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Bad Boy of the Week: Brum councillor Martin Mullaney

Nitram Yenallum | 22.12.2010 19:59 | Birmingham

Authorities in Birmingham have barely been out of the papers this year, such is their enthusiasm for public surveillance. This month is no exception.

No sooner had it been confirmed that the city’s disastrous spy camera scheme would finally be scrapped after months of public outcry, it was announced that audio sensors had been installed to monitor the city’s mean streets. Birmingham also featured prominently in a Big Brother Watch Report last month into council spending on CCTV. The report named and shamed the city council for spending a whopping £10.5m of public money on cameras in the last three years alone - more than any other local authority in Europe.

With barely a pause, yet another CCTV scheme has been proposed, in Moseley Village, a leafy suburb in south Birmingham. The man behind the scheme was local councillor Martin Mullaney, a longstanding and vocal advocate of CCTV cameras, and the council’s Cabinet Member for Leisure, Sport and Culture. Armed with the support of several local traders and having “persuaded” the Safer Birmingham Partnership to part with £100,000 to finance his scheme, it was nearly a done deal. Indeed the Birmingham Mail announced that “several cameras will be installed along the High Street.”

There was just one small thing: a public consultation of some sort would be needed. After all, the council’s failure to consult communities over the ill-fated spycam scheme earlier this year was universally condemned: angry residents felt that the surveillance had been done to them rather than for them. So, keen to avoid a repeat of the fiasco, councillors astutely agreed to ask people before installing the cameras: a novel idea that had by and large, not been deemed necessary in the past.

Things got off to an inauspicious start at a council ward committee meeting when, as the Birmingham Mail reports, “a stream of people attacked the Moseley plan.” So a ‘Question Time’ public meeting was called to discuss the scheme further. It was very clear that a lot of people did not want the cameras, questioning their effectiveness and necessity. Faced with such opposition, Cllr Mullaney sprung into action. Rather than debate and promote the issue of CCTV, he set about attacking those who rejected the scheme, branding them “the anti-cctv lobby,” and dismissing their views as unrepresentative of what he imagined to be the majority of residents:
“The public consultation on whether the residents of Moseley wanted cctv or not, was an opportunity to find out what the general Moseley community thought on this issue. At the steering group meeting it was made clear that we wanted residents to make there [sic] own minds up and participate in this consultation freely. I want to understand what the residents really think about cctv in Moseley Village. The anti-cctv lobby have made their views very loud and clear, but I now want to listen to what everyone else thinks and not have that view distorted by dishonest campaigning by the anti-cctv lobby.”

For the Councillor, some views are more valid than others. Those in favour of CCTV are the voices he wants to hear, while those against constitute an unwelcome irritation and should be discounted or vilified. Some people had been "lobbying" and "campaigning" (i.e. going around talking to people), which is somehow ‘dishonest’, he complains. After all, it’s not something a politician would do. What he is really objecting to is informed debate on an important issue that he would prefer to see rubber-stamped by council officials like himself.

Cllr Mullaney then made a radical suggestion: surveys deposited in the box provided at a local pub, a known hangout of “the anti-cctv lobby,” should be disregarded or ‘adjusted’ in favour of a pro-cctv outcome!

"It was suggested [by Cllr Mullaney] that those doing the count might discard some of the ballots in the POW [Prince of Wales] box and attach additional weightings to some ballot responses, based on levels of impact of the CCTV cameras on people responding. It was suggested [by Cllr Mullaney] that the ballot in the POW had been ‘stuffed,’” (minutes of the Moseley Forum meeting reveal).

Yes, that’s right: not content with accusing some locals of cheating (despite the forms containing verifiable contact details of the people filling them in) Cllr Mullaney appears to be perfectly willing to fix the results of his own survey if it didn’t go his way – which, in anybody’s book, is cheating. Those “anti-cctv” views should be removed, so that only ‘typical’ responses remained (it’s well known that when asked if they support cctv to reduce crime and improve safety most people will say yes).

Fortunately, and to their credit, other individuals involved in the democratic process seemed alarmed at this suggestion and made their objections clear:

“Moseley forum strongly objected to discarding any properly completed ballot forms and to any new condition being applied such as the weighting of certain ballot responses. It was very strongly expressed that BCC [Birmingham City Council] and the consultation steering group must act with complete transparency and without bias. To do otherwise would jeopardise the whole consultation process and risk another fiasco like the ANPR [Project Champion]. BCC should be taking greater care than ever before not to alienate its residents, but rather to embrace their views as part of the Big Society - even if residents disagreed with the local authority.”

Undeterred, Cllr Mullaney’s fervent pro-cctv stance continued, descending into a farcical series of ludicrous claims. A cctv scheme should not necessarily be viewed as an attempt to solve an identified problem, he argued, but more a general enhancement to any community, which may attract businesses to the area – including some Michelin starred restaurants! The extent of Mr Mullaney’s blind faith is evidenced in an article from BBW pals No CCTV: ‘BrumiLeaks, CCTV and the attempted murder of democracy’.

Nothing, it seems, will dampen the enthusiasm of council officials hell bent on pushing their surveillance agenda. Neither is Cllr Mullaney put off by the practically non-existent support of the local police inspector, who said that "the police are not behind the proposal for the cameras… it’s Colin over there.” (at 3 min 35 secs).

When I rang ‘Colin’, the Safer Birmingham Partnership’s “Public Reassurance Officer (CCTV)” [note the Orwellian job title] for a copy of the Business Case, he informed me that this consisted of no more than a personal request from a local councillor: one Mr Mullaney!

It is interesting to note that neither the police nor the Safer Birmingham Partnership could offer any evidence of CCTV’s impact on crime and confirmed that the effectiveness of existing schemes is not evaluated, citing ‘reassurance’ as the main reason that cameras are installed, as many people say they feel safer under CCTV’s gaze.

So despite lukewarm (if any) support from local police, outright opposition from within the community, no business case, very low crime in the area, no evidence of its effectiveness and no apparent justification for installing the cameras, Mr Mullaney pushed on, convinced he was right. His enthusiasm for public surveillance and contempt for democracy is quite disturbing. It may be worth noting at this point that Cllr Mullaney was elected as a ‘Liberal Democrat’ candidate.

Unfortunately Cllr Mullaney’s dream was shattered when the results of the survey came in. More than half of respondents said they didn’t want the cameras. Over 90% said they felt perfectly safe in Moseley village during the day and 70% felt safe at night too. 58% said they would not feel safer in the village if cctv were installed and 56% said they did not believe cctv would help reduce crime. The assumed ‘public support’ had evaporated.

You would think at this point that he would graciously admit defeat, but not a bit of it. The furious councillor maintains that the consultation had been ‘skewed’ by people with ‘anti-cctv views’ and was not an accurate reflection of the cctv-loving general public. The outcome, he asserts, is a travesty and the whole exercise should be done again – in order to get the ‘right’ result.

”If we had enough time, we would have run the consultation again and try to ensure the consultation was not hijacked by the anti-cctv lobby.”

Still dwelling on his accusations that cheating had occurred, and showing his utter disdain for the local democratic process, he added that, “Politicians can either re-run the consultation or completely ignore the outcome of the consultation.”

Despite the clear lack of public support, local councillors are now pressing ahead with what they are calling a ‘compromise’, by installing half the original number of proposed cameras in Moseley Village car park, which being council-owned, does not need community support, they point out. Whether this is a face-saving exercise or part of a phased introduction of their unpopular plan is open to speculation, but communities saying ‘no, thanks’ to CCTV will still get it if councillors have their way. After all, they know best. By hook or by crook, they’ll put those cameras up somewhere, somehow – whether you like it or not.

You might be interested to know that Cllr Mullaney, who complained about a video of the public cctv meeting being filmed and posted on YouTube (the age of transparency, eh!?), was suspended in February last year for snooping around with a camera on someone's private property without their permission and then posting his footage on YouTube. In a High Court ruling, the judge commented that Cllr Mullaney had behaved in a “high-handed and one-sided manner.” Rejecting the judge’s verdict, Cllr Mullaney responded: “My only regret is stating on the video that I was a councillor. In future, if I do anything contentious, I will make it clear I am a private citizen, so that I am not inhibited by the members code of conduct.” So this is his attitude towards privacy, writ large.

Whether Cllr Mullaney’s behaviour over this cctv consultation was inhibited by any code of conduct at all is debateable, but it shows this: the surveillance infrastructure being constructed all around us owes less, perhaps, to central government strategy than to the single-minded intervention of council zealots like Mr Mullaney. Keen to get their hands on some of the millions of pounds of funding sloshing around for CCTV (it’s always ringfenced, so can never be used for any other more useful purpose) vote-hungry councillors all over the country are falling over themselves to offer these ‘improvements’ and won’t let the fact that they are unwanted stand in their way.

So if you’ve ever wondered how Britain came to be watched by more CCTV cameras than any other nation on the planet, you need perhaps look no further than my home city of Birmingham for explanation.

By Steve Jolly

Nitram Yenallum