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Article
27 June 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

No privacy in public?

by Tessa Mayes

If everything we did in public was replayed back to us on film, we would probably have a compulsion to leave the country. Why? Because even though we are in a public place, generally we don't wander around thinking our movements are under surveillance by others 24 hours a day - even though we can see CCTV cameras all over the high street.

Even in a public place, we feel we have some privacy. But how much privacy do we actually have?

This is what Geoff Peck is trying to find out. In 1995, Peck cut his wrists in a suicide attempt in the town centre of Brentwood, Essex. This was filmed by the council's CCTV system and the police were called. Although Peck applauded CCTV for saving his life, he is taking Brentwood Council to the European Court of Human Rights (his case was recently declared admissible). Without his knowledge, the council released CCTV footage of his actions to the media. Suddenly, everybody knew about (and could see) his suicide bid.

One can only feel sorry for Geoff Peck. We may all know about CCTV's existence in every major high street, but we don't expect to become prime-time TV heroes as a result. While engaged in a self-destructive act, no doubt CCTV was the last thing on Peck's mind. His appearance on Anglia Television and the BBC's Crime Beat must have been quite a shock.

Peck's case is seen as a battle of an ordinary man's right to indulge in a private act in a public place, versus the right of the council to use CCTV footage for public consumption. As Philip Leach, Geoff Peck's solicitor and author of the book Taking a Case to the European Court of Human Rights, wrote in a national newspaper: 'It is welcome that the extent of personal privacy is being tested here not by a celebrity but by "the man in the street".' (1)

Yet on the other hand, if Peck's case is argued as the right of ordinary people to demand privacy from being filmed in a public place by anybody, then his case is not a cause for celebration. If the council loses the case on the basis that filming in public places constitutes an infringement of privacy generally, the courts are going to have to ban not only councils from using CCTV cameras, but other ordinary people with cameras.

Britain is considered the most watched country in the world
Peck's case will degenerate into the right of one individual to have privacy in a public street, versus another's right to do private activities such as using a camera. And if Peck wins on this basis, then public places will become less public and less free for every man in the street.

There is a crucial issue about privacy in public spaces, but that issue is - who is invading people's privacy on a public high street in the first instance? The original spirit of the Human Rights Act article 8 on privacy was to guard against the state intrusion of citizens' privacy. There is something manifestly more powerful and oppressive in the state's use of CCTV in a street, than there is in an individual waving a camera around.

Officialdom's surveillance of Britons is intensifying, as indicated by the proposals, in June 2001, to treble the number of CCTV speed cameras (2). Already, there are so many CCTV cameras everywhere (Britain is considered the most watched country in the world), that even if we don't think about it 24 hours a day, there is the possibility that we are being filmed 24 hours a day.

Given this context, Peck's other claim - that TV companies who invade privacy by using the council's footage should be required to provide a remedy - is clearly not very progressive either. There is a difference between journalists and the state - and calling for the state to restrict free expression by the media, on the grounds of protecting individuals' privacy, only restricts our liberties further.

What is worrying is how far it is accepted that the public arena requires such heavy state regulation and surveillance in the first place. The right of the state to transform public spaces into Panopticon-style environments, and local council officials and the police into voyeurs, is what needs to be monitored and challenged. Otherwise, all Geoff Pecks will lose a fundamental right - the right to be free from state scrutiny in a public place.

Tessa Mayes is a journalist and the editor of Disclosure: Media Freedom and the Privacy Debate After Diana, published by the LIRE media group, 1998.

Read on:

TV UK, 31 January, by Dolan Cummings

A princely approach to privacy, by Tessa Mayes

Camera Shy, by Tessa Mayes

spiked-issue: Privacy

(1) 'Keep out: it's my life - when does the man in the street have the right to privacy', The Times, 12 June 2001

(2) 'A speed camera on every corner', Daily Mail, 11 June 2001

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