Real cops never had it so good

Why would the police want to spoil their reputation with accuracy? asks David Aaronovitch
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There's nothing that TV drama producers enjoy more than a little persecution. To be pressurised by the authorities, or criticised by the establishment, lends a real cachet to one's work. One becomes a "dangerous" or a "controversial" artist, rather than a plodding journeyman in the world of mass entertainment.

So it isn't so surprising that an innocuous internal Home Office document, suggesting that the police might be a little more agile in selling their successes to the public, has been received by some producers as though they were actors in a remake of Darkness at Noon. "Preposterous", thundered Gub Neal of Cracker fame, upon hearing that a guide was to be prepared for people such as he to (as the document puts it) "ensure that such programmes are factually accurate and to give contact points for briefing and queries". Anonymous producers apparently vowed to resist Home Office guidelines, doubtless thrilled by the prospect of being carted away to some damp compound in the Mendips, unused since the last war, with even one's mobile phone confiscated.

It's all nonsense of course, as the long-suffering Home Office press officer, Rob Smith, wearily explained to me. In a long document about how to tell the "good news" about crime and detection to the punters, there had been one paragraph mentioning TV drama, suggesting that it be made easier for producers with queries (like what kind of food is served in police canteens, or whether chief constables keep booze in their offices) to discover the truth from the people who know.

I see (I said), it's just facts you're interested in. Not propaganda? Perish the thought, said Rob. We just want people to know about how we're beating crime, to give information about our successes and thus to "dissuade criminals" from their activities.

Er, so it is propaganda then, I said. You want to sell a line calculated both to reassure the public and to suggest to lawbreakers that crime doesn't pay. That's why you concentrate on good news stories. If the stories were bad, you wouldn't tell us, partially because (according to your logic) thieves, muggers and burglars would all feel emboldened.

Rob sighed. "You're reading too much into this," he replied. "Crime is falling. End of story. We want to inform the public as to what the situation is and who is responsible for it." (Michael Howard has, of course, already told everyone that he is. But I didn't say this). "We're just talking about facts".

And he's got a point. TV cop drama is grossly inaccurate. There really is no resemblance between it and any character or situation, living or dead. Consider the shows that litter our schedules: Morse, Wexford, Backup, Touch of Frost, and so on. When did David Jason last harass some poor bloody motorist for driving two yards in a bus lane, forcing him to produce his documents at a run-down police station, manned only by an absent-minded teenager? When have Morse's men ever mown down a pedestrian in a siren- wailing paddy-wagon on their way to get a take-out at the Win Wah? Never, that's when.

And it is incredible that there is any crime in this country, given the low state of criminal morale that must be occasioned by watching these shows. Last night saw the debut of Carlton's Thieftakers. Every single criminal featured in it was caught, the really bad guy was killed (it was his own fault, of course) and all the money was recovered. Oh, and the police had lots of sex - but that happens in hospital dramas, too. For Taggart to be accurate the programme's 100 per cent clear-up rate should be nearer the Scottish norm of just over a third.

I put this to one of our leading cop dramatists, Michael Chapman, executive producer of The Bill. "I don't know what clear-up rates are," he admitted, "but I'm sure that Sun Hill's are an improvement on the real ones." But why doesn't he give the public the truth, as Rob Smith would like? "Because I wouldn't have an audience. People expect our stories to be positive and conclusive. Crime, investigation and capture - and all in 24 minutes and 30 seconds."

But doesn't this mean that all his officers are more effective, more powerful somehow than their real counterparts? "Yes. When we cast an episode, or appoint a regular, we're looking for qualities of personality and charisma that ring the bell. I'm not sure that all 28,000 members of the Metropolitan Police possess these qualities." And it works for Mr Chapman - 15 million viewers tuned in for last Friday's instalment of The Bill, watching infallible coppers collar doomed wrongdoers.

The truth is that, with the rare exception of series like Between The Lines (which focused on fictional corruption), the police get a very good ride out of TV drama, and would suffer badly if more verisimilitude were used. Like vets and country doctors (to whom TV policemen seem often to be married) they are marked out for hero status.

Other professions are not so lucky. A couple of years ago the NHS briefly ran its own "good news" unit, to counter the impression of a crumbling service as depicted in Casualty and Cardiac Arrest. It failed, as it was bound to do. Not just because its bald statistics contradicted real experience - that was relatively unimportant. The problem was that the rules of drama require conflict and context. Pitting noble nurses against uncaring bureaucrats was a theme that allowed real dramatic tension to unfold alongside the medical story. Given that many illnesses and accidents look much the same, the internal drama of the crisis-ridden institution allowed similar story lines to look different. Viewers enjoyed the stories and tuned in - the Department of Health's press releases were binned.

After all, if drama were accurate, how many bare-breasted gorgeous female MPs would drape themselves over foreign secretaries? How many tarts would turn out inevitably to have hearts, or (worst of all) how many journalists would be drunken, lazy, unscrupulous and sexually incompetent? Not many, I'd say.