Statewatch article: RefNo# 33250
Editorial: A nation of ‘grasses’? by Ben Hayes
Statewatch Journal; vol 23 no 2 August 2013
In 1950 Routledge published “Lag’s Lexicon: A Comprehensive Dictionary and Encyclopaedia of the English Prison of Today” by Paul Tempest. It defined a “grasser” as “one who gives information” to the police (see also “informer”, “nark”, “snitch”, “squealer”, “squeaker” and “stool pigeon”). Tempest attributed the term to “grasshopper”, Cockney rhyming slang for “copper” (itself slang for policeman), though others have suggested the term derives from the Latin poet Virgil, who coined the phrase “snake in the grass” (latet anguis in herba) to depict a traitor. Regardless of the etymology, by the early 1970s the term was so widely used and understood that British journalists would henceforth describe as “supergrasses” those who “turned” state’s evidence and testified against friends and associates in “underworld” and terrorism trials.

In countries like Britain and the USA, “grassing” represented the ultimate betrayal of the fabled code of “honour among thieves”; in totalitarian regimes it was the lifeblood of state security. In the former German Democratic Republic, for example, records showed that 2.5% of the population were Stasi informants, but official archivists estimate the true figure to be three times higher. If “occasional informers” were included, suggested a former Stasi colonel, more than one quarter of the East German population would have been implicated.

Whether it’s turning on one’s friends or acquiescing to the demands of a police state, popular culture steeps informers in cowardice or treachery. Note how quickly prominent Republicans branded Edward Snowden a “traitor” for blowing the whistle (a form of democratic grassing?) on his former employers at the National Security Agency.

Though far from exhaustive, the essays that follow are broadly concerned with different types of informing. The intention is not to sort the “good” grasses from the “bad” but rather to interrogate the relationship between states and informers and better understand the role that they play not just in the pursuit of security and criminal justice, but state subversion and the pursuit of profit.

In Britain in particular, members of the public are increasingly being encouraged, and in some cases compelled, to monitor and report on each other’s behaviour [see Max Rowlands]. Businesses employing workers from outside the EU and universities enrolling non-EU students are obliged to conduct extensive checks for the UK Border Agency or face severe sanction. It is now proposed to extend these requirements to landlords and possibly schools, doctors and hospitals. Meanwhile, government initiatives urge people to report suspicions about terrorism, benefit fraud, “anti-social behaviour”, bad driving and even the improper use of rubbish bins.

In Ireland, the British state has used informers with deadly consequences for nearly four centuries [see Paddy Hillyard and Margaret Urwin]. In the recent conflict, the security forces had paid agents and informers in all paramilitary organisations. In December 2012, Desmond de Silva QC published his long awaited report into the murder of civil rights lawyer Pat Finucane. While da Silva confirmed the state’s role in “actively facilitating” his murder by loyalist paramilitaries, he refuted the long-standing and widespread allegation that the act was part of a sustained, government approved campaign against the IRA.

Though the focus of Britain’s “war on terror” has shifted from Irish to Muslim communities, the use of informers continues to play a central role [see Aviva Stahl]. On the one hand, the widely criticised Prevent programme encourages a host of state and non-state actors, from schools and Mosques to health clinics and charities, to report to the police not just their suspicions about terrorism but ill-defined indicators of “radicalisation”. On the other, British security and intelligence agencies continue to recruit “extremists” as informers, some of whom have gone on to commit serious crimes.

In revelations that have caused less shock and outrage than one might have expected, the deployment of British undercover police officers to infiltrate protest groups – not just in the UK but across Europe – is currently the subject of parliamentary and judicial enquiries [see Chris Jones]. The same is true of the “blacklisting” of construction industry workers on the basis of trade union membership, political beliefs or health and safety activities – a practice in which the police and private sector have allegedly long-conspired [see Trevor Hemmings].

Finally, the collection includes an historical analysis of vigilantism and counter-vigilantism in Spain, a country whose recent history shows a “stubborn continuity of surveillance, control, domination and revanchism as political strategy and social dynamic” [see Gemma Galdon-Clavell], and the outsourcing of responsibility for “stowaways” and “illegal” migrants to the merchant shipping industry [see Paloma Maquet and Julia Burtin Zortea].

The sound bite “Stasi 2.0” gets bandied around for every new surveillance scandal, with little forethought as to what it really implies. Policies and practices based on people informing on one another – especially the poor, the foreign and the non-conformist – entrench a particularly pernicious aspect of surveillance culture that fosters distrust, divisiveness and deprivation.

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