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On a housing estate, somewhere in north-west London, a dispute said to be between rival groups of young men, apparently rages on. From this quagmire of social deprivation emerges Chinx (OS) who, released from an eight-year custodial sentence at the four-year mark, starts dropping bars like his very life depended on it. And, in a way it does. Because for boys like Chinx, young, black and poor, there is only one way out and that is to become the next Stormzy. Only, two behemoths stand in his way: the Metropolitan Police and their apparent “side man” Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram.
In January 2022, Chinx posted a video clip of a drill music track called Secrets Not Safe. Following a request by the Metropolitan Police arguing that the post could lead to retaliatory gang-based violence , Meta removed the post and Chinx’s Instagram account was deleted.
Meta’s decision has now been challenged by the Oversight Board, a quasi-independent adjudicator conceived to police the online giant’s application of its own policies but funded by the company.
The Board recently condemned the company’s decision to remove Chinx’s post and delete his account as not complying with Meta’s own stated values and with wider human rights considerations.
As part of its review of Meta’s decision, the Board made a Freedom of Information Act request to the Met over its requests to remove content from various online platforms. Whilst a good proportion of their responses to the request were unhelpful bordering on obstructive, what it did disclose was troubling.
In the year to the end of May 2022, the Met asked online platforms, including Meta, to remove 286 pieces of content. Every single one of those requests related to drill music. No other music genre was represented. Some 255 of the Met’s requests resulted in the removal of content, a success rate of over 90%.
The decision makes for illuminating, if worrying, reading when one considers the potential chilling impact Meta’s actions may have on the freedom of expression of an already suppressed, marginalised and some would argue, over-policed section of our community. Four areas of concern emerge.
Law enforcement access to online platforms
Instagram, in common with other applications, has reporting tools available to all users to make complaints. Whilst it may be that law enforcement organisations use such tools, these organisations also have at their disposal what amounts to direct access to these online platform’s internal complaints procedures. When law enforcement makes a request to take content down, Meta deals with such a request “at escalation”. This triggers a process of investigation by Meta’s internal specialist teams who investigate the complaint. Investigation includes analysis of the content by Meta to decipher whether there is a “veiled threat”.
This case demonstrates a worrying pattern in my view; namely the level of privileged access that law enforcement has to Meta’s internal enforcement teams, as evidenced by correspondence the Board saw in this case.
Lack of evidence
What became clear during the exposition of facts by the Board was that despite the apparent need for a causal link between the impugned content and any alleged “veiled threat” or “threat of violence” law enforcement advanced no evidence in support of their complaint. In the light of the fact, as all parties appeared to accept, that this content itself was not unlawful, this is shocking.
On the face of it then, Meta has a system allowing for fast-tracked, direct access to their complaints procedure which may result in the removal of content, without any cogent evidence to support a claim that the content would lead to real life violence or the threat thereof.
This omission is particularly stark as, as in this case, the violence alluded to in the lyrics took place approximately five years prior to the uploading of the clip. This five-year gap, as the Board commented, made it all the more important for real and cogent evidence to be cited in support of removal of the content. We ought to remind ourselves here that the Board found that in this case there was no evidence of a threat, veiled or otherwise, of real-life violence.
Lack of appeal
Meta’s internal systems dictate that if a complaint is taken “at escalation” – as all government requests to take down content are, and this includes requests made by the Met Police – this means there is no internal right of appeal for the user. Chinx (OS) and the other accounts affected by this decision had no right to appeal the decision with Meta nor with the Oversight Board. The result is that a decision that, in some cases, may result in the loss of an income stream as well as an erosion of the right to express oneself freely, may go unchallenged by the user. In fact, as Chinx (OS) revealed during an interview with BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, he was not made aware at any point during the process why his account had been deleted and the content removed.
The Board itself commented that: “The way this relationship works for escalation-only policies, as in this case, brings into question Meta’s ability to independently assess government actors’ conclusions that lack detailed evidence.”
Each of the three shortcomings above revealed by the Board within Meta’s procedures are worrying enough; but, coupled with the disproportionate impact this system has upon black males (the main authors and consumers of this content) it veers dangerously close to systemic racism.
The findings of the Oversight Board’s FOI request on the Met’s activities in relation to online platforms clearly back this up.
The Digital Rights Foundation argues that while some portray drill music as a rallying call for gang violence, it in fact serves as a medium for youth, in particular black and brown youth, to express their discontent with a system that perpetuates discrimination and exclusion.
An insidious and backdoor form of policing
The cumulative effect of Meta’s actions arguably amounts to an insidious and unlegislated form of policing. Without the glare of public scrutiny, with no transparency and no tribunal to test or comment on the lack of evidence, the Met have succeeded in securing punishment (removal of content could be argued to be a punishment given that it may lead to loss of income) through the back door against content that was not, in and of itself unlawful.
As the Board pointed out in their decision, for individuals in minority or marginalised groups, the risk of cultural bias against their content is especially acute. Art, the Board noted, is a particularly important and powerful expression of “voice”, especially for people from marginalised groups creating art informed by their experiences. Drill music offers young people, and particularly young black people, a means of creative expression. As the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights has stated, “…representations of the real must not be confused with the real… Hence, artists should be able to explore the darker side of humanity, and to represent crimes… without being accused of promoting these.”
The right to express yourself freely, even if what you say may offend sections of our community, is one of those areas that truly tests our commitment to this human right.
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116514″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]An author of a government report into the handling of public protests has expressed her serious concerns about the independence and impartiality of the police watchdog. The report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary looked at policing in the wake of the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protests, was published on 11 March 2021 and backed Home Office proposals for tightening up the law. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which followed sparked protests across the country.
Alice O’Keeffe, who worked as an associate editor at the HMIC, feared the conclusions may have contributed to the crackdown on the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common in south London. The 33-year-old’s killing provoked a national outcry in the UK about violence against women. Ms O’Keeffe was removed from the team tasked by Home Secretary Priti Patel to report on the policing of the vigil itself after she expressed her view that the “handling of the vigil was completely unacceptable and disproportionate.”
In its report, the HMIC concluded the police acted appropriately in handcuffing and arresting women protestors at the vigil, although it recognised coverage in the media had been a public relations disaster.
In a letter to HMIC head Sir Tom Winsor, seen by Index on Censorship, the civil servant raised her “serious and urgent concerns about breaches of the civil service code” during the earlier inspection into public protests. She raised questions about how the inspection team could be impartial when she was the only member who was not from a policing background. The letter makes a number of serious claims about the impartiality of the inspectorate:
The civil servant claimed the inspectorate decided to back the government’s proposals before fieldwork has been completed. She quoted correspondence between the inspectorate and the Home Secretary from late 2020 which said the government’s proposals “would improve police effectiveness (without eroding the right to protest) and would be compatible with human rights laws. Moreover, measured legislative reform in these respects would send a clear message to protestors and police forces alike about the limits of the right to protest”.
In her letter to Sir Tom Winsor, the civil servant claimed: “The purpose of the report was not to collect evidence and then make a decision, but rather to collect evidence to support the decision that has already been made.”
Ms O’Keeffe has worked as journalist at the Guardian, the Observer and the New Statesman. She previously worked at the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
In a statement the inspectorate confirmed it was evaluating Ms O’Keeffe’s observations. However, it said that as an editor “she was not privy to all the work which assessed and weighed the evidence in the inspection”. The final judgment was made by one of the inspectors of constabulary, it said, and approved by the board of the inspectorate.
The statement went on to explain that a thorough legal analysis carried out by external counsel had been completed by the time the letter referred to by Ms O’Keeffe was sent to the Home Secretary. No final judgement was made until fieldwork into the policing of protests had been concluded and the Home Secretary was informed the initial judgement was provisional.
HMIC said its inspection teams always include seconded police officers and that officers from the Metropolitan Police were often used. It denied peaceful protestors were equated to the IRA.
The statement concluded: “The Clapham inspection was entirely objective as is apparent from the report just published. Ms O’Keeffe was not put on the Clapham report because, by her own acknowledgement, she had already made up her mind what the conclusions should be before any evidence had been obtained.
“The independence of the inspectorate has always been conspicuous. It is led by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary whose reputation for independence goes back many years.”
Read extracts from the letter and why Index defends the right to protest even during a pandemic.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The following are extracts from a letter to Sir Tom Winsor, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, from Alice O’Keeffe, an associate editor who worked on the HMIC report, Getting the balance right: An inspection of how effectively the police deal with protests, which was published on 11 March 2021. The subheadings are provided by Index to help guide you through the main points. Read the news story here.
Dear Sir Tom,
I am writing to raise serious and urgent concerns about breaches of the civil service code during a project I was recently involved in as an associate editor for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, an inspection into protest policing. The report from the inspection was published on 11 March 2021, and I was involved in drafting and editing the report and other materials related to the inspection from October 2020-March 2021.
The protest policing inspection
The inspection took place in response to a letter from the Home Secretary Priti Patel, on 21st September 2020, asking the inspectorate to look at whether the police needed more legal powers to deal with protest, in response to disruptive protests by Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, among others. The inspection lead…asked me to edit the report.
The protest policing report
A foregone conclusion?
Early on in the team’s discussions about the inspection, it became clear that the authors of the report had already decided to back the legislative changes proposed by the Met Police and the Home Secretary, which were to be put forward as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The purpose of the report was not to collect evidence and then make a decision, but rather to collect evidence to support the decision that had already been made.
There is evidence for this in the letter that I helped to draft from [HMIC] to the Home Secretary, which we began to work on in early November 2020, before the fieldwork stage of the inspection was complete. It said the following:
“We believe all five proposals would improve police effectiveness (without eroding the right to protest) and would be compatible with human rights laws. Moreover, measured legislative reform in these respects would send a clear message to protesters and police forces alike about the limits of the right to protest.”
The Home Secretary replied on 7 December:
“Thank you for your letter… Protests have proved a significant challenge over the last year and I am keen to ensure that the police have the powers and capabilities they need to help address the disruption they face. Your findings will help me to do that.”
This was before the fieldwork phase of the inspection had been completed, discussed and evaluated.
Impartial and independent?
The team was not impartial or independent – and it definitely was not balanced in terms of backgrounds and perspectives. …a serving Chief Inspector for the Metropolitan Police, sat on the team through all the fieldwork evaluation discussions…The Metropolitan Police force was originally responsible for requesting these new powers from the Home Secretary, so I was surprised that a senior serving officer from that force was now acting as an “impartial civil servant” on the question of whether his own force’s requested legislative proposals should be enacted.
Although the inspection very largely concerned the policing of Black Lives Matter protests, there was only one ethnic minority member of an inspection team of 12. There were only two women, including me, although one more joined in the later stages to do some case studies.
I repeatedly [raised] concerns about this, saying that as we did not have anyone with a specialism in equality and race on the team, we might have a “blind spot about race”. I suggested to the team leader… that we should send the report out for external review by a specialist in race and policing – he said there wasn’t time to do that, as the report needed to be published before the Bill came to Parliament for its second reading. On my insistence he did eventually – only days prior to publication – say that he would send it to the Black Police Association to review.
In various exchanges I became aware that senior team members held views that were biased against protest groups. For example, in the early stages of the inspection [REDACTED] told me that he had a case study he wanted me to look at, of an individual who he felt should be banned from protesting at all… I assumed that this individual must be a violent offender of some kind. However [REDACTED] told me that the individual in question was one of the founders of…Extinction Rebellion.
[REDACTED] asked for my feedback on the case study. I said that I didn’t think we should include it in the report, as the case would polarise opinion. I made the point that we all needed to keep our personal biases in check. He replied: “So, the following questions spring to mind: If we were writing this report during the ‘troubles’, would it be acceptable for us to show bias against the IRA? If not, what about showing bias against the bombers in particular? In 2020, would it be acceptable to denounce the IRA?”
Reflecting public opinion?
The report presented a skewed account of public opinion on protest policing, by only including select results from the survey that the inspectorate commissioned on the issue. The figure quoted prominently in the report is that “for every person who thought it acceptable for the police to ignore protesters committing minor offences, twice as many thought it was unacceptable.”
However, within the full survey there was a much more mixed response to the issue of how firmly the police should deal with protests. Sixty per cent of people thought it was unacceptable for the police to use force against non-violent protesters, for example. It was unclear to me why this finding should not be of equal importance.
The correct focus?
Late in the report drafting process a member of the team sent me a report, published in July 2020, by SAGE into public order and public health. It set out many concerns that [government scientific advisors] SAGE had about policing protest in the context of the pandemic. The SAGE report makes it very clear that the public order threat comes from both BLM-type protests inspired by racial inequality, and from the extreme right-wing (XRW).
The report says: “XRW groups are coalescing and mobilising at a scale not witnessed since the early EDL protests around 2010. There is a substantial overlap between some of the issues foregrounded by these groups (e.g. protection of heritage, memorials) and much larger sections of the population, e.g. among veterans… Large-scale confrontations provoked by the XRW in London and then subsequently in Glasgow, Newcastle and other cities were partly responses to the previous actions of hardcore elements of BLM and the anti-Fascist movement and perceptions of weakness among the police.”
At no point throughout the whole process of putting the protest policing report together had the team ever discussed the public order threat presented by right-wing groups. I sent an email to [REDACTED] on 12 February saying that I felt “we have missed a ‘piece of the puzzle’ when it comes to the rise of the far right.” He said he would consider this, but it was very late in the process and nothing was ever done about it.
In the published report, the far-right are only mentioned once, on p.130. This is the section in which the authors argue in favour of aligning legislation on processions and assemblies, giving the police the power to ban assemblies. It becomes clear at this point that in fact this power is – contrary to the report’s exclusive focus on other protests – much more likely to be necessary in dealing with far-right protests.
The report says: “We learned that, between 2005 and 2012, Home Secretaries signed 12 prohibition (banning) orders on processions. Ten of these were associated with far-right political groups. The other two were associated with anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation groups.”
Events after publication
The headline finding of the report into protest policing was that the balance had tipped “too readily in favour of protesters.” It said that a “modest reset of the scales is needed” away from the rights of protesters, and towards the rights of “others”.
The weekend following the report’s publication, the vigil to mark Sarah Everard’s murder took place in London.
I wrote to [REDACTED] on Sunday morning, saying that I felt the inspectorate had serious questions to answer around whether our protest policing report had “contributed – albeit unintentionally – to an environment in which the Met felt at liberty to prohibit, and then clamp down forcefully on, a peaceful protest by women, against the murder of a woman by a serving police officer.”
I added that I hoped the inspectorate would “make it clear to the Met that its handling of this vigil was completely unacceptable and disproportionate.”
On Monday morning, I received a phone call from my manager to say that the inspectorate had been commissioned by the Mayor of London and the Home Secretary to inspect the behaviour of the Met at the Sarah Everard vigil. He asked me to edit it. I said that I would, but I wanted the team to know that as an editor I would need to ask robust questions about the role of our previous protest policing report in the decisions that had been made by the Met Police that night.
Later that day, I received a follow-up email from my manager to say that [REDACTED] had requested another editor, as he felt “he needed an editor who’d be able to approach this job with an open mind. Based on your email, he didn’t feel that would be possible.” I was replaced by [an] editor with no background in protest policing work.
I acknowledge that, in shock at the events at the Sarah Everard vigil, I expressed the view that the Met had acted disproportionately. This was, and remains, my personal view. I regret making that comment and acknowledge that it did not demonstrate the impartiality that I have always upheld in the context of my role.
However, I believe that I was raising important concerns about a conflict of interest, and the impact of the previous report.
I am a committed civil servant and as such I feel it is urgently necessary for the Inspectorate, and the Civil Service Commission, to address some of these issues, both in terms of this immediate inspection, and in the longer term. Much more needs to be done to ensure proper independence, which means a clear separation between the Inspectorate, the police and other institutions such as the College of Policing. It also means working much harder to ensure that the staff on inspection teams have a diverse mix of backgrounds and perspectives, and that discussions and processes can be truly free, fair and impartial.
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=”https://youtu.be/KXX0b4hka4g”][vc_column_text]The right to freedom of expression is considered by many to be a cornerstone of a modern democratic society. Countries that fail to adequately protect this hallowed right – routinely censoring journalists, writers and musicians whose speech challenges and offends those in power – are rightly regarded by the West to be the worst examples of dictatorial, autocratic regimes.
But right here in the UK, artists are fighting the censorship of their work by global corporations bowing to pressure from and, arguably, colluding with the state and its organs. In May of this year YouTube, the video streaming platform owned by Google, succumbed to pressure from the Metropolitan Police and took down 30 music videos made by drill artists. The Met had been trying to persuade YouTube for almost two years to take down between 50 and 60 videos, alleging the material was contributing to the increase in violent crime on London streets.
This attack on the freedom of expression of musicians who make drill music does not stop at the removal of their videos from YouTube. Defendants convicted in criminal cases may in the future be banned from making music for a period up to three years if the offender is under 18 and indefinitely for adult offenders under criminal behaviour orders. Crucially, the prosecution can use evidence to support the making of an order that would not have met the strict rules of admissibility as in a criminal trial. The threat to freedom of expression goes further. The Met have expressed publicly their intention to push for new legislation, similar to anti-terrorism laws, that will criminalise the making of drill videos.
Drill is not for everyone. The lyrics are violent. There is liberal use of expletives. Descriptions of acts of violence using knives and guns are common themes. The images portrayed in the accompanying videos are similarly hard-hitting. Large groups of mainly young, mainly black men can be seen inhabiting the screen wearing hoodies and tracksuit bottoms – the uniform of the young in some sections of society.
Drill DJs are not, however, pioneers of explicit lyrics and violent images in music. The genesis of what is known as drill in the UK today sprang from a trap-style rap that originated in Chicago in the early 2010s. The hip hop of the 1980s and the gangsta rap of the 1990s are all part of the same family tree of poetic verse poured over a thumping beat. Drill is a close relative.
Nor is it new to blame this type of music for inciting violence. In the 1990s C. Delores Tucker campaigned against violent lyrics aimed at women in rap music. Then, as now, there was little direct evidence of a causal link between rap music and particular acts of violence. What the critics of this music fail to grasp is that the lyrics of this genre of music are inspired by, and not the cause of, the violence that infects the lives of many of these young men.[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-quote-left” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]
[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_column_text]Looked at in its true context then, drill is less about inspiring violence and more about providing a narrative of lives defined by violence. They are telling the stories of their lives, minus the sugar-coating, just as other writers, poets and musicians have done before them.
The courtroom has often been the battleground of the clash between the values of the young minority against those of the old majority. In 1960 Penguin Books was prosecuted under the Obscenity Act 1959 for the publication of a book entitled Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The prosecution’s case was that the book had a tendency “to deprave and corrupt” those who read it in daring to portray the affair of a married woman with the family’s gamekeeper. Penguin Books was acquitted.
In 1971, the publishers of a satirical magazine were prosecuted when an issue of the magazine featured a sexualised cartoon of the children’s literary character Rupert the Bear. Known as the Oz trial, the three defendants were convicted by the Crown Court but were then acquitted on appeal.
Today, UK common law has arguably been strengthened by the enactment of the Human Rights Act 2000 by enshrining in law article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. One former Court of Appeal judge said this of the importance of freedom of expression: “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”
You or I may not wish to stream drill music videos on our mobile device. Many people may find the content offensive. The videos may even be performed by individuals who are suspected of a crime or have criminal convictions. None of this should confer on the state, aided and abetted by global corporations, a wide-ranging power that ultimately infringes the right of musicians to express themselves freely.
This censorship of a form of music which affords an already marginalised minority a rare opportunity to express themselves publicly is an attack against their fundamental rights as human beings.
We all need to sit up and take notice.
1. Under Part 2 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Such an order may contain requirements for the defendant to inform the police of any activity that may be in breach of the order. The order may be varied, reviewed or discharged. Breach of the order is in itself a criminal offence.
2. An CBO was made recently against 1011 members Micah Bedeau, Jordean Bedeau, Yonas Girma, Isaac Marshall and Rhys Herbert. They are required under the CBO to inform the police 24 hours in advance of their intention to publish any videos online and are required to give a 48 hours warning of the date and locations any live performance.
3. The 1959 Act is still on the statute books.
4. R v Penguin Books Ltd.  Crim LR 176.
5. R v Neville, Dennis & Anderson, The Times, 24 June 1971.
6. Article 10 (1) ECHR states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent states from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.” Article 10 (2) sets out limitations to this right.
7. Sir Stephen Sedley in Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions  Crim LR 998.
8. A number of successful high-profile rap artists have criminal convictions.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content”][vc_column][three_column_post title=”Artistic Freedom” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”15469″][/vc_column][/vc_row]