We need a debate about our Big Brother state

Big Brother is already watching you, but police body cameras create a whole new dimension.

Amanda Coleman: corporate comms director, Greater Manchester Police
Amanda Coleman: corporate comms director, Greater Manchester Police

We all accept that we are caught on camera on a daily basis. When we are in city and town centres, there are cameras watching us. When we go into shops, there are cameras watching us. When many of us go to work, there are cameras watching us. The latest expansion of this is the introduction of body-worn cameras by the police and local authorities.

Police in the US claim the cameras have reduced the number of complaints about officers’ behaviour. In the UK, they are now being used regularly by police forces, as well as by local authorities for problems such as fly-tipping and illegal parking. When CCTV was introduced, there was a huge debate about the balance between surveillance to protect people and the impact on the rights of individuals.

Body cameras create a new dimension and are in danger of damaging fundamentally the trust people have in public services. Every interaction between officials and the public could soon be caught on camera. But for what purpose? Do people really have so little confidence in those in authority that they need video evidence of any discussion?

We are a long way from living in a society that needs cameras to record all conversations. Surveys following ‘Plebgate’ have shown that most people still have confidence in the police.

Despite the headlines, this has not changed. This trust is something we need to build on, and introducing close-quarters surveillance has the potential to permanently change the way in which people speak to officials. There will be concern that footage will be held by institutions or used for entertainment, and that people may stop talking to officials to avoid being filmed.

After years during which public sector communicators have been working to ensure openness and transparency, and to break down barriers, this could be a huge retrograde step. It should be done only with a majority agreement from the people who are going to be under the spotlight. Otherwise, we will find ourselves living an Orwellian reality where Big Brother is in control; where we trust nothing unless we have video evidence.

So what do we need to do now to ensure we don’t unsettle the balance between the state and the individual? And what is the role for public sector communicators in this?

We must have a sensible public debate about the extent of state surveillance, what the benefits are and whether they outweigh the loss of privacy. Only if people feel able to make their views known and have a say in developments can we avoid a feeling of expanding state control. Introducing body cameras must be done with the consent of the public if we are not to cause irreparable damage to relations between people and the officials who are supposed to be helping them.

Public sector communicators must use their experience to  open up the debate in a meaningful way. There is no room for media-led hysteria, otherwise we will lose a valuable opportunity to discuss the kind of society in which we want to live.

Amanda Coleman is corporate comms director at Greater Manchester Police

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