Detail from Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away
A particularly memorable episode from the British comedy series Peep Show includes a scene where two characters discuss their conflicting visions of the ideal public house, rather in the manner of a schizophrenic version of George Orwell’s essay The Moon Under the Water. After some discussion and debate about the name one of the pair suggests The Swan and Paedo as a compromise between their competing priorities that the establishment’s title be both traditional and contemporary. That episode was made in 2005 at the height of the Blair government. Today, one year in to the second term of David Cameron’s premiership, the same conversation might propose The Bailiff and the Bodycam as a pub name which similarly encapsulates the history and traditions of Britain with a darkly contemporary slant. The bailiff is a medieval figure in British society experiencing a contemporary resurgence in a landscape of growing underemployment, personal debt and economic precarity, where even a search for the term results in a flurry of desperate websites advising you of your meager rights should they come calling in pursuit of an outstanding debt.
Recently I turned on the television to find myself confronted by a program called Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away! This is austerity entertainment at its worst, where repossessions and evictions are turned into amusement under the guise of a fly on the wall documentary following the professional activities of bailiffs and high court enforcement officers, some of them working for a company called Direct Collection Bailiffs Limited (who unabashedly feature the series on their website). The childish rhyme and exclamation mark in the program’s title reflects the barely concealed glee that one senses on the part of the program makers each time they find a particularly tragic or awkward story to exploit. Normally I would have immediately switched off, but a combination of having just returned from teaching at the School of Punktum, where the theme was austerity, and the strange nature of the program’s production kept me watching for longer than I otherwise might.
What I found particularly fascinating about Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away! was that almost all the footage used had been filmed using body cameras or ‘bodycams’, with the exception of short post-factum studio interviews with some of the bailiffs recounting the events which had just been shown. As austerity television goes this is a stroke of genius, a case of not only turning the camera on the grim landscape of twenty-first century Britain but relating event the method of the program’s production a part of that same landscape of reduction by eliminates the need for actual cameramen, directors and other expensive professionals. In this sort of television the medium very much equals the message. At the same time the nature of the filming still gives the grainy, shaky and generally compromised aesthetics that most of us think we can recognise as a shorthand for documentary veracity. The sense that these body cameras provide some sort of unmediated witnessing of these events, much like the camera of a citizen journalist, is also underlined by the fact that these cameras are primarily employed by bailiffs to gather evidence of repossession proceedings for later use in court. The television program is an unintended spin off.
And yet the nature of their use and even the very name of these cameras implies a form of witnessing which is deeply one sided, presenting one view of events filmed very much from the perspective of the wearer or bearer or the camera. That horrible neologism, bodycam, implies a closeness of the camera to the operator almost to the degree of inseparability and it is apt perhaps that word bailiff, traced beyond its origins in old French, appropriately roots itself in the latin word bajulus meaning ‘carrier’. Body cameras potentially have a vital part to play in offering citizens accountability and redress over the misapplication of power, but as the employment of body cameras in law enforcement has shown, the body camera often remains a hand-servant to arbitrary state or private power rather than a check and balance on it. As attempts to use body camera footage in court cases has sometimes shown, what is often as important as what is shown, is how it is shown, and from what perspective. As I argued here recently in discussing the perspective that many of the World Press Photo winners gave on the refugee crisis in Europe, the visual angles employed in reporting, whether conscious journalism or dumb technologies like bodycameras are not simply questions of aesthetics. They define in very real ways the political readings of the people and things which we are trying to represent.