Monday 6 April 2020

A hypocrite or a snitch?

Last week the Scottish Sun had a scoop. It had a tape of Alex Salmond’s lawyer Gordon Jackson QC discussing the case including naming two of the prosecution witnesses who were supposed to be anonymous. This week the same paper had another scoop. It had photographs of Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood failing to follow the advice that she herself had given everyone else. I made the comment that perhaps Chief Medical Officers in Scotland take the Hipocritic oath.

There is no question that both of these people behaved badly and perhaps illegally. It is unlikely that Calderwood did any harm by visiting her second home in Fife, but we cannot expect the public to follow advice if Calderwood herself is unwilling to do so. It is indeed harmless for one family to make an unnecessary journey into the countryside, but if everyone made such journeys the chance of Covid 19 spreading would be higher. One person sunbathing in a park is harmless, but if thousands go to the same park it will eventually make people ill and some of them will die.

But what worries me about these two scoops is not so much the behaviour of Calderwood and Jackson. It is the behaviour of those who made the video recording and took the photographs.

Someone sitting on a train must have recognised Jackson and must have listened to his conversation. This person must have decided to record and film it. A button was pushed on a phone or similar device for a reason. So too someone who lived near Calderwood’s second home must have recognised her and known that she was Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer and that she was acting contrary to the advice she had given. This person perhaps one of Calderwood’s neighbours decided to begin taking photographs surreptitiously.

The people who recorded the conversation and took the photographs did not take this evidence of wrongdoing to the Police. Instead they took them to the Scottish Sun. Why? We don’t know what if anything they received in return, but we do know that in the past newspapers have been generous to those who provide them with scoops. We are left to wonder whether it was the prospect of such generosity that meant these people began recording and taking photographs.

It was once commonplace in Russian for people to eavesdrop on their neighbours and to report them to the authorities. In 1945 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was arrested because he wrote derogatory comments about Stalin in a letter to a friend. He was sentenced to 8 years in a GULAG. There were numerous cases of snooping in those days and numerous people were imprisoned or worse because their neighbours saw or heard something, they could inform about to the authorities. I don’t want to live in a society where I can’t trust my neighbours to mind their own business and have to watch what I say in pubs and busses and trains in case someone snitches.

I spent quite a lot of time in Russia and snooping and informing is frowned upon like nothing else. This is because the only way to survive in a totalitarian society is to have a private life which is truly private. Freedom was something you had with your friends and family and perhaps with your neighbours. It was only free if others didn’t peer in and didn’t listen with a cup to the wall. You don’t snoop, you don’t inform. Those who do inhabit the innermost circle of Hell with the greatest informer of them all.

We live in a situation right now which is as close to wartime as any of us have ever experienced without there actually being a war. Just as in wartime it is vital that we follow what the authorities tell us to do. It is also vital that we don’t argue too much about what we are told to do or think that we know better. It would have been absurd if reporters had questioned the Government’s invasion strategy in June1944. Imagine if one reporter argued that we should have invaded in April in the Pas-de-Calais, while another said we should have chosen the French Mediterranean coast in July. Such arguments would at best be a distraction founded on ignorance, at worse they would have undermined the invasion itself. There will be time enough for argument when all this is finished, for now we need unity, simple messages and we need to do what we are told.

This is the greatest loss of freedom that any of us have ever experienced. It makes our society temporarily resemble somewhere without a democracy. It is tolerable only because it is temporary and necessary and because most of us choose to obey rather than be forced. It becomes intolerable if someone’s lapse is snooped on and if there are informers who tell the police that they saw someone doing what they shouldn’t.

Our joint effort to keep ourselves and society safe requires that we overlook if someone takes their dog for a walk twice rather than once in a day. If I must go to the shops once a week but forget something and go again the next day it is a misdemeanour that can be overlooked otherwise the pressure will grow in the cooker. If my journey is unnecessary, because all alone I sneak out in the middle of the night to a deserted beach, then let it be on my conscience, because our motto should be “first do no harm” and I did no harm.  No one should record my misdemeanour even if I am the Chief Medical Officer, the Prime Minister or the Queen. Let us be gentle with enforcing our rules and forgiving with our rule breakers but let us above all be disciplined with ourselves.   

Snoopers and informers will make living in Britain feel like living in a tyranny. They should not be rewarded either by the papers or by anyone else, they should be shunned as something unclean.