Much 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