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Protest Comment

by msecadm4921

I deplore the trend of reporters ‘exposing’ breaches of security. It’s lazy and hypocritical and makes me wonder how unhealthy is the relation between protesters who want publicity and journalists who need a story and crave an exclusive.

Professional Security editor Mark Rowe writes.

Is it truly necessary to test security at a port, airport, Wimbledon or Le Shuttle (to name a few that have been ‘done’)? It’s become a genre, sending a reporter to a landmark building or company – posing as a menial worker, or as an uninvited visitor. A way of making a story for the red-tops and the mid-market Mail and Express, alike. The regionals have picked up the idea, too. It’s a fine way for regional reporters to make a name for themselves, with by-lined copy and photos. Newsdesks cannot lose. If the reporter gets in, it’s a failure in security. If the reporter is caught, the security works and it’s still page one lead (as the Evening Star, Ipswich, did when they tried the Port of Felixstowe).

It’s a cheap shot. Docks, airports and other public places, besides schools and hospitals, are supposed to be open – unlike newspaper offices beyond reception. Papers would soon (rightly) report customers complaining of delays at an airport or hospital because of too many security checks.

Are such tests truly the best use of scarce reporter and photographer time? Is it news that the public wants? What do the exposures really tell us? How surprising and newsworthy is it that buildings open to the public are insecure? Any building can be like Fort Knox, but it isn’t, because the more secure a building, the more it costs, and you can never be quite sure you are safe from every threat. The World Trade Center was not. Two truer tests of security would be 1) to try to reach a bank’s safe; and 2) to drive a truck full of explosives at a docks or airport gate, and see what happened. Well, it would be more realistic, wouldn’t it?

Anthony France at the House of Commons as a waiter; Ryan Parry working as a servant at Buckingham Palace. Security has become an easy topic, far easier to sound off about than asking why waiters and other service staff are casual and transient workers, and many ‘speak little English’, as The Sun’s Political Editor Trevor Kavanagh pointed out in his admittedly spot-on article on parliament security ‘Nightmare of 14,000 passes’. Security is a sexy topic – working conditions and rights are not. But at root, they are the same. Bad pay and conditions in London cleaning and serving jobs means only ‘recent immigrants’, to quote Kavanagh again, want the jobs. Immigrants have uncheckable backgrounds. The security of John Prescott on the river terrace of parliament is deemed more newsworthy than the low pay and bad conditions of the workers serving him and emptying his waste-bin.

And as for the undercover reporters not being vetted properly or at all, well, how many newsrooms will have their bins emptied or their canteens staffed by unvetted contract staff? Somehow I cannot see a reporter investigating that. And has anyone tried to walk in the back door of a newspaper site at the inkies’ end? Or mingled with staff having a smoke break at the fire exit, and got in that way?

The other genre – the freelance one, if you like – is the protester breaching security. As with the reporter stunt, such breaches uncover 21st century UK capitalism. Big business, inclduing big media, and MPs exploit young ‘researchers’ who work for little or nothing to get a foot on the ladder. Who checks the backgrounds of ‘researchers’, temps and photo-copy assistants? Who even gives a hoot? These bottom of the pile workers become insiders, who can then pass knowledge about access-controlled doors, passwords and short-cuts to their protester mates. It’s a tool of the trade of the animal rights demonstrators who want to know in advance about their commercial targets. Animal rights, Fathers 4 Justice and 101 other single-issue groups need publicity. Sit-ins on balconies and cranes, graffiti on court walls, ‘visits’, call them what you like, are somehow excused and dignified when the media report the security breach angle.

Protesters and the media need each other. Protest groups need the ‘oxygen of publicity’, to quote the Thatcher Government’s reason for banning IRA voices from the media in the 1980s. Newspapers, radio and TV all report the likes of Batman at Buckingham Palace. Media outlets are competing for the news. When does a protest group’s tip-off to a TV crew shade into the media condoning and conniving in wrong-doing? If I overheard a planned robbery and did not ring the police, where am I morally, legally even? Where is the BBC when it is told of the pro-hunt Commons stunt and does not tell police? If no-one reported Fathers 4 Justice graffiti, would the graffiti happen?

There are things the media could report, but chooses not to. Every journalist makes those sort of decisions, or has decisions made by newsdesk. When I trained on the Wiltshire Times in the early 1990s we did not report bomb hoaxes, in case of copy-cats. Mind you, when I attended the Westminster Press training centre for five months in 1990 I left under the impression that journalism involved asking people questions and taking shorthand at not less than 100 words a minute. I don’t remember any lesson in security breach stunts.

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