‘Roxana’s on Facebook and she’s supposed to be doing her homework,’ her little sister says, tellingly.
‘It’s not nice,’ I echo a mantra from my childhood, ’to tell.’
‘I know.’ She raises her eyes in exasperation, ‘You’ve got to, “show not tell”. Come on.’
She starts to drag me to witness her errant sister but my mind is elsewhere, wondering why I had been so actively encouraged not to expose the wrongdoings of others when I was her age.
I seem to remember, at the time, it was the ‘law of the playground’. A legal system which, as it turned out, was scandalously unconstitutional. It was ‘Fight Club’ without the club elements of camaraderie, coke, cars and glamorous girls; so, basically: ‘Fight’. But the rules were just as specific: no grassing, snitching, or ratting people out, and all property, or any sense of dignity you may have come to school with, belongs to the kid who thumps the hardest.
I suspect the reasoning behind keeping schtuum ran: if you don’t tell on bullies they might, in time, be grateful, respect you and even become your friend. And with friends like those…
As the snitch though, you shouldered the burden of proof, you were the centre of attention. Keeping your head down – lest it should be kicked down, and in, for you – was just smart politics.
Why then are so many standing up and speaking out now? Every day somebody finds a new whistle to blow. In the past few months we’ve found out how the NSA have been reading our emails, GCHQ are mining the world’s submarine terrabytes of data, the NHS have been contractually legislating the ‘law of the playground’, the Metropolitan Police were up to dirty tricks with Stephen Lawrence’s family and the testimony of countless victims breaking thirty years of silence to bare the lives that Jim broke or reveal what Stuart Hall knocked out.
Brave? Stupid? Naive? Vengeful? Bitter? As Alexey Pushkov, head of Russia’s international affairs committee, said: “[They] didn’t give up secret information for money.” So what drives this urge to whistleblow? Could it have any connection with the fact that so many have waived their ‘right to privacy’ to tell their stories?
The highest pitched whistlers, Wikileaker Bradley Manning and NSA supergrass Edward Snowden seem almost identikits for each other. Quiet, bespectacled, slightly nerdy, they appear made-to-measure icons of the disenfranchised, the used, abused and confused, the marginalised; they are the mice that roar. I have no love for the surveillance state, for Big Brother, but still I wonder if the shriek of all these whistles could also be a scream for recognition in a world where celebrity and fame has become the focus of our lives, dreams and aspirations?
The sad thing is, despite the risks these whistleblowers have taken to reveal the truth, few of their stories have come as a surprise. I always assumed that simply typing a search term like, “Al-Qaeda how to join,” would automatically ring a bell somewhere in Whitehall where a chap would look up from his tea, take a note of my IP address, and send a heavily armed police squad, or MI6 recruitment officers, to my door.
The accusations that our emails are insecure, our internet activity monitored, spies are spying, the NHS tries to protect itself, the police are racist, Jimmy Saville was a pervert; they don’t feel like news, more a slightly satisfying confirmation of all the things we rather always suspected anyway.
‘Privacy’ in this Facebooked world has lost its meaning; we’ve already signed away our data to search for cats doing adorable things. The NSA would probably have got a better grip of their data if they had simply bought our digital footprints from Google, like all those parasites who keep ringing to insist I, ‘may have been missold PPI’.
Indeed, in the blizzard of information released by Snowden I found myself less outraged, more patriotic. There’s the American NSA, with its awesome defence budget, and all they can score is the records of a measly trillion phone calls. We Brits, on the other hand, only went down to the bottom of the sea, hacked into transatlantic fibre-optic cables, and downloaded the whole damn internet. Our GCHQ spies may struggle to figure their way out of suitcases but my goodness when they decide to spy, they spy.
By the time I’m led to Roxana’s room it’s no surprise that she’s studiously immersed in a maths problem. Her snitch-sister looks dismayed and stalks off. I return to my laptop to open up my secret remote desktop viewer. I watch the inane teasing that passes as conversation on Facebook for a few minutes. It’s all I can bear. Of course I don’t love Big Brother. I am Big Brother.
Marius Brill’s hilarious novel How To Forget (£6.99) is available in all good bookshops.