Michael Bywater: Observing a nation at observation

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The Independent Online

Dear Secretary of State, I am writing in response to your request for an urgent explanation of the events in [REDACTED] during the course of today.

The [REDACTED] Constabulary in which I have the honour to serve as [REDACTED] had not been previously informed that 12 May had been designated Mass Observation Day 2011, due to an oversight by some [REDACTED] in the Department of [REDACTED] of which you have the honour to be Secretary of State.

Had we known citizens had been encouraged to spend the day taking notes, recording observations, making videos, taking photographs, tweeting, blogging, and otherwise grassing each other up in a manner likely to provoke reasonable suspicion in the mind of a [REDACTED] under the Prevention of [REDACTED] Act etc, things might well have turned out differently. I insist that contrary to your remarks, my Force does not have a reputation for "gung-ho simian violence", nor does it take pleasure in closing [REDACTED], banning flights into and out of [REDACTED], kettling, water-cannon, and behaving "with all the humane decency of a dose of clap", on which I bow to your superior knowledge. I hope you accept this apology and we can achieve closure and move on.

As to the events of today. I am led to understand they began at 07.28am when Mr N P P Burbalsingh of 32 [REDACTED] left his premises to contribute to what, with the gullibility of an immigrant gentleman, he believed to be the venerable British tradition of Mass Observation by compiling a dossier on his business associate Mr Vikram Donelly, who holds a contract at the [REDACTED] goods yard. Mass Observing Mr Burbalsingh happened to be Miss O D Grivet, an animal grooming assistant, who filmed the encounter.

Miss Grivet was in turn observed by Mr Clement Juggle, a retired [REDACTED], who photographed the encounter and sent it via TwitPic to his friend Ms Jeanette Scram. Ms Scram re-tweeted the image with the caption "woman in hoodie filming Islamist with rucksack taking notes on bloke with turban down the [REDACTED] yard – another 9/[REDACTED] in the offing??!!?".

At this point things went, as I believe the term is, "virus". A Mr Harrison "Yeggy" Yegg, a photographer for the [REDACTED] Gazette, arrived on scene and began photographing events with what is technically known as a "telephoto zoom" and, among the police, as a "well dodgy scrote asking for a kicking".

This sort of thing was all very well in 1937, when Britain By Mass Observation started, but times have changed. Modern communications devices enable rapid communication of communications. Also the legacy of legislation from the preceding government, coupled with the legislation from the current government designed to "roll back" the previous government's legislation, has led to a situation where any member of the public or Press observing any other person, public building, private property, dachshund or litter-bin is prima facie a potential terrorist act and must be robustly dealt with by a robust policing process.

Add the arrival of a posse of evicted and indigent former Disability Living Allowance demonstrators, clearly armed with grievances and biros, and you can, I am sure, see that the action my force took was in no way disproportionate. The number of casualties is regrettable and we will duly hold an inquiry at which we will sincerely regret them. It is the suggestion of [REDACTED] Constabulary that blame for this incident – I formally reject the designation "scandalous blood-soaked mayhem" – be laid at the door of the Mass Observation people at the University of Sussex, need I say more. I remain, Mr Secretary, your [REDACTED] Servant [REDACTED].