­don­ers were hor­ri­fied. But more sur­pris­ing than the re­quest itself was Teresa May’s re­fusal to grant it

This small vic­tory for civil lib­er­ties- a water can­non re­fused- runs counter to the creep­ing re­trench­ment of free speech and re­trac­tion of press free­dom which have de­fined this gov­ern­ment. Brits may not feel dis­tinctly less free yet, but this is the most sin­is­ter part; the re­forms are sub­tle and in­sid­i­ous, slowly but surely clos­ing vice-like on civil so­ci­ety.

Human Rights... Get OUT!

The thought of Boris with a water canon seems more per­verse and un­pleas­ant in light of the To­ries’ re­cent pledge to cut ties with the Eu­ro­pean Court of Human Rights. The gov­ern­ment feels human rights are op­pres­sive and the court’s rul­ings are hold­ing them back from re­ally giv­ing the people what for. The Con­ser­v­a­tive Party was par­tic­u­larly dis­tressed by a re­cent rul­ing that gives pris­on­ers with life sen­tences the right to re­view. ‘Life means life!’ shouts Cameron lustily, pan­der­ing to the an­te­dilu­vian droves on the back­benches.

The cur­rent gov­ern­ment has de­vel­oped a tal­ent for dis­tort­ing de­bate. They mis­rep­re­sent the work of the Stras­bourg court, fu­elling hys­te­ria by draw­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ate at­ten­tion to the rare rul­ings that the pub­lic dis­agree with, such as the Abu Hamza de­por­ta­tion de­lays. They pre­fer to for­get that we have the ECHR to thank for nor­mal­is­ing the age of con­sent for ho­mo­sex­u­als and het­ero­sex­u­als, for guar­an­tee­ing greater care to vul­ner­a­ble pris­on­ers and for pro­tect­ing the anonymity of jour­nal­ists’ sources. Yet Jus­tice Sec­re­tary Chris Grayling, how­ever, claims the ECHR, ‘does not make this coun­try a bet­ter place’.

Water canons at home and wa­ter­board­ing abroad, the UK has been mak­ing waves on the in­ter­na­tional stage as well. A High Court in­quiry re­cently re­vealed that the UK was com­plicit in the tor­ture of forty ter­ror sus­pects.

Jour­nal­ists are now ter­ror­ists

The cur­rent gov­ern­ment has at­tacked and di­luted the in­de­pen­dence of the press more than any gov­ern­ment for three cen­turies. Their ap­proach to the Snow­den af­fair- to rev­e­la­tions that GCHQ records data from mil­lions of phone calls- has been heavy-handed and dis­turb­ing. Rather than seek­ing to atone, they have at­tacked. Politi­cians hauled Guardian Ed­i­tor Alan Rus­bridger into par­lia­ment for in­ter­ro­ga­tion, an un­prece­dented step.

They de­stroyed Guardian hard dri­ves con­tain­ing the Snow­den files with a cir­cu­lar saw. The gov­ern­ment knew the files were backed up else­where; the ac­tion was merely cyn­i­cal and sym­bolic, a state­ment of in­tent from a gov­ern­ment seek­ing to pal­li­ate their panic with pos­tur­ing. More audacious still, the po­lice ar­rested Glenn Green­wald’s part­ner, David Mi­randa, for nine hours with­out charge under anti-ter­ror­ism laws. This con­fla­tion of jour­nal­ism with ter­ror­ism, a first for the UK, is more typ­i­cal of dic­ta­tor­ships. It sets an alarm­ing prece­dent.

The gov­ern­ment has ma­nip­u­lated the phone hack­ing scan­dal to serve as an ex­cuse to gain con­trol over the media. In Oc­to­ber 2013 the gov­ern­ment forced through a Royal Char­ter on Press Reg­u­la­tion. A re­sponse to the phone hack­ing scan­dal and the sub­se­quent Leve­son In­quiry, this Char­ter was drawn up by politi­cians be­hind closed doors, with no input or con­sul­ta­tion with the media. The speed and se­crecy of the af­fair was un­nerv­ing. A des­per­ate last minute in­junc­tion brought by pub­lish­ers was crushed by the Court of Ap­peal. Ac­cord­ing to Richard Gor­don QC, from the Press Stan­dards Board of Fi­nance, ‘what is en­vis­aged in the Gov­ern­ment char­ter is the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­ec­u­tive con­trol of the Press for the first time since 1695.’ With a flour­ish of the pen, cen­turies of press in­de­pen­dence, en­vied the world over, was ended in an in­stant.

Now ad­mi­ra­tion has given way to op­pro­brium. The World As­so­ci­a­tion of News­pa­pers and Pub­lish­ers (WAN-IFRA) is send­ing an un­prece­dented press free­dom mis­sion to the UK to raise con­cerns. Pre­vi­ous del­e­ga­tions have gone to Ethiopia, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Mex­ico, Hon­duras, Ecuador, Colom­bia, Guatemala and Azer­bai­jan. The UK is in good com­pany.

The Porn Fil­ter

Fi­nally we come to the much-ma­ligned ‘porn fil­ter’. The White­hall ini­tia­tive is more than sim­ply prud­ish, it is down­right ne­far­i­ous. In­ter­net users have to ex­plic­itly ‘opt in’ to ac­cess ma­te­r­ial that is porno­graphic or ‘ob­scene or taste­less’. Who are politi­cians to tell us what is ‘ob­scene or taste­less’?

The ‘porn’ fil­ter has al­ready been used to block ac­cess to sites of­fer­ing help to self-harm­ers, al­co­holics, drug abusers, vic­tims of do­mes­tic abuse, and mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity. Pre­vent­ing vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren from ac­cess­ing these sites is tragic, even more so when it is done in the name of pro­tect­ing them. In­ci­den­tally, child-pro­tec­tion is the premise used by the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment to pass leg­is­la­tion vic­tim­is­ing the LGBT com­mu­nity.

Richard Gor­don QC de­scribed the afore­men­tioned Royal Char­ter as ‘Kafka-es­que’. Or­well’s ‘1984’ is often evoked in ref­er­ence to the Snow­den rev­e­la­tions. But these lit­er­ary par­a­digms don’t do jus­tice to the un­par­al­leled depth and breadth of David Cameron’s dystopian vi­sion. GCHQ snoop­ing, The Royal Char­ter, anti-ter­ror leg­is­la­tion, the porn fil­ter; we are read­ing about these things in the press but we are yet to per­son­ally feel the full force of their im­pact. This is what is most alarm­ing. They are sub­tle, in­sid­i­ous ini­tia­tives, and, as a re­ac­tionary so­ci­ety that tends to tol­er­ate in­con­ve­nience with a stiff upper lip, it seems Britain will allow these creep­ing ad­vances to con­tinue until it is too late. The tools are being put in place for hith­erto un­seen lev­els of civil and so­cial con­trol. Boris’ wet dream is just a drop in the ocean.