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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

The policeman always knocks twice 24/7/01

They are everywhere. From the security cameras monitoring our movements to the nosey neighbours monitoring our lives, everything we do seems to be captured on video. The police use the footage to track down criminals while TV programmes use it to keep us amused and informed. It seems a long time since the concept of Big Brother sounded dark and menacing rather than part of light entertainment. But when the cameras are turned on the authorities, they can show uncomfortable images. It's unclear what led to this incident on a street in Wakefield, but what the amateur cameraman appears to have captured is a police officer hitting a defenceless citizen.

I was surprised by what I had seen because there's the policeman and he is meant to be stopping other people from doing this behaviour that he's just done. Obviously, I am surprised at that.

The evidence may seem compelling, but the West Yorkshire Police clearly think it isn't cut and dry. As an inquiry has been launched, they've withdrawn the officers from public duty rather than suspended them. Whatever the outcome of this incident, the fact it was captured on camera shows that, where video technology is concerned, our worst fears have not been realised. In fact, the greater accessibility of cameras these days means we can make them work for us rather than against us. We expected to become nothing more than passive, observed subjects but rather than being enslaved by technology, we are increasingly empowered by it. And for documentary makers, such as Angus McQueen, this means filming subjects who are increasingly wielding cameras as well. But he doesn't see this as threatening, he sees it as liberating.

The state can record everything that we do in ways that we don't really understand, and we are certainly not in control of. And the idea that the authorities, the state, can be caught by all of us with cameras that we have beside us in our rooms every day, or in our cars as we are driving along and we catch Concorde taking off and blowing up, is incredibly empowering. I can't see a single thing I would find dangerous about that at all.

And it's to stave off danger that anti-capitalist protesters are now arming themselves with cameras. For them the video tapes are a form of self-defence against any possible excesses by the forces of authority, as well as a means of disseminating their message quickly, via the internet. And with amateur video footage being used as evidence in cases of human rights abuse, some aid agencies see handing out camcorders and giving training to victims as the most effective way of helping them to bring their oppressors to book. But civil liberties groups argue that video evidence is not always on the side of the little man. CCTV systems, they say, are still a threat to ordinary people because of the problems with gaining access to the recordings.

The problem that we face is that so many images simply don't exist any more - either they are not captured because the technology doesn't work or the operators are instructed not to capture the images in the first place, because of potential embarrassment, or perhaps because the images have a criminal implication they are expunged from the system. Who watches the watchers? Who determines how these systems operate, who controls the images, whether the images are misused? Those are the questions that as civil libertarians we have to answer.

While these police officers in Bedford were convicted on the basis of this evidence, the victim's father says it was a struggle to get hold of the tape. But in the end he managed and, for better or for worse, the video camera is now a fundamental tool in the search for justice.

We're joined by Gillian Caldwell, who's a lawyer and director of, also by Roddy Mansfield, journalist and founder of Undercurrents, which makes films about grassroots activism, and Wendy Grossman, author - From Anarchy to Power: the Net Comes of Age. Gillian Caldwell, tell us what your organisation does first of all.

Witness donates video cameras to locally based human rights activists around the world and gives them technical and strategic guidance as to how to use video and communications technology to advance their work.

I don't know how much of our film you saw, but these pictures of a policeman apparently hitting a suspect, do you feel giving somebody one of those cameras empowers them?

Absolutely. In fact it was the beating of Rodney King that galvanised international conversation around the issue of police brutality and inspired Peter Gabriel, who is the founder of Witness, to initiate the programme. The vision was give cameras to the people, democratise the use of technology and, as your excerpt at the beginning indicated, turn Big Brother on it's head and focus the cameras on the abusers. The reality is that the likelihood of being present at a time when such blatant abuse is happening is highly unlikely and so what we're looking at is human rights very, very broadly defined. We're working with activists that are trying to address the incursion into indigenous homelands, multi-national corporations. We are looking at much subtler rights issues - we're looking at child labour, the rights of indigenous communities, economic and social rights of refugees in western Africa. We have moved beyond that simple paradigm, which is catch the abuse in action, because these rights intersect and they are very closely related to one another.

Roddy Mansfield, do you think that Big Brother has been turned on its head?

Absolutely. What we've witnessed in the last five or ten years or so has been a monumental technological paradigm shift inasmuch as that the tools of new media, such as high-quality, low-cost digital camcorders, high-quality desktop publishing and also the internet, have now fallen into the hands of people in a dynamic position to make real social change.

The worry was that cameras would be used by the state on motorways, in shopping centres, and would be logging everyone's movement and it would be a restriction in freedom.

Sure, but I think you have to make a definition between what a tool of social change is and a tool of social control. We use camcorders to actually identify instances of police abuse and police brutality and, as they say, turn it on its head and use those tapes in court when the trial comes to court. It's not a case of your word against mine in court any more but your word against my video.

Wendy Grossman, where do you see the line between social change and social control?

For one thing, you are talking about a balance of power, right. You have a country where you have cameras all over the place now. I think I live on one of the few streets in Britain where there isn't a camera. We know that people in power do abuse that power some of the time, we have seen it in many individual protests. To me, it's very clear that what these people are doing is completely different from the systematic surveillance of an entire society, which seems to be the goal at the moment.

Where do you see the balance now?

It's a good question. Nobody is quite sure exactly where to draw the line. With these people, you are talking about a relatively small number of cameras being used in a relatively limited type of situation. With the cameras on the motorways and in Piccadilly Circus and in the London Underground, you are talking about withdrawing traditional policing and replacing it with this surveillance that can be called up later on anybody.

But Gillian Caldwell just used the phrase, "Big Brother turned on its head". You don't accept that at all?

I do. I think that's one thing the internet has done - it has democratised all kinds of technology. This is why we have one guy challenging Microsoft in the software business. You are putting things like - if I wanted to I could stick a webcam out my window and put my street on the Net, but my neighbours can seriously consider that an invasion of their privacy.

I think Wendy is bringing up an important point. When you are talking about access to visibility and distribution channels and the resources to really equip the people to engage in effective counter surveillance, we're not at that point in time. I'm not trying to pretend that the resources exist to form realistic, incredible oppositional movement when you have dictatorships operating with impunity around the world.

But Gillian, things are clearly moving. Where do you think we'll be in five or ten years? Will everybody be making a tape of their own life in some way?

That's what we're trying to do. We are trying to democratise the use of this technology, we're trying to put low-cost laptop editing systems, Final Cut Pro for example, in the hands of locally based activists and with all due respect to the BBC, to enable people to create their own media and tell their own stories without being mediated via the bigger multi-nationals corporations. I think we're missing something. My concern is what distribution channels exist and will emerge in this period of time when it's not yet clear what venues are, what the venues are for the material that's being generated.

Wendy Grossman, is there a civil rights implication in that?


VINE: the democratisation all the technologies she just referred to?

Of course there is, there always is. But you're talking about - Britain has spent something like 5 billion in the last 15 years on constructing its network of surveillance cameras. She's not talking about anything like that scale.

But it's heading down the road towards everybody being able to make a film continuously of where they are and what they're doing.

Do you want a filmed record of your entire life?

I haven't thought about it, but if everyone was making one, there might be a civil rights issue in that, on the same scale as we're discussing now about police cameras.

There might, but there was a guy in Cambridge, Massachusetts who went around with a camera strapped to his head for years, a guy named Steve Mann, and when he went into stores where they had surveillance cameras and pointed his head with it's little camera at the staff they were very unhappy. It's one of those things where people want it for themselves but maybe not for other people.

I think there's - it's very difficult to define personal privacy these days. On the one hand, if you go to protests such as if you are sitting in a tree at Newbury or if you are trying to stop a road or you are on a fox hunt, if you go to any of those protests you will be filmed by police, by private detective agencies and by security guards. They are all compiling files on activists. That's what I call a loss of privacy. But if you have people such as Undercurrents or who are filming police abuse of power and police attacking people, that's not a loss of privacy, that's social justice. It's very important that we make that distinction.

You are laughing?

I agree with him. I think there's a real point there.

Thank you all very much indeed.

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