This week, Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to justify a fresh push on the Communications Bill to the Joint National Security Strategy committee by referring to the use of mobile data in “crime dramas” on television. (He also later urged the media to “think before they act” in relation to the Snowden revelations, presumably as opposed to “thinking while watching acting” or, to put it more precisely, “not really thinking at all”.)
My reaction, and I imagine the reaction of most rational, level-headed, centre-left-leaning people - i.e. the sort I follow on Twitter - was to greet Cameron’s words with derision tinged with concern that policy-making was being guided by the writers of Vera and Silent Witness. (I assume Cameron doesn’t go for The Killing or The Bridge, as he isn’t interested in the panty-waisted Danish liberalism of “Borgen Schmorgen”.) But I would be surprised if Cameron’s seemingly sanguine remark wasn’t in fact made deliberately. It makes him seem relatable, would go the thinking, and it makes the need for intercepting mobile communications data relatable to the man in the street (“after all, if Brenda Blethyn needs it to find that poor kidnapped babby…”). This rather ignores the fact that crime dramas, as far-fetched as they might be, are typically rooted in reality and that therefore, the police presumably already have sufficient access to the data they want when required. After all, there’s a difference between requesting the details of calls to a particular suspect’s phone and trawling the data for everyones’ phones in real time - a difference that Cameron would obviously prefer to elide.*
But I wonder if we’re just out of step on this, as with perhaps so much else. It’s difficult to grasp what the “British Public”, that amorphous, unpredictable grouping/mob, thinks about any given topic. We’re frequently told now that the public “accepts” the arguments for economic austerity and the Coalition’s economic “narrative”, however much Ed Balls and Owen Jones howl that it isn’t so, that immigration is one of their major concerns, that they want the government to tighten welfare rules. Never mind that the public are often misguided and out of touch about the true scale of any particular social issue.
In the same week, a family matter, also related to security, brought home how far my beliefs may be out of line with what is commonly accepted. At school, my youngest Junior Research Assistant said something retaliatory to another child (it wasn’t especially sympathetic but in the particular circumstances it is hard to argue it was undeserved). That child, upset, complained to one of the dinner ladies who confronted my JRA and demanded to know if she had said what was claimed. Frightened, my JRA denied it, to which the dinner lady replied, “I’m going to check the school CCTV to see if you’re lying!” My daughter is six; she doesn’t even realise that the CCTV cameras don’t record audio. And yet she’s being threatened with Big Brother. After a week of increasing distress over attending school, she eventually told us the story. My Glamorous Research Assistant (and the JRA’s mother) took it up with her class teacher, who agreed that the JRA had hardly transgressed in her original remark, but openly disclosed that teachers and staff routinely threaten to view CCTV footage as a way of “catching children out”. (Obviously, they don’t actually follow through on this for minor incidents like these. At least, I assume they don’t - it’s not actually clear who is able to review the CCTV recordings or how they are managed, given that there is no publicised policy for its use. You may think this isn’t a concern, but bear in mind that some people can have other reasons for wanting to access it. And if you think I’m just scaremongering, a school in Oldham admitted to having 20 cameras located in toilets and changing areas).
But when the GRA took to Baby Greenhouse (an online parenting forum) to discuss her experience, the majority of respondents thought it was acceptable practice “if it helps children tell the truth”. Indeed, some suggested that “because your daughter lied”, we had no grounds for complaint. With attitudes like this in circulation, it is little wonder that the government can justify any amount of security over-reach with the phrase, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” So our children must expect their lives in school to be constantly monitored and for their teachers, like Santa, to know if they’ve been good or bad (except that Santa doesn’t deploy actual cameras, and only takes notice during the run-up to Christmas rather than every single day). Get used to it, it will prepare you to take your place in civic society.
I’m not entirely opposed to the use of CCTV around, and perhaps even inside, schools. Civil liberties are a public issue, but the safety of one’s own children above all is an emotive issue. There have been enough outrages committed within the boundaries of school environments by deranged individuals to make one pause before blithely deciding that the privacy of your own child is more important than their notional safety. (For the same reasons, I’m not about to give my children free rein to enjoy unsupervised outside play like I had at their age, even though I realise that statistically the greatest threat comes from people they know rather than strangers.) However, I firmly believe that children should, as far as possible, not be made to feel that they are under constant surveillance, or rather, for they should certainly know that CCTV is in use, know that it is for their protection rather than their transgressions. But I am apparently out of step with the common view on this. The Guardian reader in me wants to write to the school, to demand to see their CCTV policy and know how the footage is used, and to insist that it not be employed to play mind games with my children. But I pause in light of the BGH reaction, for fear of simply being ‘a bloody Guardian reader’ whose concerns are delusionary.
Coming back to the Prime Minister and his beloved dramas, it’s by no means clear who will win the election at the end of this series, but nor is it clear that the Tories will lose. The Opposition has done little to pull ahead, and their current poll ratings are nothing that couldn’t be overturned during a campaign - especially one based on fear and lies. One would like to think that the electorate are wiser, smarter, more discerning and above all kinder than to accept that the poor only have themselves to blame, that the recession was not caused by the City and that our security depends on ever more intrusive, extensive monitoring and surveillance, while those who undertake this task should in turn be less transparent and accountable. But it is not a sure bet, and David Cameron knows this. National security likely does not figure as a hot button issue in election campaigns but make no mistake, should the Conservatives win a majority next time, the ‘snoopers charter’ will go through.
We live in a time when it is easier than ever to become better-informed about the topics that concern us as citizens, and yet the public discourse appears to degrade by the day. There are any number of sources that can provide the hard figures and evidence to support or dispel our most faithfully upheld views, and then we can begin to properly discuss whether one approach or another will be better, fairer or more effective. And yet you can’t sit back in your comfy filter bubble and assume that, because everyone you follow is as right-thinking and clear-sighted as you, it’ll all come right in the end.
* Note: Interestingly, the Daily Mail, supposedly the touchstone of middle England, derides Cameron’s reliance on TV drama as prima facie evidence in its report on the committee, and further quotes David Davis, a declared opponent of the bill, challenging the Prime Minister on this point during the session. Maybe it is not cut and dried.