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The web has been awash with outrage this week after video emerged of a woman engaged in a racist rant on a tram in Croydon.
The woman has now been arrested for a “racially aggravated” Public Order offence. The specific charge falls under section 4a, “Intentional harassment, alarm or distress”. Convictions can carry a prison sentence of up to six months.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the problematic nature of the Public Order Act, which it can be argued has its practical uses (allowing police to arrest people before violence breaks out), but can be used to censor “offensive” behaviour such as preaching or protest.
There were two things that were fascinating and troubling about the whole “My Tram Experience” experience.
The first is that the woman seems quite unwell. This does not necessarily excuse her behaviour, but in the rush to condemn her behaviour there seemed to be a hell of a lot of opprobrium and very little sympathy.
The other element was the fact that this was filmed and released on YouTube at all.
I tried to imagine how an incident like this would have played out 10 years ago, pre YouTube, pre Twitter. The woman may or may not have been kicked off the tram. People would have got off the tram and told a few people about the weird woman on the bus. That would probably have been the end of it.
Remember when everyone used to worry about CCTV cameras? It was at the height of paranoia about the Labour governments “authoritarianism”, when campaigners such as No2ID warned that the UK’s state surveillance apparatus was worse than that of the Stasi.
That panic seems to be over, perhaps due to many who made the argument being willing to give the Liberal Democrats a chance on civil liberties.
But it’s also perhaps due to a change in thinking. In the age of cameraphones and YouTube, do we now take it for granted that someone’s filming? Are we willingly becoming a citizen Stasi, happy to record and report each other’s behaviour?