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Look out! Big Mother is watching you

ANOTHER blow to our individual freedoms or just a helping hand from our friendly Government? Certainly it was hardly a surprise when it emerged at the weekend that TV programmes are likely to be given ratings, which will grade transmissions according to the amount of sex, violence and bad language they contain.

Earlier this month we had already had an indication of the way the Government is thinking on censorship when Chris Smith made it clear that he and his colleagues were not opposed to the V-chip in principle and announced that he would be evaluating its use in the United States, where all new television sets are legally required to carry one.

The so-called V-chip is a device which allows parents to block their children from seeing certain programmes, and its introduction in this country has been mooted for some time. It would be particularly effective if it were used in conjunction with programme grading.

In America, the chip has been championed by the flamboyant senator Ed Markey, who considers the whole concept of V-chips "unassailable". At a recent meeting in London, Markey countered accusations that the V-chip smacks of Big Brother by saying that it was actually more like "Big Mother" because it offers extra protection for families.

"Big Mother" is a perfect phrase for summing up the Government's increasingly nannyish tendencies, typified recently in the banning of beef on the bone. "There's far too much maternal government. It's that idea that the government is a kind of substitute parent," says Brian Micklethwait, editorial director of the Libertarian Alliance, which publishes pamphlets on such topics as free markets and social freedoms. As far as he is concerned, Big Mother is no better than Big Brother.

As a libertarian and outspoken opponent of the Big Mother society, Micklethwait would oppose any proposal that the V-chip should be compulsory in television sets. In his opinion it's up to the individual to decide whether to have one or not, not for the Government to demand it. And by the same token, he believes that it's up to individuals to decide whether they want to smoke or not, rather than for politicians to make smoking illegal by taxing it prohibitively. He sees the issue of passive smoking in terms of property rights and he is appalled at the idea of smoking being made illegal in public places.

Mr Micklethwait is watching constantly for further erosions of our personal freedom. Take wheel-clamping, which in his view is often no more than "licensed kidnapping". The question of compulsory seatbelts, however, which vexed libertarians some years ago, is less of an issue for him, since he believes all roads should be privately owned. Naturally, he believes that if people want to take drugs, it's entirely up to them.

For Mr Micklethwait, two of the main factors behind the rise of Big Mother in British life are doctors and "the collapse of socialism". Medical experts, he thinks, because they are doctors, jump to the conclusion that everyone is begging to be told what to do. And they tend to confuse medical issues with legal and moral ones.

And secondly, because socialism has collapsed: "There's a whole generation of meddlers who are out of jobs," he says. "They can't say the Government should run everything any more, so they're just left with a few respectable meddlings.."

Micklethwait's views might be extreme compared to the view of others in this country, but, in the United States, libertarianism is, without doubt, considerably more of a force to be reckoned with. This is what Bill Clinton discovered when he attempted to outlaw "indecent" or "patently offensive" material on the Internet two years ago. In a massive show of defiance, sites all over the World Wide Web were set against black backgrounds and the White House was avalanched by a wave of non-stop e-mails from protesters.

He should have known better, for the Internet is the true home of libertarianism. They might not like Big Mother, but here you will find frequent references to the godmother of it all, the rabidly anti-communist Russian emigre author, Ayn Rand, who founded a cult of self-interest known as objectivism.

On the Net you will also find true hard-core libertarianism, the kind of stuff that can make the blood run cold. This is a brave new world where child slavery can be justified and it's perfectly reasonable for private security firms to own tactical nuclear weapons. No room for Big Mother here.