London & The Public Eye

Film, London

My friend Michele draws my attention to an article in the Washington Examiner that talks about DC expanding public surveillance with a network of cameras, to be modelled on the type of system used in London, which has the largest CCTV system in the world.

She and the paper both complain about the ‘Big Brother’ aspect of the system, and of course they are right to express their concerns, as we should – particularly as London doesn’t have to operate under the same civil liberty protections as US cities.

But there are clear differences the paper doesn’t mention. One is that, as a Londoner, I have lived through a great many terrorist attacks, from the IRA to disaffected Muslim extremists. I remember bomb attacks in Knightsbridge and Park Lane, Oxford Street and King’s Cross – certainly well into double figures – and a variety of hostage situations. To my knowledge, far fewer US cities have experienced terrorism at this level.

The other factor is harder to quantify or even practically explain. Why have Londoners, a generally voluble and protest-oriented lot, been less vocal about the proliferation of cameras? I suspect that it’s partly to do with general attitudes toward the public regulation of behaviour.

When I lived in the US I was always shocked that the police were so quick to arrest and put someone in jail overnight. That was a while back – they may be much less heavy-handed now. But living in King’s Cross, the busiest part of Europe’s busiest city, I’m always amazed by police tolerance for wild public behaviour. On Saturday night around here it’s utter madness, and yet I usually see the local cops hanging out with the drunks in fancy dress who flood out of the tube. There would be no question of arresting someone for having a bit of rowdy fun.

Once I went to court as a witness in an assault case, and the police argued that the assailant should be let off ‘because it was a Saturday night and he was pissed’. I wonder if a side effect of this generally laissez faire attitude is to assume that CCTVs won’t be used to undermine civil liberties, Certainly, it doesn’t seem to be a big topic for concern among friends.

The erosion of civil liberties must never be taken lightly, and there are certainly opportunities for harm here. But I certainly feel safer on the public transport system (which I use every single day – I hardly ever drive a car) and am glad of it. Whether I’d be so comfortable in Washington is another matter entirely.

4 comments on “London & The Public Eye”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    The other thing you see in London is police strolling down the street. They’re not obviously ‘patrolling’, just strolling. If anything were to happen I’m reasonably sure the stroll would change into something else. Somehow I’m more comfortable with that than with spotting a patrol car drifting through the neighbourhood. There have been so many incidents recorded on people’s cell phones that I wouldn’t worry about surveillance cameras. The cameras would protect us from some very ill intentioned police, though.

  2. BangBang!! says:

    I don’t always have quite the faith in the police that some have. The bolier-suited thugs with taped out numbers at various protests don’t fill me with a lot of confidence (and I have family members in the force).

    Having said that, I’ve had good dealings with some and bad with others – that’s life really.

    On a lighter note, I go to a few festivals and to be fair the peelers are usually pretty cool. About 10 years ago I asked one what the charge would be for knocking his helmet off with a snowball – probably breach of the peace and a 50 quid fine. A couple of years ago the guy said it would now probably be assault. That’s inflation for you.

  3. Alan Morgan says:

    It was bad around the late 80s and early 90s, when off the estates and there was a fair chance of being stopped and hassled, or twice picked up and intimidated in a van and dropped off a few miles away. Then there was the Poll Tax, Brixton, Parliament Square and other riots – all in an increasing circle. As the plod got heavier people kicked back harder, as people kicked back harder – the plod got heavier. Likewise to BangBang the covered numbers. Also the snatches and beatings at demos – the up-for-it footie mentality. But like anything and any body it’s people, and people are different.

    I was last stopped and questioned a couple of years back, in Euston station. By a CSO who wanted to know what I was doing there. ‘In a train station?’ I replied in a spiral of question-answering-question. I eventually discovered when a real Policeman turned up that I had been acting suspiciously. Such action being as far as I could make out not shuffling around looking at my feet like a local. Since I’ve been in London about six days in the last two years, that sorta happened last week by count of days.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Taping over the numbers seems rather stupid to me. “Look at me! I’m a police officer who is going to do something against regulations and you can’t charge me ’cause you can’t record my number!” Isn’t that ‘intent’? I’ve had a couple of positive exchanges with police (RCMP in our area) and a couple of negative ones, but I remember the negative ones much more clearly than the positive ones. That’s probably normal. Transit police are the worst. My husband says it’s because they want to be ‘real’ cops. Our transit cops now ‘carry’ and if that doesn’t make you nervous, it should.

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