Smile, honey, you’re on candid camera

The film director Chris Petit looks back on images of surveillance on film and recalls how Britain f

In the early 1990s, I met a friend of a friend who, as a victim of recession, was in the process of reinventing himself as a self-employed man with a van, flogging surveillance equipment.

It wasn't as easy then as you might think: the only sure buyers were supermarkets selling ethnic products in high-crime areas. And yet a corner was being turned. The new Tesco superstores had been persuaded to instal closed-circuit television (I had noticed) as a deterrent to shoplifting. The man joked that, should I wish to hold up the Tesco garage in Brent Park, north-west London, I should do so in the next two weeks, because it had been slow to get around to installing cameras.

When I spoke to him a couple of years later, he was running a successful business with large shopping centres among his clients, and was probably on his way to becoming a millionaire. I was reminded of him recently after being clocked by a speed camera at 82 miles per hour at 16:35:27 on 24/04/10 on the south Tonbridge bypass in Kent.

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.
The cult of surveillance has its origins in Thatcherism, driven as it was by private enterprise, corner-cutting and the dubious flogging of arms and military technology. It marked the shift from manufacturing to service industries, and a new emerging landscape in which the big shed was king, followed by retail parks and the 1990s regeneration racket - all of these built security into the equation.

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.

At this point, the initiative passed from central to local government. In the case of Hackney Council in east London, the library budget was sidelined as the surveillance network grew. The cameras ring-fenced crime zones and troublesome estates, becoming indicators of class segregation, but they weren't as all-seeing as they were made out to be. People learned where the blind spots were; the hoodie was a direct response to the cameras' intrusion. Now the whole concept looks dated, a cosmetic exercise in government spending and an enormous waste of time and money.

The earliest CCTV cameras were at the forefront of the paradigm shift brought about by recent new technology. The sites they surveyed introduced the idea of high security to the everyday. With privatisation, public buildings became more withdrawn; the addition of identity passes, access codes and guards turned business life into something more akin to a military state of alert. In his book Terminal Architecture (1998), Martin Pawley called these the first buildings of the digital age, rendering architecture redundant by their anonymity, leaving everything to the imagination because anything could be going on in the box.

Surveillance came of age at the same time as the cult of gormless celebrity and as Britain became less repressed, more confessional. It was
a recipe-in-waiting for reality TV, notably Big Brother, that post-Warhol exercise in instant fame and disposal. But the real explanation for the CCTV phenomenon is not futuristic, nor is it Orwellian or imaginative. It can be found in solutions of the sort served by Midsomer Murders: a familiar story of greed, commerce, land speculation and local politics, as councils turned from administrative backwaters into ambitious, driven and unaccountable organisations with no shortage of funds.

If we didn't object, it was because we were distracted by how much more mobile and how much easier personal communication was becoming. Moreover, the landscapes surveyed by these cameras belonged to the sort of non-places noted in Marc Augé's 1995 book of the same name - airports, shopping precincts, motorway service stations - which had come to define modern life as one of transit, where only those who failed to pass through were noted as suspicious. What nobody seems to have logged is how much the gain in com­munication was at the expense of freedom of access and notions of public space: rather like being given an extra ten inches of legroom on a long-haul flight, only to find your access to the rest of the cabin restricted.

To date, no novelist or film-maker has explored properly beneath the surface of this new technology. Surveillance in art and cinema remains a conceit. The subject resists embellishment and irony (though Banksy tried, by sticking a CCTV camera in a Constable landscape).

I remain interested in the subject for reasons stated in a short film I made for BBC2's Late Show in 1993. At the time, I found images from these cameras fascinating for their combination of theatricality and suspense, and their logging of low-key, perimeter landscapes beyond the usual reach of cinema and television. In the days before high resolution, the images had the smeared, milky quality of a dream, suggestive of a new avant-garde - diaries kept by machines and the first post-human cinema - while displaying a naivety and lack of discrimination that took us back to the earliest days of the medium, before sound or scripts or budgets.

Two decades ago, CCTV appeared to be about the future. Now it seems more like the last gasp of a tradition of the literal and the actual, before the world became virtual. Certainly the Lumière brothers would have recognised as a camera the old-fashioned yellow box, complete with flash, that snapped me speeding - whereas even the basics of digital technology would be a mystery to them. A sign of the times: in 1993, I visited
a City of London police station to ask if I could scrounge some surveillance footage for our film. It turned out they hadn't even bothered to unpack their equipment, because no one knew how to set it up and they weren't sure of the point of it anyway. In exchange for plugging it in and showing them how to tilt and pan, I was allowed to walk off with a wedge of footage that they considered to be of no value.

What no one anticipated was how speed of communication would end up slowing everything down, with new layers of bureaucracy generated by email alone, in which decisions were endlessly referred, turning film-making into a nightmare of permissions. It has crippled the likes of the BBC - now paralysed by its own complexity and akin to the court of St Petersburg circa 1896 for the time anything takes - leaving it little option but to collapse under the weight of its management.

In addition to the Lumière brothers, any cultural tour of the subject's precursors would need to include Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Chris Marker's La jetée (1962). The random, strategic and weirdly undramatic world of surveillance, with its alien camera set-ups and sense of being monitored by external forces, has a notable precedent in Marker's film, which is entirely prophetic of this technology. Wim Wenders's The American Friend (1977) was quick to pick up on its possibilities, showing the aftermath of a shooting in the Paris Metro watched by (unmonitored) cameras. The most operatic and sustained effort was Michael Klier's The Giant (1983), a wonderful experiment of back-to-back images of surveillance, well ahead of the game and making the subject more or less redundant, in that there was, and remains, little to add. (It was a subject to which Klier never returned, though it has been well explored by his fellow German Harun Farocki, who has been more intelligent than most in working the overlaps between film and installation.)

Andrea Arnold's acclaimed Red Road (2006) - about a Glasgow-based CCTV operator who stalks a man she observes on camera - is notable for the extent of its surveillance, which nonetheless does not resolve the problem of the random and the specific: the more defined the psychological story, the less plausible it becomes. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (2006), which follows a Stasi spy in East Germany, would be more interesting if it had restricted the audience to what the protagonist hears. And although it does not have much surveillance as such, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (2006, which seems to have been the year for the subject) is a believable, dystopian vision of the UK as a police state, seen as a cross between Old Labour, Hammer Horror and Tate Modern.

The latest cultural enshrinement of the subject, "Exposed: Voyeur­ism, Surveillance and the Camera", opens shortly at the Tate. The exhibition covers territory previously explored by German curators in a show that ran in 2001, "Ctrl [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance". As the catalogue (published by MIT Press) shows, this was a hefty, exhaustive working through of the subject that took in the philosophy of Bentham and Foucault. By contrast, the Tate's is an exercise in photographic curating, re-shuffling the usual suspects - Weegee, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sophie Calle. And it appears strangely averse to film, to the extent that the word "surveillance" in its title appears misappropriated. By omission, "Exposed" emphasises what is in­teresting about the subject now: how tracking has become an electronic process of which we remain largely unaware, through Oyster cards and even our Amazon accounts. (You bought this and now you might like to buy this; it's a shock what creatures of habit we are.) We are no longer individuals as such - just the sum of our movements and purchases.

Chris Petit's latest film, "Content", is available to view from

“Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera" is at Tate Modern, London SE1, from 28 May until 3 October.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.