Improved security? Or a cancerous growth?

I have just returned from my third music festival this year. And what struck me at two out of those three festivals – apart from the music – was their aspect as a microcosm of British society today.

Music festivals are, you might say, a traditionally egalitarian way of celebrating music in the British countryside. Most people are camping, and whatever your background, heavy rain brings the same problem for all – mud. Sometimes it’s so bad that Land Rovers got bogged down and the tractors employed to pull them out struggle.

What mars that egalitarianism today – and what I don’t remember from the festivals I attended in the 1980s – is the antics of a small group that call themselves festival security. These people – always male – have access to all areas of any festival, and seem to have the power to make life miserable for anyone they choose.

At one festival I was working as a volunteer for a stewarding organisation – a national charity – and there was no love lost between the predominantly university-educated volunteer stewards and the group one steward termed “the Fourth Reich and their panzerwagons”.

As festival stewards, our job was to act as guides for the public and be as pleasant and helpful as possible at all times. That of the black-clad and shaven-headed security staff, by contrast, seemed to be to roam around in their Land Rovers, look menacing and generally be obnoxious to anyone they chose not to like.

By some apparent coincidence, this group seemed to know even before I arrived that I was a journalist, and therefore likely to be antipathetic to their particular brand of anti-social behaviour. Obviously this made me a public danger – and meant I had to be shadowed at all times.

My reaction to such amateurish attempts at monitoring was to make large numbers of pointless journeys from one side of the festival site to another, then observe the consequences. The result was often highly amusing, especially when the best Le Carré traditions of spying behaviour were employed, such as doubling back on myself or taking routes that vehicles couldn’t follow. A ‘shaven-head’ or similarly dubious individual could often be found attempting to have an earnest conversation with an alternative therapy practitioner straight out of the best 1970s hippie traditions.

Another volunteer steward equally trenchant in her opinions (she turned out to be a fellow journalist) had the fortune to be allocated as companion for her night shift the worst kind of sexist, who proceeded to give his views on her looks and figure the night through. Fortunately, being highly articulate, she was well able to counter the opinions offered by this particular dodo. Just the same though, not the best way to spend the small hours of the night on duty.

A less amusing consequence was to be treated to various kinds of obnoxious and anti-social behaviour, from being surrounded in your camping place by several varieties of camping neighbours-from-hell, to the joys of being regularly doused with poisonous exhaust fumes from vehicles running on some kind of denatured fuel.

In fact you can talk to anyone who does festival stewarding and hear the same opinion of these so-called ‘security’ companies. Whilst they provide useful paid employment for people at the lower end of the seniority scale, the ‘heavy mob’ are basically a bunch of yahoos who seem to be involved in every scam going. So much so that you wonder if festivals would not actually be more secure without their presence.

During my few days at the Green Man I got to talk to people from all walks of life – a privilege in itself for anyone who writes – and was often impressed by the way they brought their own professionalism to the benefit of the festival. Paramedics, fire marshals and fellow stewards from every part of the UK – often working for little more reward than the privilege of a few days camping in a wet and muddy field.

I was less impressed by that scourge of human decency called festival security. I came away with the strong impression that the security staff are about as much benefit to a music festival as the state security apparatus is to society itself.

We need to remind such people that their duty is to serve the public. Because it is the fees or taxes paid by the public that fund their existence. If the activities of security organisations serve only to terrorise those law-abiding citizens who dare to point out that they are exceeding their authority, then for me that signifies the growth of a cancer within the body politic. I’m no doctor, but my understanding is that when you have a deep-rooted cancer, you have to root it out and destroy it whatever the consequences, if the organism is to stay healthy and survive.

© Philip Hunt, 2008.