Terence Blacker: Grey-haired snoops in a paranoid world

A culture that treasures the concept of privacy is a world leader when it comes to spying on others
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It can do strange things to a person's sense of normality, spending a few days away in an unexpectedly gentle and friendly culture. I have been to a place where mobile telephones are rarely used, and then with a certain decorous sense of embarrassment, where strangers can chat to one another without it being considered psychotic, where wonderful bluegrass music plays everywhere and shopkeepers are happy to talk about the flat-picking style of Doc Watson or whether the great banjo-player Bela Fleck will ever re-form his group the Flecktones.

It can do strange things to a person's sense of normality, spending a few days away in an unexpectedly gentle and friendly culture. I have been to a place where mobile telephones are rarely used, and then with a certain decorous sense of embarrassment, where strangers can chat to one another without it being considered psychotic, where wonderful bluegrass music plays everywhere and shopkeepers are happy to talk about the flat-picking style of Doc Watson or whether the great banjo-player Bela Fleck will ever re-form his group the Flecktones.

Returning from this paradise to a more familiar world, caught up in a spasm of post-electoral excitement, one views it briefly with clear, innocent, hillbilly eyes. Politicians are fighting like ferrets in a sack. Residents of Cobham are fretting about an influx of Chelsea footballers. Rod Liddle is in trouble with the police after a row with his girlfriend. Princess Pushy is bored with Britain and wants to hunt in France. These are the stories of the moment in this strange, conflicted country.

Perhaps the oddest development has been in the area of security. A culture that aggressively treasures the concept of privacy and of minding your own business seems be revealing itself as a world leader when it comes to snooping into the affairs of others. Britain's eminent intelligence-gathering agency MI5 not only plans to increase its size by a third over the next three years but is currently recruiting sneaks and curtain-twitchers from the ranks of the late middle-aged.

This week there will be MI5 job advertisements in the newspapers, appealing to "good and trustworthy communicators" to join the agency. A Whitehall official has confirmed that the organisation would be looking for mature candidates who were interested in a final career change before retirement. "The important quality we require is trust," he told The Sunday Telegraph. "These people will be dealing with secret material which in the wrong hands could have severely damaging consequences."

They will, of course, be inundated with applications. The opportunity to snoop into the lives of others has always been particularly attractive to the English; as the novels of Ambler, Greene and Le Carré have confirmed, we have a natural talent for it. In fact, the more repressed and secretive the Englishman, the better he is likely to be at winkling out the secrets of others.

Over recent years, what was once known as "the great game" has been privatised and developed into a national pastime. It was the creepy TV programme Crimewatch that first ushered in a golden age of snooping, quickening the popular taste for sniffing out misbehaviour and spying on neighbours in the name of civic responsibility. The closer the surveillance that ordinary members of the public conducted upon one another, the argument went, the safer our society would be.

Somehow it never quite worked out that way; perhaps the quantity and quality of information remained inadequate. The police may have had amateur sleuths reporting on crimes, or imagined crimes, but what about the men of evil, people who will do anything to strike a deadly blow at civilised values? Clearly we needed more spies. MI5 should recruit a new, old generation of spooks from the ranks of the almost-retired.

The expertise in deception and surveillance will already be there. Hidden cameras, mini-microphones and CCTV footage have become such a central part of the schedules that any documentary not secretly filmed through a hole in a briefcase is liable to seem tame and dreary. The boom in reality TV has confirmed what we suspected all the time. Other people, and the disgusting things they do and say when they think they are not being watched, can be absolutely fascinating.

It is true that snoop TV operates by a law of diminishing returns, and that what is exciting and shocking one week will seem tame the next, but fortunately for the boggling, eager viewer, human nature is endlessly inventive in matters of perversity and misbehaviour.

Now surveillance is part of family life. A company involved in the booming business of teaching people how to spy on one another has reported that, while their courses were once patronised by businessmen eager to bug the offices of their rivals, their main client base now consists of extremely suspicious women.

Having conducted a survey among 10,000 women currently living with or married to a man, the company discovered, no doubt to its satisfaction, that 72 per cent would quietly check the text messages on their partner's mobile while over a third would secretly follow him if they suspected that he might be cheating on them.

Perhaps this mania for intrusion will eventually become accepted as part of what used to be known as "private life". Certainly some of the items on sale - a mobile which can be silently activated as a listening device by someone calling the number, or a phone called a Trojan which allows a second person to eavesdrop any conversation - seem more like toys for gingering up stale relationships than serious security devices.

As the MI5 interviewers meet their grey-haired applicants, they might become aware that personal prurience is a more evident motivating force than a concern for national security. The search for trust and trustworthiness in an increasingly paranoiac world may be rather more difficult.

terblacker@aol.com

Comments