“CCTV fails to cut crime and the technology needs to be curbed in Scotland, where the number of cameras has almost doubled in the past six years, a leading academic has said.” This was the opening paragraph of a piece on CCTV in The Times last week, based on an interview with me:
Mike Press, who has spent the past decade studying how design can contribute to crime reduction, told The Times that the expensive policy is politically motivated and ineffectual. He also warned that it can have the opposite effect of that intended, by giving citizens a false sense of security and encouraging them to be careless with property and personal safety.
“We should, as a society, question why we have got it,” said the professor of design policy at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. “Our civil liberties have been crushed and trampled upon and compressed and this is part of that. We have yet to see it have any positive impact. I think we should have a moratorium on it.”
The whole article is available online here. It was also picked up by Henry Porter’s blog over at The Guardian, together with other specialist sites. The following day I did a live interview on BBC Radio Scotland, patched in “live from Luton”, as they seemed proud to claim.
The problem with coverage such as this is that of the over-simplification of complex issues. Indeed, media coverage of CCTV (and its contradictions) is the subject of a case study that I do with our postgraduate students, so this episode will contribute more useful material to that session! The Times journalist Lindsay McIntosh did a good and thorough job of interviewing me (by phone while I was on a train going through a succession of tunnels in London) and the piece is well researched and very readable. But some aspects of the story need further elaboration.
I am described as “a leading academic”, which is most flattering. I have worked in the field of design and crime for over a decade now, and have a well established record of publishing and researching in this field. But, I am no expert in the field of CCTV – I merely track all the research on this done by others as part of my continuing research into design and crime prevention. But what is interesting about the media is how journalists create experts in their own imagination to help strengthen their own position. Lindsay McIntosh contacted me because of a previous piece on CCTV that I had written for The Times Higher. Nowhere in her piece did she refer to any current or recently published research. Unlike The Guardian’s Henry Porter who wrote this: “The latest report from Scotland by Professor Mike Press says the policy is ‘politically motivated and ineffectual‘.” Sorry Henry, there is no latest report. Never has been. Just the one that you imagined.
So, if I don’t do research on CCTV, then who does? Well, quite a few people, and it’s best to google them. There is some very good research underway at University College London, but a good place to start is with this report by Martin Gill and Angela Spriggs undertaken for the Home Office – Assessing the Impact of CCTV. As their report makes clear, it is not a black and white issue – CCTV can be effective as a crime prevention strategy in certain circumstances. But if one was going to reduce their detailed and well argued report to one central idea, then it is this: CCTV is no ‘magic bullet’ to the problem of crime. But this is so often how it has been portrayed by the policy makers and some parts of the media. In other words – it has been over-sold. So, there is a detailed body of research on CCTV that suggests that, at best, it plays a minor role as a crime prevention tool. The point that I made in my interviews for both The Times and the BBC was that there are now strong vested interests – largely the security industry – that is driving CCTV forward, and taking resources away from other, more effective crime prevention strategies.
But the thing I take strong exception to is being wheeled out to support David Cameron and the Tories, which was the central thrust of Henry Porter’s piece. CCTV began its accelerating drive towards ubiquity under the previous Tory government (largely as a consequence of the Jamie Bulger case). While former Tory shadow Home Secretary David Davis has spoken out against CCTV in seemingly non-authoritarian terms, David Aaronovitch in The Times has an alternative take on his position. But as is now patently the case with The Conservatives, behind the noble front of non-authoritarian reason is the rude health of good old fashioned Toryism, demonstrated in their appetite for CCTV in the Ribble Valley, in Norwich, in Somerset, in Hendon, in Chester, and many other places.
Our civil liberties have taken a battering under this government, and CCTV has been extended in its scope without any rational assessment of its efficacy or implications. That is not to say that it is without any value in terms of crime prevention or detection. However, its future development and application should be informed by research and framed by a politics that is rooted in social justice. And that is not the politics of David Cameron.