TELEVISION / A bad time done by all

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The Independent Culture
YOU can prove anything with a television camera. One minute there was Just Deserts: Cure for Crime (BBC2) suggesting that locking up a criminal is no way to reform him and then, half an hour later, here was Inside Story (BBC1) poking its camera under the nose of a young con who said of his crime, 'It was the worst mistake of my life, but in a way it was one of the best mistakes because I'm learning from it the hard way in here.'

The premise of Just Deserts was that the prison system of the Sixties and its effort to cure rather than punish led to serious 'wrongs committed against criminals in the name of progress'. If the footage that followed was representative, wrongs committed against criminals in the Sixties included being unable to cry in front of prison officers for fear of looking a wimp and being made to play netball.

But Just Deserts ploughed on with its tone of shock and disgust. It adopted a one-sided approach to prove its point, its generally risible talking heads taken at face value. One psychologist was allowed to suggest that most people are only law-abiding because they lack the imagination to be criminal, without so much as a snigger from behind the camera.

But an even more criminal mistake was perpetrated three-quarters of the way through, when the programme switched tack, suddenly suggesting that humanitarian attempts to reform were maybe preferable to the 'pile 'em in and treat 'em rough' policies of the Eighties.

Inside Story's look at Aycliffe secure unit for young offenders was a sensitive examination of a place where the staff seemed to be doing everything Just Deserts found so laughable: treating their young offenders with humanity and dedication, yet never forgetting why they had to be removed from society.

Neither did the film. It did not make the mistake of taking its protagonists at face value. We saw 15- year-old Michelle, face blurred to protect her identity, explaining from her teddybear-infested cell how she had burnt a man alive with a paraffin bomb, but it wasn't really her fault, and although the man had suffered, she had suffered rather more. Her moaning was juxtaposed with the urbane head of Aycliffe's comment that 'Michelle has a mythology about her crime. No one else does. It was horrific.'

Just Deserts would at this point have cut to a sociologist saying people like Michelle were being hideously abused, locked up at night with a menagerie of cuddly toys. And I know which programme I would prefer to spend time with.