Matthew Parris

When did we become a nation of police informers?

I thought telling on friends, even for drink-driving, was contrary to our culture. It seems I was wrong

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

There’s a danger that in what follows your columnist may seem to be recommending an attitude. Please don’t think that. It’s true that I would never shop a friend for drink-driving — but frankly I doubt I’d shop a friend for murder. This column isn’t about what we should do if we know a friend drink-drives — responses will be various and variously arguable — but about shock at my own serious misreading of my countrymen.

I was tooling along in our Mini on the first Saturday of the year, with BBC Radio 2 playing. It was Graham Norton’s fizzy and engaging morning show, where a regular feature is his ‘Grill Graham’ slot in which listeners contact him with personal, social or moral dilemmas. Mr Norton may suggest his own answers, while quoting advice from other listeners too.

‘Karen’ had asked what she should do about her friends, a couple who come to dine (with others) and who then drive home after drinking too much. This makes everyone uncomfortable; and the driving couple (it’s the man who drives) know this. His wife insists he’s safe at the wheel.

You’ll be pondering your own advice already. I began pondering mine; and wondering what Graham and his listeners might suggest. I felt confident in my guess that one of two (a minority) would plump for the response that it was none of their business; probably most would propose having a serious word with the couple; our own Dear Mary might suggest underlining the seriousness by telling them she’d henceforward be sending (and paying for) a taxi to fetch and return; one or two of the sternest listeners might suggest threatening a withdrawal of future invitations; and it was even possible a listener or two would propose calling the police.

How wrong I was. Most of them urged calling the police. If I include Mr Norton’s implied view, at least eight out of 13 responses were to shop the drinker. Some proposed doing this openly, others preferred anonymity. Most thought it was not enough to stop him drink-driving from these social engagements only, because (as Graham put it) that wouldn’t stop him doing it on other occasions. ‘I don’t think telling [him] is the answer,’ someone thought. ‘He will be doing it at other times. He needs to be stopped — tell the police and do it now.’

In short it was (people thought) the clear duty of anyone who knew him to see that his life, not just his behaviour with these friends, was corrected. ‘If he’s not having a drink with you he’s having a drink with someone else,’ advised one respondent.

The idea that although their friend’s behaviour was dangerous and wrong, his friends should go no further than tell him so, was not canvassed by a single caller. Listeners didn’t even seem to think there was a dilemma here. ‘Imagine how you’d feel if he killed someone on the way home,’ said one: ‘say you won’t invite him again?’

Another recommended an anonymous texting facility to alert the police once the man had driven off (it later transpired that such a facility is not available at present). ‘It’s not about him, it’s about other people,’ said a third. Another said his brother had been disabled in a drink-driving accident. End the friendship, said many: who’d want to be friends with someone like that?

Graham Norton summed up. ‘Basically everyone is saying the same thing and rightly so. That text service, that’s really interesting [he quoted a number]. You text the word “drink” and the details of the vehicle.’

I was astonished both at the ferocity and the unanimity of the responses. Plainly I have misread the temper of the British mind on this issue. Either people are more angrily disapproving of this particular offence than I’d realised, or they’re more willing to grass on friends whatever the offence; or both.

Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word ‘grass’ lest it imply judgment, but I know no neutral expression in our language. ‘Inform on’, ‘tell on’, ‘tell tales’, ‘squeal’ and ‘shop’ have all acquired a negative connotation. When I say I’ve absorbed a cultural hostility to the idea of doing this, I say so not to recommend my own attitude, but to explain my surprise that I should feel it so strongly and instinctively — and yet discover that my fellow citizens seem to feel it not at all.

As a hitch-hiker in America, I was once given a lift in a van where a fellow passenger confided in me that he intended to murder the chap who had been sleeping with his wife. He showed me the gun. It honestly never occurred to me to call the police after I’d left the van.

At 13 in Africa, when I was going through an intensely puritanical phase, I was stirred into righteous fervour by a sermon from our schoolmaster about the evils of a wave of shoplifting that going on, some of the offenders being my classmates. I don’t now know why — I don’t seem to recognise the boy I was — but, inspired by this talk, I told my teacher the name of a boy who was stealing ice lollies from the nearest delicatessen.

The boy’s name was Quentin, a good-natured chap, and I cannot now meet another Quentin without an internal blush. I greatly dislike the boy who shopped him and wish it were not me. I still take a serious view of shoplifting (I come from a family of shopkeepers) and am still made angry when people dismiss it as hardly a crime — but still… whatever was I thinking of?

I describe here my own more mature response without either commending it or resiling from it; but only to express my great astonishment that I should feel it so strongly, yet find no echo at all last Saturday among a nation I think of as my own. We cannot be as alike as I had thought, me and my compatriots.

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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Taking on the values of the state is an extremely dangerous step to take, and a very slippery slope. And besides, nobody loves a stool pigeon.

  • pointlesswasteoftime

    I’m as equally shocked as you. I remember at infant school (the 1960s) teachers very firmly telling us they weren’t interested in hearing us “telling tales” on others. It’s a lesson that has stuck, especially in light of Stasi revelations etc.

    I’d only serve these guests soft drinks all night, and explain why. If that didn’t work, not invite them until they took responsibility for their drinking.

    • Brimstone52

      If you’re plying guests with booze knowing they’re driving then you share that responsibility.

      • pointlesswasteoftime

        Did you actually read my reply, specifically the last paragraph?

        • imbythesea

          I think (s)he did read your reply,specifically the first paragraph.

          • pointlesswasteoftime

            Thanks. I still don’t see how I’m sharing responsibility though. Don’t tell tales, take action is what I was trying to convey.

          • cremaster

            Well then you and Brimstone are a pair of dunces, because you clearly didn’t understand the meaning!

  • Webwrights

    In ‘What I Believe’ [1938], E. M. Forster wrote: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”. He continued: “Such a choice may scandalise the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country, Rome.”

    To shop a friend to the authorities is surely contemptible. Grassing (especially anonymous grassing) is for enemies, not friends. Offer advice to the drinkers. Risk their enmity by refusing to serve them more booze. Perhaps stop inviting them altogether, but they are grown-ups and must be allowed to make their own decisions.

    • Kennybhoy

      And if he/she goes on to kill some innocent while under the influence?

    • Jambo25

      Forster’s nonsense was the kind of drivel which led to friends and colleagues of Philby, Burgess and McLean et al turning a blind eye to or suppressing suspicions of traitors who spied for Stalin and probably led to the deaths of many British agents.

  • Jankers

    50 years ago they would have been calling the police to deal with Norton’s homosexuality.

    • Webwrights


      I live in a small village. We have a family game of
      ‘collaborator:partisan’. In the event of an invasion, would X be
      enthusiastically co-operating (“Well, they are a bit harsh, admittedly, with their summary justice an’ all, but we’ve got to
      have rules.” [BANG]) or out there sabotaging? It seems clear which side the ‘grasses’ would be on.

      • goggyturk

        What about the people who grass for the insurgents? Do they not have rules about these things as well?

  • Gerschwin

    Well if you will listen to squishy squashy lovey dovey all gooey and do-good and feel warm and jus’ luverly inside Graham Norton then you get what you deserve…

  • Picquet

    A friend, no. The dickhead down the road who mows his lawn at 8 am on Sunday in a nanosecond.

  • monsieur_charlie

    A far more interesting basis for an article along these lines would be, for instance, on whether to whistleblow as an NHS worker or maybe as a politician being called in to give evidence to an enquiry.

    • lost

      Very well said. I guess the assumption is that the state, or its agencies, “can do no wrong”.

  • Ed  

    What if your friend is named Savile, and you get a whiff of certain activities? What if you have some close friends living in a place called Rotherham, and children seem to cry a lot in the area?

    What then?

    • edulike

      Hmm. Tricky. Minor crimes: tell them to stop what they are doing or at least to stop doing them in a way that makes you aware of them. I have done this with several acquaintances who have been trying to sell me pirated DVDs (Don’t do that near me or in an office I work in, please. What I don’t know about I can’t tell anyone about.) Violent or sexual crimes for which you have evidence, no choice but to report (and to tell the friend that you have – don’t do it anonymously like a coward.) The line has been crossed. Clearer?

    • hdb

      You might want to look at the investigations Anna Racoon has done into Savile rather than believe every prosthetic eyeball story you read in the Red Tops/Guardian:

      After looking at her assessment of the available evidence I strongly doubt Savile ever did anything that is or was prosecutable in a court.

      • James Lovelace

        Savile the monster has been manufactured by the media, to divert attention from 20 years of the media collaborating in the rape of white schoolgirls in Britain.

        Accordng to the Association of Chief Police Officers, it’s now thought that the victims of those grooming gangs amount to more than 10,000 children per year.

        How many men have been convicted for these crimes, where there could have been 100,000 victims?

        A mere 120 over a 20 year period. No wonder the media had to find dead celebrities to turn into monsters.

    • Samson

      Drink driving is not in the same universe as child rape.

      • Ed  

        Is it not but a difference of degree?

  • Cincinnatus

    Had this discussion with my wife recently: she would shop me if I killed someone, whereas I would help her dispose of the body.

    • Kennybhoy

      She obviously loves you more than you love her…

  • Caroline Banks

    Matthew, I’m not sure how you can conflate tale-telling at school with knowingly colluding with potentially fatal behaviour! I’m incredulous that you’re incredulous -when our schoolteachers back in the sixties were inveighing against telling tales, I don’t think they were referring to either dangerous or criminal acts!
    I shall continue to read your column, though!

  • Brimstone52

    The voices of the self-righteous are invariably loudest and the first to be heard.

    Who are they to decide what is “too much”?

    “Everything in moderation is my motto”, and that can include moderation.

  • Brimstone52

    If inviting people to a party at home and offering alcohol, then the host has a responsibility to ensure that guests leave in a state to comply with the laws on drinking and driving.

    To ply one’s guests with booze knowing they are driving and then to report them for doing so is hypocrisy.

    • Kennybhoy

      Worth than hypocrisy. Possible accomplice to any consequence of DUI.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    This is, of course, an indication of the growing power of the state. It used to be the case that individual responsibility was paramount – now it’s more important that you do what you are told…

    • hdb

      And the state has assumed this power because whenever anything happens the media insists the solution is a new law and a large part of the public concur.

  • Diggery Whiggery

    Matthew, as you clearly have not noticed, Britain has become the former East Germany where you can be denounced by anyone at any time. Any citizen can now be dragged through the media wringer and lose their jobs off the back of mere allegations. Britain is a country now run by the mob and where the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has given way to the principle of ‘no smoke without fire’.

    Taken in that context, British people recommending shopping a guilty friend to the police should come as no surprise. The thing is though, you and social liberals (sorry progressive conservatives) like you are largely responsible for the situation. You’ll never admit that even to yourself but it is true nonetheless.

    • SalmondFishing

      ….and the reason for MP writing this piece could have been….?

      • Diggery Whiggery

        Former MP and I don’t have a problem with what he has written only that he hasn’t noticed before and seems shocked.

    • Sean L

      Well said, that would be a rational approach.

    • Winston Smith

      I must read the Spectator more often… what a refreshing blast of hard-headed common sense, I thought i’d be in a minority of one on such a subject. As so often seems to be the case with the law in Britain it is perverse and almost incentivises the undesirable behaviour it set out to prevent in the first place.

      • Diggery Whiggery

        Absolutely. If we got out of the EU and its Bonapartist legal system we could get our laws back to their common law roots. Keep and simplify the laws with moral force and get shot of the rest. No need to have 50 different laws for 50 different types of theft for example. Theft is theft.

        When we can once more consider the old maxim “ignorance of the law is no defence” as being reasonable and in accord with reality we’ll have got it about right.

    • James Lovelace

      “As it is, the prospect of a fine and disqualification for DUI does not frighten enough people.”

      My brother was eventually sentenced to jail time for his repeated drink driving offences (he had no license, no insurance, and was drunk most days).

      I visited him in prison, and told him it was exactly where he should be. He laughed in my face and said “It’s a holiday camp. I used to be scared of prison time, but not any more. We send the guards out to buy pizzas for us, and spend all day playing video games.”

  • hdb

    This is in keeping with the times. It seems the only solution to any identified problem is always legal. We have completely lost the sense that when something wrong is happening that friends, family and an informal word is the best solution.

  • Jack Aubrey

    I’m surprised by my son at Primary school, they are wholeheartedly encouraged to tell teachers of any wrong doings they may observe. My Wife did not approve of my telling him that “snitches get stiches”

    • Jackthesmilingblack


    • Roger Hudson

      Due to health and safety there are no longer the bike sheds behind which snitches learnt about their error.

  • GraveDave

    And did you ever get to find out if the man shot his wife’s lover?

  • Roger Hudson

    A few years ago I saw a poster in StokeNewington inviting people to ‘shop’ benefit cheats, i phoned the line and delivered a rant about how Britain is turning into a mean nasty Orwellian hell-hole but i was cut off, ‘they’ don’t want to know.

    • cremaster

      The bitter irony here is that the scum who make up the social security bureaucracy need a scapegoat for their own wasteful habits. They are always there. They never go away. They put their children into similar jobs, are highly unionised, highly pensioned and highly paid.

      Their “clients”, on the other hand, are occasionally given beer money and then abused in the press, with the full approval of the bureaucracy.

  • Suleiman

    People should shop to the police those who drink-drive, friends or no friends, to prevent deaths on the road. But people do NOT shop their friends (or others) to the police for drink-driving. Why not ?

    Because no one trusts the police. That’s the main reason. The general idea is that the police will be anyhow too lazy to do anything – that they will wait for an accident to happen or until someone is by chance caught at a random stop-and-check. They will also believe that the police will somehow divulge the name of the complainant to the driver, thus leaving him/her open to revenge (everyone knows that after a case is finished, or even before, the police just ditch those who gave it information). If you suffer a revenge attack, people – and usually the police – will treat it as nothing or as if it is your fault.If a case against this drunk driver eventually comes to court (probably not), the judge will just laugh it off, unless someone has been killed by the driver.

    Far from being a nation of people who shop others to the police, we are a nation of reasonable people, viewing realistically the various sides involved, and that’s why we do not shop others to the police.

  • Sean L

    My father drank and drove, often way over the limit, thousands of times with us as children. It never occured to us to consider it dangerous, because it wasn’t. But no one batted an eyelid at drink driving then anyway. Today people are conditioned to consider it a mortal threat. And where some drivers are concerned it certainly is. But mostly it isn’t. The penalty should be related to speed, not merely alcohol consumed. That would be a rational approach. But as ever alarmism prevails. A friend of mine was stopped at five in the morning for driving too cautiously. The police assumed he must be drunk, driving in such a manner at that hour. It’s a crime with no victim whose enforcement causes untold misery. The only politician I can recall ever having the balls to speak out against it was the former member for Wolverhampton. An authentic man of principle.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Swedish rally drivers in the 1960’s would finish the final stage and toss out an empty whisky bottle.

      • Sean L

        Yes good one – I can easily imagine how they could drive better with a few drinks in them. Like many of us. Bill Werbeniuk needed something like 8 pints of lager just to face the snooker table as a professional. Of course most people couldn’t play a straight shot after that much .Just illustrates how wrong is the current law based on a uniform consumption effect, when the actual effect is so variable according to the person. But many people’s game does improve after 2 or 3, and snooker requires serious composure. The slightest movement on the shot and you’re finished. The real danger with alcohol isn’t the driving as such, but the risk taking and speeding induced by the inhibitory effect. But plenty of men, like my old man, can contain that, which is why the law is uneccesarily punitive. It’s driven by puritancial feeling.

    • Samson

      One person being able to hold his drink is a sign of nothing. People drive dangerously all the time, add a skinful to that lack of skill and restraint and you end up seeing a bunch of flowers left on the road every week in remembrance of some twat who died pointlessly.

  • Dr. Heath

    Informing is a growing mass participation sport. Sadly, most of the informers are not ringing up the police to report the commission of assaults, murders or larceny involving the public purse. Most, in prim, proper, puritanical Sort Fascist Stasi Britain, are busy posting denunciations of people whose sins involved posting ‘offensive’ or un-PC remarks on via some popular retards’ colloquium like Facebook or Twitter. Katie Hopkins, among thousands of other victims of the moronic craze for denunciations, knows what this is like. You can still read her ‘offensive quotes’ on the internet. Do this now, before Mister Plod and the onanists’ petitions get her silenced forever.

  • wudyermucuss

    It seems I was wrong –
    Plus ca change.

  • tolpuddle1

    The ferocity of most Brits towards (other people’s) faults and misdeeds (never, ever their own) is the most notable national characteristic.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Sad how many instinctively side with Authority. These Muppets would Literally march into the camps before they realised everything wasn’t entirely kosher. Because governments lie. That’s all governments, all the time.

  • cremaster

    The reason why people are more willing to grass on everyone else is because…


    That’s human beings for you!

  • aurila

    there is no need to shop someone to the Police,

    just setup a witch hunt on the net (making it attractive to politicians and establishment),

    and the person you dislike will be punished,

    regardless of whether they have broken any law

  • Sipu

    It’s called dobbing, a particularly unpleasant custom that has spread from Australia.

  • rtj1211

    I guess you should ask whether you were a suitable person to be making laws if your highest calling is to tolerate your friends evading those laws.

    The test of whether you abide by the law is how you handle those you know breaking it.

    I’m not of the opinion that the first course of action is the police, but you do have to start asking questions about the value of friendships with those who are prepared to risk the lives of others by driving under the influence.

  • Samson

    Surveillance is privacy, the state is your friend, the state is your family, do the right thing and report everything. Or be a decent human being and just stop inviting the drink driver to dinner.

  • Newcombe

    I really don’t see a problem here. The correct thing to do is to stop the man from driving off, politely at first, even offer him a lift from other guests or yourself, but at all cost, stop him from getting anywhere near his car. If this doesn’t work then make a fuss over it and if he is decent man himself, he will think better of it and call a cab. If this fails, then call the police in his presence. That ought to give a clear message for the rest of the guests also.

    Drink driving is a serious crime. And if such a driver ever kills someone, it should be first degree murder. If he maims someone, take away his own legs, in this case his driving licence, for life. Ban the bast*rd for life and send him away to prison for at least ten years.

    Oh and next time, don’t invite him to your house in any event.

    Matthew, you’re just a dinosaur.

    • inglese in italia

      Drink driving is not a serious crime, in fact it isn’t a real crime at all. If I get in my car having drunk a bottle of beer or a bottle of whisky and then drive safely home, what harm have I done. None. Why is it a crime? Because I “might” harm someone. This is against all ideas of real justice. However if I do kill someone because of my drinking, you’re right and it should be classed as murder because I actually did it. No-one should ever be punished for a potential crime. However you and most other people can’t even see the difference because it is all part of how they control us poor cretins. Happy spying.

  • Tom M

    If you read the history of the Gestapo this, in principle, was how they started. All they needed to do was make it initially socially acceptable and eventually profitable to inform on people (at that time they were too few to go around twisting people’s arms). Social responsibility today or responsibility to the Party then take your pick. Anybody with experience of “office politics” knows the lengths some people will go to curry favour with the boss or improve their positon relative to others. Very dangerous game to play.

  • Bill_der_Berg

    Snitch or not, the American tourist did the right thing when he provided evidence that helped to convict PC Harwood for his attack on Ian Tomlinson.

    • ItsAlreadyTooLate

      An American providing evidence to convict a policeman, a first, they should try that back in the States. (convict a policeman that is)

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    Well to my mind in the common sense, my duty at this party of drinkers would be to do my best to stop any from drinking and driving. A fun response at a party would be to simply remove the drivers keys without them knowing. I know people who have done this at parties because they care about their drunken mate. it doesn’t.t matter when the keys turn up next day or whenever.

  • Chris Carson

    A lot of drunks here. As one who spent nearly a year tied to a breath analyzer, I know what consequences mean.

    Our draconian drinking laws save about 350 lives a year in BC alone. A Canadian province of about 4.6 million people.

  • Sipu

    “At 13 in Africa, when I was going through an intensely puritanical phase”. Matthew, Africa is a big continent, in which country were you living when you were 13? Or do you find it too difficult to say Rhodesia? You were disloyal then and you are disloyal now.

  • Terry Field

    The guardianised journalists who preen themselves and consider this as another platform to propagate the fantasy of the dissociated nutcase with a gun who is disturbing th otherwise continuous joyfest commercialised integration of a globalised atheistic polyglottamy.

    The real world story is somewhat different. Deprived of a normal access to media systems, the right has not broadened to an intellectual world of thinking and proposition for consideration as it enjoyed in Europe and Britain before the two wars, and particularly before the Nazi period.

    The madness infects all aspects of life and reporting. This morning I listened to what, in any normal circumstances , would be considered as a near-madman – Bilimand – being treated to a respectful, indeed almost deferential studio experience on the comically biased ‘Andrew Marr Show.’

    The more trivial, the more insane, the more untruthful, the greater the deference.He could not remember using a word that is obscene in the context of healthcare; fine – let it go. Believe the unbelievableThe right has therefore begun to re-emerge as a much more constricted, more radical, more potentially ‘revolutionarliy’ disruptive force.


    The National Fronte in France is either excluded from the left-dominated media, or called ‘fascist’, or ‘racist’ or ‘far-right’ or worse. The same in Britian with UKIP.

    Yet in France 45% or more – now probably more than 50% of the voting population after the horrific violence in Paris

    It is now more than probable that Marine LePen will be President of the Fifth Republic after the next elections.
    Parris has written about Paris in terms of the utmost complacency bordering on total unreality. The arrogant self assertion of conditions of life that are as fragile as an orchid in a snowstorm.
    Values that survive are the ones the great majority of the population will support and if needed bleed for. Certainly in Europe more and more citizens are so revolted by the lunacy of the left that it will not just refuse to fight for it, but at this rate will pick up arms to fight against it.
    Civil wars happen for a reason. The reasons for the next one in European countries are being assiduously cultivated by the left. If the conflict comes, the left will not win. because their arguments do not reflect the needs of the people that unknowingly abuse.

  • Terry Field

    I have responded to Mr PArris and other journalists in this publication, using no abuse, no swearing, only the force of argument and reasonable observation. The result? I am censored, and my comments do not often enjoy a readership.
    I had assumed this publication would encourage the most robust of argument but either it, or the State authorities act to routinely censor.
    I was wrong in that understanding.
    If this is how Western European society operates, the statement ‘I am Charley’ is so much hypocrisy.

    • stephengreen

      Modern liberals do not champion free speech, quite the reverse. To make their nightmare dystopias work, they need to keep ratcheting up the soft-despotic elements of their managerial societies to enable it to continue. Less free speech, less freedom of association, more surveillance, greater powers to arrest and search, more fine tuning of discrimination legislation, greater ideological mindmelding.. ad nauseaum.

      • Terry Field

        They are certainly having a good go at it with me.

  • Bill_der_Berg

    “…but about shock at my own serious misreading of my countrymen….”

    Were the views of the callers a guide to the attitudes of the people at large? Probably not. Only people who feel fairly strongly about the matter under discussion can be bothered to respond.

  • plainsdrifter

    The British have become a mewling, puking, whingeing society of overweight and politically correct cry-babies.

  • G B

    We are now a nation of snitches. Everybody is a policeman who has an opinion on all manner of other peoples behaviour. Watch the face when you say or do anything that is deemed, by them, to be unacceptable. There is a preponderance of people who rejoice in this. Depressing but true.

  • Cassandra

    This country started becoming a nation of snitches with the advent of political correctness.
    When little children can be reported as ‘racists’ for name calling in the schoolyard, we have gone a very long way down the road to East Germany and the Stasi State..