There is a popular genre of "observational documentary" programmes on TV that depict agents of the state, most notably police, as they go about their work. On the face of it, these shows – Motorway Patrol, Dog Squad, Drug Squad and the others – provide an insight into what the police do on a daily basis.
In reality, they don't, because as a condition of their participation, police have control over the content of the shows. So in practice they're public relations vehicles for the police which never show or say anything the police don't want shown or said. You might think they're harmless enough programmes – but what if the same rules applied to research and reporting outside family-hour TV? What if the police could control what anyone said about them and who was allowed to say it?
You don't have to imagine it. It's what's been happening to sociologist, author and Canon Media Awards blogger of the year Dr Jarrod Gilbert.
As Jarrod explains in his New Zealand Herald column today:
I've been banned from accessing basic and uncontroversial police data. As an academic who studies crime, this is rather crippling. It's also a staggering abuse of power.
The police have deemed me unfit because of my "association with gangs". This association won't surprise many people: I did New Zealand's largest ever study of gangs. It was long, exhausting and sometimes dangerous work, but it was worth it. The research culminated in an award-winning book, and academic publications all around the world.
To get my results I used - in part - an ethnographic method; in other words I hung out with the gangs.
I have been deemed unfit to undertake crime research because I know criminals through studying crime. Bloody hell.
I know Jarrod and he told me this week that this bizarre situation has been going on most of this year. As he explains in the column, he requested a copy of his police file to try and determine what reasons the police might have for preventing him from conducting his work:
In reply I got pages of black ink. Everything has been redacted: censored.
I know a lot of what's underneath the black ink, because I was photographed, my licence plates were noted down, and I was asked to provide my details to the police on numerous occasions during my fieldwork. This may sound unusual, but this is how police keep tabs on gang members. When I was with gangs, they quite naturally did the same to me. If you think there might be something more sinister under that black ink, I certainly don't know what it is. What I do know is that with it blacked out I can't defend myself.
It actually gets worse. This isn't solely about Jarrod and any other academic the police might see fit to blackball. It turns out it is not so new but very much news that the police have been imposing research contracts on anyone who seeks information that ought legally to be available to any of us under the Official Information Act.
The degree of control the police sought over research findings and publications was more than trifling. The research contracts demand that a draft report be provided to police. If the results are deemed to be "negative" then the police will seek to "improve its outcomes". Both the intent and the language would have impressed George Orwell.
Researchers unprepared to yield and make changes face a clause stating the police "retain the sole right to veto any findings from release". In other words, if an academic study said something the police didn't like - or heaven forbid was in any way critical of the police - then the police could stop it being published.
These demands were supported by threats. The contracts state that police will "blacklist" the researchers and "any organisations connected to the project ... from access to any further police resources" if they don't abide by police wishes.
This is scary and unacceptable and must be resisted as forcefully as possible. I might be wrong, but I don't anticipate Jarrod's employers at the University of Canterbury will die in a ditch over this. So it therefore falls to the rest of us to declare that what the police are doing to Jarrod and the control they seek to impose on others like him is incompatible with democracy.
I invite my fellow journalists, academics and other members of the public to join me in saying so in the discussion for this blog post. This cannot stand.