Saturday, October 3, 2015

High-Tech Hide and Seek (2015)

The Proper Gander Column from the October 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Should you ever hurriedly need to abandon your home and go on the run from the state, how long would you last? You’d soon be recorded on CCTV, and any phone call, bank transaction, e-mail or social media post could be monitored, making it harder than ever before to remain undetected. This is the premise behind Hunted, Channel 4’s new game show, or ‘real-life thriller’ as they describe it. Its participants are all concerned about the surveillance state, and turn this mistrust into a challenge to evade capture for 28 days from professional investigators using real-life state powers.

Based in their high-tech lair, the hunters are a cold, steely bunch of ex-cops and military, led by Brett Lovegrove, former head of London’s police counter-terrorism unit. Armed with the latest software for snooping and hardware for hunting, the investigators track the fugitives and pass on any leads to their ground troops.

Starting off with each fugitive’s name, photo, date of birth and address, the investigators quickly trace any vehicles owned, bank accounts, job details and social media profiles. ‘You’re more truthful to your search engine than you are to your wife’ quips one of the investigators, just a few clicks away from accessing pretty much all someone’s online life. They even break into the participants’ houses to snatch dirty washing for sniffer dogs to find a scent.  

When the game begins, fugitive Ricky zooms away on his motorbike, whose registration number is promptly discovered by the investigators. The bike is spotted on roadside cameras linked to Automatic Number Plate Recognition software, and his journey is tracked. He only escapes capture within hours of starting by turning onto smaller, camera-less roads. Prying into Ricky’s e-mails and profiling his behaviour patterns leads the investigators to correctly predict he’ll head to Scotland.

Sandra and Elizabeth give away their location when they use an ATM, allowing the investigators to hone in on nearby CCTV. A camera shows them getting on a coach, and the investigators catch them after they get off. Emily and Lauren hitch-hike to avoid their movements being traced, but Emily’s home phone is being monitored, and her calls back there pinpoint where she is.

Hunted’s producers have aimed for authenticity, ensuring ‘all of the information being requested and gathered by the hunters reflected the powers that would be available to them in real life, and within the appropriate time frame.’ Disappointingly, we only see edited highlights of the investigators’ investigations and each fugitive’s flight, giving brief snapshots of their plans, thoughts, and feelings, rather than exploring the scenario in much depth. Despite this lack of detail, Hunted is a sobering reminder of how much grip the state has on our lives. It’s worth tracking down.
Mike Foster

War and people (1970)

Book Review from the January 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

The People's War by Angus Calder, Jonathan Cape, 65s.

It is some time now, since the re-assessment of the 1939/45 war got under way. Many Allied "successes" have been shown up as failures. sometimes as grisly reminders of the cold-blooded slaughters of 1914/1918; the reputation of the war leaders, at the time unassailable, has been badly damaged. Even Churchill has been demoted to a human being—and a not very effective one at that.

Angus Calder was born during the war, so he has to rely on something more than memory for his account of it. But those who can remember will find themselves reliving their experiences when they read his book. They might also have feelings about realising that events they can recall so well—evacuation, air raids, rationing, war propaganda—are not fit subjects for the historian.

This book is aptly titled; 1939/45 was a people's war because the entire population was in it, indeed, almost under fire, from the start. When it came, it did not prove as terrifying as the government had promised and the total devastation which in the Thirties had been almost universally forecast was simply not a possibility. Even in the German cities like Hamburg and Dresden, which took terrible batterings from air, recovery was quickly organised. Indeed, one of the big miscalculations of the Allied death accountants was their over-estimation of the effects of air attacks on the German population. 

Angus Calder does a good exposure job on the many things which while the war was on the official propaganda machine could not admit. The machine had to cover up the facts on evacuation, the devastating effects of kids from the big city slums being dumped onto country villages and, in some cases, stately homes whose owners were shocked to find the extent of the duty which England that day expected them to do. Oliver Lyttelton, who became a leading member of Churchill's government, was stuck with 31 evacuees and wrote about them: "I had little dreamt that English children could be so completely ignorant of the simplest rules of hygiene, and that they would regard the floors and carpets as suitable places upon which to relieve themselves."

Then of course there were the plain lies—of British losses always being a fraction of the German, of fantastic victories against huge odds being won by innate superiority. perhaps the most famous of these lies was the claim that the RAF had destroyed 185 German aircraft on August 15, 1940 but which was in fact only 75 for the loss of 34 British fighters.

Another great hush-up was the scandal of the Tubes, when Londoners, in panic at the increasing severity of the Blitz and at the inadequacy of their shelters, took over the Underground stations. At first this was against official opposition but the movement proved irresistible and as the government gave way and the people poured each night onto the stations conditions in them became terrible, with nothing—bedding, sanitation—organised to receive them. Perhaps we can smile now at the way the propaganda machine persuaded people to forget this sort of hardship—how they got them running savings weeks, giving up their aluminium pots to be turned into aircraft, eating carrots to help them see better in the blackout.

Angus Calder has one very interesting section on the small band who refused to fight, contrasting the treatment received by the conscientious objectors in the 1914/18 war to that of 1939/45. In the Second War the government—and Churchill himself—went out of their way to denounce victimisation and even allowed prominent pacifists to lecture the troops. Which was, of course, an exceedingly wise policy because, apart from anything else, it drew much of the war opponents' sting and prevented the objectors being raised into martyrdom.

Yes, it was a people's war and the people themselves believed it to be. So towards the end we were fed with super promises about what the people were going to get out of victory and Beveridge became a popular hero. It was left to the Attlee government to show up the reality, that the people get the capitalism they deserve or deserve the capitalism they get. Angus Calder's book is a smoothly written, comprehensive history of those days.