Robert Fisk: A policeman's lot is not a happy one

I grew up with 'Dixon of Dock Green'. After 'Z Cars', I tuned out. Too much realism
Click to follow
The Independent Online

They posted and distributed thousands of tracts accusing Hitler of the butchery of German troops at Stalingrad, the moral degradation of Germany and its future defeat. Julia Jentsch plays Sophie as an innocent who is given a choice by her Gestapo interrogator - denounce her brother, claim she was influenced by her admiration of him, and go free - or face the Nazi punishment for any German found guilty of trying to lower the morale of the Wehrmacht and aiding the "enemy".

The Gestapo interrogator is a certain Inspector Mohr and he is one of the most fascinating, dreadful, sensitive figures in the film. His initial cross-questioning of Sophie - why was she leaving her university with an empty suitcase seconds after the tracts were discovered across the floor of the vestibule; why was she planning to take the 12.16 fast train to Ulm; why did she need a suitcase just to collect laundry from her sister's flat - is devastating.

Of course, Inspector Mohr admires Sophie's courage - "we need people like her on our side," he tells a fellow prisoner - but Sophie also wants to be liked and trusted by Inspector Mohr, whose quivering left eyelid and whose son - like Sophie's fiancé - is fighting on the eastern front, turns him into a human being whose power is almost as much a burden as it is a wickedness. Perhaps there is something dark in all our souls that wants us to be liked by policemen.

I grew up with Jack Warner's Dixon of Dock Green on BBC television and Robert Beatty's Canadian cop-in-Britain in Dial 999. I was addicted to No Hiding Place whose hero, Inspector Lockhart, was chided by my magistrate mother, who wanted to know why TV cops were always exhausted and working overtime. Her own experience in Maidstone court suggested that they didn't work as hard as the criminals, and often lied. After Z Cars, I tuned out. Too much realism.

My first brush with the lads in blue - or green-blue in this case - was in Northern Ireland. Three detectives turned up at my home outside Belfast in 1975 to ask if I'd seen a "confidential" British government document found on my doormat (by my cleaning lady, of course, who just happened to be married to an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary). I told the three detectives that I could not say if I had seen the document since they would only show me one inch of the first page of paper - though I was well aware that it recorded the minutes of a secret meeting between British security personnel and Labour Party executives at Stormont who were hatching a plot to blackmail Protestant politicians regarded as opponents of UK policy in the province. "I'd like to help you," I said at one point with supreme disingenuousness.

Yes, we always want to help. In a Turkish police station in Diyabakir one night in 1991, I was questioned about an article I had written which accused (accurately) the Turkish army of looting food and blankets from Iraqi refugees. "Did you accuse the Turkish soldiers of stealing sweets?" one leather-jacketed cop boomed at me.

In the background, my grovelling replies - that the soldiers had betrayed the morality of my great hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - were typed out on a massive, clacking German typewriter. This earned me a deportation order - but not before Mohr's Turkish equivalent had insisted on a photograph being taken in which the police inspector put his friendly, beefy arm around my shoulder. See, we don't harm our British suspects, do we?

In Belgrade in 1998, where I was briefly the only British correspondent under Nato attack in the Serbian capital, I was called by my hotel reception early one morning. "There are some policemen waiting for you in the lobby," the voice said. "Now!" I guessed they thought my visa had expired - and also guessed they didn't realise I had the visa renewed the previous day.

The three men - again, all in leather jackets - were sitting in plastic armchairs. "Passport!" Milosevic's inspector snapped at me, and I meekly handed it over. And I found myself, for a few seconds, standing in front of them. I was their victim, the guilty man. I even, for a millisecond, found myself lowering my head. Then I took a plastic armchair beside them and waited. Much conversation. Much producing of grubby notebooks and pencils (not unlike my own). And then: "Everything seems to be in order - I'm sorry we bothered you." And I heard my own voice - yes, it was definitely mine - replying: "Oh, don't worry Inspector - you've got your job to do!"

It reminded me of the day my Mum and Dad and I got home to Bower Mount Lane in Maidstone and found there'd been a break-in and that some of my Mum's jewellery had been taken and Dad called the police and an inspector eventually arrived - my father was, after all, the borough treasurer and this was 1955 - to take notes. "Very grateful to you," my father finished the conversation - they never found the brooches, of course - "and all I can say is, I wouldn't have your job for all the tea in China."

No indeed, when constabulary duty's to be done, a policeman's lot is not a happy one. They are the voice of our conscience, our own guilt - however honourably maintained that device may be. They are us. Look at Inspector Mohr. Just before Sophie is taken to the guillotine to have her head chopped off, he turns up to bow a goodbye - out of respect and, perhaps, a guilty conscience. But didn't the American who recruited the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie after the war make his excuses by saying that Barbie was "a damned good detective"?

It reminds me of that scene in dozens of movies, referenced even in Cassell's Dictionary of Clichés, a wonderful volume which sits above my desk in Beirut. There is a knock on a middle-class front door and an equally middle-class woman answers. And she says, guiltily: "You'd better come in, Inspector."