Given the recent furore over the current government’s policies, I haven’t seen too many people blog about last night’s Dispatches: Stealing Freedom with Peter Hitchens, detailing the various assaults on civil liberty the government have been inflicting. It uncovered some stories which were both fascinating and repugnant, such as the trainspotter given a full bodily search after having the temerity to stand up to a stationmaster, or the student who despite being totally innocent of any crime had his fingerprints kept on file after witnessing a bar fight, and was later arrested for mail tampering; it turned out his prints were on the letters in question as he, er, had posted them himself. Particularly craven was First Flatmate Lord Falconer (a man who has never been elected by anyone to political office in his life, yet sees fit to pontificate about how to best govern) justify retaining the fingerprints and biometrics of all innocent people on file, just in case it helps solve a crime. Maybe Hitchens realised it would be too tabloid and cheap to ask whether Falconer himself would willingly hand over his prints to the police despite his (presumed) innocence, and he would be right…. but he really should have done.
Sadly, Hitchens’ sense of history and sociology let him down – he happily suggested that the (in his view) leftish opinion of crime being solely a product of social deprivation rather than individual nature was a prime motivation, even though New Labour have happily maintained the gulf between rich and poor and done little to improve life chances. Hitchens himself studiously avoided anyone poor or dodgy-sounding; even the least likeable victims of the government’s thought police, a strictly religious couple who politely wrote to their local council’s objecting to its policy on same-sex partnerships and were subsequently threatened with a hate crime charge, were still respectably middle-class. The poor and deprived have been targeted more than anyone else – council estate teenagers slapped with ASBOs or with their DNA taken by the police, Muslim terror suspects stopped and searched at stations or detained without charge, did not feature at all in Hitchens view.
As well as that, he (along with his chum Freddie Forsyth) couldn’t help make a snipe at Europe, with a sweeping generalisation that Napoleon’s invasion of the continent 200 years ago has created a continental attitude that the police there are agents of the state (I’m no expert on the history of European law but even I know there is more to it than that) while ours are agents of the law; tell that to the Birmingham Six, or the family of Jean Charles de Menezes. Don’t get me wrong – our boys in blue are not devils, but they are not flawless paragons of jurisprudence either.
In all, it was hit and miss. Hit in that it provided well-told, concrete examples of how the impingement of freedoms affects us all; miss in that it quite obviously served Hitchens’ belief of who “us” was. Hit in that he made Falconer a tit of himself and show him to be the craven, spineless headline grabber he is, but miss as Hitchens failed to land a killer blow. Hit in that it showed the terrifying potential for misuse in a national identity database without sufficient legal protections, but it failed to make any sort of sustained or unified critique on the crucial difference between post-surveillance and pre-surveillance; the former uses specifically extracted information to detect and punish crime during or after it has taken place, the latter uses vast pools of data (partially complete at best) to try and divine behaviour and civil conformance – something that even our erstwhile continental chums have not tried. CCTV tied with facial recognition, a crackdown on dissent and opting out from the conformance, virtually compulsory identity cards with RFID, police powers to retain your fingerprints and DNA regardless of guilt, with underlying dire warnings of how the terrorists/criminals/extremists/dole scroungers will “win” if you do not comply – these are all backed up with centralised databases controlled by an executive with as few checks and balances as it is willing to allow. These new systems (or rather, components of a much larger supersystem), simultaneously technological, legal and social, are new and menacingly revolutionary. Hitchens’ underlying tone that we are slipping back to the Dark Ages, going the same way as many other illiberal regimes, was misguided; where we are heading if this continues unchecked, while just as menacing, is distinctly new and uncharted territory.
Before this starts to ramble (if it hasn’t already) I’ll stop. I have not been as perceptive or clear-headed as I have would have liked recently – I think it’s a lack of sleep. In related news, Liberty Central is up and running and there’s plenty more there to chew on, so head over there and take a look. I’ll be back once I’ve had some shut-eye…