One of this month’s biggest news stories has been the Guardian’s revelation that undercover police officers working for the Metropolitan police used the identities of dead children to create their aliases. In approximately 80 cases between the late 1960s and the mid 1990s now being investigated as part of the review of the disbanded Special Demonstration Squad, officers not only adopted the names and dates of birth of the children, but also visited their home towns in order to develop ‘memory’ narratives. The Guardian carried an interview with two officers about their preparations for taking on their new personas, and the doubts they had about doing so; one wished he had not agreed to it, feeling that “it was almost like jumping on the grave”, the other felt it had been necessary to the job.
With these differences evident in the accounts of the officers concerned, it’s interesting to look at the comments left by readers on online versions of the news.
First, in this post, I’ll take a look at the responses left on the Guardian’s own story, which was shared more than 2000 times on Facebook and Tweeted 1147 times. In less than 12 hours, the article attracted 645 comments from signed-in readers, 15 of which were subsequently deleted by moderators. In a post to follow, I’ll look at those left on the Daily Mail’s report on the story.
The first dozen or so comments set the central themes in the discussion:
To begin with, one reader describes this as a “non story”, and backs this up by framing it as a matter of choosing between police safety and the sensitivities of others. In the Guardian this simplification is taken up and problematised by other readers, and the three most ‘recommended’ comments on the article reply to VikingHustings: the first asks “how would you like it?”, the second ponders the legality of the use of these identities, and the third questions whether the groups targeted were ever likely to endanger the safety of any police officers, describing the activists as “just a bunch of hippies”. As you’ll see below, these are core themes in the Guardian’s below-the-line discussion.
Describing those who are upset by the police actions as “the usual suspects” evokes a sense of serial complainers with an axe to grind and alludes to “leftie”-handwringing (not uncommon on Guardian pages, and a later poster says “I take it all you haters who have posted above would spit out your lentils if…”; click here if you’re not sure about the Guardianista stereoptype). There are responses here that seek to deal with the bigger picture, and attach blame to parties and individuals on both sides of the political divide. Some commenters suggest that the tactic is typical of the callous right wing – “the enemy within turned out to be the Tories” – while others express disappointment in Labour governments. As one reader points out, four Labour prime ministers served during the period in which the use of dead children’s identities took place, to which another responds: “I never trusted the Tories but expected better from Blair’s bunch.”
The second comment picks up on a mention in the original piece of the Stasi, and is one of several in the first handful of comments to reference some kind of fascist or totalitarian state. This is returned to throughout the conversation and some readers also mention cultural references such as Day of the Jackal and Nineteen Eighty Four. A number pose rhetorical questions about the UK’s status as a democracy. One reader quotes Lenin.
The third is the first to explicitly disrupt the idea of a “greater good”. There is apparent scepticism towards this notion among some readers’ comments, though this is contested by others (usually in light of the context of the start of the practice, or in terms of the end being justified by the means, and often preceded by some kind of mitigation: “I don’t like what they did, but in 1968 Paris was on fire and there was widespread civil unrest in the UK, the US, Canada and even Australia”, says ValleyGrl). On the Daily Mail’s report of the story, a third of the comments posted make a “so what?” or “no harm done” kind of argument; though we’ve already seen a “such is life” style response on the Guardian, it is far more rare.
The main thrust of this and a number of subsequent comments, however, is to question not (just) the morality of the method, but the targeting of groups such as Youth Against Racism in Europe and green protestors in a country that grants the right to peaceful protest. (Some readers do counter this argument by mentioning the less peaceful methods of some groups.) Several readers suggest groups of people that ought to have been targeted instead, and include bankers and the ruling elite alongside al-Qaeda cells. “Shouldn’t the police be catching/investigating criminals?” asks one reader, to which another responds: “You mean the billionaire tax evaders who own large parts of the three major political parties? Naw, that’ll never do.”
An additional argument that temporarily sets aside a concern with morality is the one dealing with the sense and practicality of the police practice of using the identities of dead children. Some, as above, point out the ease with which anyone with suspicions could have uncovered the truth, while others are concerned that a suspicious activist could at least have discovered enough to visit the dead child’s family, causing them further grief. And others questioned (on behalf of the taxpayer) the time and expense involved in officers going out and acquainting themselves with the homes of their new identities, learning bus routes and local landmarks in order to back up their persona.
They all seem to be getting at the same more or less explicit questions: Did all of this unpleasantness actually achieve what it was designed to? And was it really the only way? Several readers suggest that the operation gave ordinary police officers delusions of grandeur, “playing at being spies”. Ocoonassa, not the only person to mention 007, writes: “At a loss to explain the reason for this operational stupidity other than the little James Bonds at Whitehall thought it would be 'cool'.”
Another central theme in the discussion is the legality of what the undercover officers did, with most readers on the Guardian rejecting the idea that the police can or should operate outside of the law (one posts a section of the Police Reform Act 2002, which highlights an officer’s obligation to act “according to law”). Though readers do, as above, comment on the distastefulness of the police actions, the discussion increasingly becomes one about the rights and wrongs of the (Metropolitan) police force in a somewhat broader sense; it is an “out of control” gang that does not protect us, but from which we need protection. Readers doubly damn the breaking news: as shocking and yet not at all surprising. “I don’t know,” says hexa, “I expect the Met Police to be racist, authoritarian, oppressive of political protest, allow ready access (for cash) to information to governments and journalists, preferably at the same time, let off killing innocent people and so on, but this frankly still shocked me.”
Drawing not only on the revelations made in the story but also on past events such as Plebgate, the phone hacking scandal and the shooting of John Charles de Menezes, readers do not generally take up this story in itself, in an isolated sense, but as another instance of something (hypocrisy, double standards, elite illegality, corruption, political policing, corporate kowtowing etc. etc.) that “we” are already dealing with. It is argued that we are on a “slippery slope” to a Stasi-style police state, and this argument is taken even further by one or two readers who take the news as further evidence of the breakdown of society, and that the country is “going to the dogs”.