Who turned Raoul Moat into Rambo?

The police authorities and media were the ones who seemed most delusional about the fugitive gunman’s powerful image and anti-hero status.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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There is shock and outrage in the UK press that some people have left tributes at the spot in Northumbria where fugitive gunman Raoul Moat shot himself at the weekend, while a few thousand more have signed up to Facebook sites supporting Moat and even hailing him as a ‘hero’. But given the way that the police and the media helped turn a small-town thug into Britain’s number one Rambo-style anti-hero, the bigger surprise might be that many more do not see him as a celebrity cop-hater.

When it was reported on Friday evening that Moat had been trapped on a river bank, where he was surrounded by armed police officers while pointing a gun at his own head, I confess the first thing that came to mind was a scene from Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ 1970s spoof Western, where the new black sheriff keeps an armed mob at bay by holding a gun to his own head and shouting, ‘Hold it! Next man makes a move, the nigger gets it!’ To which the leader of the mob responds: ‘Listen to him, men. He’s just crazy enough to do it!’ Then when news seeped out of how police officers had apparently all rushed to the scene of Moat’s stand-off in such a panic that some crashed into one another, it reminded me more of the famously inept force from the Keystone Kops silent comedy movies.

The shootings by Moat and the week-long pursuit that culminated in his suicide were not, of course, what one would normally deem a laughing matter. But it did end up looking more like a tragi-comic farce than an effective murder hunt. When the fallen England football hero Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne reportedly turned up offering to negotiate with his old mate ‘Moaty’, before posing for pictures with some local kids then being driven away again, it seemed to put the tin lid on the debacle. This sorry tale reveals something about the wider state of mind of the police authorities and the media today.

Less than two days after being released from jail, where he had served time for assaulting a child, Moat, a Newcastle club bouncer and self-styled hardman, shot and wounded his former girlfriend, shot dead her new partner, and got away. So far it looked like a tragic case of domestic violence turned to murder, but not big national news. Within 24 hours, however, Moat had shot a uniformed policeman in west Newcastle and made phone calls in which he claimed – in words splashed across the media shortly afterwards – to have ‘declared war on Northumbria police’.

Now the machine went into action, turning this sordid local affair into the number one news story across the nation for more than a week. Moat’s rambling and pathetic attempts at self-justification were published and analysed as if they were the deep thoughts of a president or philosopher, his every word and action pored over all day and night by a small army of experts and criminologists and psychologists who speculated with certainty about how the fugitive gunman’s delusional paranoia would be feeding his ‘Rambo complex’ and feelings of ‘invincibility’.

Well, maybe so. But to one following the story through the news, those who appeared most delusional about Moat, and most prepared to believe in and build up his Rambo-like image, were the police and the media themselves.

The new media turned the manhunt into a 24-hours a day circus. With nothing to report except the police chiefs’ press conferences and a lot of pictures of the trees where Moat might or might not have been hiding, they filled the time and space with wild speculation, expert guesses and psycho-babble that built up Moat’s reputation as ‘Britain’s most dangerous man’ while the danger man himself just hid in a hole. As the Sun’s critic Ally Ross said of the coverage, this looked like ‘rolling TV news at its worst. A magnet for exhibitionists, ghouls, survivalist weirdoes, SAS fantasists, “expert criminologists” and highly skilled flannellers like Sky’s Martin Brunt, who helpfully informed us: “Something might be happening in that farmhouse. And then again, something might be happening elsewhere.”’

Yet perhaps we should not shoot the messenger. After all, the media were only taking their lead from the state machine. From the moment Moat ‘declared war’ on them, the police seemed to act as if they really were at war with a small army across the North of England rather than chasing a lone madman around the sleepy town of Rothbury. Commanders called in armed officers from no fewer than 15 different police forces, amounting to 20 per cent of the country’s entire police firepower. It was reported that the Metropolitan Police alone had sent 40 crack anti-terrorism marksmen. But even that was not considered enough force. So a dozen armoured cars had to be shipped in from Northern Ireland, while the Royal Air Force was recruited to send a Nimrod plane up to search for Moat with heat-seeking technology. (To their credit, the authorities did manage to refrain from calling in air-strikes on the woods around Rothbury.) The village looked like occupied territory.

At the same time, however, the police army did not appear to be doing all that much to catch Moat. No doubt there were practical difficulties with the hilly and wooded local terrain around Rothbury. But how were these problems supposed to be tackled by sending machine gun-toting officers to stand on village street corners, or issuing melodramatic orders for local children to be locked down in their school or for people to stay indoors and lock the windows? If this was meant to reassure the public, it seemed likely to have the opposite effect. Meanwhile Moat himself was left to fester in his makeshift shelters and storm drains, fantasising about how he would make the world pay for his problems while the police chiefs addressed him through the media like amateur counsellors holding a public therapy session. Little wonder that critical observers were left with the impression that he had ‘run rings around the police’ for a week. Even when Moat was finally spotted walking through the village with a gun, it was just hours after the police chiefs had assured locals that he was not going to be, err, walking down their street with a gun.

As even the Met’s former anti-terrorism commander Andy Hayman was moved to ask, ‘In what appears to be desperation, police flooded the area with armed officers, but for what? Moat was a dangerous man on the run, not a terrorist cell planning an atrocity.’ The authorities and the media might now be expressing their outrage at the signs of Facebook-style sympathy for Moat as an ‘anti-hero’, but it should hardly be surprising when they did so much to build up his image as an almost superpowered one-man army standing alone against the massed forces of state authority.

This strange combination of massive force and apparent impotence looks like a symptom of the contemporary culture of risk-averse, precautionary policing. Once Moat had issued his declaration of war against the police, they went into safety-first mode. The police authorities seemed to treat the operation as the military authorities have done with real wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, where they sent in big armies of occupation – there being safety in numbers – but then confined them largely to barracks.

As one criminologist opined on the TV news, the fact that Moat had publicly declared war on Northumbria police would ‘complicate their risk assessments’. Not half. Ours after all is an age when it often seems that police are required to complete a detailed risk assessment before they can wipe their noses, and when the UK Health and Safety Executive last year issued a report complaining about ‘unrealistic expectations’ that the police should be prepared to put themselves at risk to protect the public. After such an overblown, prolonged and ineffective operation, some members of the public might feel entitled to ask whether the priority of the police authorities was to protect themselves.

Whatever the details maybe about the events during Moat’s final hours, it was not, as his family have claimed, a ‘public execution’. More like a public exhibition of precautionary policing in (in)action. It brought to mind the infamous Hackney hostage siege of a few years ago, when armed police surrounded a flat for days but did nothing, until eventually the hostage escaped of his own accord and the gunman killed himself.

There is controversy now over what part if any the use of tasers by police officers played in Moat shooting himself. Tasers are certainly dangerous weapons of repression. Yet they can also be seen as symbols of the new risk-averse public order policing. They are tools to try to keep a suspect at arms length and quiet, rather than engaging with them. As such tasers are weapons of the modern policing mentality, and ones of which statistics suggest Northumbria police are particularly fond.

But technology is far from the only dangerous aspect of contemporary policing raised in the Moat case. There is also the unstable combination of militarised force with politically correct policing and psycho-coppering. Thus while the machine gun teams patrolled the streets, senior officers acting on expert advice made clumsy emotional and pseudo-therapeutic appeals to Moat not to leave his kids with bad memories of their dad, assuring him that ‘you have a future’.

Then we learned that late in the week, police had demanded the media ‘stop reporting aspects of Moat’s private life that he may find offensive’ because he had threatened to retaliate by killing somebody. So our PC police force expects the principle of a free press to be sacrificed in order to avoid offending a delusional nutter with a gun. That’s what we’re fighting for! What was surely even worse than the media’s detailed trawling through the entrails of Moat’s seedy story was that they then gave into the police request and kept schtum until it was over.

Some of us have no sympathy for the likes of Raoul Moat, yet remain staunch critics of the police state. And we worry that we might now be heading for the worst of all worlds, where an effectively national police force combines paramilitary power with precautionary impotence, touchy-feely psycho-babble with the panicky policing of fear, and armed overkill with moral flabbiness and an inability to make clear decisions. A few Facebook tributes to a ‘celebrity’ murderer are not the worst of our problems.

As the Moat stand-off reached its end on that Rothbury riverbank late on Friday night, a guest at a wedding reception at a nearby hotel described the ‘surreal’ situation of having armed police issuing orders to stay indoors on one side, while on the other a DJ was playing musical games to get them in a party mood. That was far from the only surreal moment in the strange tale of Raoul Moat’s week at number one.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume looked at the state of the police today. Tim Black felt the 2008 inquiry into the shooting of Charles de Menezes showed the triumph of the Police Academy state. Brendan O’Neill interviewed witnesses from the 2004 ‘Barbecue killings’ about the police’s actions. Jennie Bristow criticised the police’s actions during a siege in Hackney in 2003. Or read more at spiked issue Crime and the law.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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