Brummie: a native of the British city of Birmingham.
— Oxford English Dictionary
Whilst the WikiLeaks founder was languishing in a prison cell in London, a storm was brewing in England’s second largest city Birmingham, where leaked emails reveal the lengths that advocates of surveillance cameras will go to further their agenda. The BrumiLeaks may appear less controversial than the WikiLeaks that have dominated mainstream headlines in recent weeks, but they do more to lift the lid on just how the surveillance state continues its steady creep forward and why eternal vigilance is required by freedom loving citizens. A perfect example of what is happening the world over – for Birmingham read a town near you.
The Birmingham story so far …
Last month Birmingham City Council was named and shamed as the UK local authority that had spent the most on surveillance cameras between 2007 and 2010 . The council and police in Birmingham also found themselves embroiled in a public relations disaster after they failed to properly consult residents about the installation of hundreds of CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras in leafy Birmingham suburbs – part of a project named ‘Project Champion’.
One of the suburbs at the heart of the ‘Project Champion’ debacle was Moseley, where the successful campaign against the Project, ‘Birmingham Spy Cameras – No thanks!’ , was led by local resident Steve Jolly. Following the furore over the sneaky ‘Champion’ scheme, rather than hide in a corner to lick their wounds, Birmingham City Council made an extraordinary next move. They decided to have another go and push for a new public space surveillance scheme in Moseley Village.
Mindful of criticism for failing to consult the local people for whom they work and who they are meant to represent, the council launched a consultation into the proposed Moseley Village CCTV scheme. The consultation however became a new focus of controversy. Firstly the consultation only ran for two weeks, despite the Government’s Code of Practice on Public Consultation  stating that: “Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible.” And now that the curtailed consultation is closed, the BrumiLeaks emails show that some of those in favour of the CCTV scheme were concerned that it may have been contaminated by some anti-CCTV views!
Let the consultation begin!
One email from a council official contains a number of concerns about how the consultation was conducted, the official writes that they have observed:
one member of the anti-cctv lobby stuffing the ballot box in the Prince of Wales public house with filled in consultation forms. How these consultation forms were filled in, is up for speculation. However, it is quite clear that an attempt has been made to skew the result towards an anti-cctv outcome.
The council official has made the astounding claim that a member of the “anti-cctv lobby” has been stuffing a ballot box. It seems they are alluding to a form of electoral fraud known as “ballot stuffing” , which is “the illegal act of one person submitting multiple ballots during a vote in which only one ballot per person is permitted”. This is a strange allusion given that this was a consultation, not a ballot, and each completed consultation questionnaire required contact details of each respondent. A better comparison would surely be posting a letter for, say, an old lady who asks for your help. This act is allegedly carried out by a “member of the anti-cctv lobby” – the Oxford English Dictionary defines lobby as “a group of people seeking to influence legislators on a particular issue”, but the council are not legislators so “lobby” would not appear the most appropriate description of individuals concerned about personal liberty. So let’s call the person “a resident of Moseley”, because that is what they are. The council official also calls into question the validity of the Prince of Wales questionnaires when they write: “How these consultation forms were filled in, is up for speculation”. Indeed it is up for speculation but it seems likely, based on previous experience with questionnaires, that they were filled in with a pen. So, in summary, the council official is accusing a resident of Moseley of posting a letter, written using a pen, on behalf of an old lady, more or less – a most heinous crime I’m sure the council official can all agree.
At this point some people might be thinking that it is unfair to deconstruct emails to this minute detail in this way, and they may well have a point. But let’s look at a few more.
Let’s have an uninformed debate!
In the same BrumiLeaks email the same council official pointed out what in their view the consultation should have been all about, they write:
The public consultation on whether the residents of Moseley wanted cctv or not, was an opportunity to find out what the general Moseley community thought on this issue. At the steering group meeting it was made clear that we wanted residents to make there [sic] own minds up and participate in this consultation freely.
Very laudable aims, so what can have gone wrong? The official goes on:
I want to understand what the residents really think about cctv in Moseley Village. The anti-cctv lobby have made their views very loud and clear, but I now want to listen to what everyone else thinks and not have that view distorted by dishonest campaigning by the anti-cctv lobby.
Once again concerned residents are branded with the label “anti-cctv lobby”, a phrase which is starting to look like it is being used as some type of insult. But leaving that aside (grounds for a separate article of its own methinks), the official states that they want to understand “what the residents really think about cctv in Moseley Village” and “not have that view distorted by dishonest campaigning by the anti-cctv lobby”. Presumably a pro-CCTV lobby would not distort the view of the residents. What the official seems to be driving at here is that only an uninformed debate will get the result that they want, as it is commonly held that most people are in favour of CCTV cameras in the UK.
Cop shows and propaganda
Since the 1990s cameras have been touted as a major crime fighting tool. The reality that cameras are not effective has unfortunately not filtered through to the general public who still believe that cameras work. This belief is encouraged by the media who constantly use CCTV images to illustrate news stories. In addition television crime programmes constantly portray CCTV cameras as case breakers and capable of amazing feats – “Zoom in on that man’s spectacles, enhance the reflection, zoom and rotate the image 90 degrees – aha, we’ve got him!”.
Policy makers also claim that cameras make people feel safer. However studies have shown that this is not true (people often say they think CCTV would make them feel safer, but when installed say they have not actually made them feel safer), but like the studies that show CCTV is not effective at fighting crime, this rarely makes it through to the mainstream. The reports are seldom an easy read and not one has been even shortlisted for a literary award.
It is all too common for public opinion with regards to CCTV to be based on the one simple question: “Are you in favour of CCTV?” Most people it seems will answer yes to this question (see ‘Cop shows and propaganda’ above for reason why). But what if a second question were added: “Would you still be in favour if the cameras were not effective in deterring, detecting or reducing crime?” What if, after revealing the studies that show how ineffective CCTV cameras have been and an explanation of the Common Law principles upon which the English legal system was built, another question were asked: “Are you concerned about the freedoms that are discarded when CCTV cameras are installed to monitor all people in public spaces?”
This level of debate is almost never allowed to take place and many of these thoughts are dismissed by policy makers as the “dishonest campaigning of the pro-cctv lobby”, despite their fundamental importance and that they can all be backed up with solid facts. This is a huge indictment of our supposed western democracy, a democracy that is being eroded by politicians and petty council officials hell bent on pushing their own agendas.
Back to BrumiLeaks, where it seems that the council official at the centre of the emails is determined that a so-called anti-cctv lobby is somehow skewing the consultation process. But let us take a closer look at the consultation questionnaire put out by Birmingham City council. Jason Ditton of the Scottish Centre for Criminology looked at the question of context in questionnaires about CCTV and used the term ‘skewed contextualising’ to describe the situation where the question and the way it is asked can influence the answer . The Birmingham Council questionnaire  begins:
Moseley & Kings Heath Ward has been offered funding of up to £100,000 by Safer Birmingham
Partnership to help provide a CCTV scheme in Moseley Village to improve the security for traders and visitors to the area.
The clear implication here is that CCTV will improve security. This is hardly the introduction to a neutral questionnaire that seeks to “understand what the residents really think”. When Ditton asked the public about their views on CCTV using a crime control frame of reference for one group, a civil liberties frame of reference for another group and a final group with no contextualising at all, he found a 20% skew of the results caused by contextualising. In the case of the Brimingham questionnaire, it was rigged from the outset to skew the results in favour of CCTV.
Not all views created equal
Despite the skewed questionnaire there are those in Moseley that are so in favour of cameras that they still did not want to risk including all of the questionnaires in the consultation. Another email contains an excerpt from draft minutes of the December meeting of the Moseley forum, the draft minute reads:
Ballot boxes had been placed in three venues in Moseley – The Prince of Wales Public House, Domestica, and the Moseley Community Development Trust. They had also been place in venues in Kings Heath and Balsall Heath
It was suggested that those doing the count might discard of some ballots in the POW [Prince of Wales] box and attach additional weightings to some ballot responses based on levels of impact on people responding of the CCTV cameras. It was suggested that the ballot in the POW had been ‘stuffed’.
Once again we have claims of ballot boxes being “stuffed”, even though this was not an election or even a referendum but a consultation where questionnaires are named and posted. It will be no surprise that our old friend the council official who wants to “understand what the residents really think” was the one suggesting discounting questionnaires and adding extra weight to the views of certain people. To their credit, other members of the Moseley forum were not impressed, the email reveals:
Moseley forum strongly objected to discarding any properly completed ballot forms and to any new condition being applied such as the weighting of certain ballot responses. It was very strongly expressed that BCC [Birmingham City Council] and the consultation steering group must act with complete transparency and without bias. To do otherwise would jeopardise the whole consultation process and risk another fiasco like the ANPR [Project Champion]. BCC should be taking greater care than ever before not to alienate its residents, but rather to embrace their views as part of the Big Society – even if residents disagreed with the local authority.
Clearly the council official’s view of the best way to handle the lack of public trust post Project Champion is to champion the proposed Moseley CCTV project – a view at odds with other members of the forum.
When all else fails play the fear card
Emails between one forum member and the council official demonstrate a common tactic used by supporters of surveillance cameras, that of exaggerating the level of crime in the area in which they want to install cameras at the same time as over-stating the benefits of video surveillance. The official tries to play on a recent attack that took place in Moseley to bolster the case for CCTV, despite the fact that police had made an arrest without the need for CCTV and that as the attack happened in broad daylight it was witnessed by many people. The Moseley forum member tries to point out that CCTV can have a negative effect, by causing people to no longer take personal responsibility in their community. The forum member writes:
Too often I have heard the statement. ‘You don’t need me to make a statement, you’ve got it on CCTV’ from the star witness as they walk away (usually without even bothering to even find out if it was on CCTV).
Cameras give you stars
Undeterred the council official plays a masterful trump card – the claim that the installation of surveillance cameras can increase the renown of restaurants in an area. The council official writes:
compared to 2004, Moseley is alot safer (and cleaner and interesting), but there is still alot more to do. For example, there is no reason why Moseley couldn’t attract a Michelin Star restaurant. Harborne has Turners, and it is Council strategy to make Birmingham a gastro city…..and Marketing Birmingham are in charge of implementing it. . This is why chefs like Jamie Oliver and and Antonio Carluccio have invested in Birmingham recently.
If we ever want attract anything as upmarket as a Michelin Star restaurant, we need to convince the investor that their customers (who will most likely come to Moseley from miles around) and their cars will be safe and they won’t be harressed by drunken yobs. As someone who uses the pubs of Moseley, we are nowhere near this stage where we can make that guarantee.
The businesses, especially the pubs,cafes and restaurants of Moseley would benefit enormously if, say, the Jug of Ale or Village pub became a Michelin Star restaurant, since they would have the knock-on effects of the positive profile of this restarant, plus have customers from this restaurant visiting their businesses.
Whilst no comprehensive study of the number of cameras in relation to Michelin Star restaurants has yet been published, it would no doubt be fairly simple, armed with the number of cameras in, say, each London borough (where the most cameras in the UK are located) and a telephone directory, to prove that more CCTV cameras means more Michelin Stars.
Shouldn’t the imposition of any surveillance measure be seen only as a last resort, after a full informed debate that includes actual evidence of any claimed benefits and a thorough assessment of the costs both financially and to the freedoms of citizens? The BrumiLeaks emails show that there are decision makers who see surveillance as the first and only option.
And the result is…
On Wednesday 15th December the views expressed in the Moseley Village consultation were announced  – 53% of respondents voted against the installation of CCTV cameras. Democracy was given CPR. The council has agreed not to install street cameras in Moseley Village – but, by way of what was termed a compromise, the council has nonetheless announced that three cameras will be installed in Moseley Village car park. Democracy’s condition remains critical.
Well done to Steve Jolly and everyone involved in the campaign against the Moseley cameras. Only through the hard work of people like Steve will we ever have the hope of a proper debate on issues such as these.
- [ 1] – http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/files/big-brother-watch-report—price-is-wrong-29-11-10-final.pdf
- [ 2] – http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=119180531441911#!/group.php?gid=119180531441911&v=wall
- [ 3] – http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file47158.pdf
- [ 4] – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballot_stuffing
- [ 5] – Ditton, J. (1998), ‘Public Support for Town Centre CCTV Schemes: Myth or Reality’ http://www.scotcrim.u-net.com/researchc5.htm
- [ 6] – http://www.no-cctv.org.uk/campaigns/docs/moseley_cctv/Moseley_Village_questionnaire.pdf
- [ 7] – http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/democracy/Pages/GetDoc.aspx?DocumentID=ogk0E0ZruVI%253d&MimeType=application%2fpdf%26DocName=CCTV+Consultation+15122010.pdf
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