One of the great movie characters of all time is Sean Connery’s Oscar-winning performance as Jimmy Malone, the streetwise Chicago beat cop in The Untouchables, and whenever I’m in a David vs Goliath situation (as I often am), I reflect on how Malone and his ragtag band of ‘untouchables’ prevailed over the seemingly impregnable Chicago gangster Al Capone and his vast underworld machine.
I had the opportunity to do so recently when a letter arrived through our door announcing that Orange, the mobile-phone service provider, intended to put up a mobile-phone mast across the street from my house in south London.
Eventually, it dawned on us that Orange’s plans did not end with our road. Notices of masts began to appear – one day here, another day there. Orange had sent in plans for eight sites – five within a quarter-mile of each other. The residents of my village were all expending their energy fighting off the site nearest their homes without realising that other potential sites were being targeted just around the corner. Thus had Orange planned to divide and conquer.
We had less than three weeks to mount a reasonable objection to our local council about all eight sites before the applications were to be voted on. For those three weeks, a tiny group of us, mostly housewives, transformed into an effective war machine. We contacted residence associations and the local newspaper. We printed sample letters and fact sheets to educate our neighbours on the types of grounds for objection considered acceptable. With the help of our local, and sympathetic, MP, we submitted our petitions to Parliament. We constructed wooden boxes, painted orange, and positioned them exactly where the mast base stations would sit. Every morning, our housewife brigade stood outside schools, doctors’ surgeries and churches, petitions and fact sheets in hand.
We then took the fight to Orange. As Malone tells Eliot Ness in the film, the only way to win against an enemy like Capone is to go on the offensive. ‘He pulls out a knife, you pull out a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.’
At a meeting with Orange representatives, we said that if they removed their planning applications, we’d help them find a site. If they didn’t, we’d start a national boycott campaign (‘Put Orange in the red’; ‘Squeeze Orange on Wednesdays’). We sent them away with copies of posters we’d designed and printed, and displayed in local shops: orange-coloured, redolent of Orange’s own ads, with a child’s drawing of rather ill-looking children beneath a mast and the catchphrase: ‘The future’s bright . . . the future’s radiated’.
Within a few days, Orange withdrew its applications and notified us that it would hold off while it considered the alternative sites we had offered.
The lesson here is not to wait until mobile-phone service providers land on your doorstep, as they eventually will, given the third-generation phones now in the offing. The objective is to make the preemptive strike. Get together with your council and plan those sites where mobile-phone masts will be allowed, and clearly specify those areas that are out of bounds. Insist that the various providers share sites. If nobody’s listening and a mast is erected in your neighbourhood, hit them where it hurts the most – in their wallets.
If the government won’t protect its citizens against the thuggery of corporate greed, your only recourse is to fight back, Chicago style. To paraphrase The Untouchables, ‘Don’t bring a slingshot to a gunfight.’