By Michaela Collins
Just before Xmas I passed a television camera crew going up my street. I felt a little frisson of interest and went on about my business. Next day I was a little more excited when the pictures aired on the lunchtime news and the camera lingered on my window. Well, Andy Warhol, it was only 15 seconds, whatever!
The news item was about an elderly couple who were found dead, one from hypothermia, after their gas had been cut off. I detail my reaction to the news because it highlights a certain ambivalence about privacy and publicity, and it is this ambivalence that is played on by policy-makers and private utilities.
Anything out of the ordinary is a bit exciting. When it involves death it's also potentially worrying. When, one Sunday morning, a couple of months earlier, police cars and crime scene tape appeared outside number 100, I went to have a look. No, I didn't know the couple, the Bates, but my neighbour told me they were elderly and he hadn't seen them about for over a week. They were 86 and 89 and their gas had been cut off for weeks at the time of their deaths.
What was remarkable was the spin that was put on the report. British Gas excused themselves for cutting off the service from a clearly vulnerable couple, by arguing that the Data Protection Act prevented them from passing on their details to Social Services. This argument was then amalgamated with concern, arising from the Soham murder trial, that Ian Huntley's previous charge (but not conviction) for sexual assault was not passed on to the school that employed him as a caretaker. "Are we safeguarding privacy at the expense of lives?", ran the question. Civil liberties gone mad?
Several things are being conflated here. Two very different cases, involving different principles, are tied together by the coincidence that they both involve two deaths and the failure to pass on information. It makes a good news story, but absolute crap for determining policy.
The Bates' deaths could probably have been prevented by not cutting off their gas. If it had happened later, in the winter months, British Gas would not have been allowed to cut off their gas. There is a clear recognition that leaving vulnerable elderly people without heat can be fatal. The Data Protection Act stuff was entirely spurious.
That old people can die of sheer poverty, 60 years after the founding of the so-called welfare state, is putrid. That government ministers can seize on the issue, not in order to deal with old-age poverty, but to forward their encroachment on our limited rights to privacy is beyond noxious.
This is the government which is frantic to introduce ID cards, that passes on private information to the US government as "anti-terrorism", that is now talking about "passenger profiling" for air travel. The extraordinary cynicism in using these deaths ought to be beyond belief. Sadly, it's not. It's all too believable.