Open Eye: Cop shows play a part in policing by consent

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The Independent Online
Modern policing works on the basis of public consent. We are not governed by brute force or fear of repression. Anyone in any doubt about this should consider the figures: we have a population of 60 million but only 130,000 police officers.

More than 80 per cent of all crimes that the police investigate are drawn to their attention by members of the public. Without public co-operation, the police could do very little - one piece of Home Office research demonstrated that a police officer on the beat in London could expect to pass within 100 yards of a burglary in progress roughly once every eight years, but not necessarily to catch the burglar, or even realise the crime was taking place.

It is the absolute necessity for policing by consent and with community support that has caused so many shuddering reverberations in the corridors of police power after the Stephen Lawrence case. If large parts of the policed community feel distrust and animosity towards those policing them, then crime control becomes a major problem. The same principles apply to other parts of the criminal justice system like the courts: if they cannot command general public respect a major instability arises.

Television is an immensely powerful institution in shaping our views about most things, especially things like law and policing that have a direct impact upon our everyday lives. More than 97 per cent of British households have at least one television set, and most people spend about 25 hours a week watching the box.

Over the last thirty years there has been a graphic change in the way policing and courtroom drama have been portrayed on television. In the late 1960s, there was still a largely cosy, reverential depiction of bobbies and barristers at their work. These are what Robert Reiner at the LSE, the leading authority on media representations of policing, has called "consensual police fictions".

Recent editions of Kavanagh QC have included scenes involving duplicitous barristers, dishonest civil servants, and the law being used to procure an acquittal for a young man who was probably a dangerous rapist. This, of course, is much more realistic than the sort of mischief depicted in the scenes of the 1970s TV drama Rumpole of the Bailey, captivating as they often were.

The 1970s Crown Court series was an engaging, if rather wooden, presentation of how legal and evidential issues work in a trial, and, in most cases, developments were presented with sufficient tautness for the midday viewer to resist lunch before a verdict.

The first major police serial was Dixon of Dock Green, a weekly drama in which PC George Dixon greeted his viewers each week with the words that became a catchphrase in policing: "Evenin' all". The programme ran through 367 episodes between 1955 and 1976. Dixon, played by Jack Warner, concluded each episode with a cosy and highly moralistic homily. With his benevolent and upright stance before the community, he embodied the popular notion of the bobby as a model of rectitude. In 1962, 83% of the nation had "great respect" for the police.

A qualitative change occurred with the arrival in 1961 of the BBC drama serial Z-Cars, which made a huge impact on both public perceptions of police work and television drama. The drama was gritty, and the social verisimilitude much more striking than the picture given of things around Dock Green. The series was transmitted live with some pre-film inserts - something which gave the performances a real edge.

There were many dramatised portrayals of policing in the 1970s. One successful programme was The Sweeney, with John Thaw and Denis Waterman crashing about after cockney villains. The episodes were thrilling and flavoured with a dry humour but they neither focused on nor raised any questions about the politics of policing or crime.

Probably the most compelling short serial of dramas in this area was Law and Order - the four-part serial by G.F. Newman, in 1978. Routing the reverence TV had previously bestowed on policing, it showed police corruption and malpractice with a style so realistic and acute that a maelstrom of resentment was whipped up. Scotland Yard called the programme "an insult", objecting to the presentation of policemen taking bribes, and assaulting prisoners. An outraged MP spoke out against the "mendacities" disseminated by the BBC in suggesting that police officers could be dishonest, racist, or violent to people in custody.

By 1984, ITV's The Bill seemed to be concerned not to become simply a police officer's view of events and issues. More of what we see, though, appears to have come from a police perspective - a fact testified to by the recommendation from British police to the Chinese arguing for the programme to be shown in China to prepare the population for the problems they will soon face.

The BBC's new City Central gives us Mancunian cops but presents its stories in a very American form of television narrative and with an editing style apparently taken directly from NYPD Blues. Disappointingly, City Central is more of a vehicle for thriller and romp subplots than a focus on policing.

Television, though, does not influence "the public" alone - its effect on courtroom lawyers and police is also important. Judges have become much more circumspect in their courtroom remarks in an age when injudicious remarks (even if worsened by being out of context) are almost instantaneously broadcast to all. Fewer today are observations from the Bench like "she was contributorily negligent" in a rape case.

Television has also widened the social scope from which come the forensically ambitious: Charles Laughton in the 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution was an heroic QC but upper class, whereas John Thaw's Kavanagh QC presents a much more realisable success.

The glamorisation of the traffic cop by TV has had notable results. Many members of the public who have had roadside experiences with the new breed of officers sporting dark RayBan pilot glasses and saying things like "affirmative" into their handsets will have detected a change in policing behaviour. It is, though, worth remembering that more than 3,000 people are killed on the roads each year and patrols can be seen as important in that context. Nonetheless, programmes featuring car chases using cameras in police cars are widely seen as inappropriate as a source of entertainment, and a rather mercenary commercialisation of policing.

Commercial sponsorship of the police was permitted by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 and has recently begun to be used. The possible consequences are both chilling and comedic.

At least two forces have accepted sponsorship from drinks concerns (a chain of off-licences, and a major brewer). So we can now await the first filmed incident of a car-driver being flagged down by booze-sponsored police car for suspected drunken driving

Programmes in which the police solicit public help to solve reported crimes have been very popular ever since the genre's progenitor Police Five (it lasted five minutes) began in 1962. It ran for 30 years, and the amiable presenter, Shaw Taylor, would always end the slot by pointing to his eyes and inviting his viewers to "keep em' peeled!". The crime exposed seemed genteel, compared with the rather gruesome diet presented in Crime Watch UK. These programmes have procured evidence critical for identification and conviction but there is now nevertheless five times as much serious reported crime than when Mr Taylor sought our help.

Perhaps paradoxically, TV's warts 'n' all presentation of law and order helps enhance the credibility of the police and the courts, as the overriding message is still that they are largely good.

Dr Gary Slapper is Director of the OU Law Programme.