Fear Itself

by Quinn

These are worrying times. Only the other day my son, barely 3 years old, told me he was going to carry a little plastic knife around with him when we went out in case he got into trouble with some bigger boys. I was truly shocked that things have come to this in 21st Century Britain. I mean, unless a giant plasticine man mugs him, that plastic thing is less than useless. So now I send him to nursery packing a good old-fashioned 5-inch flick knife. Just what are they teaching our kids these days? Plastic knife indeed!

But fear is much on people’s minds. Last week the news led on a couple of stories; our ever more dysfunctional teenagers, and the creep towards a surveillance state. ASBO’s are seen as a badge of honour, while CCTV cameras monitor our every move. Any more acronyms? Anyone? No? Just the two then.

Newsnight covered the story and treated us to a discussion featuring some experts on youth crime, and someone else called Nick Ferrari. Ferrari was described as a “broadcaster” so I have no idea what personal knowledge he brought to the party. Perhaps it is now the programme makers’ policy to invite random members of unrelated professions to debate in the interests of contrast; this weeks discussion of the US mid-terms will feature a French baker, while an article on climate change will canvas the learned opinions of an occupational therapist.

I’ve seen this Ferrari bloke before, and as ever he talked a right load of prancing pony (do you see what I did there?). It takes a real talent I feel to disengage your brain so fully and so keep a straight face while talking about “prisons being holiday camps with colour tvs” and police who will “jump on you in seconds if you eat a chocolate bar while driving” but will let the burglars be. Can someone tell me the point of Nick Ferrari? What is it for? Wikipedia inform me that he is a talk radio presenter in London, but I don’t see why that means he has to be foisted upon the majority of the population fortunate enough to lie outside the range of LBC’s transmitters.

Anyway, I digress. That Newsnight programme discussed the ever-faster descent of the nation’s youth into alcopop-fuelled, hoodie hell; and this grim opinion went unchallenged. Meanwhile the CCTV issue was raised, that we are being watched every second of our waking lives, with again no dissenting opinion on view. Needless to say we were once more shown that same CCTV footage of those same lads smashing the window of that van (as I posted on here; my Wife and I cheered when it inevitably appeared); they are the sort of ASBO flaunting youths who would no doubt be causing all our problems, were it not for the fact that the featured film is so old that both gents are currently on a SAGA mini-break. Much was made on Newsnight of the irony that that our lives are ever more monitored while our fear of crime is higher than ever.

But is it an irony, really, that problems with ASBO’s and CCTV cameras, apparently contradictory fears, are in the news at the same time? Are they not really just different examples of the same thing, of people’s irrational fears, lovingly stoked by the media and government for their own ends?

Perhaps there was a halcyon age when people left their doors unlocked and youths were little angels; that is when they weren’t scrumping (ie. stealing) apples. I don’t know. What I do reckon though is that the “yoofs” are largely no worse than in my day, which was a wee while ago. For as long as I can remember people have complained about the “youth of today”, with civilisation so far having failed to collapse as a result. Yes gangs of hooded youths on street corners can seem intimidating, but when I walk past them into the off-licence they tend to ignore me; and why shouldn’t they? I’m really not that interesting. Perhaps I would feel different if I lived in a different area, but as most of the loudest critics of today’s kids are classic middle Englanders, rather than people from “the projects”, I’m not sure how relevant that is to this discussion.

This fear of youths, of course, is one of the reasons, or excuses, for the build up of CCTV cameras, so to some extent the two issues are entwined. To return the favour, you would think that the fact that there are, apparently, hordes of youths causing mayhem every night in defiance of the surveillance society would point out that we are not yet in the age of Big Brother; but no. I think a genuine concern about creeping totalitarianism is certainly valid, but exaggerating it is just daft. It is true that technology enables databases all over the place containing all sorts of personal information about us; but I am more concerned that there could possibly be anyone out there so dull that they would actually want to pore over the details of how I have earned my Nectar points. Yes, unscrupulous people accessing your private details is a concern, but was ever thus; that problem is one of unscrupulous people. Of course there are CCTV cameras everywhere, but usually, whenever I am potentially being watched by CCTV operators I am also potentially being watched by loads of other people, be it shoppers on the High Street or curtain twitching neighbours. Again, I really don’t think I am so interesting for people to bother; my confidence is less about “having nothing to hide”, more that I can’t believe anyone can be arsed to monitor my activity that closely. I suppose it is possible in theory that all the disparate databases could be pulled together so that everything I do is being scrutinised by the state, but quite frankly that suggests a level of competency and resources that our security services haven’t shown to date.

But if it is the media and government that are stoking the fear, to some extent that is because they are feart themselves. Fear has got us here, because fear sells. The likes of the Mail and the Express are petrified of being outflanked by each other in lamenting the way Britain is going to the dogs, and so each runs more exaggerated and outlandish stories pointing out where they think it is all going wrong. And government, when not merely attacking civil liberties for their own sake, often responds out of fear of being seen to be doing nothing. Many will decry actions that smack of the intrusive state and breaches of confidentiality; but come the next rise in recorded street crime, or the next terrorist outrage, or the next tragic death of a child who has slipped through the social services net, how many of those same people will complain of the lack of legal sanctions, or the poor quality of the intelligence services, or how the various authorities haven’t adequately shared their masses of separate information?

Can I suggest we calm down a little and get things in perspective? Or am I being complacent and naïve? Probably I am. I may change my mind about the nation’s youth if in the next minute a brick smashes through the window and whistles past my ear. I know that some youths do cause serious problems for people and make their lives hell; but I also feel that much is exaggerated and that the fear of youths is far greater than the reality. With regards the surveillance state, I don’t think we should just trust government to get it right, I still oppose ID cards and I don’t think the police should be given carte blanche to flick through our medical records like they are a copy of Hello! magazine, we should demand safeguards that any information that is stored is only ever used for specific and justifiable reasons. We should concentrate on the real dangers, to prevent information itself being misused, not on hyperbolic nonsense about our lives being on hard drives and of cameras constantly tracking us.

So let’s not be too scared of those hooded youths outside Spar; they’re probably more interested in copping off than with mugging you. Who cares if you are on CCTV all the time? The chances are that no one’s bothering to watch.

Let’s all chill out a bit.