Following up on last week’s post on CCTV my interview never made it into the final cut of the Newsnight feature. Although quotes from it made it into a BBC News online article and some of the associated radio coverage. Just the way the media cookie crumbles.

However, I did get invited onto BBC Breakfast to share the sofa with Shami Chakrabarti to discuss the issue.

I’ve managed to get a copy of the interviews which are on YouTube and embedded below. I’m told this is acceptable (this article suggests the BBC are relaxed) but will obviously have to remove the videos if requested.

Getting the trivia out of the way. The camera adds pounds. Lots of them. And also inches, I was told later that I looked taller than I do on Twitter! And that was another novelty. I was booked onto the show by one of the producers via Twitter, I’m sure it’s not the first time anyone has been booked onto a show like that (though certainly the first time by her), but must be one of the first times something like that has happened.

I can’t deny there’s a little ego in posting this. Not so much because I was on the sofa, but because I was on the sofa with Shami Chakrabarti! I’ve a lot of respect for her as a champion of civil liberties; meeting her reinforced that – as well as making me feel guilty that I’ve never quite joined Liberty.

But I’m also posting because it backs up the point I made last week – and Shami (note the massively unjustified use of first name) and I were not very far apart in our opinions on this – it’s not CCTV itself that is the problem, it’s the use to which it is put. And there’s a lot of unregulated cameras out there.

CCTVAt the end of last week I found myself at the top of Putney High Street doing an interview for Newsnight about CCTV.

Following a series of freedom of information requests the BBC had discovered that Wandsworth had the highest absolute number of CCTV cameras of any local authority (although the Shetlands are the most surveilled per capita) so I was there defending the council against the inevitable charges of Big Brother.

Now you might assume I’m anti-CCTV. I’ve posted on civil liberty issues in the past and surely this follows through with CCTV… well, yes and no.

It might be there is some cognitive dissonance at play here, with me trying to reconcile a civil libertarian streak with a portfolio of hundreds of cameras. But while I think there can be serious issues with CCTV, I think that Wandsworth are getting it right.

Many of the arguments are around issues like privacy. I’d argue it’s hard to be private when you are walking along a busy high street. If you are in plain view, it doesn’t make much difference whether you can be seen by a man on the other side of the road, or by a man operating a camera on the other side of the road.

In fact, when you start examining the argument it is not the CCTV itself that is the problem, but to what use that CCTV is put.

And this is the real nub of the matter. It is, frankly, irrelevant how many cameras there are in Wandsworth. What is relevant is the way we use them, and also the way we don’t use them.

CCTV is a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. In some places it is appropriate to use it, in others it is not. So in Wandsworth we have CCTV installed in town centres, but have a policy not to install in residential areas, and have a very strict code of practice regulating how we use it where installed – you’ll never see a Wandsworth recording featured on Police, Camera, Action.

In return we have an incredibly valuable resource. Around half of all prosecutions brought by the police use CCTV footage as evidence. And it helps beyond crime. The council’s well trained CCTV operators have found lost children and prevented suicides.

My concern with CCTV is that far too many people see it as a panacea. So, for example, if there is a problem with anti-social behaviour residents assume installing CCTV will solve it. In fact, it’s only likely to move it, meaning that someone else will start facing exactly the same problems. Whereas there are probably all sorts of other things that would deal with it. The police might patrol and area, the council’s youth services could engage with youths, it might just be that a little mutual understanding and dialogue will make all the problems disappear overnight.

And at its worst it stops people taking responsibility for their own lives. For example, we’ve been asked to install CCTV in a residential area to prevent burglary, not because there was a particular problem, but as a preventative measure. Naturally, we offered the usual security advice (there is a lot you can do, very cheaply, to secure your home) but it is concerning that people’s first thought was not to fit window locks or a London bar to their door, but to request their area be covered by a CCTV scheme.

And that is my biggest fear for CCTV. Wandsworth has shown that with robust controls CCTV can be a valuable tool in the fight against crime and making Wandsworth the safest inner London borough. We need to make sure that the price we pay isn’t a loss of personal responsibility.

What do you think?  Do we have too much CCTV?  Or don’t we have enough?