MONDAY'S 'PANORAMA' ON BROOK HOUSE RAISED QUESTIONS ABOUT G4S, THE HOME OFFICE, THE INSPECTORATE.....AND 'PANORAMA'.
Last Monday's Panorama programme, 'Undercover: Britain's immigration secrets', is viewable here:
What we saw and heard
Outside Brook House (BH): secret filmer (Callum) explaining how he started work at BH, was appalled by what he witnessed, and started secret filming for Panorama; he came across as a decent man and a straightforward witness. We also saw interviews with ex detainees, an ex staff member and experts.
Inside BH: Much of the footage was poor quality and incoherent, with poor lighting, picture quality and sound, and smudging out of some faces on top of that; often, you could not say what you were witnessing. My notes say: 'someone shouting, probably detainee', 'someone says they were attacked, by whom??'; 'unclear if one sequence or many??'. Not so much true documentary as a sort of 'mood music' for the real story. Callum, voice-over, narrates, and reads HO and G4S statements.
At the heart of it was footage showing clearly abusive behaviour, language and attitudes of some G4S staff. It was appalling: racist, abusive language; boasting of, or planning, unprovoked violence; callous and aggressive language and behaviour towards detainees in distress/mentally ill. We saw one or two instances of what appeared to be clearly excessive use of force – actual sadism in fact (though we could not actually see what was being done, and relied on the voice-over to tell us). It was particularly chilling that a restraint trainer seemed to be urging abuse. We heard staff say they did not know how to do their jobs; and staff conspiring to falsify records, including those on food refusal.
G4S: a few rotten apples, or the whole barrel?
This was all outrageous. But what is difficult to judge is how representative this is of all staff, all the time. 'Authorised' documentaries focus on the acceptable: here, the reverse. We never saw staff being professional or even (other than Callum himself) caring. The viewer is in no position to judge the general state of the institution. This is relevant, not because it would lessen the seriousness of the abuse – what we saw was horrific – but because it leaves unsure about the true and nature scale of the problem.
It is not uncommon in prisons – and in reality, this is a sort of prison – for groups of staff to develop, and mutually reinforce, abusive attitudes, language and behaviour. That is precisely what we saw happening here. What you hope for is middle management that are alert enough, and motivated enough, to challenge such talk and behaviour early on, before it gets hold, and if necessary move or sanction or sack perpetrators. When Panorama filmed secretly at Medway Secure Training Centre (also run by G4S) last year, the impression was that the abuse centred on a particular team, and that one middle manager in particular was encouraging it. In this programme, there was again some indication that one or maybe two middle managers were at the heart of the abuse. One was actually leading the abuse by example and exhortation.
[Contrast here with Panorama's covert filming at Northumberland Prison, operated by Sodexo, earlier this year, we saw appalling things going on, but little or nothing of this sort of poisonous attitude and language, nor (if I recall it right) any physical abuse of prisoners by staff: prisoners were doing it to themselves, and to staff. In that case, what seemed to be going on was a collapse of control by staff and a withdrawal from contact with prisoners, brought about by low staffing and the wide availability of the new drugs. A different sort of problem.]
It is beginning to look from these two programmes as though G4S does not have a strong enough, or rightly motivated and orientated, middle management culture, and that as a result, abusive cultures are taking root in their institutions. If that is so, they are not a fit company to run custodial institutions. (But then could the same not be said of the public sector prison service, given what we know about the scale of violence, self harm and drug use throughout the prison system? It is not just G4S that is running unsafe,chaotic institutions, and demands for their contracts to be terminated miss this point.)
And yet....we heard the ex staff member say that 'the vast majority of staff' were trying to do a decent job in very challenging circumstances (though he had left in 2014); he says that there was a 'group' of staff with toxic attitudes. It is odd, I think, that Callum said nothing about the behaviour of staff as a whole, either good or bad, but seemed content just to film the worst (he does talk about staff becoming desensitised). So maybe what we saw was three or four bad men among 100 decent staff?
It's a real handicap that the format does not allow (or require) management to respond. One wanted to hear the Director's response to the question, how did you not know what was going on? How do you know that what was shown was an exception?
In short, secret filming might seem to show the raw truth, but actually leaves big questions still wide open. I discuss the use of secret filming further below.
The Home Office : incompetent customer, and incompetent manager of the system?
Had the Home Office registered what a poor service they are buying? And if not, why not?
Glasnost has yet to reach the Home Office. The MoJ publishes a surprising amount of information about the quality of prison life, including assaults, self harm, suicide, together with its own annual ratings of each prisons' all-round performance. Nothing like that exists for IRCs. So we don't know what the Home Office thought, or knew.
We do know that the Home Office is a weaker and less informed customer for immigration detention services than the MoJ is for privately run prisons. The Home Office doesn't run such facilities itself, thus does not have staff with direct operational experience, who know what to look for in an IRC and what questions to ask. Likewise, while MoJ has staff permanently based in privately run prisons who have wide powers to observe and monitor what is going on and ask anyone questions; sometimes this gets up the nose of the prison's management, but it is a vital check. Home Office staff in IRCs are more administratively than operationally focused. Also, there is a strong ethical tradition about maintaining decent and positive staff attitudes and behaviour in prisons, however often it has failed badly in practice: much less, if at all, in immigration detention., where the focus isn't on detention itself or how it affects detainees, but on removal.
What the programme did show very clearly, was gross failings in the system as a whole, that are obviously down to the Home Office, not G4S: the mixing of hardened criminals with people without any criminal background, and of teenagers and adults (in one case, a boy who claimed to be 14 – he was fairly quickly removed, so someone must have believed him); and the utter failure to use the IRCs for their declared purpose, to deport detainees – some detainees had been there years, uncertain of their future, and were understandably in a desperate state.
What the programme didn't do was ask why this was the case. Explanations I have heard include a legal system that creates many ways for lawyers to block removal; action by detainees themselves (one shown here seemed to have stopped the aircraft he was on taking off by claiming a heart attack; and I have heard of detainees destroying their passports); uncooperative airlines, and foreign governments. It was a major failure of the programme not to even register such issues, since the prolonged stays were so clearly creating a toxic environment. It exposed a problem, but did not explain it.
The Prison Inspectorate: non-barking watchdog?
The same question applies to the Inspectorate of Prisons, who inspected Brook House in November last year. Their report was critical of the physical design and condition of the place but overall, pretty positive:
“....an encouraging inspection. The centre had improved upon the standards we found at the last inspection, and on this occasion was assessed as ‘reasonably good’ in all four of our healthy establishment tests. This also marks excellent progress from the standards we were seeing at Brook House when it first opened. There is no doubt in my mind that the standards now being observed at the centre are the result of a great deal of hard work by the management and staff. They should be congratulated on their efforts...”
“Records justifying force were completed to a high standard, and all incidents were reviewed by a manager”.
Was this the same place we saw in Monday's programme (the filming for which was occurring about that time, or maybe slightly later)?
There are possible explanations of the divergence. The first is the possibility, as I noted above, that the abuse we saw was not widespread, not typical. There is some independent evidence. Inspections are accompanied by an anonymised survey of staff and detainees asking them in confidence about aspects of their experience of the place. That data showed that one third of detainees said they felt unsafe, and almost one fifth reported victimisation by staff. Those rates seem high: but they are not by comparison with, for example. recent inspection of Aylesbury Young Offender Institution, where 48% reported victimisation by staff. By this measure, Brook House was not particularly unsafe. Of course, YOIs and IRCs are different, and what constitutes 'victimisation' may be different, too.
The second explanation is that for all the sophistication and knowledge about how to really get to the heart of a place that the Inspectorate has built up over decades, it can still get it very wrong. That would be worrying indeed: we rely absolutely on the Inspectorate as backstop against abuse. It is surely relevant that we saw staff falsifying data on which the Inspectorate, and Home Office, relies. That is hard to spot. And I am reminded of a previous case of 'toxic' teams within prisons - the organised beating of prisoners in Scrubs Seg Unit in the 1990s – which the Inspectorate also failed to pick up (it was really only brought to a head through a local solicitor taking up cases - see my book; that was, however, before the Inspectorate really got its act together).
Again, no easy answers. But the Chief Inspector ought to be reflecting carefully on the divergence between inspection report and first hand witness.
Panorama's use of secret filming: a questionable practice
Panorama is addicted to secret filming. The programme editor, Joe Plomin, has written a book on it, and seems to think that is the future for journalism.
I am dubious. On the one hand, when it uncovers such serious abuse, secret filming absolutely justifies itself: because otherwise, in all probability, the abuse would have continued and the abusers gone unpunished. On the other hand, secret filming is intrusive, and intrinsically dishonest - for colleagues and prisoners, as well as employers: you are not who you seem to be, you are filming their every move and word for possible broadcast, what does that feel like when you find out? One wonders how the BBC itself would like it (but then, dog never eats dog, does it?)
It is dubious journalism, because the editor does not decide what should be filmed but merely edits what is handed over – he has no idea how representative the footage is (or how representative the detainees are whom the filmer chooses to befriend, and who are interviewed after release) and is dependent on the filmer to explain what the images represent. It is dubious when it is unclear what a lot of the footage is actually showing you. It is dubious because it is inherently sensationalist: a secret film must expose outrageous things, it cannot show normality or people doing a decent job – no story there. Therefore, that is what is filmed and what is shown. Such programmes therefroe inherently tend to lack balance. It is dubious because the management are never given time to properly review what is shown and give a proper informed response based on their own inquiries: hence the wooden responses by both G4S and Home Office given in this programme. It is lazy journalism when the wider issues behind what we see – why people spend so long in detention for example – are not looked at at all.
I also note that Callum explained that he didn't take his story to anyone because he didn't think we would be believed. The comments about the ex staff member who had done just that before quitting suggested he was quite right – as far as G4S were concerned. But one thing troubles me. The Inspection, by my reckoning, took place about the time the filming was going on, or at any rate, being planned. Callum could easily have asked to speak to the Inspector, an independent outsider, in total confidence. He did not do so. Was that because he was already under contract, or because Panorama could not afford to have its story blown prematurely?
Sensationalism is the name of the game: the story was aired on (I think**) BBC TV news on Friday, ahead of Monday screening, so on Saturday papers and MPs were already demanding this and that be done to G4S – but none of them had yet seen the programme! The way BBC News is used to 'sell' forthcoming BBC programmes as if they were a news item is a corruption of news values. If it really was worthy of news coverage, there is absolutely no reason, other than ratings, why BBC News should not have covered this after broadcast. This practice lessens the integrity of BBC News, which the BBC ought to cherish above all things, even ratings.
A much better use of workplace cameras is surely the body cameras now worn by the police and increasingly prison staff – a device first introduced, let it be noted, by private sector prison operators against the wishes of the MoJ. The very opposite of secret filming, which punishes wrongdoing only after the event and very seldom: body cameras prevent abuse, because they are not secret - everyone knows about them (1).
Panorama's bias against the private sector
My other concern is the curious consistency of Panoramas' choice of targets for secret filming. Over the last 10 years, Panorama has made programmes based on secret filming at six institutions (this may not be the complete list: I asked the BBC for details but they refused my request: some things have to remain, you know, secret). These included 2 prisons, one Immigration Removal Centre., and one Secure Training Centre, together with a hospital and a care home. One characteristic is shared by all those institutions, along with horrendous abuse of course. Can you guess what it is?
Yes: they were all operated by the private sector. In fact, no less than three - Rye Hill prison, Medway STC and Brook House - were operated by the same company, G4S. It rather looks like someone in Panorama is waging a campaign against G4S. Rightly so, you may say: but it cannot be right that a public broadcaster is used to pursue an undeclared personal campaign of this kind.
Yet the private sector operate only 1 in 10 prisons - so 90% are run by the public sector. So why this single minded focus on the private sector? Is it - perhaps - because the private sector are evil and incompetent, the public sector caring and decent? Well, Panorama might have you believe that, but it is demonstrably untrue. My book, 'Competition for prisons: public or private?', is dedicated to marshalling all the available evidence that tells us, unambiguously, that over the quarter century that there have been privately run prisons, there has never been a clear, consistent difference in the quality of service of publicly and privately run institutions. In fact, the two sectors have developed over time in close tandem: both had some very dangerous prisons in the 1990s, both improves significantly in the 2010s, both have spiralled downwards in this decade.
Only last month, the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported that not one Young Offender Institution in the country is safe, that conditions are appalling, with record levels of violence and self harm and warned that further tragedy inevitable. So the crisis does not distinguish between public and privately run institutions.
So why does Panorama focus exclusively on wrong doing in privately run institutions? Well, as Robin Aitken (himself a former BBC reporter) showed in his recent book, 'Can we trust the BBC?'(2) there is a clear institutional, one might better say cultural bias in much BBC journalism, and one element of that is an instinctive dislike or distrust the private sector, and a preference for the public sector. That is one possible explanation. There are others: a cynical calculation that an expose of a privately run institution will always play better with BBC viewers; or a personal agenda.
At any rate, I was sufficiently uneasy about Panorama's record that when I was asked to contribute to the programme on Northumberland, I declined to do so (and I know another who declined), because I felt they were singling out the private sector, and that this was a distortion of the argument and the evidence. The decision to film secretly yet another privately run institution in this programme makes me glad that I steered clear of involvement. I don't care what becomes of G4S: I do care that impartiality and objectivity of the BBC should not be subordinated to a particular agenda (3).
** The News broadcast is no longer available, so I cannot check, but my recollection is that the item was on the 6pm BBCTV News.
(2) 'Can we trust the BBC?' Robin Aitken. Bloomsbury Continuum (2013).
(3) The BBC of course can do impartial. Proof is the recent Radio 4 programme in the series 'In Business', on this very issue of private prisons, to which I contributed:
But then, as someone said, speech radio is TV for grown ups.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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