Alan Bennett, The History Boys
The Investigatory Powers Bill – more commonly known as ‘The Snooper’s Charter’ –received its second reading in the House of Commons last month, and if the government gets its way, it will become law by the end of the year. The Bill grants sweeping powers of mass surveillance to the UK’s security forces, making legal many of the covert practices revealed when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the USA’s habit of spying on its own and others’ citizens.
This is only the latest in a series of moves that take away an increasing number of our liberties and legal safeguards in the name of our own security and safety. In the past 20 years, we have had the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998; the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; the Terrorism Act 2000; the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001; the Criminal Justice Act 2003; the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005; the Terrorism Act 2006; the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008; the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014; and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. Way before all of that, though, it turns out that MI5 has been using the 1984 Telecommunications Act to make bulk telephone intercepts for decades.
Note that many of these pieces of legislation have the bogeyman word “terrorism” in their titles. Each successive Act variously grants additional arbitrary powers of investigation, data collection, questioning and detention (in some cases without trial) to the police or the Home Secretary. The 2015 Act requires internet service providers to track their users. The Snoopers’ Charter goes one further, granting extensive powers to security forces to intercept communications, track citizens’ web behavior, and access personal records. In January 2016, Home Secretary Theresa May refused to rule out accessing databases of medical records, and would not say whether legally protected data (such as journalists’ lists of sources, or legally privileged communications) had in fact already been accessed. This is a far cry from the Tory government’s initial enthusiasm in 2010 for undoing much of its Labour predecessor’s arrogation of surveillance authority, and from its one brief attempt to limit itself – the Protection of Freedom Act of 2012.
Notoriously, many of the powers successive governments have awarded themselves over two decades have since been used for purposes quite other than combatting “terrorism”.
Yet few of us know what those powers are, how they work, and who is using them.
What has been especially shocking to me is how many people, including myself, seem to accept creeping implementation of these measures with very little examination and debate.
Way back in 2009, the House of Lords Constitution Committee produced a report which stated, unequivocally, that: "The expansion in the use of surveillance represents one of the most significant changes in the life of the nation since the end of the Second World War. Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country."
But that warning has gone unheeded. Yes, there has been vocal opposition from a number of groups, including the Liberal Democrats political party, human rights organization Liberty, the Open Rights Group, Police Spies Out Of Lives, and the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance to both the provisions and the consequences of this tide of legislation. But the majority of us seem to be sleepwalking into a world in which ever-greater state surveillance is the norm.
When I started looking into this, I realized I wanted Hydrocracker to make a piece of work that explored and responded to this world. Our forthcoming piece of work, Operation Black Antler, a joint venture with ground-breaking interactive artists Blast Theory, aims to investigate what is happening to our freedom in the name of security.
But the project has run into fierce criticism in some quarters. Our initial insensitive and ill-thought-through publicity for OBA led some people (understandably) to believe we were planning to focus on the female victims of the police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) – women with whom police officers had relationships with and in some cases fathered children. The work is absolutely not about those cases.
To create the piece we are making, we needed to focus on a morally ambiguous area of state surveillance. It would be easy to claim that all state surveillance is wrong. But I fear it is more complex than that. Shouldn’t we spy on ISIS-sponsored groups? Paedophile rings? Drug cartels? Racist organisations?
In the case of the SDS there is no moral ambiguity. It was wrong. It was abuse. No ifs no buts. Even the police – ever capable of dragging their feet where they’ve made mistakes - have admitted what they did was wrong. Indeed, this wrongdoing is now the subject of the Pitchford Enquiry.
But absence of moral ambiguity is not helpful when it comes to exploring the issues that have seized our attention at Hydrocracker and Blast Theory. We needed to find a “story” for Operation Black Antler that would allow us to focus on moral complexity.
What the story is must remain undisclosed for reasons connected to the drama. But just to be clear; it is not about the SDS or the people they exploited.
But the style of the work has caused some controversy too. The work is “immersive.” Both Hydrocracker and Blast Theory have a long tradition of making political work that puts the audience at the centre of the piece. Hydrocracker’s The New World Order put its audience directly into the world of state torture that ‘keeps the world clean for democracy’. By immersing the audience in the action it challenged them with the complicity of their own silence. Numerous people joined Amnesty and The Campaign To Free Omar Deghayes From Guantanamo as a result of attending the production. It wasn’t comfortable, but it effected real change in a number of people.
Likewise in Operation Black Antler we don’t plan to show an audience a play about undercover cops. We intend to get the audience to take on the role of undercover police. This is not to deliver a cheap thrill or a power trip, but rather to force people to make serious moral and ethical decisions in a carefully constructed and morally nuanced (if fictionalized) world. We believe putting an audience in this ‘realistic’ situation will make them think more deeply about the reality of surveillance. They will have had to judge how far to lie and deceive to achieve their goals. Given this visceral experience they will have a deeper and richer response to the question: to what extent, if at all is the State justified in asking its agents to lie and spy in order to protect us?
This question will be at the heart of the debate, chaired by Polly Toynbee, that is being organised by the University of Brighton on the Ethics and Morality of Surveillance on May 23rd as part of the production. And that is only one of a number of ways in which the work is being put into context. Audiences will hear a wide spectrum of views from a wide range of people including opinions that are strongly critical of state surveillance. At the end, the audience will make up its own mind.
So, I’m making Operation Black Antler because I believe passionately that art should reflect the times it inhabits and I believe passionately in the importance of this work. I want to have a discussion – within the work and around it – about state surveillance and the wider issues that it raises. They affect us all.
Jem Wall, Artistic Director, Hydrocracker