What’s worse than Big Brother? Little Brother
Tessa Mayes reports on how the British government is recruiting children to spy on and ‘re-educate’ the adult population.
The revelation that Britain’s New Labour government plans to install talking CCTV cameras across the land has rightly been greeted with shock and indignation. These new cameras will not only watch and record our movements, as Britain’s already-existing five million CCTV cameras (that’s one for every 12 citizens) currently do; they will also tell us off. Faceless operators in the CCTV bunkers will use microphones to tell the great unwashed to stop loitering, gathering in crowds, littering, spitting, vandalising and graffiting.
However, one aspect of the new talking CCTV regime went virtually uncommented on: the fact that the government is planning to recruit well-behaved and right-minded children to become the voice of the cameras in certain towns and cities. That’s right – you can now look forward to the prospect of some self-righteous 12-year-old barking orders at you as you walk down the street.
John Reid, the home secretary, announced last week that the government will spend £500,000 on fitting loudspeakers on to CCTV cameras in 20 areas around Britain, including Southwark, Barking and Dagenham in London, and also Reading, Harlow, Norwich, Ipswich, Plymouth, Gloucester, Derby, Northampton, Mansfield, Nottingham, Coventry, Sandwell, Wirral, Blackpool, Salford, South Tyneside and Darlington.
Speaking cams were trialled in Middlesbrough, England, last year – and according to Reid they were a great success. ‘[The cameras] help counter things like litter and drunk or disorderly behaviour, gangs congregating’, he told the morning news show GMTV last week. ‘They are the sorts of things that make people’s lives a misery. Anything that tackles that is better.’
The number of CCTV cameras in Britain has risen exponentially over the past 10 to 15 years. Someone going about his or her daily business in London should expect to be picked up on around 300 cameras over the course of one day. New software breakthroughs mean there are now cameras that have ‘suspicious behaviour recognition’ (they monitor the movement of clusters in the images recorded by CCTV) and even ‘gait recognition’ (cams that judge whether someone is walking too fast, oddly or in some other suspicious fashion).
The rise of the cams speaks to a suspicious and fearful streak in New Labour’s New Britain. And much of the ‘anti-social behaviour’ they are designed to record looks to me less like seriously anti-social behaviour and more just a product of modern living. For example, we all consume more fast food than ever before, yet the decline in street bins (previous governments got rid of them in response to the IRA bombing campaign and the current government never bothered to replace them) means we don’t have anywhere to put our cartons, McDonald’s bags, cups and so on – hence littering. There are also a poverty of public benches, which have been removed by local authorities who feared that they would encourage drunks and gangs of young people to group together in city centres – and not surprisingly drunks and young people have tended to group together elsewhere, in parks, at bus stops, etc.
It is the government that is becoming increasingly anti-social by littering public space with spycams and now noisy megaphones that will embarrass people into changing their behaviour. Instead of providing us with enough bins, street cleaners and park benches, or creating public spaces that encourage free and easy interaction, the killjoy authorities plonk ugly cameras everywhere to monitor our antics.
Strangely, few of the news reports that covered the talking CCTV story mentioned the fact that the government plans to co-opt children to provide the stern voice of reason for some of the cams. This is odd considering that the government seems quite proud of this fact. The Home Office issued a press release headlined ‘Children Remind Adults To Act Responsibly On Our Streets’. It stated that: ‘Children from across the country will be very publicly calling upon the small minority of people who think it is acceptable to act anti-socially on our streets and in our towns to change their ways and take responsibility for their actions….’
The government’s Respect Taskforce has launched a competition in schools around the country, where the top prize kids can win is to become the ‘voice’ of certain CCTV cameras. In the 20 towns and cities that will soon install talking CCTV cameras, schoolchildren are being encouraged to design colourful posters that ‘challenge bad behaviour’. Explicitly, the government says it is ‘encouraging children to use their “pester power” in a positive way – reminding grown-ups how to behave’. Here, the government seems keen to harness the self-righteousness of some kids in an effort to shape and mould adults’ behaviour. The winners of the poster competition will be ‘invited to become the voice of the Talking CCTV in their town or city’s CCTV control room for one day – the day of the switch-on, later this year’. As Louise Casey, head of the Respect Taskforce, says, children will force adults to ‘face the shame of being publicly embarrassed’.
The introduction of talking CCTV cameras looks less like a case of ‘Big Brother gone mad’ and more like ‘Little Brother gone mad’. The government is turning to children in an attempt to get its patronising good-behaviour message across to the adult population. According to Casey, ‘the vast majority (of children) know how to behave and recognise the bad behaviour of others, young and old alike’. The relationship between child and adult is reversed – instead of adults leading and guiding children, children are used to correct the ‘bad behaviour’ of adults.
Worryingly this use of children to advance New Labour’s moral message to adults is not a one-off initiative. The Respect Taskforce and the police have held numerous art competitions encouraging children to draw pictures that show the dangers of anti-social behaviour – the winners’ pics have been used to illustrate safer community leaflets. A recent government report on energy proposed that schoolchildren be used to spread the word about eco-living. As James Woudhuysen pointed out on spiked, the report, titled Our Energy Challenge: Power from the People – Microgeneration Strategy, advances the view that: ‘Education of the next generations in a way that energy efficiency and the need for cleaner energy become an integral part of their mindset can help to influence their future behaviour (and maybe even that of their parents) and move us towards the desired cultural shift….With schools often being the focal point of communities, the installation of renewables could help to shape attitudes in the wider community.’ In short, children can help to instil in adults the new ‘mindset’ on green living. (See Windmills of the mind, by James Woudhuysen.)
Children have also been used in the Department of Health’s adverts warning about the dangers of smoking and lung cancer. One ad featured a mother in the terminal stages of lung cancer. Her daughter was shown expressing her anger and grief at the fact that her mum will die shortly as a result of a disease caused by her own smoking. As spiked contributor Dr Michael Fitzpatrick argued, this was another case of the government using children to chastise adults: ‘This advert is clearly designed to make parents who smoke feel guilty – and to make children of parents who smoke feel angry. Its objective is to use children as an instrument of the campaign to deter adults from smoking.’
‘At a time when a wide range of civil liberties are under threat it is alarming that the strategy of using children to police their parents’ behaviour - reminiscent of totalitarian regimes - provokes so little public disquiet’, wrote Dr Fitzpatrick (see The stigma of smoking, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick).
And now, the recruitment of children to use their ‘pester power’ in order to publicly ‘shame’ adults has also provoked little controversy. The government seems to be turning to children because it cannot justify its petty moral and authoritarian campaigns on their own terms – instead it hopes that we will change our behaviour and become more green / responsible / better-behaved for the sake of the pleading kids. Also, children, as anyone who has come into contact with them will know, can be sanctimonious and self-righteous. Where adults disagree and argue over what counts as civilised behaviour, and what should be done about allegedly uncivilised behaviour, children tend to lap up fairly uncritically messages about what is right and wrong. The government seems keen to harness children’s simplistic views of good and evil in order to whack the adult population over the head.
Using children as spies or educators is the mark of an authoritarian regime. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, children are co-opted by the authorities and tend to become the most vociferous promoters of the right way of thinking. In Chapter 9, Winston Smith finds himself surrounded by a huge crowd on the sixth day of ‘Hate Week’: ‘It was night, and the white faces and the scarlet banners were luridly floodlit. The square was packed with several thousand people, including a block of about a thousand schoolchildren in the uniform of the spies.’
One character, Parsons, ‘proceeds to boast about the “achievements” of his horrible children’: ‘They had tracked a man down and handed him over to the thought police as a traitor on the sole ground that he was wearing strange-looking shoes and had set fire to a woman’s clothes because she wrapped a parcel in a poster of Big Brother. Finally, they had been eavesdropping at their parent’s bedroom door with a listening device to see if any thoughtcrime remarks were made. All of these are presented by Parsons as exploits of which he is very proud!’. In Orwell’s fictional world, adults become subservient to irresponsible, ill-informed, not-yet-developed, gullible and nasty children. Is New Labour in danger of creating similar kinds of kids in Britain 2007?
We need a more critical attitude to the government’s installation of talking CCTV and its recruitment of children as part of its crackdowns on anti-social behaviour. Mike Fagan, community safety co-ordinator for Hastings Statutory Crime and Disorder Partnership, turned down the offer to have talking CCTVs. Why? ‘We didn’t think that talking CCTVs would suit the context of Hastings, the environment here. It was perhaps more appropriate to a larger urban area. I personally don’t think that talking CCTVs are a good thing and that they would achieve results in terms of regulating people’s behaviour,’ he told me.
We could all do with saying no to talking CCTV cameras – whether we live somewhere like Hastings or in ‘larger urban areas’. Yet while the children’s talking CCTV initiative will last for one day only, the day of ‘switch on’ later this year, the political philosophy behind it – that adults are untrustworthy and it is acceptable to get children to tell them off – looks set to stay in place for a lot longer.