What's worse than Big Brother? Little Brother!
The news that NuLabour plan to install talking CCTV cameras across the land has rightly been greeted with shock and indignation. These new cameras will not only watch and record our movements, as the existing five million cameras (one for every 12 citizens) do already, they will also tell us off. Faceless operators in the CCTV Führer-bunkers will use microphones to tell the great unwashed to stop loitering, gathering in crowds, littering, spitting, vandalising or writing graffiti. That's just for starters, of course. It'll be quite a small step from there to recorded messages gently and persistently encouraging us to smile inanely at anyone in ethnic clothing, recycle our kids and trade our carbon footprints (whatever that means. Does anyone truly know?).
However, one aspect of the new regime has gone virtually unnoticed: the government is planning to recruit well-behaved and right-minded children to be the voice of the cameras in certain towns and cities. That's right - you can now look forward to the prospect of some self-righteous 10-year-old barking orders at you as you walk down the street.
John Reid, the home secretary, announced that he will spend £500,000 fitting loudspeakers on to cameras in Southwark, Barking, Dagenham, Reading, Harlow, Norwich, Ipswich, Plymouth, Gloucester, Derby, Northampton, Mansfield, Nottingham, Coventry, Sandwell, Wirral, Blackpool, Salford, South Tyneside and Darlington.
The number of CCTV cameras in Britain has risen exponentially over the past 10 to 15 years. Someone going about his or her daily business in London should expect to be picked up on around 300 cameras over the course of one day. New software breakthroughs mean there are now cameras that have 'suspicious behaviour recognition' (yeah, right) and even 'gait recognition' (cams that judge whether someone is walking too fast, oddly or in some other suspicious fashion). So next time you're going round the shops and you're suddenly caught short, walk, don't run, and act naturally. Otherwise some moppet will be shouting in your ear "Hey, you! Stop running! It's dangerous! Not to say suspicious!" and you'll probably wet yourself in shock.
The rise of the cams speaks to a suspicious and fearful streak in New Labour's New Britain. And much of the 'anti-social behaviour' they are designed to record looks to me less like seriously anti-social behaviour and more just a product of modern living. For example, we all consume more fast food than ever before, yet the decline in street bins means we don't have anywhere to put our cartons, McDonald's bags, cups and so on - hence littering. The reason there aren't any street bins is, allegedly, because terrorists put bombs in them. Actually, it's because the local council can't be arsed to fit them and then empty them. It's easier to shout at you instead. And more fun. And potentially more profitable.
There are also fewer public benches, which have been removed by local authorities who feared that they would encourage drunks and gangs of young people to group together in city centres - so now drunks and gangs of young people group together standing up - or just sit on the pavement.
The fact is that if anyone is getting antisocial, it's the government - littering public space with spycams and now noisy megaphones to embarrass people into changing their behaviour. Instead of providing us with enough bins, street cleaners and park benches, or creating public spaces that encourage free and easy interaction, the killjoy authorities plonk ugly cameras everywhere to monitor our sad antics.
Strangely, the government seem quite proud of their idea of using children. The Home Office issued a press release headlined 'Children Remind Adults To Act Responsibly On Our Streets'. The government's Respect Taskforce (Oh God, I feel embarrassed just writing it!) has launched a competition in schools around the country, where the top prize is to become the 'voice' of a CCTV cameras. Schoolchildren are being encouraged to design colourful posters that 'challenge bad behaviour'. Explicitly, the government says it is 'encouraging children to use their "pester power" in a positive way - reminding grown-ups how to behave'.
The government seems to be turning to children because it cannot justify its petty moral and authoritarian campaigns on their own terms - instead it hopes that we will change our behaviour and become more green / responsible / better-behaved for the sake of the pleading kids. Also, children, as anyone who has come into contact with them will know, can be sanctimonious and self-righteous. Where adults disagree and argue over what counts as civilised behaviour, and what should be done about allegedly uncivilised behaviour, children tend to lap up fairly uncritically messages about what is right and wrong. The government seems keen to harness children's simplistic views of good and evil in order to whack the adult population over the head.
Using children as spies or educators is the mark of an authoritarian regime. In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, children are co-opted by the authorities and tend to become the most vociferous promoters of the right way of thinking. In Chapter 9, Winston Smith finds himself surrounded by a huge crowd on the sixth day of 'Hate Week': "It was night, and the white faces and the scarlet banners were luridly floodlit. The square was packed with several thousand people, including a block of about a thousand schoolchildren in the uniform of the spies."
It's not the first time officials have used children to try and shame people into toeing the corporate line. Speeding motorists in some locations have been offered a choice between being prosecuted, and being dressed down by groups of children from the local primary school. This is potentially harmful to the children themselves if they meet up with a motorist who knows the facts about speeding and accident figures.
They will have been "educated" by teachers and the police into believing the spurious claims of the road safety industry. Faced with someone who can ask them why, if breaking the speed limit is so dangerous, less than 10% of all road deaths are attributed to excessive speed, what are they to think? Will they understand the considerable anomaly that of that 10%, in almost a quarter of those deaths the driver was actually keeping within the speed limit - in other words, it's possible to obey the speed limit and still cause an accident by travelling at an excessive speed? How will they react to the contradiction that the government claim more than 1,700 lives are saved every year by speed cameras, but total road deaths have remained constant, year on year, at roughly 3,300? What are they to answer when told that very many speed limits have been imposed by local authorities in complete defiance of the government's own guidelines?
This kind of argument could only confuse and upset them. They may simply conclude that their teachers must be right and that motorists are evil, callous people who tell lies. Or they may lose faith in their teachers and the police when they realise just who it really is telling the porkies.
Either way, it's not a lesson they should have to learn. Children should be able to feel that adults can be trusted. That's what adults are for. The fact that a few adults can't be trusted doesn't mean that children should be encouraged not to trust any adults. Nor does it mean that all children suddenly become repositories of trust and wisdom.
Our thanks to Tessa Mayes at Spiked for a lot of this article.
The GOS says: It gets worse. In Reading, apparently, the children will be invited to broadcast their comments on adults' behaviour in "rap" lyrics. Oh yes, that'll make the whole thing far more palatable and effective, I'm sure.
Reading councillor Tony Page said "The cameras are there already. This is just an enhancement to existing technology. Law abiding people have nothing to fear from them."
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