This is the text of this morning's Thought for the day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

In a previous life I worked as a Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham. As everybody knows, this is an institution now under public scrutiny because of its power to hold enormous amounts of information about any and all of us, usually without us being remotely aware of it.

I don't know about you, but the mere mention of the word surveillance triggers memories of George Orwell's 1984 or the world of the KGB and Stasi. Surveillance can only be bad or sinister, can't it? But, here we hit on a fundamental problem at a time when serious concerns are being raised about the limits that should be imposed on surveillance agencies as to the nature and quantity of data they should be allowed – or required – to hold.

The basic conundrum here is that we live in a society that wants – nay, demands – total security from threat, injury or conflict at the same time as demanding total privacy from any sort of unwanted intrusion. But, this circle simply can't be squared. If we want security from threat – for example, from terrorists on our streets or snoopers in our computers – we must accept a certain loss of privacy. In a world of technological complexity – in which the sinister experts in the field do their plotting in the dark places most of us don't even know exist – there is no alternative but for those whose job it is to protect us to have access to data.

There are two problems here, it seems to me. First, it is inherent to the nature of intelligence that any data might potentially be useful, and, therefore, should be collected and stored. But, who discriminates between what is useful and what is not? And how? Secondly, in a society that wants protection, we also have obligations that then impinge on what we sometimes lazily think of as rights. That is in the nature of a society – that we accept curbs on rights in order to protect the common good.

This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve have grasped for power, they discover they are transparent and hide. Like them, we don't want to be seen through. Perhaps that's because many don't trust those who do the seeing – even if, as in Eden, this transparency is supposed to set us free from fear.

I am one of those who thinks that intrusion by the State or large corporations should be minimal, that surveillance services should be watched, scrutinised and held to account, and that the benefit of doubt should always be given to the individual. But, I can't then complain if something goes wrong on the social field because of my demand for privacy. There is always a cost either way.

This balance of individual rights with societal obligations is difficult to achieve. It seems to me, however, that fundamental to our judgement on the boundaries of privacy is the recognition that we can't have it both ways.

 

The trouble is, of course, that we can't roll back the years. We can't de-invent the nuclear bomb or some of the technological 'advances' that now create – according to the Law of Unintended Consequences – complex ethical dilemmas for us. We now live in the “we can, therefore we must” rather than the “you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is' generation.

This applies also to media. New social media bring particular challenges to an ordered society and this has been evidenced again by the killing of a soldier in Woolwich last week. The ubiquity and immediacy of social media and smart phones provide fantastic tools for social communication and democratising informant sharing. However, they also create other problems – for example, in relation to law, due process and our ability to sustain the assumptions upon which our legal system has been based for centuries.

I have just read a piece by solicitor, David Cook, that pushes this a little further. Concerned by the recording and broadcasting of one of the accused talking to camera, he asks if the media reality will, in the end, (a) make prosecution more difficult, and/or (b) force a change to law to remove the role of potential prejudice in a widely-reported case.

This is not an easy one. The 'rights' of the media to report (and of individuals to record and propagate) any incident that happens in the public square potentially clashes against a process in which even an apparently culpable suspect is due a fair trial. Compromise this notion of 'innocence until proven guilty' and we will encounter further 'unintended consequences in the future.

Or should that be, ‘Martin Narey, quite contrary’?

Martin NareyMartin Narey is Chief Executive of Barnardo’s and no stranger to controversy. He has been intelligent, brave and outspoken in a completely reasonable way about a range of social issues from prisons and penal reform through to children and their parents. Today he is reported as having called for more children of inadequate parents to be taken into care at birth in order to prevent them being damaged beyond repair in “families that can’t be fixed”. He is a brave man to suggest this because he knows his view will be seen as paternalistic and ‘judgmental’ (he called it ‘illiberal heresy’) and he will call down upon his own head the indignant wrath of social liberals who assume that such a policy would be upsetting. Here is what he said:

If you can take a baby very young and get them quickly into a permanent adoptive home, then we know that is where we have success. That’s a view that is seen as a heresy among social services, where the thinking is that if someone, a parent, has failed, they deserve another chance. My own view is that we just need to take more children into care if we really want to put the interests of the child first.

We can’t keep trying to fix families that are completely broken. It sounds terrible, but I think we try too hard with birth parents. I have seen children sent back to homes that I certainly wouldn’t have sent them back to. I have been extremely surprised at decisions taken. If we really cared about the interests of the child, we would take children away as babies and put them into permanent adoptive families, where we know they will have the best possible outcome.

Narey has touched a raw nerve here. One response, from Philippa Stroud of the Centre for Social Justice caught my attention for what it assumed about fathers:

We need far more early intervention to try to stop this disintegration of the family we are seeing, but we would like to see more working with these families. What we recommend is the model of the mother and baby going into care, filling that hole and giving the whole family a chance.

Is it simply assumed now that such dysfunctional families no longer have a resident, involved male in the home or in the equation? I just ask the question, but I fear the answer.

childhoodAs Jenni Murray has observed in an article in today’s Observer, simple or simplistic approaches to rescuing damaged children (such as exclusion from school) won’t help either damaged children or the society they themselves go on to damage. In a culture dominated by claims to ‘rights’, we are not very good at working out how competing rights are to be prioritised or regulated. Does the parent’s right to have or raise a child outweigh society’s judgment that such a right has lower priority than that of the child deemed to be being damaged? It is a hard question and anyone who offers a simple answer should immediately be dismissed; easy answers usually come from people who have no experience of the reality of such dilemmas.

I am not sure that the care system is the best place for damaged (or potentially damaged) children; but leaving them to poor parents who cannot cope (possibly who themselves have been damaged by their own upbringing) is not an answer. Nor is parading them on tabloid front pages with headlines such as ‘Hell Boys’ or ‘Little Savages’.

This week sees the celebration in the Anglican calendar of the birth of the Virgin Mary. Actually we know nothing about this particular event and a lot of Anglicans will wonder why we are celebrating it in the first place. But it might make some of us reflect on the fact that she grew into a teenager who got pregnant in a suspicious society, nearly got dumped by her (probably older) fiance, gave birth to a son who grew up to be disobedient (look at what he did when he was 12) and neglect his responsibilities to his widowed mother when he went walkabout at the age of 30 – before getting executed for sedition by a society that knew all about ‘order’ and sorting out the ‘dysfunctionals’.

Mary herself sang a ‘heretical’ song on hearing that she would give birth to one who would turn the political and economic orthodoxies on their head. So, if Martin Narey is being quite contrary, then he is in good company.