UK: Rebuilding freedoms

Linked with Index on Censorship. – Published on Index on Censorship, by Matthew Ryder, 28 October 2009.

The road to greater surveillance and restrictions of liberties has been paved with good intentions from both the right and left, says Matthew Ryder. As the public mood changes, it is worth keeping this in mind.

In a world of “intelligence-led policing” how do you identify the line between legitimate crime detection and improper state surveillance? Not easily it seems. This week’s revelation that the police are logging the names of thousands of protestors who have never committed a crime is chilling. But in truth, even as these practises are coming to light, the tide of draconian police powers may be turning. 

Britain — as we are told frequently — treats surveillance differently from other countries. From CCTV cameras on public streets to the gigantic fingerprint and DNA databases of the innocent, the UK has the dubious honour of being a world leader. In recent years, voices on the right and left have converged in protest. The Daily Telegraph’s Philip Johnston, and the Observer’s stalwart, Henry Porter, have often sounded remarkably similar. Nevertheless, society as a whole, including the courts, seemed willing to accept that modern policing and public safety require that we all needed to be watched, and logged and assessed …

… There is an important lesson here on how all of us tackle the balance between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual. While we may think we are “winning” by achieving a just result in an individual case, in time we may come to realise that the compromise was too high. Good intention, convenience, and the desire for the vulnerable to be safe, should not be allowed to override the principles which form our legal heritage and of which we should be so proud. Each time we permit surveillance to promote public safety, or curb freedom of expression in order to ensure that no-one is offended or disturbed, we begin to walk a dangerous path. The police must, of course, be entitled to gather the intelligence that they need to prevent unlawful behaviour and keep protest within lawful limits. But thankfully the public, the courts and even the government are increasingly recognising that there are important limits. We may want our safety protected, but we want our liberties protected too. (full text).

(Matthew Ryder is a barrister specialising in criminal law and human rights).

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