Freedom’s just another word
‘Vox pops’ are among the staples of daily journalism. Little snippets of public opinion, they don’t prove anything about the way people are thinking, but they can give a flavour. Sometimes they reveal how little the public know about a subject that’s been grabbing the headlines, sometimes their vehemence reveals unsuspected levels of bitterness or anger.
But ask any TV or radio journalist, and you’ll find that vox pops are in some ways harder to get than they used to be. It’s not because the public are less willing to talk – quite the reverse.
Back in the seventies, almost everyone would hurry past the proffered microphone: nowadays people are much more media-friendly. No, the problem nowadays is often where to ask your questions – because we, as a nation, have allowed so much of our public space to be privatised.
The shopping and other transactions we used to do in town squares and high streets, we have now transferred indoors, to shopping malls. These places are privately owned, and policed by private security forces. They’re generally suspicious of people with microphones, and indeed of anyone who might in any way interfere with the business of selling and buying consumer goods.
Why am I writing about what sounds like a journalistic gripe in the middle of an election campaign? Because one effect of this privatisation of public space is an anti-democratic one.
The same security guards who bundle journalists, skateboarding youths and other undesirables out of our shopping centres, also frequently take a dim view of anyone handing out political leaflets or trying to garner votes. Canvassing – walking around, shaking hands, being willing to take awkward questions from strangers – is by any standards one of the building blocks of electoral democracy, but malls –places where most Australians spend a fair bit of time – are now frequently off limits for election campaigns.
As Milton Cockburn, the head of the Shopping Centre Council of Australia, told the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘some managers find pestering by candidates can upset shoppers and store-owners’.
We talk glibly about liberties being ‘hard-won’, but with the exception of military coups and revolutions, freedoms can be easily – and silently – lost.
Given how much of their lives most people spend on the web these days, it astonishes me that there hasn’t been more of an outcry about the Australian Government’s secretive plans to make service providers store details of all of our browsing activities. I say ‘secretive’ because when Fairfax newspapers asked for details of the plan, ninety percent of the document was blacked out.
What aren’t we being told? Informed speculation suggests a system similar to that brought in in Europe after the Madrid bombings of 2004.
The technology writer Ben Grubb sums up the European legislation:
ISPs must retain the user ID of users, email addresses of senders and recipients … data necessary to trace and identify the source, destination, date, type, time and duration of communications — and even what communication equipment is being used by customers and the location of mobile transmissions. For telephone conversations, this means the number from which calls are placed and the number that received the call… For mobile phone numbers, geographic location data is also included. The data is retained for periods of not less than six months and not more than two years from the date of the communication.
All that information about who you are where you are, who you talk to, how often and for how long, to be stored in case the Government wants to use it – all without any public debate or even public information.
In a new edition of his book ‘Freedom for Sale’, the British journalist John Kampfner argues that there are patterns emerging here. One is the ease with which we can lose our rights and liberties almost without noticing, another is the way states are picking up and learning the secrets of quiet authoritarianism from each other.
Once you start noticing these patterns, you see them everywhere. There’s a chapter in Kampfner’s book about Britain becoming a surveillance state.
Police and security forces were given greater powers of arrest and detention; all institutions of state were granted increased rights to snoop; individuals were required to hand over unprecedented forms of data … [in 2006] In only nine months, more than 250,000 applications were made to intercept private communications; most were approved.
Local councils were given powers designed to fight serious crime and terrorism, but used them to pursue ratepayers over infringements of the rubbish-bin rules, or in one case to put a couple under intensive surveillance for three weeks for the offence of wanting their child to go to a particular primary school. Only this week has this trend begun to be halted.
You might imagine that China, for example, would be one country with little to learn in this field. But no, it seems that the Chinese have noticed the hundreds of thousands of closed circuit cameras sprouting in democracies like the UK and Australia, and gone one better. In Urumqi, the capital of the restive Xinjiang province, they’re hoping that the presence of 49,000 CCTV cameras will help them quash any riots like those of last year before they get a chance to begin.
And speaking of nipping things in the bud, President Putin’s Russia is about to bring in laws which will make it possible for police to act against people for crimes that haven’t even been committed yet.
The Chinese have no choice about the system they live under: Russian democracy is so distorted, not to say corrupted, that Russians have relatively little say either. And in some countries it’s clear that there is –as John Kampfner’s book describes – a compact between the State and the people: if you control crime and public order and leave us to get on and make money, we will accept remarkably large limitations on our freedom. The classic case is Singapore, which Kampfner describes as the “comfortable model”. It’s clean, orderly and efficient. Everything will be fine, providing you don’t want to do a couple of annoying things – and I don’t just mean spitting in the streets or chewing gum. What will get you into trouble in Singapore is criticising the founder Lee Kuan Yew or his family, their government activities and business interests, the governing party, or the judiciary. Ask the writer Alan Shadrake. His crime? Writing about what he sees as the inequities of the way Singapore administers the death penalty – a matter of legitimate public interest if ever there was one.
In authoritarian states people may have little choice about the loss of their privacy and freedom. Here in Australia, we do, but it often appears that we don’t really seem to care. It seems a pity to me that issues of liberty are among the big topics that neither party really wants to talk about in this election campaign.
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