The fine old city of Gloucester is built on the site of a Roman fortress. In Saxon and Norman times it hosted national councils and meetings of parliament, the most famous being in 1085 when William the Conqueror commanded the Doomsday Survey. The fine cathedral was begun just four years later in 1089. In 1155 King Henry the First granted a charter giving the city privileges equal to those of London. In more modern times it hosts the Three Choirs Festival, taking turns with Hereford and Worcester.
So it's quite a place, then. The official website of Gloucester city council tells us that "Gloucester is acknowledged to be one of England's top ten historic cities. From the earliest stone-tool users who roamed here through to those who are creating our modern city …."
And there lies the rub, you see. For some of the people who are creating the modern city are the council street wardens, who have taken to walking around with video cameras strapped to their heads. Anyone caught dropping litter can be videoed and a photograph put on the council's website.
At the time of writing, the picture - large and very clear - shows a gentleman … er … not dropping litter. Now you may not like litterbugs, but we have to point out that this man has not been proven guilty of littering offences. So why is his picture here?
The council wardens taking photos of those they observe dropping litter - and thus whom they suspect of committing littering offences - are overturning a fundamental principle of justice, that individuals are innocent until proven guilty. It is unclear from the council website exactly what the man is supposed to have done, and what evidence there is to prove that he did it. So far as we know from the photograph, he might have dropped something by accident, and picked it up again after the photo was taken. Besides, why should a case of littering give the council the right to display an individual's image, as if he's a known murderer or in some other way a danger to society?
The social repercussions of naming and shaming people who litter go way beyond a potential fine of £75. Publishing these sorts of images might lead to the individual under suspicion being ridiculed, by workmates perhaps, or strangers in the street. It could even cause them to lose their job, if their boss decides that they are a liability, someone held up publicly as being irresponsible and uncaring. This is precisely the kind of negative publicity that companies are keen to avoid, especially today when all companies are supposed to be super-green and environmentally aware.
Anyone reading the Gloucester council website - and you are forced to wonder what kind of sad individual scrolls through a council site on the lookout for misbehaving citizens he or she might recognise - is invited to provide the authorities with the alleged offender's name and address. That is, to grass people up. You can do it by email or by phone, and you can do it anonymously. Encouraging people to dob others in is bad enough. Encouraging them to dob others in over something as trivial as, say, a discarded Wrigley's chewing gum wrapper is bizarre. Encouraging them to dob others in when there is no evidence, so far as we are allowed to know, that they have committed any offence, is redolent of Hitler's Germany, or China in the days of the Cultural Revolution.
Surely it would make more sense for council workers to walk the streets with cleaning equipment rather than helmet-video-cameras, so that they can clear up the litter rather than film people allegedly dropping it? Or then again - sorry, bit of a revolutionary idea this, but we have to put it forward all the same - the council workers could actually do their job instead of asking the public to do it for them. You know, they could actually apprehend the alleged offender, ask his name and address, and then prosecute him themselves. What are they afraid of? Some of our long-term readers may remember when we wrote about litter-wardens in Ipswich who followed a child into school and fined him for feeding a chip to some seagulls. In that case it occurred to us that these officials were actually too scared to tackle serious litterers in the town centre, so they picked on children instead.
This very nasty little episode makes us suspect that naming and shaming is about more than keeping the streets clean. Environmentalism is becoming a moral crusade aimed at correcting our individual behaviour. Instead of Gloucester council collectively resolving to keep the streets spotless, it actively goes looking for 'enviro-criminals' whom it can make an example of.
What next? Will they bring back the stocks and encourage residents to throw gone-off vegetables (recyclable, of course) at those who have sinned against the green ethos? This spiteful, self-righteous approach is not confined to littering. Under the 2005 Clean Neighbourhoods and Environmental Act, councils have to fulfil targets on cleaning up the environment. This means their dustbin men can now look through your recycling bin. And if you've 'contaminated' it with the wrong kind of rubbish, you could be fined up to £100 - never mind the privacy implications of local authorities knowing your consumption habits. There are signs of a growing opposition to this bin snooping. Someone has launched an e-petition on the British government's No.10 website to oppose 'smart bins', which record what kind of rubbish is being deposited in the bin and can identify which house the said bin belongs to - do let's all go to the No.10 website and sign it.
And Gloucester city council and its cowardly snoopers? Well, we've already told you where to find their website. How about if we all go there and help Gloucester city council by sending them the name and address of the featured litter-lout? Maybe when they've received several thousand suggestions including Mickey Mouse, Vera Lyn, Adolf Hitler, Tony Bliar, the Pope etc., they might begin to suspect that what they are doing is distasteful, spiteful, and possibly illegal. The website also has a Guest Book where you can leave them little messages of … um … praise and support …
Oh, and if anyone does actually know the man featured in the photograph, could you give him a message, please? The message is "Next time a pasty-faced jobsworth with a camera on his head comes up to you in the street, don't just stand there, you prat - NUT HIM AND RUN!"
The GOS says: Quite a lot of this article was borrowed from Tessa Mayes, of "spiked".
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