After Breitbart London reported a single police officer had asked for the names of Charlie Hebdo customers at a newsagents in Wiltshire, further revelations exposed the extent of investigations into people who bought the controversial magazine, with three police forces, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the national counter-extremism unit involved.
It now transpires the first reported police visit by an officer in Wiltshire was undertaken after the National Counter-Terrorism Policing unit received a list of all UK newsagents that had got copies of Charlie Hebdo from distributor John Menzies. Although it is presently unknown whether the distributor volunteered the list to the police or was asked to provide it by the counter-terror unit, the Daily Mail reports the list was then passed to ACPO, who then wrote to police forces who had retailers selling the magazines within their jurisdictions.
A spokesman for ACPO said “John Menzies, as the distributor for Charlie Hebdo within the UK, provided the police service, through the National Counter-Terrorism Policing HQ, with a list of outlets which were stocking the edition of Charlie Hebdo released following the Paris atrocities.
“This was done so that local officers could be aware of any potential tensions on their beat arising from the sales of the magazine, given the situation following the killings”.
The ACPO advice given to local forces was that shops should only be visited in the case of growing local tensions, but it appears some forces or individual officers went overboard in demanding details of customers even where there was no terrorism threat.
Shopkeepers in three areas of the country, Cheshire, Wiltshire, and Wales, were then reportedly contacted by officers asking for details of customers who had bought the magazine, a move for which Wiltshire police have apologised but Cheshire and Wales so far deny took place. Writing in The Guardian, the head of counter-extremism and chief constable of Greater Manchester Police Sir Peter Fahy acknowledged the newsagent inspections as “over-zealous” but insisted they had good intentions.
Chief Constable Fahy said “Forces were aware of the potential for heightened tension with the release of Charlie Hebdo”, especially considering the “increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia”, suggesting a concern some copies may have ended up in the hands of Islamophobic individuals, and that this was a matter for police concern. He continued: “it is important that we do not erode the very freedoms that we are trying to protect.
“I understand why asking for the names of those who might have bought this magazine will appear over-zealous and unnecessary. There was no national guidance to this effect and it is not to be supported unless there is clear evidence that a crime has been committed”.
The inspections have been condemned by civil rights groups. Jodie Ginsberg, the head of the Index on Censorship campaign said: “This is so ridiculous as to be almost laughable. And it would be funny if it didn’t reflect a more general worrying increase in abuse of police powers in invading privacy and stifling free speech in Britain.
“Does possessing a legally published satirical magazine make people criminal suspects now? If so, I better confess that I too have a copy of Charlie Hebdo.”