By Cory Doctorow
The footage of police action at last summer's Climate Camp – and the lack of response since – demonstrates the limits of a cyber-liberty dream
Transparency is indeed a virtue in government. Knowing what MPs and cops and regulators are up to is a vital precursor to doing something about it. That's why people in authority naturally shy away from transparency.
That's the reason for Gordon Brown's proposal to make MPs' expense accounts into a state secret, immune from Freedom of Information requests, and the frankly insane new law that makes it illegal to photograph a copper, a soldier, or many public buildings if these photos could be used "in preparation of an act of terror". (Never mind that there's no evidence that terrorists rely on photos to plan their attacks – outside of technothrillers and 24, that is.)
But a recent meeting on police violence at Climate Camp, called by the Lib Dem MP David Howarth, illustrates just how woefully inadequate transparency on its own is at checking the abuse of authority. Howarth's presentation – which included a short video comprising footage from the BBC, Sky news, and many citizen journalists' cameras – showed how the extraordinary police presence at last summer's Climate Camp near Kingsnorth power station in Kent led to a series of abuses of power.
The video showed police harassment of journalists, beatings dealt to unresisting peaceful protesters, humiliating and unwarranted search procedures, unjustifiable seizure of personal property, and so on. The police – 1,400 officers from 26 forces – justified all this force by characterising the Climate Campers as violent rioters, noting that 70 police officers had been injured while on duty at the event (it was subsequently revealed that the officers were "injured" by sunstroke, insect bites, etc – no injuries are attributed to scuffles with the protesters).
And here's where transparency breaks down. We've known about all this since last August – seven months and more. It was on national news. It was on the web. Anyone who cared about the issue knew everything they needed to know about it. And everyone had the opportunity to find out about it: remember, it was included in national news broadcasts, covered in the major papers – it was everywhere.
And yet ... nothing much has happened in the intervening eight months. Simply knowing that the police misbehaved does nothing to bring them to account.
Transparency means nothing unless it is accompanied by the rule of law. It means nothing unless it is set in a system of good and responsible government, of oversight of authority that expeditiously and effectively handles citizen complaints. Transparency means nothing without justice.
Do we have justice in the UK? That depends on what happens to the coppers who swung the batons in the video, and on the commanders and politicians who directed them to commit civil and physical violence against peaceful, lawful protesters.
Transparency on its own is nothing more than spectacle: it's just another season of Big Brother in which all the contestants are revealed, over and over again, as thugs. Transparency on its own robs as much hope as it delivers, because transparency without justice is a perennial reminder that the game is rigged and that those in power govern for power's sake, not for justice.
This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.