Sunday, 8 July 2012
Exclusive: the curious case of Helen Michael, and a visit from the secret policemen
Who is Helen Michael?
She is a cafe owner from North Finchley. She spends her day making sandwiches, and salads, and all day breakfasts. She works hard, long hours, every day. She is a mother of two teenage sons, and struggles to support them and pay her mortgage.
She used to be a Tory voter.
She isn't now.
Why? Because a few months ago, her local Tory council imposed a new parking scheme across the borough which made it impossible for anyone to visit their local high street without paying by credit card, on a mobile phone, or running the risk of incurring a parking ticket. This idiotic new policy, created and promoted in the face of all common sense by the infamous local policitican Brian Coleman, overnight reduced the trade of our town centres in many areas by up to 40%, a clearly devasting blow for local businesses, and completely unsustainable in any circumstances, but in the midst of this recession, the last straw for many traders. Shops all over the borough have closed, and the effect on our high streets is clear for anyone to see.
Helen Michael saw what was happening in her high street, and made a choice. She could have just accepted what was happening, and kept quiet, battling on while the life of her business ebbed away, or she could try to do something about it. She decided to try to do something about it. Speaking as the spokewoman for her fellow traders, she started to campaign against the injustice of the new parking scheme. She organised a petition, now with 13,000 signatures, and about to be presented to full council this week. She designed three posters which local shops enthusiastically displayed in their windows.
One of these posters focused on the man responsible for the parking policy - Councillor Brian Coleman, the Cabinet member who introduced the scheme and then contemptuously refused to listen to any criticism of the effects on local business, even when raised, in fear and trembling, in private, by his own Tory party leader and colleagues.
Councillor Coleman does not take kindly to criticism. He objected to the poster. Helen Michael received a visit from the local police, who pointed out that she had forgotten to include an imprint of her publication details on the poster. Not being an experienced campaigner, she had not realised this was necessary, but immediately agreed to amend the poster, and did so. The local police assured her that that was the end of the matter, and that there would be no further action.
The impact of the parking issue and other controversial policies relentlessly pursued by Brian Coleman, helped by the attentions of local bloggers and residents ensured that he lost his formerly safe seat in the May elections for the Greater London Assembly. He lost his post as Chair of the London fire authority. At last, weakened by these defeats, his colleagues on Barnet Council felt moved to relieve him of his Cabinet position too. All this amounted to an immense humiliation for Coleman, and, effectively, an abrupt end to his political power and influence.
For a while after his defeat, he was uncharacteristically quiet. In a state of shock, perhaps. We moved on, others did not.
Last week, Helen Michael was visited by two police officers. They wanted to speak to her about the poster. Why? And why now? She had been told months ago that the matter was closed. Was there some new complaint? Who from? The police officers would not answer the questions. She was told she would be expected to 'cooperate' and attend a local police station for an interview.
When Mrs Angry heard about this she immediately felt something was not quite right. Who were these officers? Were they from the local police, and if so, why the further proceedings? If not, who were they?
Helen took legal advice, and duly submitted a statement about the poster to the DPP. Her police visitors emailed her and insisted that she would still have to attend an interview. This took place, under caution, and recorded, in a room at Barnet police station: an interview of two hours duration, at the end of which she was, not surprisingly, shattered and rather annoyed.
Mrs Angry asked what questions had been put to her. Rather worryingly, the interview had consisted of some very odd and rather intrusive questions: what were her reasons for producing the poster - was it a culmination of ideas, or her own? Was it just the traders of Barnet involved in the production?
Who else did they think might have been involved, and what flipping business of theirs was it, anyway? What had this probing line of questioning to do with a small technical omission on an anti parking poster?
Everyone assumed that the council, in particular the Chief Executive and Returning Officer, Nick Walkley, was behind the complaint to the police. Mrs Angry thought this, if true, was quite clearly a stupid error - especially when no real action had ensued after two other breaches of electoral law, by Conservative supporters - the leaflet in the Brunswick Park by election, and the back Boris posters plastered illegally on bus shelters, shops etc the night before the election by an organised pair of fly posters, an activity noted elsewhere in London that night.
Furthermore, to raise this subject again now, when the Tories had thought they had successfully blamed every unpopular policy decision on a suitable whipping boy, as it were, yes, our Brian, and moved on to a bright new future ... it just didn't make sense, even by the admittedly bottom of the barrell scraping standards of political life here in Broken Barnet.
Mrs Angry has heard that Mr Walkley is actually rather upset at being blamed for this ridiculous persecution of Helen Michael. And now Mrs Angry is going to surprise you. She thinks now that actually that if so, poor old Nick might be right to feel aggrieved. Yep: sympathy for the devil.*
*See update Tuesday 7th July here: http://wwwbrokenbarnet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/hounding-helen-michael-coleman-poster.html which suggests indeed that Walkley is probably not to blame for the visit from the secret policemen ...
Mrs Angry thought that as the nice policemen had taken such efforts to investigate Helen Michael, it would only be polite to return the favour. She did a bit of digging, therefore. Wasn't too difficult.
As Mrs Angry is, despite all appearances, at heart a law abiding and responsible citizen, she will not identify these officers. But one of them left a clue on his email as to his real line of work, and the other has left a trail for all the world to see on the internet, on, oh dear: Linkedin. Note to Scotland Yard: maybe be a bit more discreet. Mrs Angry is actually rather horrified by how easily she has worked this out. Or maybe her detective skills are so highly refined you should offer her a job. Angry of the Yard. Hmm.
These officers would appear to work for SO15, a counter terrorism unit. This investigates terrorism and 'domestic extremism'. Really? What's that all about then? Domestic extremism - does that encompass the risk presented by stroppy women making sandwiches and sticking up slightly impertinent posters of Brian Coleman in shop windows? Apparently it might.
If, like Mrs Angry, you are actually in favour of supporting the fight against the real threat of terrorism, and the upholding of law and order, you will puzzled by this question: why, at such a time of high alert, can we afford to waste police time and resources on investigating a cafe owner from North Finchley over an anti parking scheme poster?
You might wonder why someone who so clearly is not an Islamist extremist, or any sort of extremist, or any threat to security, is being targeted at all by an investigation from this unit, especially in the week when a number of alleged terrorist related arrests have been made, and following reports of the so called Olympic 'ASBO' order awarded to one would be protestor. Ah.
Here we might be getting closer to the truth.
Last week Mrs Angry was asked to write a piece for the Guardian 'Comment is Free' section about the significance of the Olympic Games to Barnet. Lacking any interest whatsoever in any kind of sport, she decided instead to write about the torch relay coming to the borough, and the alternative torch relay being organised in the same week by local residents opposed to the One Barnet programme.
The Olympic torch will travel through North Finchley, and local traders have, rather optimistically, been asked by Barnet Council, yes, the same council which has been killing them slowly with the parking scheme, to enter into the spirit and stick up some One Barnet Olympic bunting, and engage in some ludicrous performance activities - get this - in the now empty shops of the local Arcade. Where once there was commerce, now there is art, you see?
When first asked to do this, Finchley traders told Barnet Council where to stick their bunting, and suggested that rather than support such activities, they were more likely to demonstrate along the route of the torch relay, displaying anti council banners and so on. This was reported in one or two blogs and websites.
And there, Mrs Angry would suggest, lies the interest of SO15. The security of the torch relay is taken very seriously, of course, and may have been the real motivation for their close attention. If so: presumably, then, the campaigners against the closure of Friern Barnet library, which is also on the route, and have declared an interest in standing by the empty building in protest, can expect to be hauled in for a two hour interview too. And if not, why has Helen been singled out for attention? Has someone, or some authority, put pressure on somewhere to target her, rather than anyone else, under the guise of security concerns?
And what does this tell us about the state of things here, now, in this country?
All those people who really believe that we live in a police state, under the scrutiny of surveillance that is not lawful, or necessary: are they right?
What about the issue of civil liberties?
Does someone who dares fight against injustice, and for the survival of her business deserve to be treated like a potential terrorist?
Is there really no discrimination made on the basis of common sense, as to who is and is clearly not a threat to national security?
Are we no longer allowed to take part in peaceful protest about any issue we feel needs to be brought to the attention of others? Is this not our democratic right, even in this borough, where freedom of expression is not encouraged, and any form of dissent viewed with automatic disapproval?
Or is there an abuse here of the system, using a subterfuge to target someone for political activism, for reasons about which we can only speculate?