Robert Hanks' Television Review

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IN AMERICA, soft-hearted, liberalism has got itself a bad name. One of the less edifying spectacles of recent years has been watching US politicians tying themselves into knots in an effort to avoid "the l-word" label, frying the odd criminal from time to time to show just how tough they can be. The word has never had quite the same stigma on this side of the Atlantic, but, even here, most people assume a dichotomy between woolly- headed liberal idealism and hard-headed, practical realpolitik.

The main thrust of Roger Graef's In Search of Law and Order (Sun C4) was to show that, while our image of the US is of a land of bullets and boot-camps, it is a far cuddlier place than that. Many American cities are now experimenting with more imaginative and (whisper it) more liberal approaches to crime: literacy programmes, creches for teenage mothers, boys' clubs - all in the name of giving young people something to live for. This week's final episode looked at schemes in Richmond, California, where shootings and turf wars have created a generation of seven-year-olds who worry about their funeral arrangements. The authorities here have adopted a "get 'em while they're young" approach, with counselling for small children and pre-school groups designed to help parents understand how to look after their kids.

This has direct political implications: since British politicians like to copy American ideas on tackling crime, it's important that they should copy the right ones. To date, they have tended to pick up on the more obviously macho approaches - zero- tolerance and private jails. They need to widen their net.

But Graef made a more general point: that the dichotomy between liberal idealism and thick-skinned pragmatism is a false one. In Search of Law and Order argued that understanding a little more, condemning a little less is simply more effective than getting tough. The point is not to combat violence, it's to take it out of the equation altogether.

The simple ineffectuality of violence was illustrated in Loyalists (Sun C4), a three-part series on the side of the Northern Irish equation that usually gets overlooked. Bill Craig, who was sacked as Stormont's Home Affairs minister in the late Sixties after some RUC members beat up a group of civil rights demonstrators, put his dismissal down to "a willingness to appease violence". There was not a great deal of evidence of that particular error, though, as the to-and-fro atrocities continued.

You could legitimately worry about the wisdom of showing this series - images of torn entrails and self-possessed murderers explaining their point of view can't do a lot for the peace process. When a place has proved itself as inept at coping with history as Northern Ireland, it might be sensible to give history a rest for a while. But you could argue, too, that Peter Taylor's dispassionate cataloguing of events and his stark interviewing style are themselves a weapon against fanaticism. That the best way of fighting violence is to tell the truth about what it does to people's lives. Or maybe that's just woolly-headed liberalism.