This will not Orwell.
August 4, 2009 8:55 AM   Subscribe

The Daily Express reports on a UK Government Announcement to expand the use of Family Intervention Projects. However, the Daily Express exaggerates the report somewhat, the article stating (apparently wildly incorrectly) that the UK Government "plans to put 20,000 problem families under 24-hour CCTV supervision in their own homes". Other reports in the UK press make no mention of CCTV. Nonetheless, the alarmist Express article is widely picked up and discussed on the internet, pushing many people past 10 on the Orwellometer. Then Mefite FfejL uses Twitter to ask Ed Balls, the minister responsible, if the CCTV aspect of the Express article is accurate.

No, Jeff, it is complete nonsense is Ed Balls' reply.

See also the original government accouncement and descriptions of Family Intervention Projects, which are already running in many parts of the UK.

Apparently, in very extreme cases families may be moved from their (often state funded) homes to 'core residential units' for 24 hour support and supervision, but this is very different from the Express report of the government planning to put "20,000 problem families under 24-hour CCTV supervision"

For an example of the situations the initiative is supposed to tackle, "The Addison family case study" in this PDF is interesting reading:
...Numerous agencies were trying to engage with Christine and her family. At the time of the project’s involvement there were around 20 agencies including the youth offending team, community mental health team, social services, education welfare officers, police, anti-social behaviour team, housing services, Connexions service, probation service, debt advice service, educational psychologist, etc. Christine and her children neither kept appointments with these professionals nor opened the door when they came to the house ... Christine and her family were costing services well in excess of £250,000 per year ...
Looking beyond the media curfuffle, there is an interesting question at the heart of this: When 'problem families' are ruining their own childrens prospects and making life miserable for the many people that may live near them, what is the correct response for a state to make?
posted by memebake (33 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Well, media distortion is always interesting. As are storms of internet idiocy. I'm guessing the actual answer is we can give each other high fives?

High five!

And then there's the actual, rather more prosaic story that was there before people started inserting fictional Orwellian surveillance schemes and the underlying social issues that started this all off... of course that's all a bit more complex and less given to being solved by shouting simple slogans.
posted by Artw at 9:06 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also not only is it a double but it's all over MetaTalk.
posted by crapmatic at 9:09 AM on August 4, 2009

Charlie Sorre over at Wired appears to have a very bad case of ex-pats disease, where you start talking authoritatively about a country you no longer live in despite having very limited information about the current state of affairs there.
posted by Artw at 9:11 AM on August 4, 2009

I want an Orwellometer.

"We can't go in here, I'm showing a dystopian level of nearly 948 thousand minitrues!"

posted by quin at 9:20 AM on August 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

How many fingers am I holding up, Winston? That's right. Only one.

Ok, a bit harsh, but I couldn't resist.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:24 AM on August 4, 2009

My comment is the new thread title! Sweet!
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:29 AM on August 4, 2009

This story appears to be growing and growing, with no sign of any retractions. Who needs five minutes checking when you have a convenient narrative?

I'm going to start making up news stories about secret government measures to combat the chanting disease next.
posted by Artw at 9:32 AM on August 4, 2009

The government is watching you out on the street, but you can still get your sex on knowing that yours are the only Balls in the room.
posted by Saydur at 9:41 AM on August 4, 2009

This post is much better than the last one, and it's staying. Go to the metatalk thread if you need to discuss its existence.
posted by cortex at 9:53 AM on August 4, 2009

This story appears to be growing and growing, with no sign of any retractions.

This does seem to be a current trend, doesn't it? It's easy to put out an inflammatory story, one that is easily proven false, and let the public and media run wild with it. Those few sources that denounce it as fake are vastly overwhelmed by the many other sites that suggest that it might be true, and even after it has been proven unquestionably to be not real, people will still debate the original premise.

And then, in a couple of weeks when it's fallen off the radar, you could ask the average person whether it was real or not and they'll always seem to be unsure. The debate itself was enough to legitimatize the reality of the idea in their heads.

And now that I think about it, this actually pretty well describes the Birther phenomena as well.
posted by quin at 9:55 AM on August 4, 2009

On the actual subject: I think in principle this sounds like an interesting idea. The traditional approach to "problem families" is to break them up: take the kids into the foster family system, let the cops deal with the adults. The problem with that is that we know that breaking families up, for all the harm it does sometimes prevent, does significant damage itself. It's not quite burning the village in order to save it, but it's definitely suboptimal. This program looks like an attempt to find a way to address badly dysfunctional family dynamics while still offering kids protection 24/7 from potential harmful behaviors.

The other side of this initiative that strikes me as potentially significant is its entire focus on the "problem family" as a phenomenon. There's a lot of research on social breakdowns of one kind or another that suggests that a wildly disproportionate number can be traced back to a very small group of consistently "bad actors." In many fields today (or so I understand; I should stress that this isn't my area of expertise, so I'll be happy to be corrected by someone who is actually expert in this stuff) you find the argument that traditional piecemeal approaches to these breakdowns is massively less efficient than more targeted approaches: identify the consistent problem actors and try to deal with them rather than attempt to punish every single problem action with majestic impartiality. There are, of course, risks in such an approach (risks of profiling of various kinds being the most obvious), but there does appear to be considerable research suggesting a power-law distribution of problem behaviors. If you can identify a few families that contribute to 80% of the crime in a given neighborhood and then work to modify their behavior you may be doing the community a great deal more good than simply approaching each crime as a discreet event.
posted by yoink at 9:58 AM on August 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

Here's a Guardian article on the Dundee Families Project scheme written in 2007 before the current hoopla.
posted by Abiezer at 10:08 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great post. It's always handy to have a list of news sources that are too lazy / stupid / prejudiced to get their facts right. Or just regurgitate someone else's crap...
posted by i_cola at 10:13 AM on August 4, 2009

Here's a Guardian article on the Dundee Families Project scheme written in 2007 before the current hoopla.

Interesting piece.
posted by yoink at 10:20 AM on August 4, 2009

Don't laugh; they think it's equally funny when we name our kids Randy.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:26 AM on August 4, 2009

Abiezer: Thanks for posting that piece about the Project. When I first heard about the concept of moving people into housing where they can receive 24/7 "assistance", my thoughts about it were unkind, to say the least. After reading that piece, it seems like an utterly reasonable method, not coercive at all, and seemingly effective. Great program. The stunning (willful?) misinterpretation of it by the Express really paints it in a bad light, when it's actually a program I would support were there one similar in my area.
posted by hippybear at 10:39 AM on August 4, 2009

Don't laugh; they think it's equally funny when we name our kids Randy.

Wrong thread? Still, it makes you think, if the offspring of some of the major players in this controversy were to wed and have a child they could name him Randy Sorre-Balls.

(Well, they could if Artw hadn't mispelled Charlie Sorrel's name up there.)

Randy Little-Balls is definitely a go, though (see Express link).
posted by yoink at 10:42 AM on August 4, 2009

Never mind ending well, or orring well, I wonder how this can possibly scale well.

The Dundee project sounds great, full of people who care a lot, who have the experience, and put the time in to make it work. But all of this "running into the room as cups are flying" is terribly person-intensive, not to mention extremely difficult: how many people have the ability to charge into a difficult situation with unsympathetic people and calm things down on a regular basis?

My worry is that the government will produce a handbook detailing all the necessary procedures so that whoever is employed doesn't need to employ any judgement - and therefore is paid less. And which turns this into a system which can be gamed by staff and clients alike, just like JobCentrePlus and the NHS waiting lists. Still I guess the balancing of good governance with individual flexibility has proven itself to be beyond this government. Anyone that promises to tackle that thorny little number gets my vote.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 10:55 AM on August 4, 2009

There are any number of legitimate concerns about creeping managerialism, a cavalier attitude to civil liberties and so forth in the UK I think hippybear (on preview, such as those raised by Wrinkled Stumpskin), but for me the agenda really driving stories like the Express piece is two-fold - there's the obvious OMG ZaNuLabour Orwellian froth, but it's also part of the ongoing assault on the welfare state in our right-wing press. Might not be too apparent here, but the lies about the money spent (with no mention of the projected expenditure avoided in criminal services etc) and references to 'Shameless'-style families put it in that bracket I think. Again, it's not that political arguments about welfare and social housing provision should be off the agenda, but that the loudest voices in the press are working to poison any debate before it happens.
posted by Abiezer at 10:57 AM on August 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I wonder how this can possibly scale well.

I suspect that one of the assumptions it's operating on is that it doesn't have to "scale" to the extent that one would tend to assume. That is, the idea here is that highly intensive investment in the very worst "problem families" will have a massively disproportionate effect on total incidents of social disorder.
posted by yoink at 11:34 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's easy to slag on Twitter, but it is pretty amazing that a guy living in Berkeley California can ask a question of the UK Secretary of State for Children, Schools & Families, and get a direct response in less than a day.

I doubt an email would have worked as well. And no way could I have gotten him on the phone.
posted by FfejL at 11:39 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

re: scaling and resource usage

Also bear in mind this initiative replaces, for each problem family, a whole host of piecemeal actions that various different agencies would already have had in progress. e.g see the case study in this PDF. The Addison family were already being 'assisted' by at least 11 different agencies (at a cost of £250,000 per year) before being put onto the Family Intervention Project. As it is intended to replace those peicemeal efforts, it might scale OK.
posted by memebake at 11:40 AM on August 4, 2009

This blog, by a somewhat disgruntled social worker working with teenagers, makes it look like splitting familes up doesn't work that well either.
So, just how did the likes of Sammie end up in care? Well, its all down to section 20 of the Children's Act 1989 which allows for parents to voluntarily put their children in care should they not be able to cope with them. Now, in the case of Sammie her parents were unable to discpline her or set her any boundaries as a young child and when she became a teenager she was uncivilised and bullied and hit her parents, unable to cope they turned to social services. As a result of Sammie's parents inability to parent her, you the taxpayer are paying 4,000-5,000 pounds a week to provide Sammie with care (if you could call it that).

...There are thousands of kids under section 20 care orders who should not be accomodated and spoilt (as oppossed to cared for) with taxpayer's money. Many of them are dumped in care homes when Mummy or Daddy meet a new partner and the teenager can't cope with the new step-parent and the relationship becomes conflictual.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:34 PM on August 4, 2009

Thanks for the new thread, this scheme is worth a discussion of its own, away from the silly nonsense.

That said, I don't know quite how I feel about it. I understand it is supposed to be a very intensive intervention for a tiny amount of families who are in the worst circumstances, and that the benefits it brings potentially far outweigh the cost of continued piecemeal intervention. It's not that I believe in the sanctity of the family and that the state shouldn't intervene, as I consider it acceptable that families are broken up when they're irredeemably dysfunctional. The actions of the state in taking children into care are justifiable where they face less damage than otherwise. But I worry that there is a line beyond which the state isn't really competent in acting, and that this moves from a judgement that these families are broken and harmful to their members, to actively reordering the families along acceptable lines and behaviours.

The problem is that both situations involve cultural judgements about what a family is and how it works. I know that social workers are trained as far as possible to be culturally neutral and think only about the welfare of people, but their own norms will still influence their actions. Added into this the government of the time implicitly recommends some forms of families over others, and puts expectations on them, through its policy agenda. I feel that we're in safer territory when we simply state, 'we know this family is harmful to its members', then when we go further and say, 'we know how a family works best.' This scheme is voluntary, and I know that keeping families together is important if they are in some way functional, and I trust that those who operate it do it with worthiest intentions. But I feel it crosses a line that we should at least acknowledge even if we choose not to respect.
posted by Sova at 12:44 PM on August 4, 2009

I agree that it really does cross a lot of lines, but it IS voluntary, and seems to be a "program of last resort", trying to reëducate families about how they interact instead of breaking them up, which I gather is the alternative. (Or at least that is how it is presented in the Guardian article linked by Abiezer.

On some level, without drawing too strong a parallel, it sounds like in-patient addiction treatement. The family in need of reform (for lack of a better word) surrenders a good amount of their autonomy in order to negotiate the possibility of some day being able to live together on their own, rather than being split up. In the same way, addiction treatments can be very intrusive, but the end goal is to move the patient into a lifestyle where they no longer require the same kind of supervision.

But yes, I do think it's horribly compromising for families participating in the program. It just seems as though there might be instances where voluntarily allowing that kind of intrusion may be for the best, in the long run.

(Just as long as it's not happening forceably. That's where I'd draw the line.)
posted by hippybear at 2:59 PM on August 4, 2009

Most of the comments on the Express website under the original article were "omgOrwellNewlabour", but there was an interesting one posted today:
"When I tell you that I am a little unique in my social build up this might make you realise what a good idea this is. I was born to a family of what you might call undesirables in the early 1970s. After being bundled around and living with massive levels of violence as well as extreme poverty I was accepted into the social care system ...
...What I am trying to tell you is that most of these troublesome families have no idea how to operate in a civil society as no-one has ever shown them. The parents were brought up in families where they just got in the way and under their parent's feet and were told to get out of the house and play with their friends. No-one was teaching them what to do, so how can they be expected to pass this on to their children?" (see full comment)
posted by memebake at 2:55 AM on August 5, 2009

Great post, memebake.

Essentially, this story, as reported by the Express, failed the "common sense" test. Anybody with an ounce of common sense would have read that story and realised it was utter codswallop.

It was illuminating just how many internet commenters, here and on various other social websites fell for it, hook line and sinker. We were then subjected to all those tired 1984 and V for Vendetta references. All those internet tough-guys decrying the state of the UK, despite never having even visited the country.

Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that a fairly reliable way to judge intelligence is the ability to critically analyse everything you read and hear. This is especially true when what you're reading/hearing corresponds to your world view and you would like it to be true. What biases are the writer/speaker projecting? What is their agenda? How can this information be verified? Who else is reporting it? The fact that only someone in the UK would know of the Express's reputation is no defence. I also think that it takes true intelligence to read media that opposes your world view, in order to get a different perspective, and to acknowledge that your initial opinion might be wrong.

So to all of you commenters on Metafilter, Fark, Reddit, Digg, etc who joined in, thank you for publicly demonstrating how dumb you are. It make it easier to pick out opinions from people who don't breathe through their mouth.
posted by salmacis at 6:33 AM on August 5, 2009

Sova - I feel that we're in safer territory when we simply state, 'we know this family is harmful to its members', then when we go further and say, 'we know how a family works best.'

I know what you mean, and my gut instinct is to agree with you. However, I don't think we can have one without the other. When making the statement "this family is harmful to its members" surely we're actually saying "this family is more harmful to others than our benchmark family structure"? If we accept that some family structures are worse than others and claim to be able to identify them, then we automatically get a list of alternate family structures that are "better", even if we never pick one that's "best".

My hangup with this is deciding on the rights and responsibilities of the state to interfere in its citizens' lives. There is, after all, a whole spectrum of ills that a child can suffer at the hand of their parents. If a child is being directly abused then, sure, I'm happy for the state to take responsibility and step in to protect the child. If a child is being raised with values that the state strongly disagrees with (e.g. anti-democratic or pro-BNP) then I definitely don't think the state should step in. But cases where the family structure is uneven and the child provided for but effectively uncared for seem to fall somewhere in the middle of the scale. The child is far more likely to grow up with a poor education and problems getting and keeping legal work, but there's nothing overt and acute being done to them. It's so hard to quantify the consequences of intervention and balance them against the rights of people to live the lives they choose without interference. These aren't decisions I'd want to take responsibility for.

I tend to think that Labour has erred on the side of interfering with our lives far too much, and the coercive nature of this strikes me as them saying "you can't be trusted to run your life in a way we approve of; let us do it for you". But all kinds of education -- academic and social -- continue for as long as we live and there are probably cases in which this programme would do unambiguous good. It's a tough call.
posted by metaBugs at 6:45 AM on August 5, 2009

I tend to think that Labour has erred on the side of interfering with our lives far too much, and the coercive nature of this strikes me as them saying "you can't be trusted to run your life in a way we approve of; let us do it for you".

But surely nobody disputes the State's right to decide that some people "can't be trusted to run their lives in a way we approve of"? I mean, unless you're saying that the State shouldn't have, say, the right to incarcerate felons, or prevent assault etc. etc. then I don't see what the force of this statement is. There's obviously merit in debating at what point it is legitimate for the State to intervene, but none of the actual cases discussed in the links above seem to me particularly "borderline." Once people start making a habit of beating each other up, disturbing the peace and vandalizing the neighbourhood, then the State obviously has both a right and a duty to intervene. The only question that remains in my mind is whether this intervention is effective and genuinely beneficial.
posted by yoink at 9:24 AM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

For anyone wondering about the utility of these programs I say try living next to one of these families. I dare ya.
posted by fingerbang at 6:15 PM on August 5, 2009

For the record, Ed Balls has written several more Twitter posts calling the Express story nonsense, and now there is a longer response up on the DSCF government web site:
04 August 2009

Responding to stories claiming that irresponsible families will be monitored by CCTV cameras in their own homes, a DCSF spokesperson said:

Families will not be monitored by CCTV in their own homes. Through Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) we are supporting and challenging the small number of families involved in persistent anti-social behaviour. FIP workers spend time observing families in their own homes, helping them to recognise that their anti-social behaviour is unacceptable. They focus on the causes of their behaviour, and challenge them to make changes so they can turn their lives around. A very small number of families who need further intensive support are placed in residential units with project workers living with them – this does not involve CCTV.

This is part of the Government’s approach to preventing and tackling anti-social behaviour and youth crime. In the last year alone, FIPs have challenged and supported over 2300 families to turn their behaviour around. Twelve months on from the Youth Crime Action Plan, Ed Balls and Alan Johnson have written to all local authorities in England asking them to expand and accelerate FIPs. Councils and police have reported that FIPs are an excellent way of preventing and tackling crime and anti-social behaviour.
posted by memebake at 12:40 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

For those wondering, the story still seems to be doing the rounds, completely unexamined. I like this version of it as it has animated gifs.
posted by Artw at 12:55 AM on August 9, 2009

Update: Private Eye, a UK satirical and current affairs magazine, picked up on this in issue 1243. Private Eye has a long history of exposing nonsense in journalism, and they rarely miss a chance to criticise the Express:
"Thousands of the worst families in England are to be put in 'Sin Bins' in a bid to change their bad behaviour, Ed Balls announced yesterday," the Express frothed on 23 July, "The Children's Secretary yesterday set out £400m plans to put 20,000 problem families under 24-hour supervision in their own homes."
   CCTV in our own homes? The blogosphere predicatably exploded, with a Google Blog search last week turning up more than 2,000 repetitions of the story, most with the obligatory reference to Orwell. And yet not one newspaper has followed up on the Express's astonishing scoop.
   Might this have something to do with the DCSF's slight clarification of how Family Intervention Projects, which have been running since 2006, actually work: "Families will not be monitored in their own homes ... this does not involve CCTV." Or even Ed Ball's own take on the story, as expressed through his official, government-approved Twitter feed: "The idea we are planning to put CCTV in families' homes is complete and total nonsense."
   Have Express staff become so used to working for Richard Desmond - proprietor of Television X Amatuer, "all about the girl-next-door, UK housewives and suburban couples who get their kicks through baring all" - that they can't conceive of a "Sin Bin" without assuming there must be a camera pointing at it?
NB: I don't think Private Eye took their story from this thread. I sent a few complaints to the editors of the Express, containing all the relevant info and links, and BCC'd them to the editor of Private Eye a few weeks ago ... so I guess that put them onto it.
posted by memebake at 7:25 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

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