“Operation Black Antler” at Brighton Festival: our position

On 17 February this year, we received a number of concerned emails drawing our attention to advertising for a piece of immersive theatre on the topic of undercover police and their infiltration of political groups. Due to run as part of Brighton Festival in May, the piece was comissioned by the Festival and is to be one of the main pieces.

The advertising blurb mentioned that the piece would be based on real life deployments, in which officers had “even had relationships” with those on whom they spied, and promised a “thrilling” experience for ticket-holders, who would be invited to be in the shoes of these police officers.

This was a shocking and appalling piece of advertising, raising a large number of concerns, which were immediately communicated to both the theatre companies involved to the Festival itself, from several different quarters.

As a support group, we arranged to meet a representative of the two theatre companies involved, and a personal letter was passed on from one of the women affected by undercover relationships.

Since then, the theatre companies have changed the promotional material, withdrawn a video, and written a blog about the piece attempting to answer the concerns. These are all welcome steps. However, it remains deeply unfortunate that the programme for the festival, which contains the original blurb, including the problematic content above, could not be withdrawn as by that time it was already in circulation.

Following the meeting, we passed on suggestions to the two theatre companies about how they might incorporate material into the piece:
– to give voice to those affected;
– to emphasise where the police have admitted wrongdoing;
– to make the companion ethics debate accessible to all (since the issues of political police infiltration affect us all);
– and to enable participants to find out more about the ongoing campaign to make the police come clean.

We also strongly advised that the theatre companies make contact with other groups affected by police political spying, particularly those affected by police racism and spying. (The piece plans to depict right-wing groups; those who fight the racism of these groups were themselves targetted by police spies, making them doubly affected. To give just one high-profile example: as the Macpherson Inquiry established, the institutional racism of the police was at the root of failures in the investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s racist murder. We now know that the Lawrence family and justice campaign was then spied on by undercover police, who attempted to smear the family and witnesses, and who hid their role from the subsequent Inquiry.)

The two companies and Brighton Festival issued an apology that the original publicity gave a “misleading representation of the piece” and corrected their website blurb which can be found here: Brighton Festival – Operation Black Antler

Since then we left the theatre companies to it, as due to time constraints neither we nor the women we support would be able to give further input. At that point, the theatre piece was still being devised, giving opportunity to make a good, responsible, sensitive, thought-provoking piece which powerfully connects participants with the realities of those affected and the wider issues of democracy and human rights.

We encourage anyone wanting to create theatre or art about these events and issues to do so, but to fully consider the ethics as part of their creative process and their publicity. Are you are attempting to genuinely open up discussion, to educate, illuminate and empower? Or will your production merely entertain, sensationalise and exploit?

We also suggest that if a drama production wishes to have first-hand contact with any of the many groups affected (as they should, wherever possible), they learn from the experiences of these theatre companies that this takes time, and indeed may not be successful. Those affected are not only attempting to rebuild their lives but are also mired in uphill battles to bring the police to account; what happened to them still generates enormous demands on their lives. It may not be possible to play an advisory role to those wishing to make depictions about traumatic events. (In this case, it was blatantly obvious that to only attempt contact after the promotional blurb has been finalised and printed was far too late, and this is acknowledged by all concerned.)

Meanwhile, we will continue to campaign, and we hope members of the public will join us. We are attempting to get to the bottom of ongoing real-life events, in which police officers become actors, abuse the public they claim to serve, and refuse to divulge who wrote their lines. This isn’t a drama, it’s real life. And we’re all immersed in it – no ticket required.

Operation Black Antler is at the Brighton Festival 7-28 May 2016, with an Ethics Debate taking place on Monday 23 May at which there will be a presence from Police Spies Out of Lives (details tbc).

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