Crime and law

Lib Dems: the snoopers’ party

Plans to stick cameras on police officers’ jackets tell us all we need to know about the Lib Dems’ commitment to privacy.

Remember when the Liberal Democrats were thought of as staunch supporters of civil liberties? Remember when they purported to stand up for things like privacy and limiting the state’s power to snoop into our lives? No, me neither. But if any of you were ever under the impression that the Lib Dems were valiant defenders of privacy, then now you can be absolutely sure that they wouldn’t know a principled approach to privacy if it marched up to them and stuck a CCTV camera right in their face.

The Lib Dems have just announced that their 2015 manifesto will include a pledge to force certain police officers, including those in the riot squad, to be fitted with body cameras in order to ‘transform community relations’ and ‘restore public confidence in the police’. The pledge was targeted at reducing the misuse of police stop-and-search powers, which the Lib Dems said had been used in a ‘discriminatory way’ against ethnic minorities. However, they said it would also help make justice ‘swifter’ by ‘encouraging suspects to make early admissions to crimes’.

It is an odd time for privacy when a purportedly leftish party nicks its ideas for policing from the police themselves. In May, the Metropolitan Police announced exactly the same plan for all of its officers, on the basis that it would help them ‘capture the emotion of a particular incident’ which ‘could not be captured on paper’. In reality, Met chiefs were expressing a deep distrust of their officers to investigate offences properly. Today’s police are so desperate to claw back a perceived drop in public trust that they will happily turn their officers into walking CCTV units in the hope that they might learn to use their powers properly. 

To justify this move on the basis of improving the police’s exercise of stop-and-search powers is highly disingenuous. A camera cannot show whether a decision to stop someone was racist or not. Fixing a camera to an officer’s jacket is not going to provide evidence of any discriminatory attitudes in the police which, after all, are likely to stay inside a particular officer’s head. What it might do is provide officers with an opportunity to justify their decisions based on the ‘edgy’ or ‘obstructive’ behaviours of those they end up filming. In an age when privacy is held in such low esteem, when the New Labour dictum ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ holds significant sway among the authorities, reacting badly to being stopped could be used by officers to justify making discriminatory decisions. Ironically, capturing the angry reactions of those they stop unfairly could be the perfect way for a discriminatory bobby to get himself off the hook.

Of course, the Lib Dems long ago dropped all pretence at defending privacy. On 4 March this year, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg made a speech on ‘security and privacy in the internet age’, which set out the party’s approach to digital privacy for the next election. After describing privacy as ‘integral to a free, fair and open society’, he went on to list all the ways that his party would enshrine the state’s powers to monitor mass communication. He then furthered the cause of state snooping by failing to insist that the deeply unpopular Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) receive parliamentary scrutiny. This proved unpopular with many of the party faithful, who argued that the bill strengthened the state’s monitoring powers and should be debated. Now, with the announcement of mandatory body cameras for certain police officers, the Lib Dems are once again showing that their concern for privacy is secondary to their insidious drive towards greater state snooping. 

Of course, they are not alone. Today, privacy has completely fallen off the political radar. The Tories have never really cared about privacy and New Labour was one of the most prolific legislators against it in recent years. Now the Lib Dems have followed suit and joined the mainstream assault on the dividing line between us and the powers of the state. To anyone who was under the impression that the Lib Dems would be privacy’s stalwart defender within the coalition government, it should now be clear that the Lib Dems are just as authoritarian and intrusive as their parliamentary colleagues.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practicing criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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