In this day and age, many of us are guilty of falling into the trap of INAEB speak (prefacing sentences with "I'm not an economist, but..."). Well if I'm not an economist, I'm definitely not a lawyer, and I've even got the soul to prove it. My doctoral research strayed into some legal territory, partly through my Foucauldian analysis of the Law and Economics movement. Plus I got into reading some legal positivism - HLA Hart and Austin - which is philosophically fascinating. But generally speaking, I'm driving blind when it comes to theorising law.
So maybe I should just throw this out as an observation: isn't it slightly peculiar how meagre the legal impact of ubiquitous visual surveillance is turning out to be? Big Brother is indeed watching us. As has been regularly pointed out, it's slightly bizarre how little the British (the most photographed people in the world) seem to care. But maybe, as has been less regularly pointed out, they're right not to care - it doesn't change all that much.
Contrast the Ian Tomlinson case with the MPs expenses scandal. Again, I'm Not A Lawyer, But I can't quite understand why it's permissible for the police to beat a member of the public, effectively to death, and not suffer legal repercussions. It's obviously a complicated part of the law. But I wonder if different forms of evidence, and different media for carrying them, have wildly divergent ontological statuses in our legal and political culture. The interesting aspect of the Law and Economics story was how calculations of economic efficiency came to acquire such authority amongst the various forms of legal evidence that could otherwise be mobilised in economic (and non-economic) situations.
One interesting issue today is that photographic images feel strangely lightweight as forms of evidence, perhaps because they're so ubiquitous. It's almost as if we've now reached a stage where so much is being caught on camera, by so many professional, governmental and amateur bodies, that we can't possibly allow it all to truly count. Imagine if it all did count to the extent that it might? Our culture of litigiousness, liability passing and auditting would be ratcheted up to such levels as to bring society to a complete halt.
An image can have a radical impact upon 'public opinion', as demonstrated by the Abu Graib camera phone images. But this isn't a significant departure from the pre-ubiquitous, pre-digital age of photography; photography played an equally important role in de-legitimising the Vietnam war. When images perform this function, they remain within the realm of the aesthetic - they can shock, wow, disgust, excite, but they don't make the leap from being sensational to being factual and technical.
While coppers and soldiers were being widely papped (and papping themselves) performing acts of wanton violence and getting away with it, MPs were being unknowingly auditted fiddling their expenses and not getting away with it at all. This time last year, British public life had become consumed by such urgent political issues as David Cameron's wisteria, a floating duck house and Jacqui Smith's husband's pornography consumption. And while the blood-letting may have been satisfying and necessary up to a point, the amount of public vitriol and vengeance enacted against Parliament was unprecedented, at least for a nation as politically docile as ours. It is clearly not the case that we lack the hunger for the disruptive political power of transparency, we're just picky about which varieties.
Maybe the chance to bully and harrass politicians is simply more attractive than the chance to do so to the police. But again, I wonder if there is something about the ontology of evidence here - all of those numbers, receipts, dated credit card statements, tax details, pounds and pence, all had the air of good hard data. They went with the grain of nearly 200 years of governmental technologies of knowledge. Whether the powers that be liked it or not, they had to count.
Meanwhile, all of those foggy images collected on CCTV and picture phones begin to blur into a papparazzoid mush of images, like flicking through the facebook pages of people you might have once met. Criminologists report that CCTV has negligible impact on crime and conviction rates. It's not even clear that the cameras which regulate our roads and traffic are even legally water-tight. The police seem to accept as their fate that they are now within the panopticon, being photographed and surveilled from all directions, in ways that will undermine their legitimacy and popularity. But given the choice between legal accountability for their actions, and being graphically portrayed in a negative cultural light, they will happily go for the second option. Aesthetically ugly, yet legally clean.
Like ASBOs, photographic surveillance technologies hover ambiguously between informal and official norms. Jane Jacobs famously argued for "eyes on the street", a reference to the self-policing function of bustling, open public spaces - but this slogan has since been adopted by local councils proudly declaring their investments in CCTV. Where language is concerned, words and symbols are either spoken or written, offering law some ontological clarity in how it organises the relationship between the two. The voice and the pen operate in parallel planes. This distinction seems not to arise where images are concerned, making it ambiguous how a visible event and its photographic record should actually be related to each other, other than via artistic representation.