Posted by: meghanhealy | September 26, 2010


The Tagg chapters repeatedly made me think of the UK’s controversial CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) network, and I am interested to hear how the rest of you view the “CCTV phenomenon.”

I was first introduced to the heated topic of CCTV when I went to Manchester, England in July 2009. One of my first nights there, over dinner with students from Spain, Poland, Japan, and India, the subject arose; one of the guys said that he loved Manchester but hated how pervasive CCTV was—cameras were not only in stores but also throughout our dorms, making students uncomfortable that cameras were recording how late they returned in the evenings, with whom, and, in some cases, who went into whose rooms. Some students complained that they felt uneasy having cameras on buses and reported having read articles that proved that many cameras were not even accurate enough to be able to be of much use in identifying criminals. One student said that the use of CCTV was his biggest qualm with the UK, which made me (a) think of Orwell’s 1984 and (b) eager to learn more about CCTV usage in the UK. Reading Tagg renewed this interest of mine, and I thought some of the info might be relevant enough to be of interest to others, too.

According to the Information Commissioner’s Office, “The UK is recognised as a leading user of CCTV and the public are used to seeing CCTV cameras on virtually every high street.  Such systems continue to enjoy general public support but they do involve intrusion into the lives of ordinary people as they go about their day to day business and can raise wider privacy concerns.” (

A BBC newswriter gives telling statistics about just how prevalent CCTV cameras are in the UK (
•    “Both the Shetland Islands Council (101) and Corby Borough Council (90) – among the smallest local authorities in the UK – have more CCTV cameras than the San Francisco Police Department (71).
•    Eight British cities have more CCTV cameras than the authorities in Paris.
•    The London borough of Wandsworth has as many CCTV cameras (1,113) as Dublin City Council, the Police departments of Johannesburg and Boston and the City of Sydney authority combined.”

The same article also offered quotes providing justification for the use of CCTVs:
•    James Cousins from Wandsworth Council defended the widespread use of CCTVs. He said: “Residents actually like CCTV, its makes them feel safe, it makes them feel secure….We’re not doing this because we want to watch people; we’re not doing it because we think watching people is the solution to all the problems…We’re doing it because we think it’s a great tool to actually make Wandsworth a safer place.”
as well as highlighted the problems with CCTVs and advice for future measures:
•    ” Det Ch Insp Mick Neville of the Met police’s CCTV unit said most forces do not have systems to retrieve, process and distribute CCTV crime scene images. Officers in some London boroughs are failing to solve any tier one and two crimes such as serious assaults and robberies using CCTV, he added….“What I would say,” he continued, “is we’ve got enough cameras, let’s stop now, we don’t want any more cameras…Let’s invest that money that’s available and use it for the training of people, and the processes to make sure whatever we’ve captured is effectively used.”

Of further interest: BBC One’s Crimewatch, where viewers watch CCTV video recordings and help locate criminals. Click on the right panel, and you can sort cases by type and location:

Google will bring up ample websites and blogs lobbying against CCTV cameras. One of the more significant ones is
(On a side note, one of my favorite images from this site is from Placa George Orwell in Barcelona. The photo is captioned “The Catalonian authorities clearly haven’t read 1984.”
This site links to another WordPress blog that summarizes one of the main arguments against CCTV:
“With over 4.2 million CCTV cameras across the country, there is no doubt about it: Britain is a surveillance society. And the great achievement of a surveillance society is instilling a sense of ‘being watched’ on its subjects so they ‘normalise’ their own behaviour in an act of self-policing. But if ‘normal’ is only the type of behaviour that obeys the rules and laws of those who watch society, who watches them?” (

A fairly recent New Statesman article provides some interesting information on CCTV usage (
“The central mystery that remains is why the UK embraced surveillance culture far more enthusiastically than other countries, turning us into perhaps the most watched nation on earth. J G Ballard’s novella Running Wild (1988) suggested that this obsession with security was indicative of a deep malaise, which had its counterpoint in an emerging feral state – something that was captured in the surveillance images that recorded the abduction of the toddler James Bulger in 1993.
But another movement was being recorded: the drift into blankness. With everything rev­ving towards instant communication, the cameras showed how little could still happen, with only the stamped-on time code proving that you weren’t just looking at a photograph of an empty car park. These new recorders showed consumption and boredom in equal measure, to which, it could be argued, the only conclusion was the invitation to terror.
… As important was Northern Ireland, for which much of the technology had been developed in the first place (such as the ANPR vehicle-check system, still in use in London). A huge boost in funding followed the IRA Docklands bombing in 1996. A year later, there were more than 167 town-centre surveillance schemes (using over 5,000 cameras); there had been just three in 1990. By 1998, CCTV accounted for more than three-quarters of total crime prevention spending (around £8.5m that year) and, over the next five years, the Home Office made a further £170m available. But in February 2005, an academic paper commissioned by the Home Office found that CCTV was not an effective deterrent to crime, nor did it make the public feel safer.”

Of less “newsy” interest:

(a) What children in the US and UK have to say about CCTVs in schools:

(b) The Tate Modern’s current exhibition “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera.” Its “blurb”: “The UK is now the most surveyed country in the world. We have an obsession with voyeurism, privacy laws, freedom of media, and surveillance – images captured and relayed on camera phones, YouTube or reality TV.” (
More info in the exhibition:


  1. P.S. Sorry, I am new to blogs and appear to have botched the part where I made the links click-able. Sorry!

  2. I think in London there is definetly a huge culture of spying. Neighbours are encouraged and rewarded to spy on their neighbours and report them if they are cheating the government by falsely claiming benefits. The council puts weight measurements on your bin and if it goes over a certain amount then you can be fined for waastage. A few years there was a programme on ITV that covered and showed how prevalent CCTV is in London. However, I think the most disturbing thing is complacent some people can be about this. In England there is this idea that the police are above the law and should do anything to maintain order including stopping and searching you if they think your carrying a weapon or taking your finger prints even if you haven’t been charged for an offence. I feel you can connect this to Sherlock Holmes as even though he investigates crime he never makes an accussation until he has absolute proof. However, in modern England it seems everyone’s a supsect and that your guilty until proven innocent. You can also connect this to Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother as despite having intellect of Sherlock Holmes is too lazy to do research and as a consequence never expresses his opinion. In comparison it seems as though the police are reluctant to follow the model of Sherlock Holmes and instead rely on CCTV to do the police work for them which can sometimes be inaccurate. I feel this is expresses in the recent BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes where the police make rash accusations whereas Sherlock Holmes requires further evidence before making a final diagnosis.

  3. Hi Stacey! I’m curious–is this “culture of spying” confined to London, or is it just most prevalent there? Do these spying measures, bin weight rules, programs on CCTV, etc. apply to other regions of the UK?

  4. Hi Meghan. Sorry about by late reply. Im not sure about Northern Ireland and Scotland but definetly in most areas of England their is a culture of spying. It mostly depends on the councils as in each town in England they’re looked after by councils which is mini-governments that can issue spying measures such a bin weight rules, ect. Moreover, in England its people much more health and safety orientated and in some primary schools students are subjected to ridiculous helath and safety laws by the council in case people get hurt. I think one articlev I read a few months ago banned students’ from playing with conkers because they could get hurt. But definetly in London CCTV is most common and you even have cameras on the buses. I remember their was an article once where the police went to a women’s house and showed her a picture of her daughter on the bus. They wanted the mother to identfy her as she could have been involved in a crime. It just goes ot show that the police and government have become really dependent upon modern technology to determine someone’s guilt.

  5. Hi Stacey. I’m really interested in this culture of spying that you depict in England, especially as it seems so linked to cameras and technology, the power of the camera, the authority of the photo as evidence, etc. I wonder if this “spying” culture was exhibited in other ways before the development of the camera or if it came about with the invention of this technology. In other words, did cameras just intensify an existing “culture of spying” or did they create it?

    I’m also curious to hear more what you have to say in regards to health and safety regulations in schools. Do you think that these strict regulations create a culture of spying among the British youth? Are children encouraged to “tell” on their classmates if they are seen playing with conkers, for example? (Out of curiosity, do these regulations succeed in making the school’s environment safer, in your opinion, or does it foster rebellion among the students?) Is it a paranoia of injury that creates this culture of spying? Or is this culture of spying creating paranoia? I’ll stop with the questions for now, but I can’t resist posting another link on CCTV.

    Here’s the latest from the BBC News:

    According to the article, “A website which pays the public to monitor live commercial CCTV footage online has been launched in Devon. Internet Eyes will pay up to £1,000 to subscribers who regularly report suspicious activity such as shoplifting. Managing director Tony Morgan said the scheme would reduce crime and help prevent other anti-social behaviour. But civil liberties campaigners say the idea is “distasteful” and encourages private citizens to spy on each other. The private company intends to stream live footage to subscribers’ home computers from CCTV cameras installed in shops and other businesses…The ICO also requested the company, which had planned to offer the service for free, make people pay £12.99 or £1.99 to use it so their details could be checked and to prevent any voyeurism and misuse of the system.” Those against the scheme argue: “There are not enough checks and balances in place. We will be looking for instances where they may potentially breach the data protection act…This is encouraging a growing trend of citizen spies. If people are so concerned about crime, they should contact the police…They are hiding behind computer screens and willing crime to happen so they get a prize. It is a game.”

    Cameras are, again, implicitly linked to voyeurism—and, with it, the fear of voyeurism. Who has the power to see? Who is being seen? This article seemed to tie into Bleak House and Mr. Gubby, with its comments on encouraging citizen spies, and into our class discussions on figures such as Scooby Doo, for whom catching criminals seems similar to that described here: a game with a prize at the end.

  6. Hi! From what I’ve read in the newspapers when I was in London I don’t think that a culture of spying has been set up in schools but I think the problems with health and safety regulations is that is seems like the councils are trying to baby children even when they don’t need it. As a result you not only have children rebelling but parents as well. For example in the UK thanks to Jaimie Oliver they’ve introduced healthy eating meals and as a reesult you state schools don’t serve junk food such as fish and chips. I was effected by this ban as I was still at school at the time it came out and like alot of people I was really annoyed as even though I should eat more healthy the point is, is that I should be able to choose what I eat and not have the government do it for me. Also parents’ rebelled as their was an incident that made headlines news in which parents were sneaking into schools to give their children junk food.
    Also in England theirs this programme called benefits fraud in which people are necouraged to snitch on their neighbours for monetary rewards if they’re unfairly claiming benefits. The people who are employed by the government stake out people’s houses to catch them and set up surveillance and contact their work place. It’s very common now. I think CCTV really stepped up a gear since the June bombings as now government has an excuse for their close CCTV. However, even before advent of technology the police would target people who they thought look like trouble makers or they suspected of carrying knives which is mainly young black men by stopping them and doing a stop and search even if they haven’t done anything apart from arouse their suspicions. In London the debate on CCTV is quite popular as some people think their justified while others think itss going to far.

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