Unless the whole business is an April Fool’s joke which has been misdated by somebody’s calendar app, or a malicious rumour started by the company’s enemies, Tesco is intending to install cameras with face-scanning software in its petrol stations so that it will be able to get an idea of the lifestyle of the individuals filling up (presumably on the assumption that those driving vehicles are the owners or close relatives of the owners), so as then to be able to target individuals with adverts which company geeks (drawing on their assumptions about the relative sameness of eg male thirty-year-olds wearing raincoats, or bleached-blonde teenagers in miniskirts who happen to get petrol there) judge to be appropriate. ‘Appropriate’ in this case would probably be presented by the company as meaning primarily ‘helpful to the consumer’, though in my opinion this could be self-deception, with the true meaning rather closer to ‘likely to bring in more profit to Tesco’. (Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps all those companies that blast us with their adverts every time we venture out of doors in a city are actually pure-spirited enterprises, working themselves and their managers to the bone, in order to make life happier and slimmer and more beautiful and more successful for everyone within earshot and visual range – nothing to do with making money for themselves, nothing at all.)
But could some lawyer with a sense of human decency (it is reliably reported that a small number are still at large) please find a way to use the legislation against stalking to deal with companies that ‘target individuals’ with unrequested adverts?
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect,” wrote Mark Twain with another of his shrewd blows under the ribs of popular opinion.¹ So I should like to put in a few words against the Greenpeace operation against a Russian oil-drilling rig in the Arctic Ocean. This featured ‘commandos’ in rubber boats launched from a mother ship who did their best to scale and occupy the rig, against the resistance of the workers on the rig. They failed and all on the Greenpeace side were arrested. Initially they were charged with piracy, and in fact the actions may well have fitted that charge technically, but to their credit everyone involved was sufficiently grown-up to see that the would-be boarders had no intention of actually taking over the rig, and even less any plan to sail it away and hold it to ransom. Putin himself said the charge was ridiculous, and it was soon reduced to hooliganism. A Greenpeace spokesman was not mollified. ‘Wildly disproportionate’ he fulminated, pointing out that the penalty could be up to seven years of imprisonment. The western media seem not just sympathetic to those arrested but indignant that anything less than congratulations and friendly waves as they sailed away again from Russian waters should have come their way.
Now, it is not surprising that there have been demonstrations of support in the west led by young ladies holding large fluffy animals of an Arctic nature (as found in western toyshops), and there is no need to deny that the ideals of Greenpeace in general are highly admirable while the aim of saving the Arctic from industrial devastation in particular is one likely to be opposed only by the idiot fringe of capitalism. For the matter of that, Russia had a notably dirty industrial scene in the 20th century and may well be very conscious of the need for less destructive development, as not seen in a good few areas controlled by western companies. But what sort of reaction and what sort of conditions could reasonably have been expected for the Greenpeace operation in Russia. What, to start with, did the workers on the rig see coming at them? Imagine that a similar assault (but on dry land) with the same military-style preparations and the same number in the attacking group was launched by supporters of a British football club with the aim of invading and occupying a conveniently placed government-owned building in Britain against the wishes of the legitimate occupants, so that they could watch an international match for which they could not get tickets. The British media would be filled to overflowing with tirades against – against what? Why, exactly ‘hooliganism’. The government and the polls would be fizzing with indignation. There are other aspects to the media coverage which also showed a very oblique perspective. Western commentators seemed to feel the fact that the Russian cells where the activists were confined were cold and far from comfortable was part of an underhand plot. One wonders what accommodation the men in the boats had looked forward to after the operation; themselves they must have been aware that good class guesthouses are thin on the ground, or rather the tundra, in northern Russia. But the most unreasonable aspect of the activist reaction is the flourishing to the media of seven years of imprisonment, because that is the maximum sentence, and there is no reason to think that is going to be handed down to any of them. Let us at least wait to find out what the judicial decisions will be and then let the media improve their credentials by offer a mild and proportional reaction.
¹(Members of the Tea Party, please note it is permitted also to pause and reflect when finding oneself in the minority.)