The Rise and Fall of the Antiterrorist Hotline

The radio squawks into action in my car, madly cycling through stations until it settles on Talksport … And break for commercial.

The man at the end of the street doesn’t talk to his neighbours much, because he likes to keep himself to himself.

He pays with cash, because he doesn’t have a bank card.

And he keeps his curtains closed, because he lives on a bus route.

He sounds like my kind of guy. I think I’m starting to like him. If he didn’t keep himself to himself so much we could probably end up in the pub. … The advert continues.

This may mean nothing. But together it could add up to you having suspicions…

Okay. … Suspicions. I see.

… We all have a role to play in combating terrorism.

Wait – sorry – what?

If you see anything suspicious, call the confidential anti terrorism hotline…

… If you suspect it, report it. There’s no such thing as a wasted call.

No, wait, hang on a minute. Surely … If I call because my neighbour doesn’t go out much, keeps his curtains closed and prefers to pay in cash … And if he isn’t a terrorist … Surely … Am I not wasting someone’s time? Someone has to pick up the phone. Someone has to be paid to answer my call. And considering that this “someone” works for the government, am I to assume that we are paying their wages?

The following message is brought to you by Talksport and the Antiterrorist Hotline.

I am sat at the lights. Most probably, I am slightly slack jawed after having tuned in to the latest news on our home front. Elsewhere, the War on Terror rages. Here, on the flipside, I am expected to inspect my neighbour’s shopping and peer in through the gaps between his curtains.

Peaceful green fields span out ahead of me, only slightly overshadowed by the local Waitrose… “Awful lot of fertiliser the farmer’s buying this year, Margaret.”

It would be far too easy to laugh off the advert. It would be far too easy to go home, tell someone about it, have a drink and grumble about the state of things. However, if you’re not feeling a fundamentally loathsome air about this most recent addition to the great collective paranoia, allow further exploration.

The advert has since been banned by the ASA (Advertising Standards Agency) in wake of eighteen complaints following its radio debut. That it has been banned is undoubtedly a good thing for anyone who objects to the manipulation of those who are genuinely scared, or to being snooped on by their neighbours. However, the fact that it was allowed to exist in the first place is troubling. “Allowed” is an interesting word. Perhaps we should ask: was such unacceptable a creation allowed to exist by the chiefs of police, or was it was allowed to be created because they believed that it was acceptable?

In a society in which we are used to fear mongering and in which we often realise the value of our freedoms only once they are taken away, it is fantastic that people have stood up against that which they deem unacceptable. There is an incomparable value to our definition of what is and is not acceptable. Our power to defy is the root of our power as a democracy. On the other hand, it is less inspiring to think that those to whom we have delegated the roles of our protectors and leaders have created this “hotline” system.

It is a system as simple as dialling a number. By offering the untrained and the scared the opportunity to protect themselves, our protectors are deferring their authority into our hands. We have a police force for a reason. And by giving their responsibilities over to the public they are creating a subconscious fear within our society: the fear that things are bad enough for them to need us to be suspicious. The term do-gooder is outdated. But surely the target audience of these latest adverts were those who wished to do good, and thereby, those who were doubtful enough of our protectors to take matters into their own hands.

As tax payers we are paying for the 0800 number, we are paying for the actor used in the advert, we are paying for the air time and we are paying the wages of those who answer the phone calls. For us all, especially in these times, this is an issue of importance. … But on this new home front there are more pressing matters than money. There is something very ill in the conduct of the chiefs of police, and there is something deeply disturbing about the fact that such adverts were created without check…

… And that they had to be checked by us, the public.

This did not need to happen. Somewhere along the way, we ourselves allowed it to happen. Ultimately, it is a lack of protest on the part of the public, and a general popular ignorance, that defines acceptability.

The rise and fall of the antiterrorist hotline is in our hands, and so is the key to our authority as the public.

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