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Corona Diaries: are we turning into a nation of watchers?

April 9, 2020

Yesterday Linda Tripp, a former civil servant in the United States, passed away. She became famous, and in some circles infamous, when she made public a confidential conversation in which Monica Lewinsky told her about her sexual relations with President Bill Clinton.

Ms Tripp claimed that she blew the whistle over the priapic president’s extra-curricular activities on the grounds that it was her patriotic duty. Her testimony played a major part in Clinton’s subsequent impeachment.

Not for the first time, a debate raged at the time over whether a greater good was served by what some saw as her betrayal of a confidence. Is it right that a confession to a heinous crime, such as murder, should by protected by client-attorney privilege? Is it right that priest should be absolved of the duty to report a similar confession made in a small wooden cell in a church?

This post is triggered by two British media reports. In the first, from the Guardian, police chiefs are said to be urging the government to impose tighter restrictions on isolation. It also states that several police forces have created online forms for the public to use when they want to report infractions.

In the second report, the BBC quotes the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester as saying that his force broke up 660 parties over the last weekend. They included street parties, fireworks, bouncy castles and parties in people’s homes. What he doesn’t say is where his force got their information. To discover that number of parties without the help of the public would have been a tough job.

So is it right that the police in Great Britain should encourage citizens to report their neighbours for breaking the lockdown rules? Is the risk of creating an informant culture – a standard feature of authoritarian states such as Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR and the post-war East Germany – outweighed by the notional good of calling out behaviour that puts other people potentially in danger of catching COVID-19?

That’s an issue on which we will all no doubt have our own opinions. As does Donald Trump, who famously called his lawyer Michael Cohen a rat for his allegations of presidential wrong-doing, and who is going around merrily firing government inspectors-general, officials who serve as watchdogs to expose actions by government departments that might be illegal or incompetent.

But getting together in groups of more than two, or driving to beauty spots under the pretext of taking exercise, are surely not on a par with murder, or the mighty accidentally spilling seed on an intern’s dress.

My own feeling is that encouraging the public to inform on others is a greater evil than that infractions on social isolation should go unreported. Having said that, the government is placing the police in a tricky position by passing laws that are difficult for them to enforce on their own without the assistance of vigilant citizens lurking behind net curtains.

Equally, the police don’t do themselves any favours by calling for tighter regulations to enforce the lockdown. Their job is surely to present the data to the executive, who then make the appropriate decisions. To use an extreme analogy, how would the public – whether or not they are Daily Mail readers – react if police chiefs called for the re-introduction of the death penalty?

Of course we live in the real world, and police chiefs are making recommendations to the government formally or informally all the time. But lawmakers, our elected representatives, make the law. The government makes decisions according to those laws. The police enforce the law, and if they can’t do so effectively, they have a duty to raise that issue with the government. Only in extreme cases should they delegate their responsibilities to the public.

That’s not to say that informants have no place in a democracy. Convictions for terrorism, gang crimes and acts of violence often rely on information received from the public. But that’s slightly different than sending the police haring after a group of five having a picnic in the park, only to find that the group are a family who live together.

“Reasonable” is a key word often used in the writing of laws – as in reasonable doubt, reasonable behaviour and so forth. The interpretation of reasonable in different situations is what gives, or should give, the law a measure of flexibility.

So perhaps we should be asking whether it’s reasonable for the police to ask the public, on a wide scale by the use of an online form, to report unreasonable behaviour on the part of its neighbours.

Yes, we should all play our part in helping to prevent crime. But do we really want to become a nation of COVID vigilantes? We already have a network of surveillance tools, including increasingly pervasive CCTV coverage. Perhaps the police should seek to use those tools effectively before enlisting the public’s help. And the lawmakers should surely only pass laws that are within the capability of the police to enforce.

I will end with the ritual incantation that the police are doing a good job. Of course they are, and of course we need to support them. But if we all become little police officers, monitoring each other as we go about our lives, for some people that will become a thrilling habit that will be hard to shake off once this emergency is over.

I don’t know the boundary between reasonable and unreasonable, but I do know what sort of country I want to live in. A nation of covert watchers is not it.

From → Politics, Social, UK, USA

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