“Taking Liberties” - Chris Atkins (2007)

In the wake of the Ed Snowden revelations about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) illegal surveillance activities, I would expect heightened concern over the progressive degradation of privacy and other civil liberties.  Unfortunately, it seems that a large swathe of the public, particularly young people, are either indifferent or resigned to the inevitable decline of individual human rights.  So any films that examine and press these issues are potentially important and should probably be part of our general social discourse. A worthy example is Taking Liberties (2007) [1], a documentary film written and directed by Chris Atkins about the British government’s assault on civil liberties in the United Kingdom.  Although this film very much has a British focus, the depicted issues and questionable activities on the parts of the authorities described are applicable across the spectrum of nations.  In fact the NSA’s massive surveillance of civilian telecommunications, as revealed by Snowden, are even more egregious activities than those that are covered in this film.

Taking Liberties begins with coverage of a thwarted antiwar protest that was to be held outside a UK Royal Air Force base in 2003.  The three busloads of protesters were stopped by the police, detained for two hours, and then forcefully escorted back to London.  So we get the idea that the film is going to be about how the British government is trying to stifle the expressions of protest towards their policies.  But as we go along, we see that the film has a wider scope than that.  Indeed it ventures into larger issues concerning a modern trend in England to suppress a number of commonly assumed civil liberties.  These wider issues are so important that I wish the film had addressed them more systematically.  But even as it stands, the film written and directed by Chris Atkins has some interesting points to make.

The outline of the film is explicitly given early on.  It will tell the story of how the New Labour movement of the British Labour Party, under the leadership of Tony Blair and in power since 1997, had systematically diminished basic civil rights in the UK, the country widely recognized as the worldwide initiator of official human rights.  Specifically, the film covers six basic human rights that have been damaged by Tony Blair’s policies.  Note that all of these rights are among the core elements of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was proclaimed on December 10, 1948.
  1. Freedom of Speech – Article 19 of the UDHR
  2. Right to Protest – Article 19 of the UDHR
  3. Right to Privacy – Article 12 of the UDHR
  4. Innocent Until Proven Guilty – Article 11 of the UDHR
  5. No Detention Without Charge (Habeas Corpus) – Articles 9 & 10 of the UDHR
  6. Ban of Torture – Article 5 of the UDHR
This outline structure is crucial to the film’s coherence, which otherwise seems to be a collection of “talking heads” politely complaining about their treatment at the hands of the authorities. The problem of talking heads is always an issue with documentary films.  Although talking heads may put flesh on what otherwise may threaten to be a dry exposition, these speakers need to be placed within a narrative framework in order to sustain interest in the film.
1.  Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech is basic to any civilized society, and it hardly seems civilized the way 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang, a distinguished anti-nuclear-weapons activist, was treated at the 2005 Labour Party Conference. With Wolfgang sitting in the audience balcony, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw gave a speech during which he said, "We are in Iraq for one reason only: to help the elected Iraqi government build a secure, democratic and stable nation".  Wolfgang responded to this utterance by shouting “Nonsense!”, for which he was manhandled by security personnel and forcibly removed from the audience.  Of course, this was an outrageous act, but was it indicative of a wider problem? 

In a similar vein we learn that a 20-year-old student was stopped by the police merely for wearing a T-shirt that said “Bollocks to Blair”. 

These two example exemplify a weakness to Taking Liberties.  We sometimes get the feeling that we are merely watching a list of complaints about Tony Blair’s allegedly nasty behavior and not covering more comprehensive issues.

2.  Right to Protest
Protestors recount being arrested for failing to have asked permission to hold a demonstration in the vicinity of British government offices on Downing Street, London (for which written permission is required).  There is also mention in this section of Forward Intelligence Teams (FITs).  In contrast to what has appeared up to this point, the FITs represent a very serious menace to society, and I will discuss them further below.

3.  Right to Privacy
Atkins visits the Counter Terror World 2006 conference held in London.  Here we see that surveillance operations are a lucrative business, and the conference kiosks and poster boards advertise the latest invasive surveillance technologies.  Also covered are the proposals to issue universal electronic ID cards to the public that record and facilitate tracking of everyone’s activities.  The universal buzz-phrase in these quarters is, “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t need to hide anything”. 

4.  Innocent Until Proven Guilty
There is a discussion of Blair’s proposal to legalize detention without charge for up to 90 days.  Holding people this long without charge is presumably useful for the purposes of harassment or forcible extraction of information (i.e. torture).  Although the Blair government was unsuccessful in this endeavor, they do have legalized detention without charge for 28 days, and they have been trying to get it extended to a 56-day period.

5.  No Detention Without Charge
This section covers the same area, but along a different line.  Algerian asylum seeker Mouloud Sihali was placed under indefinite house arrest without charge in connection with the notorious Wood Green Ricin Plot (2002). In this case, no ricin was ever found, although this failure to detect any ricin was kept secret for two years.  As a consequence, it led Colin Power to use the case as a justification for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.   Sihali was never found guilty of anything, but even today he faces the threat of deportation back to Algeria, where he may be subject to oppressive measures.

6.  Ban on Torture
Here we move further afield, to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, where torture has been used in attempts to extract information from detainees who are being held without charge.
So the film moves progressively to more serious and disturbing issues.  In fact what starts out as a depiction of relatively minor grievances turns increasingly towards more threatening and potentially more pervasive compromises of civil liberties. This movement with respect to the successively more portentous issues is one of the film’s strengths. Another one is the superbly produced animation sequences that pop up in several places to illustrate some of the argumentation. But there are also some weaknesses that diminish the film’s effectiveness:
  • The attempts to demonize and heap scorn on Tony Blair is counterproductive to the film’s overall message.  Such derision localizes the concerns to a claimed delinquent individual and distracts the viewer from more sinister and threatening problems.
  •  Similarly the attempts at humor in the film are sophomoric and also distracting. This will only appeal to the already converted and threatens to make the film a sermon to the choir.
  • The suggestion that recent UK policies compare to German Nazism, or that they may put us on a path leading to such a horror, requires more evidence and argumentation, otherwise it is merely scare-mongering.  Incidentally, if some producer does want to go down that emotionally polemical path, I suggest that they look at the 27-minute documentary film produced by the conservative Institute for American Strategy, Only the Strong (1972).  That ultimately malevolent work advocating more nuclear armaments was a powerful and frightening presentation that pressed all the “right” buttons to attain emotive engagement.
  • The various depictions of police overreaction to protesters is not the real issue, either.  The job of the police is often to restrict people and exercise control.  While police over-aggressiveness can be a serious problem, the real problem is policies that too often place police in a position to coercively interfere with human rights.
  • And finally, this 105-minute film runs on about 25 minutes too long.  What it needed was a shorter run and a concluding brief summary of the main points and a call to action.

But despite these weaknesses, Taking Liberties has enough going for it that it should still be seen and discussed.  There are serious issues raised in the film – with far more threatening implications than the individual annoyances and transgressions documented in the film – and these deserve widespread attention.

In this connection it is worth considering the rightful place that government has in society.  We all live and interact in a common space, with many common resources that must be judiciously shared (the “Commons”). Where Commons resources are limited – such as in connection with rivers, lake and ocean foreshores, drinking water, harbors, etc. – it is appropriate for some government regulation to assure the sustainability of, as well as the fair and relatively open access to, these resources.  Even staunch libertarians concede that a man’s right to swing his fist ends where another person’s nose begins.  So some restrictions on what one can do in the public space are in order.  Thus when the British authorities seek to be informed (by requiring written application for permission) about upcoming demonstrations near the principal government buildings, that requirement does not seem unreasonable to me – as long as permission is the default response.  Police do sometimes need to know when and where potentially disruptive events may be staged.  So the film’s presentation of protesters refusing to fill out this kind of application does not elicit my sympathies for that case.

For the maintenance of the Commons in general, however, there needs to be a reasoned balance between the use of laws and norms.  Laws provide a relatively rigid, explicitly codified structure of legal and illegal behaviour; whereas norms are used to regulate behaviour in a more socially cooperative manner.  These two social regulation mechanisms work together: a society’s legal system will operate successfully only when it is in general conformance with the normative system.  And a well-functioning society’s institutional structure that harmonizes with its shared public narratives will smoothly integrate the legal and normative systems.

The metaphor of the Commons provides a useful scheme for thinking about the responsibilities of good governments.  In general, responsible government must look after three areas:
  1. Maintain the sustainability of all the Commons.  This can mean taking measures to conserve nonrenewable resources.
  2. Lease out some sustainable portions of the Commons for exclusive control on the part of those who will develop the productivity associated with the Commons.  This can result in some limitations to accessing/controlling the Commons on the part of others.
  3. Maintain as much general access to the Commons as possible in light of item 2, above.  This must be done in conformance with the UN UDHR.
A suitable balance, achieved by common consent, needs to be maintained across these above three aspects of regulating the Commons.  Unfortunately, many governments have not been following the above scheme and instead have been doing the following:
  • selling of Commons resources to business associates, who in turn operate in an exploitative and extractive manner, thereby depleting the resources and privately hoarding the profits that should be collective distributed;
  • invading the Commons space (and thereby diminishing the human right to privacy) in order to exercise greater political and social control;
  • partitioning and selling off the “Commons” of ideas (which are erroneously taken to be objectified resources).  This involves treating ideas as if they were privately ownable properties, and as a consequence restricting free expression by asserting that individuals can own this “intellectual property” and restrict others from using it [2,3].
The plundering of the Commons goes hand-in-hand with the plundering of civil liberties.  The dominant power coalitions view the reduction of civil liberties, justified by appeals to the fabricated “terrorist” narrative, as good for business.

So these larger incursions of civil liberties and degradations of the Commons, which Taking Liberties does raise tangentially, are far more ominous and demonstrate that freedom in British society is in serious decline.  Appropriately enough for this modern age of government newspeak, there are four new and potentially sinister initiatives identified in the film by their acronyms: CCTV, IDs, ASBOs, and FITs.   For example, it is claimed that Britain has more deployed CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras than any other country in the world [4] (50% more than China) [5,6].  This is an unwarranted invasion of privacy and is not justified by the threat of terrorism.  It is implemented in order to maintain control on the part of the dominant power coalitions of each society.  For similar reasons, governments around the world are proposing the issuance of compulsory ID cards to all citizens for the purposes of tracking.  In addition, in Britain, the government has instituted anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), which can be issued by a court to anyone who makes a complaint about somebody else’s action.  This means that a person can go to jail merely for annoying someone else, even if what he does nothing in violation of the written law.  This is an example of what I mentioned above – seeking to extend the legal system into the proper realm of the normative system.

A particularly alarming development in Britain has been the deployment of Forward Intelligence Teams (FITs). These are teams of police officers who are sent out to gather intelligence on “potential” lawbreakers and disrupt and deter so-called antisocial behaviour before it occurs. Governments that operate using the latest electronic technology in this proactively invasive fashion (e.g. in the fashion of the NSA and its collaborating organizations [7,8]) are attempting to implement the kind of society horrifyingly envisioned in Minority Report (2002).

Nations under such suffocating watchful surveillance will gradually and inevitably morph into social systems far different from the free, open, and prosperous societies in the most developed parts of the world. Not only will creation and innovation be curtailed, it will mean that individual, meaningful personal interactions will be inevitably misinterpreted by a collective judgmental and coercive gaze.  This will change who we are.  Taking Liberties is hopefully just at the forefront of further informative films that articulate these serious concerns.

  1. The film title has also been called Taking Liberties Since 1997.  There is an associated book and a Web site: http://www.noliberties.com/.
  2. For further discussion on the false objectification of ideas as intellectual property, see: RiP: A Remix Manifesto' - Bret Gaylor (2009), The Film Sufi, http://www.filmsufi.com/2009/08/rip-remix-manifesto-brett-gaylor-2009.html.
  3. Also see: SiCKO' - Michael Moore (2007), The Film Sufi, http://www.filmsufi.com/2010/02/sicko-michael-moore-2007.html.
  4. David Barrett, ”One Surveillance Camera for Every 11 People in Britain, Says CCTV Survey”, The Telegraph, July 10, 2013.
  5. Tom Kelly, “Revealed: Big Brother Britain has more CCTV cameras  than China”, Daily Mail, August 11, 2009.
  6. The common perception that the UK and Chinese governments stand on opposite ends of the human rights spectrum may need to be revised.  Business interests seem to be taking precedence in all quarters.  See Jonathon Mirsky, “Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money”, The New York Review of Books, October 19, 2013.
  7. Susan Stellin, "Security Check Now Starts Long Before You Fly", The New York Times, 21 October 2013.
  8. David Rohde, "Our Fear of Al-Qaeda Hurts Us More Than Al-Qaeda Does", The Atlantic, 27 October 2013.

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