David Cameron’s statement on the riots yesterday was big on platitudes, short on substance… As I said in my speech, there’s a danger that floating ideas about the use of water cannon, plastic bullets and curfews makes it sound like the Government has a plan, whereas in fact water cannon, for example, would be useless. (There are only a couple of them at the moment, in Northern Ireland – Cameron says they can be deployed at 24 hours notice, which is not a lot of use when there’s a riot going on right now. The Kettering MP was particularly vociferous in his calls for water cannon yesterday, saying his constituents were demanding it. I am pretty sure that with only two water cannons in the entire country, they wouldn’t be on their way to Kettering).
Sir Hugh Orde has spoken out against the use of plastic bullets, and curfews would, I think, be very difficult to implement without disrupting the lives of many blameless people. We saw this with the anti-social behaviour legislation imposing curfews on young people in disperal order zones… one kid was picked up on the way home from a piano lesson… It’s always striking when you catch a bus in London late at night to see people – nearly all from BME communities – who are obviously on their way to work, or perhaps on their way home from work, at 1am…. They’re probably in poorly-paid jobs, probably agency workers who don’t get paid if they don’t manage to make it to work. How would a curfew affect them? And what about the shops and businesses that open late, and rely on passing trade?
The other thing being floated, that I think might also turn out to be a red herring, is a crackdown on the use of social media… David Cameron said yesterday that he wanted to get the police round the table with social media providers to discuss what could be done. Obviously social media did have a role to play in organising criminal activity during the past week. But social media also played a great role in warning people of trouble, urging them to seek safety, and alerting police and journalists to what was going on. Bristol police acted on a tip-off, alerting them to trouble being plotted in Bristol on social media sites. And it also showed the really positive side of our communities, as they used social media to organise post-riot clean ups. 1000 people turned out in Manchester in the rain to clear up after the riots, brought together by Twitter, and there were similar events across London and Bristol.
What we need is to ensure that the police back-office (yes, those behind the scenes people that the Government seems to think sit around counting paper clips all day and can be laid off without any consequence for policing) are equipped to keep an eye on social media, and use it to assist their efforts to keep the community safe. It’s good to see police forces on Twitter… check out @ASPolice and @ASPoliceAuth for local updates. Greater Manchester Police – @GMPolice – have said publicly that on balance social media helped them in their efforts to control the trouble there.
There’s a particular issue with Blackberry Messenger which is encrypted… but my understanding is that it’s not possible to close it down in country, which is why Saudi Arabia banned Blackberries altogether. And suspect that if it was closed down, people would just resort to texts and phone calls. And in 1981, in the days before mobile phones and 24 hour TV, riots still spread from town, although I do remember sitting less than a mile from the Marsh Farm estate in Luton, wondering quite what was up with all the police sirens and helicopter…
So…I don’t have any objection to the police and social media companies getting round the table to discuss things, but we ought to be very careful before advocating any curbs on people’s ability to use social media to communicate. We were up in arms when regimes tried to crackdown on social media during the Arab Spring; we don’t want to blindly walk into the same situation here.
P.S. Worth following the Twitter spat on this topic between Tory MP @LouiseMensch and @JohnPrescott….