Let them read Heat

Has anybody in Britain actually read ‘1984’
The Independent, 13 October 2005
By Heather Brooke

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.” George Orwell, 1984

It seems appropriate that the author of ‘1984’ was a British citizen. George Orwell must have seen how easily the great British public’s lamb-like disposition toward its leaders could be exploited to create a police state.

Say what you will about Americans, but one thing they are not is passive. The Bush administration may have pushed through the Patriot Act weeks after September 11th, but as the American public got to grips with how the law was affecting their individual rights, their protests grew loud and angry.

Yesterday saw the publication of the Government’s latest Anti-Terror Bill that would give police even more power. The House of Lords, meanwhile, is debating the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and Whitehall is investigating ways to ban former civil servants from publishing their accounts of what happens inside the corridors of power.

There are already nearly 200 pieces of anti-terrorism legislation. What else can be left except thought-crime? The police and politicians have scented power and they want to run it to ground. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair shamelessly demands more laws even while his department is under investigation for shooting dead an innocent Brazilian and covering up the extent of the botched operation

But never underestimate the British public’s lack of interest in serious issues. They may moan and gripe but the most they are likely to do is write a letter to the editor ‘Yours outraged, Tunbridge Wells’. Soon enough they will be back gobbling up their junk diet of celebrity piffle. One can almost here the powers-that-be issuing their proclamation to the masses: ‘Let them read Heat.’

There was a small letter-to-the-editor uprising when 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang was manhandled out of the Labour Party Conference two weeks ago for daring to say ‘nonsense’. But outrage has already faded and will disappear altogether if a celebrity does something interesting, or even slightly boring.

Meanwhile, the public are being banned from protesting within 1km of Parliament. The Serious Crime and Police Powers Act makes it a criminal offence of trespass on a ‘designated site’ for ‘national security’ reasons. These terms are not defined, so it’s likely we’ll see the law used against protestors. Police can also store a person’s details, fingerprints and DNA when arrested. You don’t have to be found guilty for the police to swab your mouth and keep records on you; simply looking suspicious or being in the wrong place at the wrong time is reason enough as David Mery, who was arrested at Southwark tube station, can attest.

I hopped on a London bus recently and found my face broadcast on both decks. The 15-plus cameras are deemed to make us feel safer. It makes me feel violated. Rather than spying on millions of innocent people, I’d feel safer if the police were more open and accountable and told me, for example, how many officers patrol my neighbourhood or the number of times police fail to show up when called. Failures in police intelligence are caused not by being too open with the public, but from being too secretive.

Across government institutional privacy is protected at all costs, while individual privacy is under assault. Yet the passive faces of my bus companions shows a society so dulled into submission they resemble stunned cows lined up for slaughter. I couldn’t help thinking that had I been in America, the people would not stand for this. There would be petitions, leaflets, stickers, protests, maybe even armed violence.

Constant surveillance; files on innocent people, secret trials – these are the hallmarks of a police state, one that is being erected with the meek acceptance of the British public.

Where are the fighters in the UK? Where is the concern that the state is invading every single nook of our privacy? That the police are becoming more politicised and more powerful? That politicians are cloaking themselves in secrecy under the guise of national security for the most ridiculous of reasons.

What should happen is this – we should give no more power to the state without the state giving something to us. If the government wants to keep a database of our identities, then it should publish its entire staff directory so we can see who is doing what at taxpayer expense. If the police want to detain people for longer periods, they must tell us who these people are and what they are accused of doing; they must provide enough evidence to a judge to warrant such internment.

Here’s what you can do: find out the name of your MP and write to them in Parliament or send a fax at www.writetothem.com. See what they say on anti-terror laws or on ID cards at www.theyworkforyou.com, attend a local council meeting, start asking questions and demand accountability from all those public bodies who take your money. You could even form a citizens group or donate money to an existing pro-democracy campaign such as Liberty, Justice, Inquest, www.Mysociety.org. The alternative is real life Big Brother with all the grainy grimness of a CCTV photoshoot.

This is the full version of the article in yesterday’s newpaper.

Tags:

2 Responses to “Let them read Heat”

  1. David Mery says:

    Heather,

    Thanks for your article and your link to my story. You can find an updated version at http://gizmonaut.net/bits/suspect.html

    As you do, I’ve also listed in the web version ways readers can act. There’s a convenient shortcut: http://gizmonaut.net/act

    Regarding your initial quote, experiencing this constant surveillance in a closer, more direct way in the police station cell was very unnerving. Not knowing whether someone was watching the camera footage or when someone would pop his/her eye behind the eyehole makes one think in very practical terms of Bentham’s panopticon.

    As you pointed out in your WSFII session getting good data is very difficult. See http://gizmonaut.net/bits/propaganda.html which is very much an opinion piece. I’d be very interested to make it more factual, but there doesn’t seem to be any (easy) way to get data on Police actions. Two interesting investigative articles with actual data I read recently are: http://www.guardian.co.uk/attackonlondon/comment/story/0,16141,1551418,00.html and http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1586887,00.html

    br -d

  2. Hi Heather…

    I am surprised that it has taken so long for all of us to connect Orwell’s 1984 with the current state of world affairs, particularly after passage of the USA Patriot Act. Your article does an excellent job of illustrating the passivity of the Brits but I must tell you that, aside from the Patriot Act, the American public is “out-to-lunch” on both government’s and businesses’ takeover of our names and personal data in the U.S. I hope you don’t mind my quoting and linking to your article: http://thedunningletter.blogspot.com/2005/10/did-george-orwells-1984-predict-todays.html. I am on a rampage to pass federal legislation in the U.S. that gives consumers control over their names and private information. At least the United Kingdom’s Data Ptotection Act of 1998 offers some safeguards, but falling short of my concept of individual control.

    If you like my blog and want to link to me, I will certainly reciprocate.

    Keep up the great work!

    Jack

    Jack E. Dunning
    The Dunning Letter
    Cave Creek, AZ, USA

Leave a Reply