Don’t Say ‘Snooper’s Charter’: Dutch Dairy-Rooms and British Political Language – Dr Cian Murphy

24 June 2015 by

No_snoopers_homeMuch has been said about our surveillance law and much more will be said in Parliament’s debate on Thursday. And yet, how we talk about surveillance law merits at least as much concern as what we say about it. Over-intrusive government surveillance is a problem. But so too is loose language in opposition to it.

The Oxford English Dictionary (Online) describes a ‘snooper’ as ‘one who pries or peeps; spec. one who makes an intrusive official investigation. orig. U.S.’ So it is, at best, an American term for an officious busy-body and at worst someone prying or peeping. This is hardly an administrative accolade or term of endearment – unless one has rather curious definitions of government and/or courtship.

Further etymological investigation reveals that the term ‘to snoop’ is Dutch in origin, and one use would be to describe a servant “slyly going into a dairy room and drinking milk from a pan.” It seems a Dutch Downton Abbey would have even more intrigue than the English one does. For none of these definitions or descriptions would we want Parliament to legislate. No-one is on the side of the ‘snooper’.

It is clear, therefore, that ‘Snooper’s Charter’ is a pejorative term. It is meant to make us dislike any such proposal from the outset. I understand, and share, many of the concerns of the former Deputy Prime Minister and others who use the term. The British state’s track record of human rights compliance in its pursuit of national security does not inspire confidence.

There are also tendencies, in all constitutional democracies, to allow government powers in one seemingly extraordinary field only to see those powers become ‘necessary’ in other fields. And the Anderson Report, which has been the subject of criticism and celebration on all sides of the debate, found that some proposals for surveillance powers have not been borne out as necessary.

So why not dub such proposals the basis for a ‘Snooper’s Charter’? Why not use colourful rhetoric to inspire the intellect and evoke the emotions? Isn’t that what lively political debate is all about? Well yes, and then again, no. Because ‘Snooper’s Charter’ is not just colourful, it’s also a rather crude over-simplification of a very complex subject.
Any new law will cover a range of different investigatory powers for intelligence and law enforcement agencies – including but not limited to the police. We need to be accurate in our arguments about what is necessary and what is not, and on how any necessary powers are held to account.

To over-simplify means we lose nuance and render accurate debate impossible. Indeed, such is the use of the term that it’s not clear if it would be a Snooper’s Charter or a Snoopers’ Charter. And as we now know, the Minister of Justice is serious about grammar and syntax. Language matters.

To over-simplify can also be to scaremonger. The ‘Snooper’s Charter’ lumps together the well-meaning official with the more rare abuser of power (and with the Dutch milk-thief). They might not all be James Bond but they’re not all Big Brother either. And we need to be able to distinguish between the two.

There’s another reason to ditch the term. It may seem unfair to expect civil libertarians to raise the tone of the debate while they’re also trying to win it. But it just seems wrong-headed to defend individual rights and preserve collective democratic values using language that confuses rather than clarifies.

‘Snooper’s Charter’ confuses. It is ‘a lump of verbal refuse’, in Orwell’s words, the unhelpful tabloidisation of a crucial public debate. Orwell gave us our most memorable nightmare of intrusive government. We can learn from him, from Bentham and Foucault, from Kafka and Arendt, about pervasive surveillance and interminable bureaucracy. We can have colourful rhetoric and vivid imagery.

But we can also learn about how we say what we say. Because Orwell also wrote with great clarity about the dangers of political language. ‘Snooper’s Charter’, however one serves one’s apostrophe, is such language. It is verbal refuse that we should toss ‘into the dustbin where it belongs’. Surveillance is too important a matter for such a poor term of art.

Dr Cian C. Murphy, King’s College London 


  1. Thank you all for your comments. It’s correct, as one commentator points out, that it is not just privacy advocates who could use more careful language, so too could those who tend to argue in favour of greater investigatory powers.

  2. Jon Bell says:

    I’m fine with that, as long as I also no longer have to hear “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” or similar iterations. The “crude over-simplification” is on both sides.

  3. Anne says:

    Re “Snooper’s Charted” How many times has it been called so in the Houses of Parliament, by our MP’s, Lords and Ladies in our Houses of Parliament?

    Re Snoopers Charter see 26 Jan 2015 : Column 54 on “They seek to slip into the Bill large parts of the highly controversial snoopers’ charter, word for word.”
    11 Jun 2015 : Column 1357 The Scottish National party also welcomes the publication of this report, but we will oppose any plans to introduce what is sometimes referred to as a snoopers charter, that being a charter that would sanction the mass collection of data and mass spying on people’s private communications. (‘Snoopers Charter’ mentioned more than once in the above debate)
    13 Jan 2015 : Column 666 Yesterday, David Cameron said that new powers were needed relating to communications data. As we have already seen with TEOs, it is not unknown for the Prime Minister to make a speech before the policy has been worked out. Then the Deputy Prime Minister took to the airwaves to denounce the “snoopers’ charter”, as he saw it.

    Interception of communications Standard Note:SN/HA/6332 Last updated:13 March 2015
    A draft Communications Data Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech in 2012 and published on 14 June 2012. The Bill was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and some aspects of the Government’s proposals were criticised. Frequently referred to by critics as a “snooper’s charter”, it was opposed by the Liberal Democrats and not taken forward in the 2012-13 session.
    A good read here re “The Snooper’s Charter.

    There are of course many more-but do not have time to spare today, but I guess you get the general thought.

  4. Phil Glover says:

    Well said (and written). The civil libertarian approach to challenging the State’s regulation of investigative techniques regularly frustrates this researcher. ‘Snoopers’ Charter (GCHQ undoubtedly has more than one snooper snooping on behalf of the State) is a good example. Liberty’s regular description of the Intelligence & Security Committee as ‘the mouthpiece for the spooks’ is similarly lamentable and does little to enhance a debate which Anderson (and Sawers) have correctly asserted to be fundamentally about trust. If civil libertarian criticisms of the State position are to be given an equal degree of respect and credibility as the some of the more hyperbolic security assessments that appear from the Home Office, terms such as the aforementioned need to be jettisoned. While civil libertarian advocacy is a vital tenet of modern democracy, the debate (thanks to their approach) is often comparable to the Home Office ‘parents’ trying to assuage the rantings of Kevin and Perry.

  5. Daniel Smith says:

    This is all a bit of waste of time…as someone who rang the police yesterday because someone is coming onto our property and stealing equipment we need to plough more money into the Police and not turn into some Quisling nation.

  6. Love this article! I’ve often wondered what exactly they meant when it is variously dubbed, Snoopers’ Charter and Snooper’s Charter. Given Gove’s grammar pecadilloes, I look forward to his clarification on the matter.

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