Lesley Riddoch: Sousveillance means we watch the watchers

FORTY seconds of jumpy film have challenged Britain's senior police in a way courts, inquiries, MPs and grieving families have often failed to do.

Citizen journalism is in the news and the Met is in the dock because of a phone video showing the last moments of Ian Tomlinson, the London news vendor who died during the G20 riots. The footage was recorded by an unlikely people's hero – a US fund manager on a business trip from New York – and unlikely bedfellows have been created as a result.

New and old media; citizens and journalists; amateurs and professionals; witnesses and analysts; Americans and Brits; protesters and onlookers – groups previously in some tension have pored over that film and forced accountability from authorities preparing to sweep the incident under the carpet.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission was wrong-footed. It was slow to realise a City police investigation would not suffice and was slow to start work. Two days after the video was shown, the IPCC had not contacted the officer involved.

The Met was caught napping. At first it claimed Mr Tomlinson had no contact with police, then suggested demonstrators had delayed the arrival of medical help and only finally suspended the officer filmed after the video was made public.

Will that officer be prosecuted? Thirty years ago this month, Blair Peach died after an Anti-Nazi League protest against a National Front meeting in London. No officer was ever convicted after evidence of a police assault on the 33-year-old New Zealand-born special-needs teacher.

But no-one had such compelling video evidence in 1979.

Blair Peach appears to have been hit, and then – groggy and suffering brain injuries – made to move on. A local family took him in and called an ambulance but he was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital.

His inquest was one of the longest in legal history, with 84 witnesses called including a pathologist who suggested the damage inflicted on Peach's skull could not have been done by a truncheon, but rather a lead-filled cosh. A newspaper investigation revealed Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group members had baseball bats, crowbars and sledgehammers in their lockers. Music systems, first aid equipment and printing tools in the protesters' HQ were trashed, the building had to be destroyed and a witness said: "I have never seen such unrestrained violence against demonstrators … the Special Patrol Group were running wild."

But no police officer was charged with any crime following Blair Peach's death. That was 30 years ago – what of it?

Over those intervening decades countless police officers have been maimed, attacked and killed trying to protect the public. Traffic cops have dealt with the immediate aftermath of road accidents. Beat cops have had to witness the results of savagery. Drug use has transformed public behaviour, the booze and blades culture has heightened risk and marital breakdown amongst police officers is rife.

Against such a difficult background, the police need highly public breaches of faith like holes in the head. Just as the actions of some MPs have made all appear to be on the make, just the actions of Fred the Shred mean all bank executives must keep their heads down, so the actions of one police officer make the job more dangerous for every community cop.

It may not be fair – but the publicised failure of the one results inevitably in the tarnished reputation of the many, unless managed immediately.

Surveillance now works both ways. With recording equipment embedded in almost every mobile phone, and phones in every pocket, the public can easily turn the tables on the authorities. It's the inescapable outcome of our media-dominated, virtually-connected world and already there's a new word to describe it. Sousveillance means watchfulness from below, as distinct from "surveillance" – watchfulness from above.

Indeed, citizen journalism is the wrong word for the Ian Tomlinson video phenomenon. Journalists make it their business to find out what's really happened after the event. Citizens are simply witnessing and recording what's happening around them. Journalist-mediated citizen-video will become a powerful tool and its impact on bureaucratic, slow, doddery and evasive aspects of public life will grow.

The speed of public life has accelerated and organisations like the Met and the IPCC still haven't woken up to that fact. Why didn't the Met simply make a conditional apology immediately? Why couldn't they say, if this evidence of undue force by a police officer is substantiated, we unreservedly apologise?

Every arm of the state seems to think it can outrun adverse public sentiment using insurance, the threat of litigation and security considerations as smokescreens for inaction. If that continues there will be a high price to pay. The Tomlinson affair has prompted a minor avalanche of worldwide critical media and there's no point in senior police (if the Met has any left these days) suggesting a snap-happy, hostile, protest-going public is to blame.

The film's author – like Mr Tomlinson himself – wasn't even part of the G20 demonstration. He simply filmed what he saw. The Guardian published what they received and the public viewed it. The clock cannot be turned back in any way.

The digital revolution is now shining a constant community-edited light on professionals who regarded themselves as private, self regulating and effectively beyond the reach of normal justice.

E-exposure will encourage leadership or destroy morale in slow-footed public bodies. And now that "covert physical detention" has come to Scotland – allowing armed plain-clothed officers to track and even open fire on suspects – this is a matter for Scottish forces too.

Blair Peach's family waited six years to glimpse an account of his death. Will Ian Tomlinson's family do better? The sea change could start here.

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