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BBC breaches charter with one sided CCTV debate - 13/8/2009

Last night (12th August) Radio 4's Reality Check programme looked at the growth of surveillance in the UK. Among the topics discussed was CCTV and specifically newly installed cameras along the Cowley Road, East Oxford. Reality Check is described as "a discussion series involving experts and people closely involved in the issues".

No CCTV has had an active campaign in Oxford fighting the installation of the Cowley Road cameras since October 2007. If you type "CCTV Cowley Road" into any internet search engine then No CCTV will be listed at or near the top of sites found. No CCTV produced a comprehensive report into the Cowley Road CCTV scheme and appears to be the only campaign group in the UK taking a strong and principled stand against surveillance cameras. Yet the BBC did not invite us to take part in the programme. The result was a mix of pro CCTV propoganda and lies.

The panel selected to discuss surveillance in the UK was: Oxford's CCTV poster girl Jan Bartlett who owns the Premier Lettings agency on Cowley Road, Thames Valley Assistant Chief Constable Nick Gargan (former Chair of the ACPO Peer Review Group looking at legislation and guidance in relation to covert investigation), Isabella Sankey (policy director of Liberty), Dr Ian Brown (Senior Research Fellow at Oxford Internet Institute), Dave Cairns (a private sector surveillance consultant) and Martin Denholm whose son's DNA was taken by the police even though he was never convicted or charged with an offence.

The programme opened with the host Justin Rowlatt being shown the cameras near the Manzil Way play area on the Cowley Road. Jan Bartlett explained the life changing impact that CCTV has had since the cameras were installed in January:

What we've noticed is since the cameras have been up it's just been fantastic. As you can see peole can sit here safely now. You could not have done that six months ago and now we can come out here at lunchtime, the children are safe, we used to see all sorts of weirdos hanging around here watching the children play which is really really worrying.

Here Bartlett has to do down the Cowley Road in order to justify the installation of surveillance cameras. By over stating the levels of crime before cameras whilst we hear the sounds of children playing happily on the street today, the listener is invited to imagine a world transformed by the magic of CCTV. No one on the programme is able to challenge this vision and so CCTV is presented as an effective crime fighting tool and creator of utopia.

Advocates of CCTV used this tactic of doing down the Cowley Road repeatedly in the run up to cameras being installed. Local media, who were strongly in favour of cameras, described the road as "Oxford's most crime-ridden street" - a claim simply not supported by crime data or the experiences of people who live in the area. The Cowley Road was not a crime ridden no go area. It has the same friendly laid back atmosphere now that it had before surveillance cameras were introduced.

Next, safely inside a community centre where the other panel members are gathered, Rowatt, seemingly forgetting Bartlett's previous gushing praise for the cameras, asks her whether she thinks the Cowley Road cameras have worked. Bartlett responds:

Yeah definitely. There's proof within the police figures they've worked, there's proof within the way the public are behaving that they've worked, the whole area is more pleasant, the park area, which is the one that I showed you earlier, is what it's supposed to be now not a haven for drugs and sex and drink.

Bartlett once again paints a picture for the viewer of the post camera heaven versus the pre camera hell. Once again no one is there to challenge her story. This time it appears that Bartlett has facts to back up her claim. Police figures show that the cameras work she tells the listeners. No one challenges this statement because no one else on the programme appears to know anything about the crime figures.

Bartlett's claims are based on Oxford Mail article 'Cowley Road crime falls under CCTV's gaze' (Oxford Mail, 19/4/09). Our previous blog article 'CCTV makes crime go up' was a parody of this article. The Mail obtained recorded crime data under the Freedom of Information Act that showed a very small drop in certain crimes from January to March 2009 compared to the same period in 2008. We have that data and it shows what the Mail forgot to mention - that there was a small rise in certain other crimes such as: Administering a Substance with intent, Affray, Breach of ASBO, Burglary in A Dwelling, Burglary other than in A Dwelling, Child Protection (Non Crime Incident), Possesion of Firearms Offences and Racially Aggravated Criminal Damage To Vehicles (click here to read the full FOI crime data obtained by the Mail).

The change in recorded crimes is simply too small to claim it has any significance whatsoever. To analyse the effect of the cameras a larger data set would be required together with data for a control area (a similar area without CCTV for the same period). In addition any other crime interventions would need to be taken into account. Since the cameras were installed on the Cowley Road the policing along the road has also changed (following a study into anti-social behaviour) and now the police have introduced patrols wearing bodycams in the area. The cameras on the Cowley Road are meant to have been installed as part of a two year trial but by introducing changes to policing and other interventions the police are making it impossible for a fair and balanced trial to take place. There is also no clearly methodology in place for such a trial (as revealed under a recent Freedom of Information request).

But of course Radio 4 listeners weren't told about the actual crime data or the other changes to policing made along the Cowley Road.

Having established a strong pro CCTV stance Reality Check now move on to Isabella Sankey of Liberty who points out that:

It's really important that people feel safe in their communities and I think the problem with this debate is that it can get quite polarised.

Yes indeed - Sankey must be cranking up to destroy Bartlett's paper thin defence of CCTV and really polarise this debate. Sankey continues:

Now at Liberty we are not against CCTV, in fact I don't think many people in this country are against CCTV, but one of the things we've seen over the last ten years is a massive expansion in the number of cameras that we have. At the same time we've seen very little regulation of the use of CCTV and it's operation, so you won't find CCTV in any statute.

Oh dear. Here Liberty declare their pro CCTV position but also use the politician's trick of projecting that opinion out to the vast majority of people, suggesting there is little opposition. But Sankey is in Oxford where there is an active campaign against the very cameras that Bartlett loves so much. Next Sankey suggests that CCTV would be okay if there were more regulations. Regulation of surveillance cameras does not address the fundamental issues of privacy or common law rights of law abiding citizens - it will simply add legitimacy to ever expanding CCTV.

Next to speak is Assistant Chief Constable Gargan who is asked whether cameras help prevent crime. It is no surprise that Gargan thinks they do, he says:

Their performance in preventing crime is pretty clear, their performance in detecting crime is really very clear indeed and ... er ... we in the police hear, accross the United Kingdom, we hear from communities who want to have these cameras, they know that they'll make them safer but they certainly make communities feel safer too and we will do what the community asks us to do. If the community asks for cameras we'll support the installation of cameras. If the community doesn't want them we wouldn't force them on a community that didn't feel the need for them. We think they work.

So it's a police decision then is it? We were under the impression that local councils were responsible for decisions relating to surveillance cameras - as are local councillors. That said, in East Oxford the decision making powers were indeed removed from the local area parliament (whose meetings are public) and re-emerged in the Safer Oxford Community Partnership, an unelected body comprised of police, emergency services, primary care trust and allegedly some councillors and self-selecting members of neighbourhood action groups - whose minutes are not published and meetings take place in private... In addition in 2007 the then Oxford police chief Supt Brendan O'Dowda made it his personal crusade to get CCTV cameras installed along the Cowley Road. How is this listening to the community?

But back to Gargan. This is the same Assistant Chief Constable Gargan that told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 'A Surveillance Society?' inquiry:

Having spent many a long and, frankly, boring hour watching CCTV coverage live in town centres and city centres, it is amazing how little impact they seem to have on the behaviour of all but a very few individuals who are very conscious of the cameras and play up to those cameras.
[ See 'A Surveillance Society?' report, Evidence volume, page Ev 95]

And the same Assistant Chief Constable Gargan who gave evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee alongside Deputy Chief Constable Graeme Gerrard (ACPO lead on CCTV) when Gerrard told the committee:

Interestingly, there is very little academic research on the effectiveness and usefulness of CCTV in the investigation of crime, most of it is focused on does it reduce crime, not what is the impact of it in terms of investigating crime.
[ See 'Surveillance: Citizens and the State: Evidence, page 60 ]

The reality is that the performance of CCTV in preventing crime is pretty clearly abysmal. Several studies have confirmed this. The recent Campbell Collaboration evaluation of CCTV found: "the evaluations of CCTV schemes in city and town centers and public housing [...] as well as those focused on public transport, did not have a significant effect on crime". London Assembly members obatined crime clear up data for the 32 London Boroughs to see if there was any corellation between CCTV cameras and crime clear up rate - there was not. The argument about CCTV reducing the fear of crime has been touted since the 1990s when cameras were first rolled out across the UK but when the Scottish Centre for Criminology conducted their research they found that this also was not true.

But Radio 4 listeners were not presented with this information.

At this point Dr Ian Brown tried to bring a touch of reason into the debate by referring to some of the studies into the effectiveness of CCTV, Brown said:

If you look at the few large scale studies that have been done to see - well actually do they have a big impact on crime? Actually by and large they don't, except in some very specific circumstances such as covered car parks, they tend to only really reduce crime by about two or three percent, whereas the government's own figures show that better street lighting for example can reduce it by 20% is much cheaper and is much less intrusive.

But alas it was too little too late. The tone has been set by Bartlett and her heart wrenching story of a community transformed. Rowlatt put it to Bartlett that Brown was suggesting criminals aren't detered by the cameras. Bartlett springs back into attack responding:

Well I'm sorry but I can tell you I live and work where those cameras are. I mix with those people every day and for the last five years, up until those cameras were installed, I've been in the area 30 years, the last five years we lived in fear and we put up with hell somedays. We don't have that anymore, you're telling me it's a coincidance that those lovely cameras went up and all of a sudden our life is regained. We've got our park back, we've got our streets back.

More unsubstantiated pro camera vitriol and time for Liberty to come back into the debate - Sankey finishes the job off:

I wouldn't say for a second that that's necessarily a coincidence. I think what's interesting about your case is that it was the community that came together and decided that they wanted cameras and they decided where those cameras would be most effective, I think that's a really important ...

At this point all the programme's claims to be a Reality Check or to involve "people closely involved in the issues" didn't just go out of the window but into the next universe. The policy director of Liberty, who does not live in Oxford, is not part of that community, and is not against CCTV, tells the Radio 4 audience that this CCTV scheme is particularly good because the community wanted it! Liberty clearly didn't do their homework either - nobody from Liberty contacted No CCTV before the programme or bothered to find out the views of "the community". No CCTV has campaigned along the Cowley Road and the vast majority of people we have spoken to in the community have been against the cameras. Local Green councillors tell us that they have received no letters in support of the CCTV cameras only letters against. Once again none of this was reported in the programme.

We are often told that the BBC has a responsibility as a public service broadcaster to present both sides of the argument and to not take sides. Section 44 of the BBC's charter agreement states:

The BBC must do all it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality in all relevant output

In this programme that was clearly not the case and they are in breach of their charter. The Cowley Road was also featured in a recent BBC television programme 'The truth about crime' which was recorded before and as the cameras were installed. Once again the pro CCTV view was represented. 'The truth about crime' did interview No CCTV but the footage did not feature in the broadcast programme. Clearly there are a lot of people working hard to ensure that the Cowley Road cameras stay in and the BBC it seems is playing its part.

The programme is available to listen to on BBC iplayer until 19th August.

BBC programme complaints can be lodged at http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints
The programme's presenter Justin Rowlatt can be contacted at justin.rowlatt@bbc.co.uk


Posted in Anti-CCTV general - 13/8/2009

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