Police use of dead children's identities: a non-story or a slippery slope to a Stasi state? (Part II)

11 Feb 2013

In my previous post I looked at the reader response to the Guardian’s story on undercover police officers using the identities of dead children to construct their aliases. Some readers on the Guardian’s website shrugged their shoulders, believing the end to justify the means. Others took issue not with the morality of the practice but with its logic; it seemed easier and safer to use entirely false identities. The majority of readers who responded expressed their upset at the strategy and the types of people that it was designed to target, and at what it meant for the UK’s idea of itself as a democracy.

Now I want to take a look at the response on the website of the Daily Mail, Britain’s biggest online newspaper. Although the comparison with the Guardian isn’t perfectly neat, there is a general difference of politics that lends interest to the similarities and differences between the two sets of comments.

Within 12 hours, 645 readers responded to the Guardian’s story, and the conversation continued on a follow-up story. The Mail’s report attracted 160 comments, the first of which is shown below.

The story was published just after 11pm on Sunday evening, and this comment appeared a couple of hours later - the response is slower than on the Guardian’s story, but the time of day probably accounts for that. The Guardian published earlier in the evening. The first comment sets a similar tone to the first on the Guardian: such is the nature of police work, no harm done.

And in the case of the Mail, this is the prevailing argument: together, posts asking, essentially, “so what?” posts asking who really got hurt, and posts asserting that the end justifies the means account for more than a third of the total. Two readers evidence their support for the police by suggesting that they would be happy for the identities of relatives who died at an early age to be used in this way (see below). Eight of the 10 comments rated highest by readers make this kind of point – while all 10 of those given the heaviest negative ratings criticised the police force or the government.

The broad sweep of the discussion is, as expected, rather different from that on the Guardian, then, but it is not without differences of opinion. Though about 10 of the 160 responses criticise the Daily Mail for “muck digging” in order to attack the police, another 10 criticise the police and about a dozen assert the illegality of what the officers were doing. We see only one reader mentioning fascism, but several point out how disrespectful the identity assumption is and question its effectiveness as a tactic. Two readers on this side of the argument also use their own experiences of losing loved ones to support their point.

There are also readers who, just as on the Guardian, consider the use of undercover officers to infiltrate protest groups to be wasteful and wrong. Whereas most Guardian readers who sought to place blame looked towards the Conservatives, one Mail reader thought it a typical “Labour trick” – though of course, whether or not he meant that as an insult to the Conservative government, we can’t be sure.

In the responses of readers of both websites, then, we find broadly the same set of arguments, but each is given different weight and expression by the two sets of readers. If we can make one or two generalisations, Guardian readers are more likely than Daily Mail readers to consider the story newsworthy, and to take issue with the tactic and the types of people that it was deployed against. As the discussion progresses, readers on the Guardian seem more likely to extrapolate from this story to a more general sense of the state and its agencies acting beyond their remits, and in ways that endanger the country’s democratic future.

Daily Mail readers, generally speaking, are more likely to respond by wondering what the “point” of the story is; they either see no problem with the use of dead children’s identities for police work (about a third of comments), or are prepared to put aside any concerns they have, feeling that the police must be allowed to do whatever is necessary. Though there is some criticism of the Metropolitan police, it is not so likely to become the basis for questioning all forces, the state and so on. This perhaps reflects the greater likelihood that they would consider themselves to be right of centre on the political spectrum, and also that they are more likely to have voted for, or support, the Conservative party that leads the current coalition. Guardian readers' stance may reflect not simply their probable left-of-centre politics, but perhaps also a pessimism based on the so far very limited influence of the Liberal Democrats, backed by the newspaper before the last election, on that coalition.