Monday, June 16, 2008

Column, June 19, 2007

THE thing about Orwell is that people never get him quite right.
Take Room 101 for instance. Now it has become a tame BBC celeb-show, famously consigning all of us to Room 101 when Anne Robinson was a guest.
What the forget is that in Orwell’s vision of the future Room 101 was not some dustbin to which you consigned those things you hated. It was a place were the things you most feared resided and you would be tortured by being put in there with them.
Likewise the title of his novel, 1984, was misread when 1984 came and went and we didn’t have a spy camera in every room in every home.
When he wrote 1984 Orwell was not behaving like some literary Mystic Meg, making predictions for specific dates. He merely reversed the year he was writing in 1948 became 1984 – it just meant ‘the future.’
And now those who sneered in 1984 about the absence of brotherly surveillance from our lives might like to pause in silent apology to Orwell’s foresight.
The spies may not be state-imposed, wall-mounted devices and the television turned out to be much more benign than the spy we have invited into our homes – the personal computer.
We all use them and they sit there quietly logging every last thing we look at, everything we buy, every message we send. Of course, no-one looks at these records of our every last mouse-click – until they need to. And then, if we’ve done nothing wrong we’ve got nothing to fear have we?
Now it emerges thanks to the Liberal Democrats that one in five Welsh children aged between 10 and 17 has their DNA on the national DNA database.
Of course, if they’ve done nothing wrong they’ve got nothing to fear have they?
Lembit Opik, revealing this shocking statistic said: “It is clear ministers see no limits in their haste to invade our privacy.”
This includes some children under the age of 10. So they’re too young to be criminally responsible as far as the courts are concerned, but not too young to be recorded as far as this government is concerned.
Of course it’s always dressed up as the fight for law and order, the war on terrorism or such like. But tell me this, as the surveillance society crept up on us webcam by webcam, have you notice how peaceful and law-abiding we have become?
In fact you almost have to applaud the genius of the criminal community for carrying on in their chosen way of life in the face of increasing odds that their face will be captured for posterity, or at least Crimewatch, and Nick Ross will be warning viewers not to have nightmares about them.
The incredible thing is that when Orwell wrote his book it was seen as almost impossible that free British people would ever allow themselves to become the subject of such intrusive state scrutiny.
Yet here we are 60 years later and we’ve welcomed it in with open arms. Not only that, we buy most of the surveillance kit that Big Brother needs out of our own pockets. We buy the PCs and webcams and mobile phones and pay for the internet connections and e-mails.
Of course, if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to fear have you?
Just one small thing.
Who decides what’s wrong?
Who was it that decided it would be a good idea to have 20 per cent of the Welsh child population on a DNA database?
You’ll never find an individual, it will just be a succession of small decisions by middle-ranking bureaucrats and so little by little we stop being free.
Instead of walking down the street knowing no-one can interfere with us as long as we are obeying the law, now we cast a nervous glance over our shoulder to see who is watching to check that we are obeying the law.
Soon we will have to take that walk carrying an identity card carrying biometric data confirming we are who we say we are, and we’ll have to show that to a police officer if he or she asks.
That’s not freedom. You’re not free if you’re walking the streets on sufferance, so long as you can produce your papers.
How did we get here? Well we started down this road by believing politicians when they told us lies. They are people who believe they can run our lives for us, and they love seeing our every move, because they believe they can run our lives better, if only they could control us a little more.
Of course DNA is a useful tool to the police and the more people who are on it the better chance of catching criminals.
But here’s the thing. Most criminals, when they offend, don’t even give detection a second thought, they all think they’ll get away with it, database or no.
In the meantime the law-abiding majority have the freedoms they cherish snatched away from them all in the name of law and order.
Under this government this shows no sign of abating and so when you realise how right Orwell was, don’t say you weren’t warned.

AND just in case you were of the opinion that the surveillance society had made us more law abiding, think on.
It was announced last week that prisons in England and Wales were just 481 places away from capacity.
A few tasty nights in cities across the country and they will have to hang the ‘no vacancies’ sign on the door.
So, the option is stop sending so many people to prison, or build more prisons. But where to build when every plan attracts an outraged petition from people who don’t want and prison on their doorstep?
Something has got to give and given the fact that we have the highest prison population per head in Europe , then perhaps its magistrates’ penchant for throwing the book at every offender.

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