The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has been widely ridiculed for tweeting about drugs raids in distant parts of its territory and linking them – unjustifiably many believe – to Notting Hill Carnival. The story made front-page news when rapper Stormzy asked whether the police also tweeted about seizing drugs before the (mainly white-attended) Glastonbury Festival.
On Tuesday morning (22 August), the police press office tweeted: “In the run up to Notting Hill Carnival, officers have this morning seized what is believed to be a kilo of uncut heroin.” The raid took place in Catford, in south-east London, 12 miles from Notting Hill.
The police provided no evidence that there was any connection between the Catford drugs and Carnival. As one commentator remarked, “The Notting Hill Carnival would be fxxxing terrible on heroin. I strongly advocate taking a different drug.”
The police tweets have been panned on social media for being both inept and showing inherent racism within the force. Mo Gilligan joked: “In the run up to Notting Hill Carnival, I’ve just had what is believed to be a pasty in Waterloo.” Another wrote: “Irrelevant. Your racism is showing.”
The story swiftly spread to mainstream media, both in the UK and around the world. The writers agreed that they were not questioning the motives behind the raid itself – as Nosheen Iqbal put it in The Guardian, “Who doesn’t want a happier, safer, calmer city?” The problem lay in the way the police linked the raid to Carnival. Iqbal wrote that the force admitted it did not know if any of the 300 people arrested actually intended to go to Carnival.
Around 24 hours later, the MPS press office told Soca News:
Yesterday’s activity was targeting individuals where we had intelligence to suggest that they were planning to commit crime at the Notting Hill Carnival…
It should be expected that in the run-up to Carnival, the Met will do absolutely all it can to keep the event as safe as it should be for the millions of people who want to go and enjoy it.
Anyone planning to commit crime at Carnival is unwelcome and people can expect to see further police activity of this nature right up until the weekend.
A total of 54 individuals were arrested as part of yesterday’s operation, predominantly for possession with intent to supply drugs.
Most, if not all, carnivalgoers will naturally support attempts to “keep the event as safe as it should be”. However, some of the methods used or proposed have been causing considerable concern, from the use of facial recognition software to the presence of armed police on the streets. A sense is developing that Carnival is under attack or being used as a huge, real-life crowd-control laboratory in which carnivalgoers are the guinea-pigs.
For many years, Soca News has highlighted the Metropolitan Police’s use of the media to create misleading stories of the kind seen this week. We have noted before that the MPS rarely provides hard evidence to back up its assertions and that mainstream journalists habitually fail to subject police statements to rigorous scrutiny.
In particular, we have drawn attention to the way that every year for more than two decades the Met has launched a pre-event media offensive to denigrate Notting Hill Carnival. After the event it releases pictures of ‘weapons’ seized and trumpets alarming-sounding statistics about numbers of arrests, injuries and alleged crimes. The police news agenda stokes fear by giving the impression that Carnival is dangerous and out of control and that its main features are crime and insecurity. The skewed police view of reality is then eagerly seized on by politicians such as the ousted Conservative MP for Kensington & Chelsea, Lady Victoria Borwick, and London Minister Greg Hands.
As SN and other commentators have pointed out, crime levels at Notting Hill Carnival are no higher than at other festivals or on London’s streets generally. While some of the weapons in police photographs clearly have no peaceful use, the majority are normal domestic items that all of us use regularly; for these, context and intent are crucial. But these are missing from the pictures; we cannot judge whether a small screwdriver, for example, was being carried innocently or not. The MPS, taking over the role of the judge, wishes us to believe that all the items were definitely intended as weapons, however.
Soca News has regularly challenged the police on its media output. In response to our questions and Freedom of Information requests, MPS has refused to state: (1) how many of its ‘Carnival arrests’ were made within the defined Carnival Zone; (2) how many of those arrested were charged with an offence; (3) how many of those charged with an offence were taken to court and prosecuted; (4) how many of those prosecuted were convicted of a crime. MPS claims it either does not have these details or it would be too time-consuming to provide them.
Given the amount of public money that the force uses for policing Carnival, and the effect this has on the viability of the event itself (not least in putting off potential sponsors), readers might feel this to be a very shoddy response. After all, arresting someone is easy; proving guilt to a magistrate or jury requires a lot more than mere suspicion.
It is significant that the backlash against the Catford/Carnival tweet has come from social media; only later was it picked up by newspapers and broadcasters. Despite the Leveson Inquiry into press-police collusion, mainstream media retain an unhealthily close relationship with police news sources and rarely if ever challenge police statements and statistics.
The tweets have only reinforced an impression that the police are trying every tactic to twist the narrative about Carnival and to target carnivalgoers unfairly.
Soca News will, as usual, be watching the performance of the MPS press office very carefully during and after Notting Hill Carnival and will be analysing its statements and, where necessary, challenging them vigorously.