When moral panic is the real villain of the piece: Does television glamorise crime? Simon Shaps attacks hysteria over reconstruction series, while Tony Hall defends BBC news programmes
Wednesday 11 May 1994
A Brief History of Moral Panics would include rock'n'roll, Saturday morning cinema, the miniskirt and commercial television. In retrospect, the concerns about each of these - deadly serious at the time - seem quaint. They illustrate an essential characteristic of the moral panic: spectacular wrong-headedness by a minority seeking to protect a majority they see as feckless and vulnerable; certainly more vulnerable than themselves.
In the case of crime programmes on television, the panic is being generated by an unholy alliance of the Broadcasting Standards Council, the Association of Chief Police Officers, some MPs - including the otherwise thoughtful George Walden and Glenda Jackson - the writer Simon Jenkins and, crucially, the chief executive of Channel 4, Michael Grade. The moral panic, if it is to have some tenuous hold on reality, desperately needs a turncoat, an individual who can supply apparently plausible information from the inside. Grade, who in a previous incarnation at BBC 1 presided over Crimewatch and currently has a team recording a fly-
on-the-wall documentary at an inner-
city police station, provides a crucial cameo performance in this role.
The essential elements of the moral panic are now all in place. No obvious beginning, no single individual responsible, a rapid escalation precipitated by an alliance of disparate but powerful voices, the indifference of the vast majority, and an insider prepared to dish the dirt. And, of course, most important, no evidence at all to support the case.
The latest organisation publicly to jump on the bandwagon is the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), concerned about programmes it accuses of 'revelling in violence and increasing the fear of crime'. The association reportedly also argues that such programmes take up too much police time and that there is concern about 'complaints' from the close families of victims.
There is a serious confusion in the minds of these critics. Crime, in their eyes, means violent crime; graphic, nasty, bloody. Michael Grade provided the most spectacularly misleading description when he told a seminar organised by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer that programmes such as Michael Winner's True Crimes contained 'terrifying crimes . . . sensationally presented in a glamorous context for maximum effect and, sadly, maximum fear'.
The truth is that programmes such as True Crimes, Crime Story, In Suspicious Circumstances and Crime Monthly contain almost no re-enactment of violent crime. The average episode of EastEnders or Brookside, one of Michael Grade's shows on Channel 4, probably contains more violence.
Programmes such as True Crimes and Crime Monthly do - oh, the shame] - depict crime: but the context is critical. Crime Monthly, like Crimewatch, enlists the public's help to solve serious crimes. True Crimes shows how serious crimes are eventually solved by reconstructing a police investigation, from the moment after the crime is committed.
But, of course, such programmes are not the only source of information about crime. Local and national newspapers, radio news, the local network that operates within any community, provide infinitely more information about crime than a handful of occasional TV programmes.
Reviewing the literature on the fear of crime for the Metropolitan Police, Chris Hale of the University of Kent writes that fear is a 'reflection of the uneasiness that individuals and neighbourhoods experience concerning their inability to control what goes on around them'. He concludes that we watch crime dramas, in which good triumphs over evil, 'for the reassurance they provide in order to alleviate, not exacerbate, fear'. Privately, a number of senior police officers endorse this view, but dare not show their heads above the parapet.
Of the concerns expressed by Acpo, the feelings of relatives is the most serious. ITV is close to adopting new procedures for such programmes to ensure that close relatives are approached before transmission. For most companies these procedures merely codify what has been common practice. As for the concern that such programmes take up too much police time, LWT's estimate is that the average episode of True Crimes involves about two-and-a-half hours of police time.
There is one final card that the panickers play when they become desperate. It is known as the slippery slope attack: things are pretty bad, but will soon be terrible, perhaps catastrophic. The ace up the panickers' sleeve is the experience on American TV where, seemingly, anything goes.
This, too, is nonsense. Programme- makers here do not want to make the kind of 'tabloid TV' programmes seen in the US. Regulators would not accept them, the audience would not watch them. End of story. End of panic.
Simon Shaps is controller of factual programmes for London Weekend Television, the station responsible for 'Michael Winner's True Crimes'.
----------------------------------------------------------------- Research shows that, in spite of recurrent panics, the public's level of offence at television violence has altered little within the past five years. The figures show the percentage of viewers who say they have been offended by violence on the four main channels. ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 ITV 15 10 11 11 15 BBC1 12 10 9 10 12 BBC2 6 6 7 8 9 C4 9 9 10 11 13 Television, the Public's View 1993. ITC/John Libbey -----------------------------------------------------------------
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