On Friday 7th August BBC Radio 5 Live's breakfast show held a phone-in debate about CCTV cameras in the UK . The debate was good despite its rather loaded title 'Cameras or crime - you choose' and the unbalanced choice of studio guests - Robin Simcox of the think-tank the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) (in favour of cameras) and lawyer for Liberty Corinna Ferguson (in favour of cameras if they are "properly regulated" - whatever that means).
The debate was kicked off by host Nicky Campbell who, throwing aside all research that shows how ineffective CCTV actually is, said:
Is this intrusion worth it - if it does reduce crime? Do you object to being filmed or watched? [...] Cameras or crime you choose.
At first it appeared that this was to be the usual mainstream media pro-CCTV stitch up but in fact the result was that the debate centred much more on the issues of personal freedoms, anonymity and the effect of surveillance cameras on society. Many callers expressed principled objections to cameras which would hold true even if they did help in the fight against crime - which of course they don't.
For instance David in Kirkcaldy, Fife -
[David, Kirkcaldy] - Personally I would turn off every single CCTV camera in the country without exception, I don't think we need it, I mean we've got by as a country for millennia without them -
When host Campbell claimed that cameras had played a crucial part in a list of high profile cases (where their value is in fact extremely questionable), David continued:
[David, Kirkcaldy] - The courts functioned, after a fashion of course, before the CCTV was around, it relied on human witnesses and I think the thing is we talk about surveillance society - in my view surveillance actually destroys society, it destroys that sort of sense of social cohesion that we have, people are less reliant on their neighbours, they're more afraid of their neigbours, they're more fearful...
Studio guest Robin Simcox, when asked if he agreed, said:
[Simcox] - I don't think so. If there's a breakdown in social cohesion I don't think we can attribute it to CCTV cameras. I share some of the concerns, I think we have to be wary about the surveillance state taking over but I look at this from the kind of counter terrorism point of view and CCTV has been absolutely crucial in three of the biggest cases we've had in counter terrorism and so I think there is definitely a role for it. I understand why people might be concerned but I don't think it's quite the problem it's sometimes made out to be.
Of course Simcox does not tell us to which three terrorism cases he's referring or in what way surveillance cameras were "crucial". Simcox works for the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) which boasts: "it is the first think-tank in the UK to specialise in studying radicalisation and extremism within Britain" . In July the CSC produced a report 'Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections'. The report number crunched 124 individuals who either committed or were convicted of so-called Islamism-related terrorism offences in the UK between 1999 and 2009 and came up with figures such as that 13% were based in the West Midlands. This neat little statistic is being used by some to justify the installation of surveillance cameras around Birmingham as part of 'Project Champion'. The fact that 21% of those convicted have since successfully appealed their sentences has not had so much air time. Unfortunately we can't give any more detailed analysis of the report as Simcox and his chums have put a £40 price tag on their report - maybe that's to fox the 35% of those convicted who were unemployed!
The issue of the provocative debate title was raised a couple of times and lawyer for Liberty Corinna Ferguson did at least agree that the way the question was phrased wasn't really fair, she said: "who's going to ring up and say 'I choose crime over cameras' - it's not an alternative", but Nicky Campbell suggested: "there are very many people who do say that is a choice because they solve crime and if you've got nothing to hide nothing to fear [...] what is the problem?" David responded to this:
[David, Kirkcaldy] - This is Émile Durkheim's classic point that crime to a certain extent is a sign of a free society and if all these people that say that crime justifies CCTV would like to take a two week trip to that home of zero crime North Korea, I think they might have an idea of just quite how important their own personal freedom and liberty actually is. It's not always a trade-off, it's like all economics points always seem to be boiled down to the bottom line, so do all sort of like public debates like this tend to be boiled down to crime, and we do have to accept a certain amount of crime is going to happen in a free society, that to a certain extent is going to have to be the price that we pay.
More on sociologist Emile Durkheim can be found at the Emile Durkheim archive website .
The considered anti CCTV arguments were contrasted with well worn and hackneyed sound bites, one caller suggested: "If you don't want the intrusion, stay in your house".
Another pro CCTV caller was James from Cardiff who had the view that there is no privacy in a public space, this led to the following lively exchange:
[James, Cardiff] - The cods wallop that some of you people are coming out with, I mean the lady's talking about it's an intrusion into privacy, if a camera was in my home yes it is an intrusion into privacy, when you go into a public place like the street if you're doing nothing wrong what have you got to worry about -
[Abdullah, Birmingham] - If you're walking down the street just in your area and a police officer for example is walking right behind you breathing down your neck just walking behind you you'd turn around say excuse me give me my space give me my freedom you wouldn't think anything of that but substitute that police officer with a counter-terrorism officer or an MI5 agent who has access to these cameras then you're talking something worse I mean this is the intrusion that's being felt here everywhere you go they're following you
[James] - I'm sorry I've got no problem with anybody stopping me if I'm not doing anything wrong I've got nothing to worry about ... If you've got nothing to hide then why are you worried about somebody looking at you, it's as simple as that.
[David, Northchurch] - Oh dear
[Campbell] - Who said oh dear?
[David] - I did it's David here in Northchurch
[Campbell] - You're not happy with what James said
[David] - Listen if you have nothing to fear nothing to hide is merely the willing cry of a slave. In this country policemen do not stop people if they are doing nothing wrong, they are not allowed to, they are not supposed to take your name and address. Given that ignorance is no defence in our legal system which used to make a lot of sense when the genius of our common law stood in primacy, there were 4000 new laws created by the last government and you don't know half the time if you are breaking the law and I want to quote what Andy Burnham said "the individual has no right to anonymity" now this is not the mantra of a free society, CCTV cameras are everywhere (a) they do not prevent crime they merely serve as a grizzley reminder and it has got to the point now when you can walk into restaurants and there are cameras trained upon you, now you might be happy with that but I certainly am not and I'm sure there are many other people that aren't.
[James] - But look at the positive side
[David] - What positive side?
[James] - You would be very happy if you had your car stolen and they got it back within an hour because they could pick it up on CCTV.
[Abdullah] - Are we speaking about the same police? They wouldn't take an hour they'd take a year!
[James] - I've listened to you let me finish right. You'd be very happy on the positive side right you'd be very happy if CCTV cameras actually proved you weren't in a place where they've accused you of being so don't go on the negative all the time look at the positive
[David] - Might I come back; you presume (a) infallability of the technology which is very dangerous and also (b) the absolute honesty of the police force and when we see policemen who when they see CCTV evidence shows them committing a blatant crime it's never enough evidence is it, so you know we have people being beaten...
[James] - You have a very very weird view of the world.
[David] - Do I?
When James went on to accuse David of knocking life in the UK Campbell stepped in to defend David who then expanded upon the withering away of the Common Law:
[Campbell] - David's standing up for traditional British liberties aren't you David?
[David, Northchurch] - exactly that date back to 1014 actually, not 1215, right back to King Alfred presumption of innocence. If I'd said Nicky in 1990 that in Great Britain within 15 years we would live in a country where people could be incarcerated without access to legal counsel, where they would be denied the charges against them, where they could be locked up for god knows how long, this is all part of the attempt to destroy habeous corpus.
[Campbell] - Are you a campaigner on this David?
[David] - Yes I am, and also -
[James, Cardiff] - Yeah! There!
[Campbell] - What's your organisation?
[David] - No I'm just someone who supports the campaigns like by Henry Porter last year, I'm just a keen amateur if you like but I also know the history of my country and the legal system which is as close to genius as it is possible to be.
Note James's reaction when David says he's a campaigner - as though this devalues his comments and somehow suggests that campaigners have a fixed or received opinion rather than that people feel so strongly about something that they become a campaigner. Of course ironically it is those people that don't think about things who more often than not trot out opinions that are not their own.
Tom Reeve from CCTV Image  (the official magazine and website of the CCTV User Group), called in to play the terrorism card, with obvious allusion to the 'Project Champion' cameras in Birmingham once again, he said:
[Tom, CCTV Image] - I'd just like to point out that in the case of 7/7 and then two weeks later on the 21st, CCTV played a key role in identifying the people who carried out those attacks and tried to carry out those attacks on the 21st. So I think in those cases it proved its value immeasurably. I think the police have got a huge problem that they're searching for a needle in a hay stack, you know when they're trying to combat terrorism and you know any help they can get in the form of CCTV and automatic number plate recognition has got to be a good thing.
Quite why Reeve believes cameras proved their value immeasurably when they did not stop the attacks of 7th July 2005 is not clear. And with regard to the attempted incident at Shepherds Bush Tube station on 21st July 2005, the role of CCTV is always mis-represented. Following the incident, police staked out an address where an innocent man Jean Charles De Menezes lived. Police watching the flat had been supplied with a photograph from a gym membership card and Shepherds Bush CCTV images of a suspect whom they thought lived at the address. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report 'Stockwell One'  contains details of Jean Charles leaving his flat - the police checked the images of the suspect supplied to them and said he was a "good possible likeness to the subject". He was subsequently killed by armed police. In other words the Stockwell One report reveals that CCTV images played a part in the murder of an innocent man. Yet when it comes to terrorism we are constantly told that cameras are a vital tool.
Towards the end of the debate the anti-CCTV position was well represented by Seamus in Crouch End who addressed the effects of surveillance cameras on our society:
[Seamus, Crouch End] - What I find particularly invidious about CCTV cameras is that it encourages us to abdicate our responsibilities for each other. We no longer have park keepers, bus conductors, toilet attendants, people whose jobs it was, and also just normal human beings walking the street, we would look out for each other, now we abdicate that responsibility to a machine that doesn't prevent crime it merely records the situation for the police to collect the data at a later date, none of the cases that you've put forward were prevented by the CCTV cameras
[Campbell] - But convictions were secured.
[Seamus] - Well convictions have always been secured, I mean that's what police do, that's what they should do, that's called investigation, what the police have now become is merely clerks who collect information and if that information is wrong, if that data has been put in incorrectly then you are guilty and you have to prove your innocence and that's the change that's happened, we are now guilty until we can prove we're innocent.
A caller described a horrific attack that took place on his wife, where no witnesses would come forward because of the family involved and so CCTV was needed to secure a conviction. When it was put to Seamus that such an incident made the case for cameras unarguable, he pointed out that such situations occur because of the society that surveillance cameras have helped to create:
[Seamus, Crouch End] - Personally I think that the situation the gentleman described, which is awful, I mean that's an awful situation, but I would suggest that that environment is created by the cameras because we are now abdicating our responsibility for each other, we live in a world now where all public space is criminal space and we are abdicating that space to criminals and I would suggest that actually the cameras create the environment in which that situation can happen.
[ - Silence -]
[Campbell] - Interesting silence there.
[Seamus] - I finished my sentence, I was waiting for someone else to come in, there was a full stop.
[Campbell] - I know there was a full stop, I'm not blaming you for the silence, I was absorbing what you'd said and I was trying to sort of process it, so basically we've stopped looking out for each other
[Seamus] - We've created a world in which we're frightened because we've abdicated that role that we had where we looked out for each other, where someone would have stepped up -
[Campbell] - So had there been no CCTV cameras a few years ago [and] Johns's wife had been attacked in a similar way, people would have come forward..
[Seamus] - I would suggest that what would have happened, say that happened in my childhood many years ago - someone was getting beaten up outside, it was actually a wife beating situation, my dad heard it, it was early in the morning, he'd gone down in his underwear, gone outside to find other neigbours were outside in their underwear and the man who was doing the beating up got a good thrashing off his neigbours - that's the situation. Now we all live in fear and we all curtain twitch because someone else will take responsibility.
Such strong and principled arguments against CCTV are reminiscent of the 2001 documentary television series 'White Tribe' , in which presenter Darcus Howe visited Grangetown in North Yorkshire, where he was shocked to see a large number of surveillance cameras covering the area. Howe said:
This is a definite assault on the Englishness I grew accustomed to when I first came here. The kind of trust that established Englishness.
I would prefer to see cars stolen and burning. Anything would be preferable to the deathliness of these streets. I don't care how many cars they steal from me. I would rather pay that price than live under the eye of the camera. If this is the shape of the new England, I don't want it!
There is much more to the CCTV debate than simply "do the cameras work?"
The programme is available online until 13th August at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t9rqt
A podcast of the programme is available at: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/fivelive/5lnpi/5lnpi_20100806-1113a.mp3
- [ 1] - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t9rqt
- [ 2] - http://www.socialcohesion.co.uk/about-us
- [ 3] - http://durkheim.itgo.com/main.html
- [ 4] - http://www.cctvimage.com/index.php
- [ 5] - http://www.ipcc.gov.uk/stockwell_one.pdf
- [ 6] - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttZhie1tWLs