Tuesday, 16 November 2010

FITwatch and Spartacus

According to the Metropolitan Police, the authors of the activist website FITwatch are guilty of a serious criminal offence. So serious, in fact, that they felt able to demand, not just that the offending post be taken down (as would normally be the case) but that the entire website be removed for at least a year. The site's hosts complied without demur. Some have accused them of cowardice, but given the strong language employed by the Met it's scarcely surprising that they felt they had no option. It's the police, after all. Carter-Ruck and Schillings are terrifying enough for your average pusillanimous web-host, but they can't come round and arrest you.

What FITwatch did was to post some general advice, directed at people who feared they might be suspected of involvement in illegal activity during last week's student protest at Millbank, on how they might avoid arrest. It ranged from not pro-actively coming forward ("Yes, it was me in the photo, it's a fair cop") to disposing of clothes and even changing one's appearance. Fairly obvious stuff that mighthave occurred to anyone anxious not to be detained by the police, whether or not they were guilty. After all, the fact that one may have been caught on a police video in the general vicinity of lawlessness is not proof of criminal conduct. As is well known, the police keep files on demonstrators, activists and "domestic extremists", whether or not they actually manage to charge them with anything. One might be innocent of any offence, yet still find FITwatch's information useful.

The Met, however, insist that FITwatch's advice constitutes the offence of perverting the course of justice by supplying information that would help an offender escape justice. Even though the advice was addressed to no offender in particular.

The email makes for sobering reading. Police State UK has the whole thing, but here's the most troubling passage:


This website are [sic] committing offences of attempting to pervert the Course of Justice under Common Law.

The website is providing explicit advice to offenders following a major demonstration in Central London. The demonstration was marred by violence and several subjects have already been arrested with a major police operation underway to identify and arrest further offenders.

The person controlling these websites has posted material held to be contrary to Common Law within the UK.


A few points to note. First, the police have no legal power to order the closure of a website. Nevertheless, the email contains numerous phrases which imply that they do. For example:

APPLICATION FOR CLOSURE OF A UK BASED DOMAIN NAME

We hereby confirm that: The domain is being used to undertake criminal activities.

Authority to close the website and IP address given by
Will Hodgeson, Acting Detective Inspector
Metropolitan Police
CO11 Public Order Branch


That last comment in particular, with its assertion of "authority to close the website", suggests that the email is an exercise of a legal power rather than a request.

The police have every right to request the removal of a particular post (as do Carter-Ruck) if they think it is hosting illegal or libellous content. But there's a huge difference between taking down a single page and having the entire site disconnected. By specifying a twelve-month disconnection period, the email suggests that it is imposing a quasi-judicial penalty on the site's authors. It's not clear if the web-hosts took any legal advice before complying with the Met's demands; more likely they were just frightened. Which is understandable.

Second, if the police are as confident as they claim to be that FITwatch are guilty of an offence, why has no-one been arrested and questioned? Those responsible for FITwatch are not unknown; indeed, one of its leading lights, Emily Apple, has written today on the Guardian's website complaining about the police action. Yet instead of proceeding in the normal way with its investigation, the Met states merely that the material on the site is "held" to be contrary to common law. Held by whom? It has not come before any court. It has not even been properly investigated - if it had been, there would surely have been arrests.

Third, are the Met really so stupid as not to realise that the one predictable result of their heavy-handedness would be the proliferation of the offending post throughout the blogosphere and beyond? Google listed a hundred separate occurrences of a particular phrase when I checked a few minutes ago. There will be more soon. I doubt it will be as widely reproduced as Paul Chambers' Tweet about blowing up Robin Hood airport, but the Spartacus effect is now becoming almost as well established as the older Streisand effect.

(I define the latter as the dissemination of unwelcome information, despite legal or other attempts to suppress it - for example, the damaging disclosures in the Trafigura case. The Spartacus effect is the organised reproduction of a specific posting as part of a self-conscious attempt to evade censorship or defy legal restrictions. The mass reposting of Simon Singh's article about Chiropractic Awareness Week is an obvious example. It is basically a form of mass defiance. "You can't arrest us all".)

The police action looks like an abuse of power - using a particular, arguably illegal post as an excuse to demand the closure of a site that has caused them embarrassment in the past. To quote Emily Apple, it bears the hallmarks of "a highly suspicious attempt at preventing dissent and it must be resisted." Reproducing the post seems like a reasonable response. I do not do so, however, out of any desire to assist offenders or to pervert the course of justice.

If you fear you may be arrested as a result of identification by CCTV, FIT or press photography;

DON'T panic. Press photos are not necessarily conclusive evidence, and just because the police have a photo of you doesn't mean they know who you are.

DON'T hand yourself in. The police often use the psychological pressure of knowing they have your picture to persuade you to 'come forward'. Unless you have a very pressing reason to do otherwise, let them come and find you, if they know who you are.

DO get rid of your clothes. There is no chance of suggesting the bloke in the video is not you if the clothes he is wearing have been found in your wardrobe. Get rid of ALL clothes you were wearing at the demo, including YOUR SHOES, your bag, and any distinctive jewellery you were wearing at the time. Yes, this is difficult, especially if it is your only warm coat or decent pair of boots. But it will be harder still if finding these clothes in your flat gets you convicted of violent disorder.

DON'T assume that because you can identify yourself in a video, a judge will be able to as well. "That isn't me" has got many a person off before now.

DO keep away from other demos for a while. The police will be on the look-out at other demos, especially student ones, for people they have put on their 'wanted' list. Keep a low profile.

DO think about changing your appearance. Perhaps now is a good time for a make-over. Get a haircut and colour, grow a beard, wear glasses. It isn't a guarantee, but may help throw them off the scent.

DO keep your house clean. Get rid of spray cans, demo related stuff, and dodgy texts / photos on your phone. Don't make life easy for them by having drugs, weapons or anything illegal in the house.

DO get the name and number of a good lawyer you can call if things go badly. The support group has the names of recommended lawyers on their site. Take a bit of time to read up on your rights in custody, especially the benefits of not commenting in interview.

DO be careful who you speak about this to. Admit your involvement in criminal damage / disorder ONLY to people you really trust.

DO try and control the nerves and panic. Waiting for a knock on the door is stressful in the extreme, but you need to find a way to get on with business as normal. Otherwise you'll be serving the sentence before you are even arrested.


While this advice might be helpful to an offender, it might equally be helpful to the innocent bystander who doesn't, for obvious reasons, want to become involved with the police. Indeed, it is in parts remarkably similar to NightJack's famous "Survival Guide for Decent Folk".

Never explain to the Police

If the Police arrive to lock you up, say nothing. You are a decent person and you may think that reasoning with the Police will help. “If I can only explain, they will realise it is all a horrible mistake and go away”. Wrong. We do want to talk to you on tape in an interview room but that comes later. All you are doing by trying to explain is digging yourself further in. We call that stuff a significant statement and we love it. Decent folk can’t help themselves, they think that they can talk their way out. Wrong.

Admit Nothing

To do anything more than lock you up for a few hours we need to prove a case. The easiest route to that is your admission. Without it, our case may be a lot weaker, maybe not enough to charge you with. In any case, it is always worth finding out exactly how damning the evidence is before you fall on your sword. So don’t do the decent and honourable thing and admit what you have done. Don’t even deny it or try to give your side of the story. Just say nothing. No confession and CPS are on the back foot already. They forsee a trial. They fear a trial. They are looking for any excuse to send you home free.

Keep your mouth shut

Say as little as possible to us. At the custody office desk a Sergeant will ask you some questions. It is safe to answer these. For the rest of the time, say nothing.

Always always always have a solicitor

Duh. No brainer this one. Unless you know 100% for sure that your mate the solicitor does criminal law and is good at it, ask for the Duty Solicitor. They certainly do criminal law and they are good at it. Then listen to what the solicitor says and do it. Their job is to get you off without the Cops or CPS laying a glove on you if at all possible. It is what they get paid for. They are free to you. There is no down side. Now decent folks think it makes them look like they have something to hide if they ask for a solicitor. Irrelevant. Going into an interview without a solicitor is like taking a walk in Tottenham with a big gold Rolex. Bad things are very likely to happen to you. I wouldn’t do it and I interview people for a living.