“If you suspect it, report it!”

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Introduced in 2006, the counter-terrorism poster campaign of the Metropolitan Police provides an interesting example of how Nick Vaughn-Williams’ concept of the ‘citizen detective’ has manifested itself.

We seem to be constantly being prepared for the inevitable terrorist attack. The question of ‘what if?’ has been replaced by ‘when?’ If societies have now been placed in a near constant state of emergency or readiness, and the focus on crowded and public spaces is increasingly the focus for new security techniques, there is now a greater need to think those security imaginations critically.

Security concerns appear to be becoming normalised and entering the everyday. Yet citizens are required not only to be fearful, but to be responsible. The citizen has come to be situated at the centre of security concerns reflective of a broader shift from sovereignty to governance. What has also been witnessed is possibly a move or perhaps a confusion from geopolitics to biopolitics, as publics are to be seen as a surveillance tool, encompassing Amoore’s ideas on vigillant visualities.

In 2006 the Metropolitan Police launched it’s counter-terrorism poster campaign, also making use of radio advertising, magazines, window stickers and so forth. The campaign has been relaunched every year since to reinforce awareness, featuring various take-home messages from ‘you are that someone’ to ‘if you suspect it report it’.

To convey their messages, the posters use a number of linguistic and visual devices. Firstly, the posters make use of a red colour scheme, arguably to reflect the imminent sense of danger in the face of ‘new terrorism’, whilst providing a contrast to the typical blue and white colour scheme of the Metropolitan Police; interesting considering the legal understanding of terrorism in the UK as a crime. The posters also significantly incorporate representations of banal geopolitics, featuring everyday items and everyday activities in order to domesticate the terrorist threat, therefore reinforcing its proximity, and reflecting the extension of terrorist legislation to include property, materials, and actions of planning, preparation and encouragement. This however is somewhat problematic, in that the posters give audiences little indication as to how one should distinguish between everyday activities and those that might be ‘suspicious’. Finally, the posters make significant use of linguistic devices such as rhetorical questions, emotive language and colloquial phrases perhaps placing a sense of doubt into people’s minds.

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Unsurprisingly, the poster-campaigns have been highly controversial. The campaigns do nothing to challenge stereotypes nor do they rewrite narratives. The posters potentially create a climate of suspicion, as reflected in the constant controversies over the misuse of ‘stop and search’ . Furthermore, the campaign can be seen to create a normalisation of security, perhaps rendering the posters potentially ineffectiveAnd so we must ask whether these posters actually cause social division and exclusion? Do they foster a politics of distrust? 

The fact that a radio advert was banned in 2008 and internet forums are creating their own posters mocking the campaign reflects the level of public criticism. Perhaps the fact that the Metropolitan Police has reverted back to its original 2006 poster design (as shown above), using a simple phrase as opposed to incorporating the complexities and ambiguities of a banal geopolitics, has something important to reveal.

April McCoig

April graduated from Royal Holloway in July 2012 with a BA in Geography and is now studying towards an MSc in Geopolitics and Security also at Royal Holloway. April has a specific interest in Terrorism and Counter-terrorism, as well as US foreign policy more widely.

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