Videomania in George Orwell's Homeland

By Cheshire, Jack | UNESCO Courier, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Videomania in George Orwell's Homeland


Cheshire, Jack, UNESCO Courier


Satirist Mark Thomas uses the law to sidestep the UK's ubiquitous surveillance cameras

Brits may appear to be paragons of discretion but actually we're a nation of voyeurs and exhibitionists. For the past 25 years, the government and citizens have been installing closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) in the most banal places: train stations, buses, airports, town centres and even telephone booths. We have hidden cameras in the changing rooms of shops and parade before men in uniform with cameras tucked inside their police helmets.

George Orwell's homeland has the most surveillance cameras per capita in the world: one for every 55 people, according to a recent study by the University of Hull. In 1995 almost 80 percent of the Home Office's crime prevention budget went into funding new cameras. And the private sector now accounts for about 30 percent of the market, worth [pound]150 million ($210 million) a year according to conservative estimates, and growing 15 to 20 percent annually.

In the words of former Home Secretary Michael Howard, "CCTV catches criminals, spots crimes, identifies lawbreakers and helps convict the guilty," yet there has never been an official Home Office assessment of the cameras' impact on crime rates. Only weeks ago, it emerged that the Scottish Parliament has no information on the number of convictions resulting from evidence gathered by CCTV. And yet, James Ditton, a professor at the Scottish Centre for Criminology, reported in 1999 that the 32 cameras in Glasgow city centre had produced just one arrest every 40 days.

Indeed the exponential growth of CCTV has been accompanied by rising crime rates and falling numbers of police on the streets. Crime rates doubled between 1980 and 1990 and reached an all-time high last year at 5.22 million, with violent crimes rising eight percent nationally. On any one night in London, a city of seven million people, only 300 police officers are actually on patrol, according to the Police Federation.

Sketches, Lies & videotape

So let's scratch the crime prevention argument and return to the original hypothesis: an obsession with surveillance for social control--which seems only fitting given that the British don't have a legally enshrined right to privacy. But we do have data protection legislation, first introduced in 1984 and reinforced in March 2000, which gives citizens the right to see and correct personal information kept by anyone--government, company or fellow citizen.

I work with Mark Thomas, who spends a lot of time in front of and behind cameras for the TV programme, "The Mark Thomas Product." So in the spirit of public service, we have sought to uphold the new law. According to the guidelines, CCTV operators must register their activities with the government, which is good news because just about anyone can install a camera anywhere. Quite logically, we made our first stop at a security industry exhibition. Of about 200 exhibitors, we discovered that 127 had failed to register and were therefore breaking the law. We invited them to the exhibition's cyber cafe to register online. Most declined and we were soon ejected from the conference but not before the organizers had drafted a letter to all exhibitors, notifying them of their legal obligations.

We then stumbled upon an interesting phrase in the act: "the same legally enforceable information-handling standards as have previously applied to those processing personal data on computer now cover CCTV." Translation: any identifiable individual filmed by a camera now has the right to obtain a copy of those images. This is a satirist's dream. If we are to be filmed half our lives, then we want the footage for a 40-year long out-of-home video. Perhaps this is the real reason for the new law: why else would it stipulate that operators put their contact information on each camera?

This took us to our next stop, Britain's privatized and chaotic railways. …

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