TELEVISION / Free speech or just cheap?: Mark Lawson finds his liberalism tested by Murder in Mind

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The Independent Culture
THE LIFE of the television reviewer, though not without its compensations, should not be entered into by journalists in search of buzz and rush. In general, the nearest you get to danger is the video recorder jamming. Yesterday, though, the critic could close his eyes for a moment and think he was John Simpson. There was a lunchtime dash across London to the offices of Central Television, following the refusal of the High Court to extend an injunction gained by the Home Office against one of the company's documentaries. Then, during the screening of the formerly contraband cassette, a phone rang and the screen filled with static fizz. An injunction against the press showing had been obtained.

The film slipping in and out of these legal armlocks was Murder In Mind, a Mike Morley documentary for ITV's Viewpoint series, about new methods of identifying serial killers. To 48 of its 52 minutes the Home Office had no objection, going to court over the remaining four, in which the British mass murderer Dennis Nilsen was interviewed by a criminal psychologist. Unlike America - whose convicts drop in and out of television talk shows by satellite from their cells - Britain has always imposed restrictions on the media appearances of criminals, particularly killers.

In general, my attitude on questions of television censorship - first tested during the 1985 crisis over the Real Lives documentary on Northern Ireland - has been that the material should be screened and the intelligence of the viewing public trusted. Consistency demands the same line on Murder In Mind. But in no previous censorship case has it been so hard to wave the liberal flag. If the Home Office thinks Murder In Mind creepy, irresponsible and sensational, I see the point. For the first time, I understand that liberalism means sometimes having to say: sorry, no.

The problem is that Murder In Mind was essentially two different documentaries, uneasily spliced. The bulk of the film was an intriguing piece on police procedure. In contrast to the technological DNA method of detecting killers, murder squad detectives also now employ what you might call the CV method, a purely intuitive technique, in which a psychologist guesses the age, profession and lifestyle of the likeliest suspects, drawing up a profile, a sort of blind man's photo, of the killer. The film reported from FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, on the psychological profile system VICAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program), before visiting the British police equivalent CATCHEM (Central Analytical Team Collecting Homicide Expertise And Management.)

Your main feeling during these sections of the documentary was that the film they really should have made was one about the police acronym teams. You imagined them sitting round for hours, trying to decide: ' 'Ere, Sarge, why don't we call it COPPER - Central Office Of Psychological Profiling . . .er . . . ' This half of Murder In Mind was no more offensive than an episode of Inspector Morse, except that no writer would dare give a fictional cop the line used by a real one here. Psychological profiling, he suggested without irony, would 'add full flesh to the bones of the statistics' about killers.

It was when Mike Morley's film tried to do the same that it entered treacherous territory. Interleaved with the police procedural was a kind of chat show for psychopaths, in which Nilsen and the American Bob Berdella (the 'Kansas Killer') talked about their crimes. During his contentious four minutes of screentime, Nilsen spoke essentially about technique. The questioning was neutral, a rough equivalent to the sort of interview that writers get on talk shows about when they first started and how they get an idea.

Central's justification of the Nilsen interview is that it illustrated a serious analysis of of multiple murder, a public concern. But the defence of context seems to me a hard one to apply to Murder In Mind. After all, Dennis Nilsen was not caught by VICAP or CATCHEM - the documentary's supposed subject - but by Dynorod, after the remains of his victims blocked up the local drains. As for the suggestion that the conversations somehow instruct the public about the condition of psychopathy, they seemed to me to be merely a freak show, settling nothing beyond natural human curiosity about the demeanour of a moral monster.

It seems reasonable enough that murderers should suffer some social deprivations, and the freedom to go on the media PR circuit might properly be one of them. I am not completely convinced that there is no connection between the ease with which mass murderers can appear on television in America and the popularity of the profession in that country. Nilsen's four minutes - and, for me, the chat with Berdella as well - would have been no loss to the viewer. It is no comfort to be lined up alongside certain figures on the political right in saying this, and perhaps I might retaliate by pointing out that the trend towards sensationalist documentaries on British television - Carlton's Storyline is also doing serial killers tomorrow - may have some connection with the competitive market encouraged in the medium by other of their policies.