Skip to content

How Wrongness Happens

The BBC:

Photos uncovered by the National Archives show how the police spied on the suffragettes. These covert images – perhaps the UK’s first spy pictures – have gone on display to mark the centenary of the votes-for-women movement.

Ninety years ago, a Scotland Yard detective submitted an unusual equipment request.

It was passed up the chain, scrutinised, reviewed and finally rubber-stamped in Whitehall itself. Scotland Yard duly became the proud owner of a Ross Telecentric camera lens. And at a cost to the taxpayer of £7, 6s and 11d, secret police photographic surveillance (in the shape of an 11-inch long lens) was born.

Within weeks, the police were using it against what the government then regarded as the biggest threat to the British Empire: the suffragettes.

Documents uncovered at the National Archives reveal that the votes-for-women movement probably became the first “terrorist” organisation subjected to secret surveillance photography in the UK, if not the world.

The BBC photo caption, written by a subeditor:

In 1912, Scotland Yard detectives bought their first camera to covertly photograph the suffragettes.

Nope. Scotland Yard had cameras in use by 1888, as anyone who is brave enough to google “Mary Kelly” will discover. A quarter-century later they finally began to use cameras for surveillance.

But, everywhere else:

In 1912, Scotland Yard detectives bought their first camera, to covertly photograph suffragettes. – The BBC

That subeditor’s error in the photo caption wasn’t accidental. The idea that an entire new technology was first brought to bear as a means of suppressing dissent and protest? That’s our current moment affecting their assumptions about what has happened in the past. Stories corrupt across multiple tellings in predictable ways; most obviously they change in order to fit with our expectations and beliefs. Even an instance as small as this is not entirely harmless – right now there’s someone out there forming the belief that law enforcement’s eternal priority is to crush dissent on behalf of the state. (And heck, they might be right, but they ought to be forming that belief based on some actual evidence, not misinformation.)

[edit: fixed that link to google search results. took about four attempts. finicky!]