Tough on crime in fantasy land


Conspiracy theorists believe that there is a tall building somewhere in this photograph.

I used to work on Cleveland Street in central London. Our next-door-neighbours at “The Tower, 60 Cleveland Street”, were one British Telecom. Their offices were designed for some old fashioned method of telecommunications routing involving microwaves, and so it just happens to be one of the most distinctive — most noticeable — buildings in the country, being as it is, a narrow cylindrical building of 620 feet, covered in antennae and dishes, in an otherwise low-rise and conventional section of the centre of a major world city. Legend has it that, because of the potential military importance of the communications networks, the tower was only officially revealed to exist in 1993 by an MP responding to the persistent rumours — conspiracy theories! — that there might possibly be a large and unusual shaped top secret skyscraper somewhere in the vicinity of the Tottenham Court Road. These days, the tower is largely redundant: the idea of using microwave technology as the backbone to a communications network didn’t really have time to catch on before fibre-optics became the in thing. These days, most of those antennae and dishes are decoration, unplugged and silent, protected from removal by a grade II listing. The building is nothing more than heritage. It just sits there looking pretty, counting down the days to the Olympic games in LED lights that can be seen from miles around.

At the same time as working in Cleveland Street, I was living in the shadow of another transmitter, the more mundane but equally difficult to miss Crystal Palace Transmitter, which rises 720ft above the chalk hills eight miles south of the city centre. Though only the second tallest structure in the capital, once its 360 foot base height is factored in, it becomes the highest, and is prominent on the horizon from around the city. It is the main transmitter of television and radio — local and national, BBC and independent, analogue and digital — for the whole city.

In february 2008 I photographed the transmitter from the public park below it and was issued with a stop-and-search by the metropolitan police. A pair of officers drive a patrol car around Crystal Palace all day specifically for this purpose (at least, this was the case in 2008). I think they were probably just bored and wanted something to do — somebody to talk to — for five minutes. They explained the reason for their constant zealous and jealous vigilance: the transmitter hosts the emergency services radio system (I have subsequently been unable to verify this fact) and is known to be a terrorist target. One of the officers said, “nah, it’s fine, just, like, you shouldn’t put the photographs on the internet or whatever, cos they might be used by terrorists in planning an attack.”

A picture what I took of the transmitter.

There are 418 flickr photographs tagged “Crystal Palace Transmitter”, and approximately 38,000 google image hits, alongside the usual detailed Wikipedia article and fine google earth coverage. Its existence is not one of London’s better kept secrets.

The point I want to make about all this is not about whether the things the policeman said are true or lawful, or to bitch about the general behaviour of individuals in the metropolitan police (these two might have been a bit dim, but they were perfectly nice), nor is it really about the need to stand-up for our civil liberties (you’re familiar enough with that argument already). Because the idea of stopping and searching photographers in the name of keeping London safe fails at a much more fundamental level than the civil liberties argument: terrorists don’t go around photographing the crystal palace transmitter. And piles of money — our money — are being spent to act upon the absurd idea that they do.

There are two main reasons why terrorists don’t go around photographing the Crystal Palace transmitter — apart from the fact that it’s easier to look the photos up on Google Earth. Firstly, it’s because terrorists aren’t photographers. I don’t simply mean that, like almost 100% of people, almost 100% photographers are not terrorists. I mean that terrorists aren’t photographers. Perhaps in cheap TV dramas, where one can’t illustrate that a character is shady by showing that he is thinking shady thoughts, terrorists go around with their expensive SLR equipment taking photographs of their targets. In the real world, they don’t. When asked for evidence to support the efficacy of their activity, the best the police can do is point to one guy who went around filming stations with a phonecam and who was successfully prosecuted for, er, fraud and immigration offences. He could, perhaps, theoretically, be linked to terrorism, though, they say. And apparently that’s good enough evidence for police in London.

Secondly, terrorists don’t go around photographing the Crystal Palace transmitter because terrorists aren’t interested in the Crystal Palace transmitter. Not unless they are shit terrorists. I’m not an expert on the way terrorists think, but I understand that Terrorism Studies 101 teaches that the goal of the terrorist is to make a scene: to get into the headlines and get into people’s heads; to spread their message and to spread fear. Toppling a tower in a suburban park and depriving a few million people of Celebrity Big Brother for the five minutes that it takes the engineers to switch on the backup signals is somewhere down in the thousands on the list of the most effective ways one could achieve that goal. Toppling an iconic piece of architecture in a busy central business district — even if the tower was functionally redundant — would have a far higher impact. Which is exactly why terrorists did target the BT Tower: the IRA exploded a bomb there in 1971. But I never did get a stop-and-search on Cleveland Street.

Some of us still cling to the unfashionable idea that if one wants one’s actions to be effective, they need to have some basis in reality and be informed by evidence about how the world works. The Home Office told us what they think of that idea back in October. If there’s one thing the Home Office can be commended for, it’s beingconsistent in ignoring the inconvenient complications of the real world as they instead throw our money away on absurd ineffective solutions to serious social and security problems.

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