Nobody loves a bossy, busy-body. A curtain-twitching nosey-parker or that most despised creature of the popular imagination and the playground: the snitch. Once such people were the comic baddies found in Ealing Comedies and sitcoms like Dad’s Army. But the spread of Covid-19 and the accompanying lockdown rules that began in March gave them a new visibility and voice. In April this year, police claimed that they received 194,000 calls from 'lockdown snitches'. We’re living, one paper declared back then, in 'The Golden Age Of The Snitch'. And now to help the government enforce its controversial 'Rule of Six', a new army of nationwide snitches will be coming to a street near you: the Covid marshals. At least that’s what all liberty loving paranoids from the left and right would have you believe.
As soon as Boris Johnson announced the creation of his Covid marshals, the reaction was swift and ranged from comic ridicule to apoplectic rage. Numerous memes appeared online picturing characters from Dad’s Army with the tag-line, 'Who Are You Kidding Boris?' One joker who said he was thinking of become a Covid marshal asked: 'Do I get a badge and training from Tommy Lee Jones?' – a reference to the relentless and ruthless US marshal from The Fugitive.
But for more serious-minded commentators, the Covid marshals are no laughing matter: they are the latest step towards the death of our civil liberties. Once unleashed onto our streets these ‘busybodies’, ‘bullies’ and ‘lockdown-lite storm troopers’ will patrol our public and spaces and private lives, ruthlessly cracking down on rule breakers. Scary, eh?
The problem with this apocalyptic scenario is that it’s a fantasy. For starters, nobody really knows what these marshals will actually be doing. Their critics claim their purpose is to snoop, snitch and stamp out any sign of fun. But local council spokesmen and women – the people responsible for their recruitment – say their duties could include providing information on mask wearing rules, helping to maintain social distancing, passing out hand sanitiser and handing out masks.
Of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? But there have already been Covid marshals operating on the streets of Cornwall and Leeds for the past few months and, so far, there have been no reports of heavy-handed tactics. On the contrary, some police officers have even taken to referring to the feeble marshals as 'Covid Wombles'.
The important point here is that Covid marshals will have no real power to enforce the new social distancing legislation. They won’t be able to break up gatherings of more than six people, arrest anyone or impose on-the-spot fines. True, they can call the police and have them break up illegal gatherings, but so far this doesn’t seem to be happening. Their presence in Leeds has been so off-the-radar that one Leeds police officer didn’t even know they were operating in Leeds!
The fear of Covid marshals fits a narrative about Bossy Britain in the grip of a snitching pandemic. But are we not being unfair to this much maligned and misunderstood group? In the same way that Brexiteers were dismissed by some as 'racists', people who alert the authorities to lockdown rule breakers are always denounced as 'snitches'. Yes, no doubt some are. There’s a dark side to snitching that has nothing to do with public safety but is motivated by malicious intent. Some people want to interfere in other people’s lives because they have no life of their own.
But we always assume that people who inform on their neighbours, do so from bad motives. Some do it reluctantly, because they fear for the safety of their family or friends. Maybe they have been misinformed by the Government but that doesn’t mean their motives and intentions aren’t good or they are simply nasty people.
Minzheng Hou, a psychology researcher at the National University of Singapore, and his colleague, assistant professor Lile Jia, have been studying what leads people in Singapore to report their friends and families for crimes. They've found that a concern for their community is an important factor. Jia told BBC News: 'It's not like there are all these despicable people sitting at home, bored in quarantine, so they want to rat someone out and get someone in trouble… Overwhelmingly, the people reporting are people who want to do the right thing for the group.'
In the wake of the new 'Rule of Six' restrictions, we might have a big surge in snitching, but we will also have low-rates of subsequent convictions. The police simply can’t investigate every report of lockdown rule breaking by every curtain twitching informant in the land.
What critics of snitching tend to forget is just how strong and pervasive the anti-snitching ethos still is in the UK. Just ask your teenage children who they regard as the lowest and most disgusting form of life is – and snitches are likely to get a mention. Once a term of abuse used only by the criminal classes, 'snitch' has been taken up by the respectable middle-classes as well. But we should consider the consequences of anti-snitch ethos to a society. The fear of being labeled a snitch means the school bully goes unstopped, the child or domestic abuse next door goes unreported and killers walk free because a wall of silence in some communities stops police investigations.
The anti-snitch ethos is particularly damaging in the USA. The black rapper Cam’ron once said he wouldn’t call the cops even if his next door neighbour was a serial killer – and this was before the George Floyd killing. The 'no-snitch mentality is killing the black community', a black prisoner serving a life sentence told the Toledo Blade in 2014.
There’s also an element of hypocrisy about those who feign outrage at the actions of the snitch: the truth is we are all snitches when it suits us. I have a libertarian friend who rages against snitches who inform on neighbours having large parties during lockdown, but doesn’t hesitate to call the police when her sleep is destroyed by the loud noise from neighbour's parties at 3am in the morning.
So much of social media is dedicated to snitching; it’s a form of mass entertainment. We love watching celebrities and politicians fall into disgrace when snitched on by friends or foes. What is searching for damaging tweets from some public figure's distant past and exposing them but a form of snitching? But at its best so-called snitching is a kind of social activism and civic responsibility that we should all practice. I’m happy to snitch on people who fly tip rubbish, let their dogs mess anywhere or ride their bikes on the pavement.
If you believe that we have a duty of care for each other, when that care is threatened we have an obligation to intervene and, if that fails, to alert the proper authorities. The question we all face now in this era of 'Rule of Six' is: to snitch or not to snitch?
Personally, I wouldn’t. Not on moral grounds but because I’m not convinced of the effectiveness of the 'Rule of Six'. But I don’t assume that people who do are just malicious busy bodies, they might have a belief that we’re all in this together and we all need to play by the same rules. I know people who have lost loved ones to Covid and they have a sincere belief that the right to life trumps the right to liberty. Such people do not deserve the smear of 'snitch'.