From the first, I’ve been unsure about the video surveillance of public spaces. Partly through doubts about how effective it really is in preventing crime. Partly because I’m not sure I want Big Brother watching my every move. And we have long overtaken the States to become the most-watched citizenry in the world.
Not that most people, most of the time, seem to mind. Joe Public seems to have accepted meekly the death of privacy. If he hadn’t, he would never have bought a smartphone and clicked to allow Google to track his every movement, his every message, his every photo.
Turns out, though, that as well as being a spy in the pocket the camera-phone can empower its owner. It can turn the tables by turning surveillance on the authorities themselves. And it’s in the States that this is starting to have a major effect.
Look up – if you can bear to watch, if it wouldn’t make you feel complicit – the names Philando Castile, Samuel DuBose, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Levar Jones, Walter Scott, Eric Garner. Just a few of the 20-odd victims of filmed police violence that has turned up online in the past three years.
Black men – in Tamir’s case, a 12-year-old boy – attacked for little or no reason by white police officers. Caught in the act of such crimes as having a missing number-plate, a broken tail-light, waving a toy gun in an empty playground, selling untaxed cigarettes on the street.
All of them, apart from Jones and Garner, shot dead. Garner was killed by choking.
The case of Jones – the one survivor in the group – is in a way the most revealing.
Having been pulled over for not wearing a seat-belt, he was shot four times when he reached back into his car for his driving licence. But he didn’t die. He was wounded in the hip – and the officer who shot him regained composure enough to summon an ambulance and discuss with him quite calmly what had just happened.
Where but in America would a man reaching into a car be assumed to be going for a gun?
Where but in America would a cop feel so threatened in such a situation as to shoot first and ask questions later?
In none of these videos do the police show any sense of either shock or remorse at what they’ve done. Is it that they don’t feel any – because it’s all too commonplace, perhaps? Or is it that in their macho culture they have appearances, a self-image, to keep up?
And how much does that image come from watching too many movies and TV shows in which casual violence is routine, glamourised – and the cops on the front line always right? Especially those mavericks like Dirty Harry who stray violently beyond the rules.
The unjustified violence in the real-life-and-death videos is anything but glamorous. It’s messy, tacky, built on mistakes and fear. Real violence has always been like that. But the presence of cameras – CCTV, dashboard cams, mobile phones, the officers’ own body-cams – makes it harder for the perpetrators to justify.
We live in an era of round-the-clock news, an age when it can seem almost impossible to escape from whatever the media decide to feed us. Which is a common agenda determined, in practice, by a fairly small number of editors and news editors.
Once, you had to make a decision to buy a paper if you wanted the news. These days it’s thrown at you constantly by radio, internet and television.
In its early days, TV was not considered suitable for news. The BBC feared the temptation to seek interesting pictures would skew editorial judgement. That what was interesting or exciting to look at would prevail over what was important.
And you know what? They were right. These days the BBC’s own news channel is a 24/7 demonstration of the truth of that fear. But it’s not the only one. It’s an industry standard.
Shallow or trivial reporting spoken over a background of telegenic mayhem is always preferred to rational, objective analysis.
As for human interest – well, the words of Elvis Costello’s brilliant 1983 song Pills And Soap come back to me constantly. “The camera noses in to the tears on her face, the tears on her face, the tears on her face…”
Then there’s the wild, the wacky and the downright outrageous.
The brazen craziness of a Donald Trump may induce hysterics, cringeing mixed with disbelieving laughter. But for TV editors it triumphs every time over any clear-eyed relationship with the truth. And we all have cause to fear where that might lead.