On innocence… lost?

By Rewi Lyall

Firstly, I was relatively pleased to see Joe Hockey on Lateline a few days ago talking, amongst other things, about CCTV. He’d given a speech earlier in the evening where he had apparently expressed some disquiet about the spread of cameras, but offered as an exception to this general position support for their use in crime ‘hotspots’. This ensured that he wasn’t out of line with his Party’s policy, and the attention seeking behaviour of his boss that very day.

It means that he shares the Opposition Leader’s belief that ‘you turn the cameras on, you turn the crime off’. I was going to give a link to this, but decided against boosting some conservative’s site.

Unfortunately, the assumption (flawed, in many people’s opinion) that cameras are an effective deterrent, as opposed to an effective tool for catching people after the event (and even then their effectiveness is questionable), actually undermines Mr. Hockey’s position.

He argues that there are limits to where cameras should be used: that is, to where crime exists. However, if we accept for the sake of argument alone that cameras have any efficacy it isn’t in ‘turning crime off’, it would be in turning it away, turning it to other areas where once established the demand for cameras will increase. The proliferation of CCTV would become a self-perpetuating widening of demand. Other than expressing a general discomfort, though, I suspect Mr. Hockey doesn’t actually intend to do anything about this principle.

Now, why does that fit in here to a discussion about innocence? Glad I asked.

It strikes me that the use of CCTV is part of the evidence that the presumption of innocence that we are all supposed to enjoy in this country and many others has been lost, if it ever actually existed. But there is other evidence.

The basic premise here, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that people who are going about their lawful business should not be subject to a fear of suspicion of wrongdoing, of being monitored. People who express some variation of ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve nothing to fear’ miss the point.

By using cameras and other techniques to watch the movements of law-abiding citizens the state effectively says that we are all of us suspect. Because some of us may engage in wrongdoing, we must accept the state’s intrusions on the basis of the potential that any of us could be wrongdoers, and by extension that none of us can be trusted to do the right thing.

But it goes further than this. Not only can we not be trusted to do the right thing, we can’t be trusted to speak the truth.

There can be no better example of this than the proliferation of instances where we are required to provide at least one, and often many, types of identification, primarily photographic identification. This can be from such complex arrangements as opening a bank account to becoming a member of a gym or video store. Indeed, the other day I was refused membership of a video store despite having the very same level of identification available which I had used to undertake certain banking arrangements in the past week.

What this requirement says is that we cannot be trusted to be the person we represent ourselves to be. We are presumed to be lying, to be guilty, until we can prove otherwise.

This makes me wonder if the presumption of innocence has ever really existed as a social norm, or if in fact we’re such a suspicious lot that we assume a default position of presumed wrongdoing. When you think about it, we really only ever hear about the presumption in the context of a formal legal proceeding – that is, after someone’s already been accused. How many of us ever think someone acquitted at trial is truly ‘innocent’? That horse has already bolted, hasn’t it, once you’ve been charged with something? Smoke and fire and all that?

Should we be worried, if, as I suspect, this presumed innocence is merely an aspiration, a formality to be observed absent any real conviction? Perhaps ‘worried’ isn’t quite right here, as I don’t really object to all of the occasions in which I’m required to present identification. It’s simply a matter of interest to me that a formal presumption of innocence appears to run counter to a substantive suspiciousness.

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