Hostile states are likely to be stirring up tensions over London protest marches, says Met chief

Sir Mark Rowley (PA Archive)
Sir Mark Rowley (PA Archive)

Hostile states are likely to be stirring up public tensions over Israel and Gaza protest marches in London as part of an attempt to undermine confidence in the police and British institutions, Sir Mark Rowley warned on Thursday.

The Met Commissioner said he would be "stunned" if countries such as Russia, Iran and China, which have all been involved in espionage activities against this country, were not trying to add to the polarisation of debate about protest policing as part of their efforts to inflict harm on this country.

Sir Mark’s warning came during an interview with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and David Baddiel on the podcast “A Muslim and A Jew Go There” in which he also called for politicians to consider introducing tighter laws to combat inflammatory content online.

The Commissioner also disclosed that he had “whole teams of people” examining footage of the marches to identify hate crime and terrorist offences as he conceded that  there “are large numbers of people in Jewish communities in London who are upset, scared, fearful, anxious” because of the marches and the “massive” rise in antisemitic offences in the capital.

Sir Mark added that the Met had been using its powers to impose conditions on protests “more than ever before” in response to concerns about the impact of pro-Palestinian marches on Jewish Londoners as well as the “economy of central London”.

But he said that in the wake of the painting of antisemitic graffiti on the holocaust memorial in Paris, which France has blamed on a Russian coordinated destablisation operation, similar efforts to increase division in society were likely to  be adding to the challenge faced by police.

"We would be foolish to think that the information wars isn’t something they are going to be doing as well,” Sir Mark said, after highlighting recent arrests involving alleged espionage activities in this country on behalf of Russia, Iran and China.

“So when we look at some of the polarisation of the debate around policing and protest and other matters.  I would be stunned if there aren’t hostile actors involved in that because anything that undermines institutions serves hostile states well.

“That undermining of an institution, whilst a lot of that is coming from within the county, I would be surprised if some of it wasn’t coming from outside, including from hostile states and individuals.”

On the need to do more to tackle inflammatory content online, Sir Mark suggested there were gaps in the law that politicians would need to consider plugging over the coming years.

“Having really tight laws is important, both for ourselves but also to be fair to social media platforms. It gives them a very clear duty to remove it,” he said.

“It’s quite difficult to say to them we’re not going to make it illegal, but we want you to clean this up. That’s a big issue for governments over the next ten, 15 years.”

Turning to the protest marches, Sir Mark repeated his previous insistence that police are unable to ban them, but said that his force was striving hard to minimise any negative impact that they might cause.

“We are left with are powers about putting conditions about routes and timings and those sorts of issues, which we have used more than ever before - to keep pro-Palestinian marches away from synagogues is one simple example,” he said.

“Changing start times and routes to try to have that effect and also thinking about the size of these marches, the effect of these marches on the economy of central London and changing their route to deal with that.”

Sir Mark said that there were also challenges in deciding when the boundary between free speech and hate crime had been crossed.

He added: “You have got this complexity of law that we are wading through at the same time as recognising that there are large numbers of people in Jewish communities in London who are upset, scared, fearful, anxious, for a whole different range of local and international reasons in London and trying to reassure and deal with that as well as possible.”