Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Academics & anarchists: on doing hacking & phone taps

'A Company of Bastards' & the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act

RECENT comment on the ethics of phone-hacking and the media reminded me of our practices in the 1970s, during the time of the alternative press and counter-cultural journalism in the North of England; not to mention what we got up to in the name of our academic interests. We didn't actually go in for phone-hacking as such but we did tape-record telephone conversations of various parties without their knowledge. Usually we did it with people that we did not like, such as slippery union bosses like Arnold Belfield (a Rochdale Magistrate and Secretary of the National Union of Textile & Allied Workers) or Albert Hilton (President of the Rochdale Branch of the National Union of Textile & Allied Workers) or as the publication Rochdale Alternative Paper did when it recorded the boss of the Weavers & Winders Union, others did it on the odd local employer or manager. We did this at the time mainly for practical reasons because, when it suited these people, they tended to have memory lapses and that could be troublesome for trade union activists on the shop-floor. In the early 1970s, Albert Hilton, then President of Rochdale National Union of Textile & Allied Workers, had to have his memory jogged by the production of a tape recording to prove that he had had a telephone conversation with me some weeks before the committee meeting at which he and the Secretary were trying to expel me from the union. He then made himself look guilty by responding thus: 'anyone can fake a tape recording!'

We didn't only limit these activities to tape recordings of telephone conversations either, sometimes we would engineer a tape recorder into a briefcase and take it to a meeting with the bosses or union officials to make covert recordings of the proceedings. These recordings would sometimes provide us with an aide-memoire so that we could fill in reports or to produce articles. But mostly they would be produced to undermine our enemies among the bosses and union leaders in the 1970s and beyond. A bloke called Brendan - close to the anarchist movement - was a bobby-dazzler at making these secret recordings and even Derek Pattison, who is now on the editorial panel of Northern Voices and is a life-long anarcho-syndicalist, in the 1980s got another anarchist called Ian Smith to ring up one of his ex-employers pretending to be a boss asking for a reference and expecting him to give a bad one so that he could later discredit that boss. Some of the material thus obtained may have been used for articles in Freedom, the anarchist weekly, when in the 1970s it was edited by Peter Turner, also a member of UCATT and Secretary of Hammersmith TUC.

Yet, this kind of surreptitiously acquired material had other uses besides wrong-footing dodgy employers and union bosses, it could be used for academic research. My own dissertation for my B.A. was based on one such confrontation between myself and a union official, Arnold Belfield, then, in the 1970s, Secretary of the National Union of Allied Workers: the thesis was entitled 'Members & Officials: Some Aspects of a Trade Union Dispute' and was based on a recording taken with Mr Belfield's knowledge on the premises of the union. One Friday evening I just tuned up at the office before it closed and slapped the tape-recorder down on his desk and started to interrogate him; there was a bit of an altercation of course, a bit of pushing and shoving, and then he rang for one of his union cronies for support. When that didn't work and I still refused to leave, Arnold Belfield, who was also a Magistrate in Rochdale, called in the police, and then when I still refused to leave until I got a proper answer to my questions from Arnold, the copper with the help of Arnold began to try to carry me out: it was all there on tape the shouting, the cries of 'get his other leg' and from the police officer: 'I sick of this, I'm finishing work at 6pm, and I don't want to be messing about with you!'

All this recorded data later proved useful for studying power relationships and how people relate to each other in argumentative situations while I was later doing my degree in 1976. A particular school of sociology in Manchester 'ethnomethodology', which was very fashionable in the mid-1970s, lent itself to this kind of material. Harold Garfinkel, who died on 21st April this year and was professor emeritus in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, had coined the term 'ethnomethodology', meaning 'people's methodology' in the 1950s. Michael Lynch who wrote Garfinkel's obituary in The Guardian in June wrote: 'In the social sciences, methodology usually refers to systematic techniques for collecting data but, following Garfinkel, ethnomethodologists identified it with a broad range of ordinary abilities, such as taking part in conversational exchanges, navigating through traffic situations and recognising what is happening in specific social environments.' Lynch says: 'Garfinkel's major work, Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), challenged 'top down' theories which proposed that society was structured around relatively limited sets of rules and overarching values.' Garfinkel proposed an alternative 'bottom up' picture of society built from what Lynch says are 'innumerable occasions of improvised conduct adapted to particular situations'. The tape recorder and later the video recorder proved a useful tool for collecting such data.

Was this ethical anymore than the conduct of the News International journalists? Some of this data was collected in a sneaky and covert manner to make it more authentic because the subject of the study would act more naturally if he or she didn't know they were being recorded. Garfinkel even got his students to probe the assumed existence of social order by using 'disruption or breaching experiments' and sending them out to upset commonplace routines in households and public places. My experience with the Magistrate and union boss, Arnold Belfield, and the Rochdale policeman was one such way of delving into the relationship between union officials and their members, authority figures and citizens. Only half in jest, was Garfinkel later in his life to describe the field of ethnomethodological endeavour as 'a company of bastards' - some of the things we got up to were a bit rum to be sure and Michael Lynch writes: 'Like a stand-up comic, he (Garfinkel) had a knack for exposing the strangeness of everyday routines.'

I suppose both Garfinkel, the ethnos and the anarchists at the time in the 1960s and 70s, would have argued that it was in the public interest to acquire this kind of information through tricks and wire taps. We would have said these methods were justified given what we were trying to find out, and in the case of the anarchists, dealing with employers and bosses, that it was our way of getting the edge of the employers and the union bosses. But whatever the ethics of doing this kind of thing, these past practices, both by academics and anarchists, have probably now all been made illegal under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act [RIPA 2000] in the year 2000. Today, I'm not even sure that Ervin Goffman would in England be allowed to secretly insert himself in a mental institution in order to collect information to write a book like Asylums. But RIPA 2000 did let employers and councils do some authoritarian things such as at Bury Council, where in 2006, they secretly filmed a team of their own binmen employees doing their work, and later tried to use the film footage to prove that three had been taking bribes off some shopkeepers: all these binmen ended up getting a significant sum in an out-of-Court settlement and payment which was later commented on in the Mail on Sunday and the Bury Times. In an unrelated case a security guard from Bury MBC told Northern Voices that the Council had covertly used audio recording gear in their work's car to record the conversations of their Bury MBC security staff going about their duties on the night shift. This kind of thing reminds one of the old East Germany under the Stasi or secret police. The signs are that the RIPA 2000 didn't really stop the abuses as it set out to do; I don't know if the academics or anarchists have now been intimidated by the RIPA 2000.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Who needs secret policemen when we`ve got Bammy. Names dropped here, names dropped there, with reckless abandon! So and so say this, so and so says that, is nothing sacred? I bet when he was a schoolboy in short trousers, he took his teacher an apple every morning. It`s a good job we don`t live in Latin America or some people would have been dead long ago. Bammy`s becoming so indiscreet that some people nowadays,are asking him to leave their company for fear he might publish their private conversations. As that militant Geordie miner, Dave Douglass, once said of him:
"If you know where there`s a blackbirds nest DONT TELL bliddy Brian.