I ran into the Guardian’s Paul Lewis after the Julian Assange event at City University last night. He’d just come from reporting this story on the fallout from the secret £3m CCTV surveillance operation that targeted Muslims in Birmingham.
Project Champion was sold to residents as a safety measure. Residents were told that the hundreds of CCTV and Automatic Numberplate Recognition Cameras (ANPR) installed in streets around Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath would be used to combat vehicle crime and antisocial behaviour. Police had planned a total of 218 cameras in the area, 72 of which would be covert.
It was due to an investigation by Paul Lewis that the truth came out which was that the project was, in fact being run from the West Midlands police counter-terrorism unit with the consent of security officials at the Home Office and MI5.
Yesterday, Thames Valley Police released their report into the project and found among other things that:
Police devised a “storyline” that concealed the true purpose of the cameras. Counter-terrorism insignia was removed from paperwork as part of a deliberate strategy to “market” the surveillance operation as a local policing scheme to improve community safety.
This ties it directly with something I talk about in The Silent State – the takeover of Public Relations in our public bodies. But there was another worrying thing I discovered about this incident while talking to Paul.
West Midlands Police had failed to tell him about the press conference and then refused to respond to any of his enquiries once another reporter told him about the event. He ended up tweeting:
At 1.07pm: ‘West Midlands police press office ignoring my queries about inquiry into Project Champion Muslim spy plan.’
Then at 2.21pm when there was still no response he named the head of the press office directly: ‘could @mattmarkham1 or his colleagues in west midlands police office answer questions about this story? http://bit.ly/bRy5zb’
‘I phoned seven times and they still never responded,’ Paul said.
Matt Markham is Chief Inspector at West Midlands Police and the Head of Press and PR. The common excuse given by public bodies for excessive spending on press offices is to say it’s needed to help the media. As I document in The Silent State, nothing could be further from the truth. PR exists for control purposes, to hinder, rather than to inform, and this is a fine example.
Public officials also often complain about the irresponsibility of the press. Yet here we see a responsible reporter who writes stories based on facts and in the public interest being frozen out of a press conference precisely because of the strength of his journalism, by a police force already accused of misleading the public with false information.
It is entirely too common for public officials like Matt Markham to believe they don’t have to account for themselves and their organisation to the public. Mr Markham’s refusal to answer Paul’s questions isn’t just an insult to a good reporter, it’s an insult to all the people who pay Mr Markham’s wage and in whose name he is supposedly working. By keeping silent and refusing to answer important questions that people have a right to know he has shown the absolute contempt with which West Midlands Police views its citizens.
Sadly, this is not unusual. Too many public servants refuse to account to the public directly. And too often journalists collude in protecting this corrupt system of secrecy. Journalists need to blow the lid on this lack of accountability. If press officers want to insist they are the only conduit for official information but can’t be bothered to respond to serious questions then they need to be named and shamed.