‘Place-hacker’ prosecution ‘attack on intellectual freedom’

Oxford academic at centre of case says ‘clearly punitive investigation’ undermined ethnographic research   

May 22, 2014

A University of Oxford academic who was discharged after being prosecuted for his involvement with a group that explores “off-limits” parts of cities has labelled the case against him an “attack on intellectual freedom” which has cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Bradley Garrett accompanied the “place hackers” as they scaled London skyscrapers including The Shard and explored abandoned Tube stations as part of his PhD research.

He was one of a group of nine people who were charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage and faced a Crown Court case in which the prosecution brought in a Queen’s Counsel.

But after court proceedings began at the end of April, all but two of the defendants had the charges against them dropped.

The two remaining defendants, Dr Garrett and co-defendant Christopher Reinstadtler, 32, of Riverside Close, Farnborough, also had the charges of conspiracy dropped and replaced with counts of criminal damage, for which Mr Reinstadtler has now received an 18-month conditional discharge and Dr Garrett a three-year conditional discharge on 21 May.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Dr Garrett said: “Keeping in mind that many urban explorers have been given police cautions in the past for similar activities, and that seven of the nine defendants in this case either had their cases stayed or dismissed, one has to wonder how this suddenly became an issue worth investing so much in that the prosecution even paid for Queen’s Counsel to run their arguments.

“The answer is pretty clear to me – this case was never about the details of the explorations, it was about the fact that the publication of my PhD thesis, journal articles, books chapters and media work was a public relations embarrassment. In short, this case was an attack on rights to the city and intellectual freedom,” he said.

He added that the ethnographic relationships he had cultivated with the place hackers had been “destroyed” by what was a “clearly punitive investigation” by the British Transport Police.

“Ethnographic research in sociology, anthropology, criminology and geography relies on the ability of the researcher to embed themselves within a community and build relations of trust within it,” he said. “That trust was eroded by the seizure of research materials that undermined ethical guidelines for the project assuring project participants anonymity and a right to withdraw from the study.”

Danny Dorling, professor of geography at Oxford, said: “It’s perfectly clear from the outcome reached that it was a mistake to bring [the case] in the way it was.

“It would be useful to know the reasons why it was brought” and who had complained about the group’s activities, he added.

He questioned why the UK celebrated the expeditions of explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley, who had done some “pretty terrible things” on expeditions to Africa, yet prosecuted Dr Garrett for the “most minor” transgressions.

“What does it make the country look like when it behaves in the way?” he asked, and added that there were ways of dealing with such activities “that would be far less costly for the state”. 

The prosecution stemmed from explorations of Transport for London buildings, including an incident near Clapham Common Underground station in 2011, according to a spokesman for the British Transport Police.

“The railway, whether disused, or in operation, is a dangerous place for those not meant to be there and access restrictions, which should not be taken lightly, are in place to protect members of the public from harm,” the BTP spokesman said.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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