Essay – See it, Say it, (Panoptic) Sorted: The rail passenger as ‘inspector’ in a National Rail surveillance campaign

April 22, 2020

Alice Chancellor, Final Year Student, Politics and International Relations with Study Abroad BSc, University of Bristol


Embedded within the escalating public counter-terrorism discourse, the ‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign discursively positions rail passengers as active agents in the enactment of panoptic surveillance practices; an approach that demands critical examination. This paper will first conceptualise panopticism as a sorting dispositif, in which an inspecting gaze categorises subjects while producing and re-producing social ‘knowledge’. Such a conceptualisation will then be applied to the ‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign; arguing that the positionality of rail passenger-as-inspector serves to reinforce damaging stereotypes and subjectivities, particularly those regarding British Muslims within the physical and temporal space of post 7/7 British public transport.


While the scholarship surrounding panoptic surveillance emerged from the specifics of disciplinary architecture, medical institutions and the plague town (Foucault, 1977), this paper argues that panopticism as a dispositifcan be understood as a generalisable framework that is applicable to a variety of surveillance practices in contemporary societies (Elden, 2003: 248-9; Murakami Wood, 2016: 251). Panoptic surveillance centres around the discipling force of a continuous and omnipresent inspecting gaze (Foucault, 1980: 155), in which the subject is aware of their constant visibility but unaware of the inspector’s location (Foucault, 1977: 4; Manokha, 2018: 222). This paper will move beyond the much theorised self-discipliningeffects of the panopticon, instead focusing on the inspecting gaze as a categorisingprocess (Gandy, 1993; Koskela, 2003: 293; Murakami Wood, 2016: 257), through which subjects become “objects of knowledge” (Elden, 2003: 246) and positionalities are continuously produced and re-produced.


‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign poster. Source: Great Western Railway (2020)

As a process of data collection, surveillance is a powerful tool in the production and representation of ‘truths’ (Lyon, 2001: 2; Murakami Wood, 2016: 257). Through separating and categorising observed behaviour into normative categories such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ (Foucault in Elden, 2003: 243), the practice of surveillance works to construct social space according to an “abstract notion of spatio-temporal normalcy” (Ball, 2002: 577). The categorisation of observed subjects, often according to criteria such as race, gender and class, serves to reinforce positionalities and damaging stereotypes, as certain groupings become the target of greater surveillance due to expected displays of ‘abnormal’ behaviour (Ball, 2002: 584; Koskela, 2003: 301). This is noted in a study of Glaswegian council estates, where CCTV operators consciously over-scrutinised the behaviour of black working class residents, reinforcing the notion of black criminality (Norris and Armstrong, 1999: 155). This ordering nature of surveillance works to legitimise its use. As ‘inspectors’ assign risk to certain subjectivities, perceived “zones of disorder” (Foucault, 1980: 153) are neutralised through constant inspection and the ‘threat’ of the Other is diminished. As such, surveillance conceptualised as a panoptic sort represents a “powerful means of creating and reinforcing long-term social differences” (Lyon, 2003: i) through the production of knowledge about observed subjects, most particularly the ‘Other’.


‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign poster. Source: Glasgow Prestwick Airport (2020) Social Media Image See It, Say It, Sorted. Available at: 19/03/2020).
‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign poster. Source: Glasgow Prestwick Airport (2020) Social Media Image See It, Say It, Sorted.

Devised by the government, police and rail industry in 2016, the ‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign emerged within the ongoing UK counter-terrorism discourse following the 7/7 bombings; aiming to establish a “vigilant network” of citizen informants on British railways (BTP, 2016). Striking posters coupled with frequent overhead reminders to remain watchful of fellow passengers and report any ‘suspicious behaviour’ to British Transport Police, work to establish an audio-visual setting in which civilians are placed as the “eyes and ears” of counter-terrorism efforts (Murray, 2016). There are marked parallels between the inspecting gaze of the panopticon and the “thousands of pairs of eyes” (BTP, 2016) enlisted in the ‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign. Through engaging thousands of everyday passengers as possible ‘inspectors’, the panoptic gaze remains pervasive yet unidentifiable.

Passengers are interpellated into the positionality of inspector through the use of visual imagery in a series of campaign posters (Figures 1-3), in which ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour is clearly demarcated with ‘light’ and ‘dark’ colouring. As individuals are drawn to identify themselves as the observant figure bathed in ‘righteous’ light, they are immediately positioned in opposition to, and thus threatened by, the shadowy ‘Other’. Such imagery deploys a clear sorting message; the vigilant passenger is categorised as ‘goodie’ while the stranger, kept purposefully vague, is represented as ‘baddie’. Reporting abnormal behaviour consequently becomes not only the ‘right’ thing to do, but the inspector-passenger’s dutyto ensure the safety of fellow travellers.


‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign poster. Source: Arriva Trains Wales (2017) [Twitter] 08 June 2020.


The maintenance of ambiguity when defining suspicious behaviour in the ‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign is a crucial element that has enabled the permeation of public discourse and allowed pre-existing ‘truths’ concerning security and threat to determine the practice of passenger surveillance (Ball, 2002: 580). This demands particular examination given the context of post-7/7 UK counter-terrorism strategy and the prevalent public association of British Muslims with terrorism (Poole, 2011: 54). Hussain and Bagguley note that the securitisation of British Muslims in the media, government and public narrative has established them as the common-sense “suspect community” (2012: 716-7); a security ‘truth’ that is likely to be re-produced within the ‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign. As the determination of threat remains an interpretive practice, in which passengers are tasked with categorising observed subjects into normative groupings, the processes of stereotyping and ‘Othering’ that are prevalent within public counter-terrorism discourse will be reinforced through the campaign. Passengers resembling members of the ‘suspect community’ will therefore be subject to greater scrutiny from their fellow travellers according to pre-existing security ‘truths’ regarding Islamic terrorism; ensuring the reproduction of prejudicial subjectivities and long-term social divisions.


Through a focus on panopticism as a sorting dispositif, this paper has demonstrated the significant implications of surveillance as a categorising process, in which subjectivities and social knowledge are consequently produced and re-produced. An analysis of the ‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign has revealed how the rail passenger is hailed as the panoptic inspector, with a duty to categorise fellow travellers according to normative value-judgements. Situated within the wider discursive context of post-7/7 UK counter-terrorism strategy, this paper has argued that such a positioning will have harmful consequences for the continuation of Islamophobia on British public transport and serve to reinforce pre-existing negative stereotypes.




Ball, Kirstie. (2002) ‘Elements of Surveillance: A New Framework and Future Directions’, Information Communication and Society, 5(4), pp. 573-590.


BTP (British Transport Police). (2016) New National Rail security campaign starts today: “See It. Say It. Sorted.”. Available at: 14/03/2020).


Elden, Stuart. (2003) ‘Plague, Panopticon, Police’, Surveillance & Society, 1(3), pp. 240-253.


Foucault, Michel. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by A. Sheridan. New York: Vintage.


Foucault, Michel. (1980) ‘The Eye of Power’ in Gordon, Colin (ed.) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault. Sussex: Harvester Press. pp. 146-165.


Gandy, Oscar H. (1993) The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal Information. Boulder, CO: Westview.


Hussain, Yasmin, and Bagguley, Paul. (2012) ‘Securitised Citizens: Islamophobia, Racism and the 7/7 Bombings’, The Sociological Review, 60(4), pp. 715-734.


Koskela, Hille. (2003) ‘CamEra’ – The Contemporary Urban Panopticon’, Surveillance and Society, 1(3), pp. 292-313.


Lyon, David. (2001) Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Lyon, David. (2003) ‘Introduction’ in Lyon, David. (ed.) Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Digital Discrimination. London: Routledge. pp. 1-11.


Manokha, Ivan. (2018) ‘Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age’, Surveillance & Society, 16(2), pp. 219-237.


Murakami Wood, David. (2016) ‘Beyond the Panopticon? Foucault and Surveillance Studies’ in Elden, Stuart, and Crampton, Jeremy W. (eds.) Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing. pp. 245-263.


Murray, Dick. (2016) ‘Commuters must be the ‘eyes and ears’ in fight against terror, police warn in new ‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign.’, Evening Standard, 1 November. Available at: 14/03/2020).


Norris, Clive, and Armstrong, Gary. (1999) The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV. Oxford: Berg.


Poole, Elizabeth. (2011) ‘Change and Continuity in the Representation of British Muslims Before and After 9/11: The UK Context’, Global Media Journal: Canadian Edition, 4(2), pp. 49-62.


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