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Friday, August 3, 2007

Bombed out of their minds

By Revel Barker
It’s summer (on the calendar, if not at the Met Office) and as Parliament and the courts go into the long holidays newspapers perforce have to lower the definition of news, in order to fill all those potentially embarrassing gaps between the adverts.

One method, considered rather radical on some newspapers, is to ask reporters to think up and contribute ideas for stories.

The best that the Daily Mirror news desk could come up with recently was: ‘I know – let’s see how easy it would be for a terrorist to plant a bomb on a train.’

OK. Let’s get my declaration of interest out of the way from the start. For more than a quarter of a century the three English and two Scottish titles of the Mirror Group funded my lifestyle, either individually (at various times the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Sunday People) or collectively – those three plus the Daily Record and the Sunday Mail – and it would have been more lavish if it were not for the losses incurred by the Sporting Life.

Now for my declaration as a journalist, former NUJ convenor and sometime editorial panjandrum: if anybody had come to me and made that suggestion, I would have sent him – or had him sent - home, with instructions to stop at his GP’s surgery on the way.

If I’d heard that a news editor had taken up the idea, I would have made the same recommendation about him to his editor, his boss: that the deskman follows the reporter on the way out and for an immediate medical examination.

If you bend over backwards – and it would need to be beyond the horizontal – to look at the newspapermen’s point of view, you may accept that they were not actually going to plant a bomb, but merely a ‘device’ that could have been one.

If you listen to the paper’s defence for its action it goes like this: They were testing security in a time of heightened terrorist alert, therefore it was ‘a legitimate and justified journalistic exercise.’

Journalists, after all, have a God-given right to ensure that the people responsible for our security are doing their job efficiently.

And up to a point, Lord Copper, that last bit is true.

But you might think that, fully understanding that the security services are currently more than over-extended in uncovering and prosecuting real terrorists, to add to their burden with a time-wasting stunt was the height of irresponsibility. Not to say stupidity.

And if it works, what’s the message exactly?

It is exactly this: ‘Hey Ahmed – your idea of driving a jeep into the entrance of Glasgow Airport to blow it up and kill lots of people didn’t work… have you thought about just putting a bomb on a train, maybe one going through the Channel Tunnel?’

There are millions of separate passenger journeys on the trains every day. Most people carry some form of luggage. Last time I travelled by rail there was no personal or baggage checking – nor would it be practical for there to be any. Imagine the chaos it would cause.

So to get a device that’s not a bomb onto a train doesn’t sound like much of a challenge, to me. [This may now be a forgotten art, but district photographers used to put packages on trains every night – by the simple process of handing them to the guard. There were never any checks, although once when I sent an envelope containing prize-winning leeks and onions to the news desk, marked NEWS URGENT, the guard apparently complained about the smell.]

But suppose that the Mirror ‘device’ had been planted, and then discovered. The train would have been stopped, creating an unimaginable backlog of railway traffic extended across about half the county. Police would have cordoned off the rolling stock and closed adjoining roads, the army called in to secure the area, bomb disposal people summoned to make the device safe, the anti-terrorism and security services alerted, the Cabinet office would have been informed, people living in the area would have been evacuated from their homes...

This, clearly, is what the sometime world’s biggest and best daily newspaper nowadays thinks is campaigning journalism.

There must be an award for it.

But now here’s the good news.

Railway staff at Stonebridge Park depot (towards the end of the Bakerloo line in north west London, where Chunnel freight is loaded) spotted the journalists – dressed as railway workers in high-visibility yellow jackets and hard hats - carrying their fake ‘bomb’ and called British Transport Police before the guys had even planted it.

And they were immediately arrested under the Terrorism Act.

They were held for 12 hours while their homes were searched and their personal computer and photographic files examined. The Mirror described the police reaction – which many sensible people might think was the least that should have been done – as ‘heavy handed’.

The ‘midnight raids’ on their homes were ‘at best disproportionate and at worst intimidation of the most sinister kind.’

Nothing, then, disproportionate, intimidating or sinister – presumably – about pretending to plant a bomb on a train.

Referring to the arrests, Gary Jones, the paper’s (ahem) head of news, said: ‘You have to ask in whose interests the police are acting, and why.’

Perhaps I can help him, there. They were acting in my interests.

If anybody who isn’t a legitimate railway worker dresses up, trespasses on the railway, and pretends to be one, it is greatly in my interest for him to be arrested.

If he is planting a bomb I want him banged up for life, preferably in Guantanamo Bay with only a copy of the Koran, in Arabic, as reading matter.

If he is pretending to plant a bomb, I want him locked up for pretending to plant one and for wasting police time, and for intentionally trying to scare travelling members of the public.

A quarter-page photo of the pair of them, looking like a pair of paedophiles caught in the headlamps, was overprinted with the message that ‘The disquieting experience of these two Mirror journalists raises hugely worrying questions.’

It certainly does; but not the ones the paper was asking.

The Mirror, scratting around for some form of legitimate grouse, said the arrest of the two – at least one of whom, photographer Roger Allen, is an old Fleet Street hand (Photographer of the Year and News Photographer of the Year) and ought to have more bloody sense – ‘raises questions over whether the authorities can be trusted with new powers under Gordon Brown’s 56-day detention proposals’ [for suspected terrorists].

Well, I’d say that the answer to that one is a resounding ‘Yes – they can be trusted’, for the simple reason that they could have been locked up 28 days (and at some future date for up to 56 days), but were allowed to go home after only 12 hours. The system therefore clearly works, and it is excellent news that they appear to have proved that there is little fear of the jailing of innocent people.

Even if these two were not actually ‘innocent’.

Now for a reality check, lads.

Security systems need checking regularly, and that’s the job not of journalists looking for an easy ‘Oh what a clever boy am I’ story, but of the police and security services.

It happens, and it happens often. And it often happens that they find flaws in the system.

What happens then? Well (you’ll have to trust me on this one) they do not always report the security lapses – because it totally pisses off the people who are responsible for them.

The staff with the awesome responsibility of performing checks at airports, for example, are not entitled to pick people out of a queue who they think look suspicious nor, incredible though it may seem, even to ask an Arab woman to show her face in order to check it against the photo on her passport. They have to be seen to be working without any visible sign of ‘discrimination’, which is why old ladies are siphoned off to one side while bearded mullahs who walk as if they might have something stuck under their thoub or dishdasha are allowed to pass through.

When a policeman manages, in a test, to get a gun through the screening and the security staff are called to account for it they therefore react angrily. Instead of deeply screening, say, one passenger in ten, they make a point of examining one in five – with the effect that the queue to get into departures stretches thrice round the terminal and out onto the taxi rank.

The Mirror has had its wrist slapped. It should have had its head whacked. And its Ed, too.

But at least it has proved that, on this one occasion at least, the railway staff was fully alert, the police reaction was prompt, and the Terrorism Act with its planned 56-day detention of suspects is nothing that the fully innocent need to fear.

The Mirror has done us all a service – like it used to – even if it was actually trying to put the fear of God into its few remaining readers: the evidence of its pathetically silly stunt is reassuring.

Now it should stop bloody whining and start looking for a proper story. Maybe the paper should let its journalists out on the street more. That’s where the stories are – not in tormented and sadly inventive minds on high-rise floors in Canary Wharf.

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