How to write a David Aaronovitch column

26 February 2008

Step 1: Go ad hominem from the very start and label your opponents as being part of some mythical self-styled intellectual commentariat (while ignoring just how eminently qualified you are yourself to belong to that same cadre):

It has become an intelligentsia default position, or IDP for short, that we in Britain are – as one of my favourite intellectuals put it the other day – ?sleepwalking into a surveillance society?

Step 2: Posit a false dichotomy and put your opponent at one extreme end of it:

So would Garton Ash really rather be freer and less safe to the extent of having less chance of catching a rapist or murderer?

Step 3: RePush the boat out even more – emphasise how the bad men will get you if you don’t do what they say. Go for the heart-tugging “as a father” line if need be:

How do we measure my right not to feel discomfited by CCTV or DNA testing, against that of, say, Justine Kelly, who was 18 – one year older than my oldest daughter – when she was raped by Lloyd

Step 4: When all else fails, wring your hands and play the race card. You racists!

A database of existing offenders in particular categories also means that certain ethnic groups are far more likely to be recorded than others, and therefore are far more likely to be successfully prosecuted in future.

Ask a sub-editor to top it off by giving it the headline “Ignore the paranoid fantasists” and voila! Instant column!

Of course, everything Aaronovitch bases his argument, for a universal DNA database of everyone in this country, is disingeuous. Having your personal data in state hands doesn’t make you more secure, and I’m not just talking about your bank records and NI numbers – all it takes is one dodgy copper and you can have an innocent man hounded to death in their home by a mob. Of course, measures such as a DNA database can be enormously useful in solving individual crimes, but only when targeted correctly and with care, and as one component of an investigation. Taking DNA indiscriminately makes suspects of us all and in turn weakens further the trust the citizen holds in the state.

The central tenet of Aaronovitch’s argument – that there is dichotomy between security and privacy – is a false one, both intellectually and empirically. A strong defence of human rights and civil liberties does not make us less safe – where you would rather live, the Netherlands or North Korea? What’s oddest about this dichotomy is how those that use it are so happy to pick & choose where they are. The current government and many of its cheerleaders (such as Aaronovitch) have long insisted on a more intrusive state, whether it be via a national identity register, DNA fingerprinting of all or monitoring of our phone calls and emails, all in the name of preserving our security at no cost, while scoffing at what they regard as out-of-date ideas of “liberty” and “rights”. Yet on the other hand they support the invasion of other countries in the name of liberty, all the while making ominous comparisons to Hitler and other historical events. The result is that the deaths of thousands of civilians in a foreign land can be justified by the emergence of a nascent democracy (no matter how flawed or chaotic) yet a few high-profile criminal cases on our own shores mean suddenly principles are cleanly forgotten. A question of mere distance clouding judgement, or just simple hypocrisy?


2 Responses

Nice summary of Mr Aaronovitch there. I also like the way he casually tosses in sentences like ‘A very clever person said to me at the weekend that the ubiquity of CCTV meant that she felt ?constantly watched?’, thereby implying what…? That this person is letting down their intelligence (unlike Aaronovitch) by being being concerned about privacy. Do only stupid people care about liberty?

And I don’t think that the government’s inconsistent approach to the intrusive state and foreign invasions is necessarily straight distance clouding judgement or hypocrisy. It’s probably a combination of both – it’s lets-do-what-the-Americans-tell-us clouding judgement and appealing-to-the-Daily-Mail-readership hypocrisy…

Thank you for that concise and accurate comment on Mr Aaronovitch’s opinions on CCTV.

I actually agree with Cocktails: the government is always very eager to be seen to please the sort of people who read the Daily Mail.

Still, the Mail is pretty funny. It’s just too bad it’s (apparently) taken so seriously by those in power.

Keep up the good work Chris!