As advertising revenues fall and programmes become more expensive to make, television is looking for ways to make programmes without spending much money on them. For years now reality shows have been a feature of telly schedules and certain themes get more airtime than others. Most themes tend to revolve around property ownership or crime. These two things appear to act in concert with each other, particularly inasmuch as they form the backbone of the sort of values the State would like us to adopt while, at the same time, keep us in our place with ‘real life’ images of a nation that is overrun with criminals who lurk behind each and every bush and darkened corner. Brit Cops UK: Zero Tolerance (Bravo, Virgin), for instance, begins with a line to the effect of “Britain’s streets are awash with criminals”. This line must be every curtain-twitcher’s nightmare…or dream come true. The manufacturers and retailers of domestic security products, such as alarms and CCTV, will be rubbing their hands with glee. The mental image of so many frightened customers crossing their thresholds on bank holiday weekends is enough to get them moist with anticipation.
I would argue that programmes like Brit Cops and Road Wars (Sky) do little more than to scare people or to make them more paranoid; paranoid to the point that some viewers will actively spy on their neighbours. Are we developing a fully-fledged security state, I wonder? Will we witness with growth of private citizen’s groups (vigilantes)? Or will the State simply go down the road of East Germany and develop something similar to the Stasi or Romania’s Securitate? On this morning’s Crimewatch Roadshow on BBC1, the local vox pop interviews revealed the usual clichés about today’s Britain: anti-social behaviour, binge drinking and so on. I sat there ticking the boxes. Not one vox pop mentioned anything like murder or corporate frauds which, according to my information, are still pretty serious crimes. But how many of those who cite ‘anti-social behaviour’ as the ‘crime’ they are most afraid of would actually hold their hand up and admit that they were little tearaways and vandals themselves? How many of them asked an older person to buy alcohol for them when they were younger? As for ‘binge drinking’ this has been a common feature of life in the British Isles since time immemorial. You get your money and you piss it up the wall, that’s tradition! None of those interviewed appeared to be scared of crime itself but were exhibiting signs of being frightened of the fear of crime.
There is a universalisation of the notion that there is actually more crime than there is in reality. Road Wars, for example not only features high speed car chases but also focuses on drugs, or rather drug users and their detection and detention. Of those caught on camera in possession of drugs, most of them are either small-time street dealers or users. The users tend to be an unfortunate bunch; they are unhealthy and usually lacking opportunities. When they arrest some small-time dealer, the police are often seen to be crowing on what a ‘result’ they’ve had. I have news for you: a £40 drug bust doesn’t mean you’ve nabbed a ‘Mr Big’ nor does it mean that your efforts have led to a huge decline in drug consumption; there are more dealers waiting to take his/her place. Yet such images do tend to convey the message that the streets are infested with druggies, who need to steal to fund their habits. There is only a partial truth here: not all so-called ‘druggies’ have to steal and some drug addicts are much better at coping with their addictions than others. Yes it is true that many burglaries are committed by long term Class A users but the question that needs to be asked is never asked: if drug prohibition and harsher sentences are supposed to be a deterrent, then why are there so many heroin and cocaine addicts? If drugs were legal it would remove the criminality around drug use. But small-time drug busts are easy meat; a quick collar for any hard-working copper. It gives the impression that there are police are out there on the streets which, if the polls and the politicians are to be believed, is what the public want.
So there are two dimensions to these programmes: they are police public relations exercises and a means of inculcating the myth of fear in the mind of the viewer. Reality crime shows tie in neatly with David Cameron’s idea of ‘Broken Britain’; itself both a myth and the rallying cry of ‘dog whistle’ politics.
As the character Leon says in the Blade Runner before he smashes Deckard in the head, “It’s painful to live in fear”.