Safer society or Big Brother state?

Marcel Berlins
The Guardian

The question we need to ask about the storing of DNA samples is the same as the one bedevilling our approach to identity cards, and stiff anti-terrorism legislation. Crudely, it is this: how much interference with our liberties are we – as a society, as individuals – prepared to countenance in the cause of public safety? The question can be put more emotionally. Would we accept giving the police draconian powers of interrogation and detention (or introducing compulsory ID cards) if we knew that it would prevent 100 people from being blown up by terrorists? But what if only 10 lives would be saved? Or would we need 1,000 to die before we readily relinquished our civil liberties? These are, of course, absurd questions; yet that is the balancing exercise we (and our MPs) are constantly being asked to consider, even if we don’t articulate the issue in precisely those terms. Yesterday’s thoughtful report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on the retention of DNA samples discusses the various options open to the government. At one extreme is the permanent storage of DNA taken from convicted criminals, and from no one else; at the other, a national DNA database of the whole population. There are many possibilities in between. Broadly speaking, the police would favour a large DNA library, which, they say, would help them to solve a lot of crime. The civil libertarian doesn’t accept that such a conclusion follows from the available statistics.

The trouble is that no one has any real idea of the consequences of the various models, in terms of crime detection. Still less can we calculate the balance between retaining DNA samples and public safety. Just how many extra crimes, of what seriousness, would be committed if the police were denied their wish for an expanding DNA database? We don’t know. Even assuming a more successful detection rate, would it be enough to compensate for the inevitable human mistakes and computer foul-ups that would occur, breaching people’s privacy and putting the innocent at risk of an injustice? We cannot know, just as we have no provable or even vaguely persuasive way of assessing whether identity cards will result in a safer society or a Big Brother state.

At present, the police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in the course of investigating crime, are entitled to take DNA from a suspect, victim or witness, and to store the sample (even that of an acquitted defendant) for ever. This has enabled them to collect the DNA of four million people, the vast majority innocent of any crime. It is different in Scotland, where they can permanently retain samples only from convicted criminals and, for three years, samples from those charged with a serious sexual or violence offence, even if not convicted. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics strongly urges the government to adopt the Scottish practice throughout Britain. I fear it will not. It is not in the mood to give in to civil liberties concerns. The official inquiry currently under way will, I predict, meet the police’s demands. If it’s the police versus the rights lobby, there can be only one winner.

It is precisely because Michael Palin is so good and so popular that his series on “New Europe” – mainly the countries of the old Soviet bloc – leaves me a little uneasy. It has something to do with the combination of the subject matter and Palin’s personality. I’m not saying that he makes a joke of everything – there was some moving and thought-provoking stuff in the first programme, last Sunday, about the aftermath of the Balkan tragedies of the 1990s – but I don’t think I am being unfair in saying that his main stock-in-trade is a kind of light-hearted approach to whatever and whoever he encounters, punctuated by the occasional self-deprecating tomfoolery. He chats to many eccentrics and discovers strange and silly local customs. He plays himself, beautifully, to the satisfaction of a very large audience (7.5 million watched the first episode).

So what is my problem? What bothers me is that the countries Palin visits emerge to the viewers as seen through his eyes and humour, and that means as somewhat dotty people in dotty places. (I haven’t seen the whole series, but I have seen the ads and trailers, and read what he himself has written and, besides, the evidence is in his previous television series).

So what? Does it matter? I think it does, in a way that Palin’s presentation of nations and peoples in his other series didn’t.

Europe and the European Union matter. The British, whether Europhobe or -phile, are curiously edgy, confused and sensitive about the EU. They should be absorbing information that brings them closer to understanding their new fellow members. Palin is wonderful at what he does, but you don’t go to him for insight.

The BBC could have made programmes on the same subject, treated more seriously and with a more earnest presenter – but they would have attracted a fraction of the viewers. Indeed, there have been such programmes, especially at the time of the enlargement of the EU in 2004, mainly consigned to late-evening slots or the less watched channels. I am blaming neither Palin nor the network. I just wish the British television watcher had been given something a little more substantial on which to judge and understand the countries of new Europe.

This week Marcel read Foreigners by Caryl Phillips: “Three stories about how the white English exploited and destroyed black men in their midst. The one about Randolph Turpin, once a world boxing champion, is particularly moving.” Marcel watched on television: “Two world cups, with England men rubbish at rugby and England women terrific at football.”