Why are we becoming a nation of narks?

It turns out that all over the country <i>Independent</i> readers are being harassed, accused, detained and embarrassed by agents of petty officialdom
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The Independent Online

Something rather peculiar has happened. When I wrote last week about a mildly unpleasant experience in a Somerfield supermarket (I was detained for an hour for being in possession of newspapers bought elsewhere), I worried whether it was of marginal interest for a column.

Something rather peculiar has happened. When I wrote last week about a mildly unpleasant experience in a Somerfield supermarket (I was detained for an hour for being in possession of newspapers bought elsewhere), I worried whether it was of marginal interest for a column.

A few readers agreed and invited me in their letters and e-mails to stop whinging. The phrase "Middle England indignation" was deployed. Such things happened all the time, I was told, without the victims feeling the need to blub publicly.

But other correspondents had a startlingly different message. It turns out that all over the country Independent readers are being harassed, accused, detained and embarrassed by agents of petty officialdom in shops, supermarkets, trains and restaurants.

The stories differed in detail but all ended in the same way - innocence was proved, but there was either no apology for the mistake and inconvenience or, if there was, it was insultingly offhand. The accused were made to feel that somehow they had been lucky to have been able to produce an alibi on this occasion, that next time they might not be so lucky.

One reason for this can be found in the Right of Reply by Alan Smith, chief executive of Somerfield, carried last Friday. Shoplifting is now a huge and growing problem, Mr Smith argued - only last weekend a toddler caught nicking sweets injured three shop assistants. It is war out there on the shop-floor, and if a few innocent bystanders get winged in the crossfire, no one should be too surprised.

It sounds a convincing argument, but, having read the e-mails and heard the stories, I am entirely unconvinced by it. The picture of beleaguered employees doing their jobs under difficult circumstances fails to explain the personal animus involved in these incidents - the nastiness, the reluctance to admit error.

Perhaps, to understand the new enthusiasm for enforcement, one has to look beyond the over-enthusiastic officials as they patrol their little empires. There is a whiff of something nasty and fascistic in the air. What Robert Hughes once called "the culture of complaint" has shaded into a crabby mean-spiritedness toward others, an ever-alert suspicion that, all around, people are "at it". It is the Crimewatch culture, in which law-breaking is seen everywhere and each of us has a moral responsibility to grass up our neighbours to the authorities.

At first glance, the new disapproval may seem to be a sign of social stability, with individuals taking responsibility for the moral health of society, yet somehow that is not how it feels.

Now that we are all encouraged to get in touch with our inner policeman, sanctimonious condemnation is everywhere. It is in the audiences of daytime TV shows, baying with vicious outrage at some poor sap on stage. It is there in that increasingly bizarre and sinister programme Big Brother, in which last week both the ghastly inmates and the organisers reacted with trills of personal affront to a spot of mildly dodgy gamesmanship from one contestant.

It is also there in matters of life and death. When thousands respond to a high-profile murder by ringing in with their "leads" and suspicions, the policeinvariably commend them for their sense of civic duty - even when, as in the Sarah Payne case, the calls lead nowhere and most of them are presumably malicious or ill-founded. If that is deemed public-spiritedness, it is but a short step to mobs hunting down those people they deem to be suspects.

We are all sneaks now - all would-be policemen eager to feel the collar of chummy next door. Oddly, this new concern for the morality of others, this lust for justice, feels less reassuring than it should.

terblacker@aol.com

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