Patrice Riemens on Wed, 3 Dec 2008 12:50:49 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Philip Stephens (FT): The police, and the state, are out of control

After the recent incidents in France ("the Tarnac 9" - 7 released now, but
Julien C. and compagnon still in jail - the affair with the gendarmerie
and their sniffer dogs barging into secondary school classes, and earlier
instances (think Andrej Holm) a welcome opinion piece in the 'pink paper'.
(Meanwhile in France, the scandal has errupted and the government is
backtracking ... for how long?)


The police, and the state, are out of control
By Philip Stephens
Monday Dec 1 2008 14:25
Financial Times, London.

The police are out of control. So is the government. We can only
conjecture as to what possessed the senior officers who raided the homes
and parliamentary office of Damian Green, the Conservative immigration
spokesman. Yet their disdain for political process spoke eloquently to the
authoritarian culture of our times.

In this respect, regardless of whether ministers played a direct role in
Mr Green's arrest, the blame rests squarely with the government. The
police must be held to account for their heavy-handed intimidation, but
ministers nurtured the climate in which such madness flourishes.

The absurdities of the incident are self-evident. A score of officers from
the Metropolitan police's "special operations directorate" barged into Mr
Green's London and constituency homes, hauled him off to the cells and
stripped his office of computers and files. The alleged offence? To have
put into the public domain leaked information that embarrassed Jacqui
Smith, the home secretary.
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There is not a hint here of any breach of national security. Mr Green
exposed the incompetence that has long described the conduct of affairs at
the home office. The official alleged to have leaked the information has
already been arrested.

It is all but impossible to imagine a jury convicting Mr Green.
Disseminating leaked information has been embedded in the custom of
politics since time immemorial. Rightly so, given the stiflingly secretive
British state. When he was in opposition, Gordon Brown used to boast of
his skilful exploitation of such material. Can we expect the "special
operations directorate" to be hammering next on the door of Number 10 to
seize Mr Brown's BlackBerry?

Mr Green was arrested under a part of the common law that proscribes
"misconduct in a public office". The police say (off the record, of
course) that the MP was not a passive recipient of documents, but
conspired with the official. They hint they have evidence enough to charge
Mr Green.

We shall see. The purpose of this 18th-century law is to deal with corrupt
public officials including, dare one say it, police officers. To deploy it
in this fashion against elected members of parliament is to show, at very
best, blithe ignorance of the democratic process. MPs are not above the
law, but the police have no place in politics.

We have been here before. During the final year of Tony Blair's
premiership, a team of officers conducted a long, expensive and fruitless
inquiry into allegations that the then prime minister had sold peerages in
return for party donations. Once again the staged drama - dawn raids and
off-the-record smearing of those under investigation - was in inverse
proportion to the possibility of any prosecution.

Needless to say, no one was ever brought before a court. But it seems the
police are still ready to trample over the line that separates legitimate
investigation from the, albeit sometimes grubby, practice of politics.

You could say, though, that Mr Blair should not have been surprised. If
the police think they can discard due process, they have been taking their
cue from the government.

For more than a decade, first Mr Blair, and latterly Mr Brown, have rolled
forward the boundaries of the state at the expense of civil liberties. The
consistent opposition of the Liberal Democrats and, latterly, even of the
Conservatives to this insouciant disregard for ancient freedoms has been
brushed aside as the hand-wringing of feeble liberals.

Some measures have been explicable and justifiable in the face of the
threat from violent Islamist extremists. The first duty of any government
is to guard the security of its citizens. I have more sympathy than many
with the view that the intelligence agencies and the police must be given
sufficient means to thwart the terrorists.

But the powers of the state have advanced well beyond that. The present
government sees no distinction between the rule of law and whatever piece
of legislation it can force through parliament.

In the criminal justice system, the fragile balance between the rights of
police, prosecutors and accused has been overturned. The presumption of
innocence is scorned. Successive home secretaries, including Ms Smith,
have mouthed the mantra that the police are always right.

Ministers have likewise greatly extended the state's surveillance of
law-abiding citizens. The pretence that it is all about al-Qaeda has been
exploded by widespread use of anti-terrorism laws by local authorities and
other public bodies. Parents suspected of "gaming" school admission
systems have become the victims of elaborate surveillance operations by
local councils. Almost anyone and everyone in public authority can now
call up private telephone and e-mail records. We must suppose they will
have equal access to the government's Orwellian National Identity

Little wonder the police seem to think they can abuse their power. The
senior ranks of the Metropolitan police are overdue a serious clear-out.
No one should be in any doubt, though, that the real culprit is the

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