The mad democracy of snooping
24 July 2009
The best way to control people, as any competent dictator will know, is to get them to police themselves. No citizen is more comprehensively cowed and disempowered than one who believes himself to be at the mercy of other ordinary people. Britain, not a totalitarian state, is nonetheless on a steep learning curve when it comes to the first rule of suppressing individual liberty: everyone should be watched and everyone should be a watcher.
Our national enthusiasm for surveillance has been spreading like swine flu. We lead the world in CCTV use, with over four million CCTV cameras in place. The Government has, under various pretexts, passed several pieces of legislation compromising and undermining the liberty of the population.
Whenever alarm is expressed about the spread of state-sponsored snooping, another phrase from the totalitarian handbook is deployed: if you have nothing to hide, then you will have nothing to fear.
This week an even creepier defence of surveillance has been used. Asked why he felt the need to put cameras in the bathrooms of young schoolchildren, a headmaster in Norwich has explained that the idea had come from the children themselves.
It is a revealing moment. We have become so persuaded that to be watched is to be safe that even primary schoolchildren have become brainwashed into believing that a camera is a better enforcer of discipline and morality than a teacher, or themselves.
The headmaster is undoubtedly sincere, but the approach which he represents is subtly corrupting. It conveys the message to young minds that each of us is most effectively protected when we are being watched by, and are under the control of, those in power over us.
The children’s parents, meanwhile, are also being invited to collude in a bit of spying. The Government will soon be legislating to make mandatory what are called Home School Agreements. As with the cameras in school bathrooms, the motives behind the new policy seem impeccably sensible.
These contracts between parents and the school of their child will commit them to supporting his or her education, ensuring that they attend school, do their homework, go to bed at a reasonable time and so on. Then, almost as an afterthought, the new agreement will also invite parents to spy and inform on families which they believe are not adhering to the agreement. Complaints made by families against families will be heard by Local Education Authorities. It is a neat way of exploiting the suspicion and paranoia which have become part of the British character. Citizens will become the unpaid spies of authority.
Ed Balls, the secretary of state behind the initiative, has made the usual appeal to decency and commonsense. The agreement will support “parents who do the right thing” and bring to justice a small minority of “recalcitrant” families. He might have added that, if you have nothing to hide, then you will have nothing to fear.
The spread of the snooping virus is likely to become painfully evident to MPs as they take their holiday this summer. Thanks to a dubious iniative by the campaign group 38 Degrees, they too will be spied upon and photographed – not by the press this time, but by self-important members of the public eager to catch politicians skiving off work.
It will be argued that when everyone is sneaking and snooping and snapping everyone else, a sort of mad democracy of surveillance is at work. That, of course, is a dangerous lie. The more we surrender our privacy, the less power we have as individuals.
Griff right to declare war on selfish fishermen
It takes a brave man to square up to Britain’s powerful angling lobby, as Griff Rhys Jones has done recently, but his defence of rivers against colonisation by fishermen is undoubtedly an excellent cause. Of 150,000 miles of inland waterway, Rhys Jones argues in his forthcoming TV series River Journeys, a mere 41,000 miles has public access.
“We all need to remember that the river isn’t there for a few, but for the many,” he has written. People who find themselves near or on the water, he suggests, should disturb as many fishermen as possible.
It is difficult to argue against this position. Anglers claim that they have a special affinity to the river which is denied to the rest of us, but the truth is altogether less romantic. They are keen, selfish sportsmen, and selling fishing rights is a profitable, money- making business.
Time to ditch the brand and back the local market
Millions of dollars must have been spent on promoting the brand and name of Starbucks. Now it is being suggested that the coffee conglomerate’s best chance of staying profitable is by pretending to be someone else.
Starbucks coffee shops in Seattle, America, are to be re-branded under distinctive local names and encouraged to be as quirkily different from one another as possible. From now on, they will be less corporate in their self-presentation, favouring instead what their design director calls “a community personality”.
All this is very familiar. In this country, large retailers, supermarkets in particular, have noticed that words like “community” and “local” have as much marketing value as those other sources of fraudulent claims, “green” and “sustainable”. Their multi-million pound campaigns now have a fake, folksy air to them, communicated in friendly handwriting and decorated with cute kiddies’ drawings.
Meanwhile, the true source of genuinely local produce is under threat. According to the communities and local government committee, 3,000 markets across the country are failing, usually because council planning committees are thoughtlessly favouring applications from giant supermarkets.
Never have we needed genuine markets more urgently. They are good for regeneration, good for local economies, and good for the environment. They also avoid dodgy branding exercises and dishonest marketing campaigns.