The Dark Knights of Sheffield
Is the YouTube auditing trend a new type of police watchdog?
By Harry Shukman
My first glimpse of the auditing trend was a fight in Meadowhall car park. It was a YouTube video showing a group of influencers brawling with security staff on a drizzly winter day. I saw one YouTuber get tackled to the ground by three guards, another one pushed into some metal pedestrian barriers, and a lot of angry squaring up between both sides. It looked like one of those cartoon fight clouds: an amorphous mess of fists, feet and expletives that ends as suddenly as it begins. A typical exchange between a YouTuber and a guard: “Get your fucking hands off of me, you big goon! Continue touching me and I'll spark you.”
Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Juvenal asked Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? which translates to Who will watch the watchmen? All this time later, the auditing community on YouTube has found an answer.
“Auditing” sounds like an official, 9-5 role, but it’s actually a type of influencer who looks for police officers, security guards and shop workers to record on camera. It’s not illegal to film in public, nor do you need someone’s consent, and auditors like to test people to see if they know this. Sometimes officers and security staff might ask for the cameras to be switched off, at which point the auditors will retort with the relevant laws, recited down to the very subsection, that allows them to film. And sometimes, like at Meadowhall, it gets violent.
Auditing is a US import born out of two concerns: police brutality and freedom of expression. American auditors believe that filming cops not only keeps a check on potentially violent officers but also upholds the First Amendment, the law protecting free speech. Of all the millennial jobs that grandparents must have a hard time understanding, auditing is surely one of the least comprehensible.
And so auditing has arrived to our sceptered isle and taken root, out of all places, in Sheffield. We seem to have become something of a hub for auditing, perhaps because a number of popular auditors live nearby and frequently meet up in the city to go filming. They’ll show up at Meadowhall, the Forgemasters steelworks, police stations, courts, university buildings and local businesses with their cameras rolling.
Part of my fascination with auditors is taxonomical. I’ve interviewed several of them and watched hours of their videos and I still don’t really know what they are. Auditors call themselves citizen journalists and human rights campaigners but not everyone would agree. Their occasional bursts of aggression have led to accusations of bullying. On the other hand, some of their clips have exposed hair-trigger constables and jobsworth security guards. Are auditors like Batman, whose unusual means justify the ends? The Dark Knights of Sheffield? Or are they just a cretinous band of oddballs hassling overstretched public servants and underpaid security guards?
Marti Blagborough, a 30-year-old Yorkshire YouTuber who spends a lot of time in Sheffield, says he gets an “unbelievable buzz” from auditing. The first time he went out several years ago, inspired by two Manchester influencers, he says he filmed police officers. He still remembers the thrill of explaining he was within his rights to record them. “I was amazed, it blew my head off,” he says on the phone. “I was in a position where I was providing some type of education to the police. How could they not know these basic civil liberties?”
Then came the second buzz: success. Blagborough posted a few videos on YouTube, and noticed that his subscriber count was shooting up to the 6,000 mark. He started making money from adverts on his channel, and the revenue exceeded his salary as a plumber. So despite his wife’s scepticism, he quit his job and is now devoted full time to auditing. Blagborough has a media company called PINAC (Photography Is Not A Crime) with more than 43,000 subscribers, and he advises new auditors on setting up their own operations. In a good month, he’ll earn £6,000.
“I absolutely love it,” he says. “I can get up at 12pm, go out for two hours, edit, and be back by 4pm and still earn more than by doing a 9-to-5.” In his downtime, Blagborough studies the law to better understand the limits of auditing. He says he took a yearlong introductory law course at the Open University to hone his craft.
For half of his videos, Blagborough selects his targets by googling public places with some level of security. The other half, he will go to a spot where a fellow auditor has had a run-in with the security guards so he can test them again. “We go there and teach them they’re wrong by whatever means necessary,” he says.
One of these examples was a visit to Forgemasters last summer. Blagborough went there after a blogger friend called PJ Audits got into an argument with a security guard there called Lee Hooley. During his own trip, Blagborough walked past a sign that said “NO PEDESTRIANS” and “PRIVATE PROPERTY” with his camera on. He had only been there a minute when Hooley arrived, who Blagborough greeted with the words: “Mr Knob’ead! Exactly who I’ve come here to see! You like giving people orders, well I ain’t gonna fucking listen to ya.”
After asking Blagborough to leave, Hooley frogmarched him out. Blagborough stayed in the area, and jeered at Hooley for following him like a “bitch”. Not all of Blagborough’s viewers praised him for this video. While some of his audience enjoy watching scenes of confrontation (“doing what you do best, pushing the boundaries and making a stand”, a fan gushed), others called him “completely obnoxious and quite childish” and “embarrassing”. One subscriber wrote: “This is the first time I've found myself rooting for security, not the auditor. I don't really get the point, this was not an audit, this was an excuse to rant and rave and bait someone.”
Blagborough, for his part, says he’s trying to move away from unnecessarily confrontational videos, which some of his followers get a kick out of. “People will skip through until they see a copper or a security guard,” he says. “They want to see the juice.” He has now developed a philosophy that sounds like a turbocharged twist on the Gospel of Matthew. “Treat people how they treat you, but with ten percent more,” he says. “If you’ll be nasty to me, I’ll be ten percent more nasty to you.”
According to Blagborough, his days of aggression are behind him. “I’ve been there and done that,” he explains, adding that too many YouTubers are becoming auditors with an attitude of “let’s go give the police some shit”. This isn’t helpful, he says, insisting that he’s in the audit game for a proper cause. “The point of auditing is to stand up to the police abusing our rights,” Blagborough explains. “If you’re going to be a total twat, you’re not going to reinforce the view that people with cameras aren’t doing any harm.”
He says that despite his combative videos, he is not anti-police. “It’s not about the police force but the individual officers who are corrupt or not doing things they should do,” he says. “It’s not about hate for the police. If we had no police, we would be screwed.”
Perhaps not every auditor shares his point of view. While looking at different auditors, I came across the profile of Scouse Auditz, a Merseyside man who travels the country in search of police officers to film. One of his tactics involves walking up close to cops, and accusing them of assault — “that’s unwanted contact!” — when they put a hand out and ask him to step back. Not all of Scouse’s followers approve. Some viewers have called Scouse an “an absolute helmet” for doing this, and others have taken to mocking his thick Merseyside brogue, saying he has “an accent that only a mother could love”.
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In one recent video, Scouse approached a police car and accused the officer inside of “eyeballing” him as he drove past. He then threatened to stalk the officer and release his home address.
Here’s an extract:
“I’m gonna teach this little maggot a lesson… Who do you think you are? I’m a taxpayer, you’re here to serve me mate. You’re a public servant. Address your attitude lad, I’m not your average member of the public… I’ll follow youse home, and then I’ll put your address online.”
The officer, based in Stoke-on-Trent, sat calmly in his car during Scouse’s spit-filled tirade. As uncomfortable as audits might be, they are fair game (less so the stalking). According to guidance from the National Police Chief's Council, published last December, officers have no powers prohibiting auditors from filming in public places. “Members of the public should not be prevented from doing so,” it says, even though auditors admittedly want to “provoke staff and site security into potentially embarrassing reactions”.
So what do the police make of the auditing trend? Officers are rarely allowed to give candid interviews about their jobs, so I spoke to retired officer Ben Pearson, a 19-year veteran of West Yorkshire Police. He retired in 2020, having witnessed the rise of auditing. Pearson is emphatic. “I don’t like auditors,” he says. “It’s not the right thing to do, it’s not kind or polite.” He describes policing as a “thankless job” that is only made harder by getting “a member of the public sticking a camera right in your face and swearing and shouting to try and get a reaction out of you”.
Amazingly, Pearson says during his career he preferred speaking to convicted gangsters than auditors. “People who had done stints for cashpoint robberies and stuff like that, they’d always say hello and be polite,” he says, recalling interactions with members of the Sheffield underworld. “They wouldn’t shout at me and stick a camera in my face and say ‘pig!’ And these people were criminals!”
Pearson isn’t opposed to YouTubers — he has a channel of his own — but he does question why auditors can’t explain themselves a bit more. Police are naturally suspicious, he says, especially when they see strange men walking around peering into their buildings and cars. He believes that auditors would get along much better with police if they introduced themselves instead of dismissing questions, which can happen.
“When someone says, ‘I don’t have to tell you!’, instantly your suspicions are going up,” Pearson explains, imagining a scenario in which an officer is dealing with a tricky auditor. “If you’d just turned round and said, ‘My name’s Barry, I’ve got a YouTube channel called Barry Films Police Stations,’ I’d be like, ‘Come round here and get a better view, I’ll put the lights on the car for you.’ There’s no reason not to be respectful to people.”
By the end of our call, Pearson concludes that while it is a good thing for officers to know about the right to film in public, auditors are “not worth the hassle”, adding: “All they do is wind police up and give the public something to watch and that’s why they’re wankers.”
For many of the auditing community on YouTube, it’s not about provoking the police — it’s about holding them to account. Banaman, a Sheffield-based blogger, sees himself as a law enforcement watchdog, a one-man Independent Office for Police Conduct. When I speak to him is reluctant to divulge personal information, except for his age, which he says is “over half a century old”. Banaman tells me he just wants to make sure the police are doing their job. “I don’t like professional people acting unprofessionally,” he says. “I do believe there are many good police officers out there but they are made to look bad by bad officers making bad decisions…I want to highlight good policing.”
One of Banaman’s videos saw him don an imitation police uniform to see how they would react. Pretty well, as it happened. “You’ve got better gear than me, mate,” said an officer outside Ecclesfield Police Station. Banaman says he has a “responsibility” to help people understand the law, and that everybody should be scrutinised, “even auditors”. He perceives himself as a public servant, responding to my question about how he would describe his role with the words: “Is it a job? Is it a hobby? Is it a necessity?”
The YouTuber Ryan Rampage, a 25-year-old from Lincolnshire who spends a lot of time auditing in Sheffield, sees himself in the same way. “With the police it’s all about holding them to account,” he says. “We highlight the bad officers.” When we talk, I’m reminded of Batman in the Christopher Nolan movies, the Dark Knight often doing the wrong things for the right reasons. “I wouldn’t say we’re that good,” Ryan laughs. “We’re nobody special.” Like Marti Blagborough, Ryan says an aggressive stance in auditing isn’t necessarily the best tactic, however he says he is happy to “put the police on their toes a bit”.
Although ferreting out violent police officers seems to be more common in the US (which might also say something about the state of American policing), Yorkshire auditors have shared videos of thoroughly uncomfortable encounters. One example is from a YouTuber named Michael, who runs a channel with 37,000 subscribers called News Now Yorkshire. In March, he filmed an exchange with a police constable in Ossett, a town between Sheffield and Leeds. Michael was flying a drone over a police station — it depends on the circumstances, but in this case was not a crime — and the officer handcuffed and detained him, citing terrorism laws. Michael was arrested for breach of the peace but released without charge after seven hours. He posted a video last month saying that he won £3,500 in compensation from West Yorkshire Police.
He understatedly describes the experience at Ossett as "mixed emotions", saying: "I knew I was OK, I wasn't doing anything wrong. Ultimately, we really do have one of the best policing systems in the world, you're quite well protected."
Interestingly Michael, who has seven further civil cases in the works against various northern police forces, admits that auditors are not a foolproof watchdog. "Auditors don't always get it right," he says. "Sometimes we misinterpret the law, I've been guilty of that." However, he adds: "Police, for the most part, are trying to do the right thing and sometimes they overreach their powers and sometimes they don't have the right training. You shouldn't be afraid of engaging with them in a discussion to say, 'No that's not right, this is how it's supposed to be.'"
Not every arrest ends with a win for the auditors. Earlier this month, Marti Blagborough was given a 32-week sentence, suspended for 18 months, for filming outside HMP Hatfield, an open prison. He says he stepped beyond the boundary of Hatfield’s grounds with his phone while filming, and despite his intentions was convicted of smuggling contraband into a prison. “I was told I was looking at prison time,” he says. “It were pretty bloody stressful, I’ve got kids.”
His sentence includes 200 hours of community service and £300 in costs. Blagborough is due to find out in October if he will also be given a Criminal Behaviour Order, meant for the most serious and persistent cases of antisocial activity. Blagborough has enlisted a lawyer to help fight the order. In the event he gets the CBO, as they’re called, it would force him to tone down his tactics and perhaps prevent him from arguing with officers. But, as he explains, it’ll take more than that to stop him.