Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Talking Television Cameras

Middlesbrough and its Robocop Mayor, Ray Mallon, are once again courting controversy from civil liberties bodies by introducing "talking CCTV cameras". Seven cameras in the town centre have been equipped with loudspeakers, so that those engaging in anti-social behaviour can be chided from above. The bad citizens of Middlesbrough now face public attention being drawn to them when they act aggressively or throw litter around.

It all sounds like a scene from 1984. The idea that you are being spied on is somewhat strange. Then again, the only change that this introduces is a direct sanction for those misbehaving on the streets. I worked out that during a typical day of mine in Oxford, there is a very limited time when you couldn't work out where I am. Colleges are rigged up to CCTV in all corners; I have to check into libraries with my university card, where data can presumably be collected; even if I'm just out innocently on the streets, many of the places I visit will be recording my activities. CCTV is now a fact of life.

Does it make a difference, then, to have a voice talking to you, rather than a security official just reclining in his chair watching you? Yes - it marks a change from passive to active observation. There's something more creepy about having someone ready to chastise you at all hours than there is about being recorded on videotape that will only be used if an objectionable incident takes place. That should make people more uncomfortable - for such an interventionist approach can lead to a slippery slope where it is the town council and the mayor that decides what is acceptable behaviour.

Nevertheless, my overwhelming reaction to this is one of sadness. Why should it take an invisible functionary to tell kids to stop throwing litter, or to intervene to prevent aggressive behaviour? That, surely, is the sort of thing that the other people on the street should be sorting out. The problem is, they feel too intimidated to do anything about it. (No doubt the lack of bobbies on the beat, and their inability to administer a quick clip round the ear, has something to do with this state of affairs). It's worrying when behaviour that most people agree is unacceptable is allowed to become commonplace because people won't stand up for a safer community, and look to the state to help.

My request to the civil liberties organisations that are complaining about the new scheme is this - take some responsibility yourself. Civil rights can only exist in a functioning society when they are coupled with a population prepared to face its responsibilities. If the operatives don't want to walk in fear of being chided for their actions, then they need to stand up for their streets, and tackle those who throw litter, those who act aggressively, those who want to make our communities unpleasant places to live. Because unless people take responsibility themselves, it's going to be intrusive government measures that find a degree of popularity.