The Walls Have Eyes

23Mar09

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In 1940, the Bosch were poised to make their bold step over the English Channel and take Britain as if on a chess-board. Her Majesty’s Government’s reaction was as decisive in dispensing fear among it’s gullible population as it is today.

Its propaganda campaign fed on its citizens’ hysteria. When village church bells tolled, they were told, Nazi Stormtroopers dressed as nuns would be dropping by parachute to spearhead the invasion. Captain Mainwaring, Corporal Jones et al would be at the barricades in Walmington-on-Sea with pitchforks and WW1 rifles to give the Hun a good hiding when they came trundling up the high street. Fifth Columnist sympathisers were apparently lurking in our pubs and idle gossip would endanger lives because, as the catchy saying went, ‘the walls have ears.’ iSpy-itis was rife but no-one cared to question the wisdom or misinformation that spread so efficiently at a time when Facism was knocking at our door.

Fast-forward to March 2009 and the authorities again hold their breath before the newest threat to our society in the years before the highly-prized 2012 Olympics. The Metropolitan Police’s recent campaign has been unleashed in our broadcast and print media to seduce Londoners, asked by security officials to trust their instincts and report “.. Some of the items/activities which may be needed by, or be of use to, terrorists.”

We heard our first radio ad at the weekend. There is some background audio of consumers out spending what little disposable income they have left, then an actor’s voice-over calmly explains a best-case scenario: “This is the sound of a bomb not going off at a busy shopping centre because a shopper reported that someone was studying the CCTV cameras.” A pause, then the voice of Big Brother again: “If you see something suspicious, call the confidential anti-terrorist hotline on 0800 789 321 ..”

Some years ago I was asked, ironically by a German magazine, to photograph a story on the epidemic of CCTV cameras in the UK and about their use or misuse. I visited Coventry where the city centre was spied upon from a secret bunker by an army of personnel who zoomed in on unsuspecting hoodies. I also roamed the City of London and made landscape pictures that revealed the sheer number of discrete wall-mounted eyes outside institutions, stations and tourist sites. We questioned whether such invasive scrutiny was necessary and whether those darkroom operators really had the right idea about state security when, instead of spotting tea-leafs, they were twisting their joysticks to peer down young girls’ summer tops as they eat lunch underneath.

Had I been given that assignment now, I can imagine the amount of trouble I would land myself in by simply taking the pictures with which to answer those legitimate questions.

One scenario might be as follows: A suit is in his office and on the phone to his wife and notices me outside photographing the Guildhall. Now he hates photographers because his sister was once stalked by the paps so he immediately ends his call and re-dials the anti-terrorist hotline. Within an hour, I am in an interview room at Bishopsgate nick with two plain-clothes officers who want to don a pair of Marigolds and take me and my hard drive away for a forensic fingering. Having done his civic duty, the suit makes a smug call back to his wife.

Just as we were told Mother Theresa would inevitably be aiming a Schmeisser at us as she dangled from a tree, we are expected to believe that a pseudo-tourist on a recce for Sheik Osama and wearing a turban and long beard is going to point their iPhone at Bluewater long and obvious enough for Joe public to smell a Johnny foreigner.

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