Friday, 21 January 2011

Big Brother in the Peak District

The other day I had to drive over to Lancashire, where my father lives, and I was struck - not for the first time - by the incongruity of a succession of CCTV cameras suspended from gantries above the wild and isolated Cat and Fiddle pass. I am currently reading a collection of Mary Beard's wonderful Don's Life blogs which have been published in book form, and one of her earlier blogs contrasts the passive acceptance of CCTV by the younger generation with the strong dislike felt by Mary and others of her generation. Like Mary I am unhappy about the fact that we British are spied upon in this way more than any other people in the world, and I am fed up with the constant mantra that 'if you've nothing to hide you've no need to worry.' Tell that to all the innocent people in Stalin's Russia or Rákosi's Hungary who were arrested, tortured, locked up and often murdered by the KGB or the ÁVO.

Living in the country, as I do, I am not normally exposed to cameras on every street corner as, for example, my daughter is in London - although there are more that one often realises even in such rural areas as Bakewell or Matlock Bath. But I was surprised when the road across the Pennines into Cheshire suddenly sprouted regularly spaced cameras a few months ago. Ostensibly these are to enforce an 'average speed limit' of 50 mph but, as we all know, the pictures recorded by CCTV cameras on our roads and in our city streets are a valuable source of information for the police and anyone else who can provide an acceptable reason for looking at them.

Although it is, to say the least, disconcerting that the open countryside of the Peak District National Park now has Big Brother cameras dominating the skyline it might just be acceptable if only the images of vehicles exceeding the speed limit between two sets of cameras were retained. But we know that this will not be the case - and that is my main complaint. I really do not see why the powers-that-be need to know, still less have any right to know, where I go and what I do unless I am breaking some law by going there or doing whatever I am doing there. And driving along a public road at a speed within the appropriate speed limit is still, as far as I am aware, a perfectly legal activity.

The official reason for these cameras is to slow down the motorcyclists whose irresponsible behaviour makes this road the most dangerous in Britain - even though it is, apparently, one of the safest if motorcycle-related accidents are excluded. But it seems a pity that the glorious views over the southern Pennines have to be spoiled in this way. A couple of mobile police camera cars at the weekend would probably do a much more effective job at substantially lower cost, and without the despoiling of the countryside and - my main complaint - the further extension of George Orwell's vision into our everyday lives. But these days a technology-based solution to any problem always seems to be preferred to one using human beings.

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