Police shows on British television
New police blues

by Gareth Palmer

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 12-18
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006

"The fear of crime and the media's reassurance that something is being done constitute a closed world of threat and reinforcement which imprison the viewer. This truly signals the era of the postmodern spectacle."[1][open notes in new window]

"As a public form documentary has the capacity to survive both post-modern scepticism and the constraints of the audio-visual market."[2]

In this paper I will discuss the new British police documentary series of the nineties best typified by POLICE: CAMERA: ACTION, CRIMEBEAT, and X-CARS. These programs all share the same characteristics in that they are 30-minutes long, are shown during primetime, and depend to a large extent on police footage and/or their cooperation. I see these programs as the logical result of a series of impulses which rightwing governments in Britain since the early 1990s have engineered in broadcasting. In terms of political effect, the shows focus on the crime spectacle to fix identity for a people who are seen to need guidance and instruction in the law's use and power. These programs are about constructing a new citizenship through fear.

I will begin with a discussion of this spectacle's genesis and explore how a climate emerged in which we can "enjoy" the fact of our being surveilled. I will then analyze the live-action crime shows to look at the ways in which they borrow from other television genres to construct and involve the citizen. The spectacle of a criminal's pursuit and capture, and the fixing of identity that takes place in that moment, bring to a head the crisis of representation faced by documentary. I will conclude by suggesting how this crisis might actually point the way to a new future for documentary.

Spectacle is a loaded term very much associated with Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard. But lam not pledging allegiance to these writers and their dystopian visions. I use the term spectacle because I want to investigate ambivalence. The tension and uncertainty experienced when watching performances of law and order speaks to documentary's crisis of meaning. In one sense these images belong to the simulacrum, the surface. They are flashy and exciting spectacles. But these police programs also indicate the persistent signs of life from the public-service documentary tradition. These issues raised by the crime shows remain underdeveloped here but are important nevertheless, in defining the changing role of documentary in the public sphere.

Of all television's forms, documentary would seem most perfectly attuned to the archetypal public-sphere function of providing information for discussion and creating the space for informed and rational argument among the citizenry.

However, recent changes in television's economic and technological bases have underlined how trivialized and simplified the information now circulating in the public sphere has become. If documentaries offer us frameworks for interpreting the world, then to study how documentary forms change may aid our understanding of the genre's mutable place in the public sphere.

The conflict between documentary as mere spectacle and documentary as a force in constructing the public sphere cannot be resolved here. But the tensions between the two aspects of reality-based film and television play like a theme in the background, and they prevent me from asserting anything as old-fashioned and modernist about the genre as certainty.


"It is in the emergence, too, of new institutions of knowledge that we must seek for the mechanism which could enable photography to function, in certain contexts, as a kind of proof…"[3]

The genesis of the crime show spectacle derives from surveillance and from the gaze which informs and inspires disciplinary technology. As Michel Foucault noted, in the shift in the episteme from the classical to the modern age, man emerges for the first time as the subject and object of knowledge.[4] Surveillance became woven into the new "social," disciplines of study, such as psychiatry, medicine and law, which have all sought to create recognizable individuals. Surveillance always accompanies looking for proof, for facts, for evidence. The look, such as the look institutionalized in photography, becomes enshrined in legal discourse and it finds its most obvious expression in the police. In this new age of files, then, disciplinary technology becomes used mainly to create individuals who can be stored, classified, noted and dismissed, or turned into useful and docile subjects.

The nation-state finds ample reasons to use disciplinary technology to control and monitor its subject populations. Foucault has used Jeremy Bentham's panopticon as a metaphor to describe the ways in which power diffuses itself throughout various aspects of our culture, from personal habits to architecture. As Foucault puts it,
"Power in this new type of society, has drained deeply into the gestures, actions, discourses and practical knowledge of everyday lives."[5]

As a general social condition of our lives, we are being watched and, knowing this, we watch ourselves. The police are "out there" and "in here" too.

The state has uses for the knowledge this surveillance yields. The commercial sector's use of surveillance has gone hand-in-hand with the operations of state. The first policemen were hired by rich merchants to guard their dockside properties at night. Commercial forces were the first to use surveillance such as CCTV (Closed Circuit Television). From the 18th century port to the modern shopping mall there is a direct connection. Commercial webs of surveillance overlay those operated by the state. Both very powerful sectors of society share a concern for the maintenance of law and order.

Those legally charged with the operation and maintenance of surveillance are the police.

"It was the police which installed the new power-nexus in the very heart of working class life, extending the emerging techniques of observation-domination beyond the walls of the new disciplinary and reformatory institutions such as prisons and penitentiaries."[6]

The British have learnt a relatively safe, comforting image of the police. DIXON OF DOCK GREEN, first broadcast in the 50s, remained for over twenty years a stable image of the caring but firm British bobby at the centre of community life. To gently counteract this idealized image were police drama series with a documentary feel such as Z-CARS in the 60s, THE SWEENEY in the 70s, and THE BILL in the 80s and 90s, all of which gave the police force a new realism, yet still stressed the abiding virtues of tolerance and sometimes grudging respect for the law. Paralleling these dramas was a documentary tradition which explored the often tedious reality of police work but which may have also served to humanize and complicate our understanding of the police. (The work of Roger Graef stands as the best example of this). However, this uneasy consensus was shattered in the mid-80s. In Britain, the Miner's Strike of 1983/84 became a turning point. Television now regularly showed the police in a quasi-military role battling striking workers. As one policeman wrote,

"Even for viewers with pro-police sympathies it was a disturbing sight."[7]

At the same time, the public widely perceived they had lost the presence of the community policeman on the beat.

Discussions within the police have always focused on how the police balance care with control; the new industrial strife of the 80s revealed the difficulties of transplanting care onto control.[8] Extensive analysis of public opinion conducted by the police themselves concluded that they had to do much work to improve their image. A report by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) revealed

"a decline in the overall level of confidence in the police…(and)…pinpointed a mismatch in police-public expectations about the role of policing: the police valued law enforcement and crime control with all the technological implications, while the public preferred a community policing style of operation."[9]

There were three responses to this: an increase in deploying surveillance technology, an attempt to get back to community policing, and the forging of new relations with the media. These three measures should inform our understanding of the climate in which new, reality-based police shows "work."

As long as the police can win the media through programs like CRIMEWATCH UK, their control of the news flow is guaranteed. In other words they have a vested interest in maintaining the fear of crime, as does every neoconservative politician who needs to swing an alienated electorate behind punitive and retributive political measures.[10]

CCTV (closed circuit television) has become the most popular tool of surveillance and an important part of the modern urban landscape. These ubiquitous cameras work like the ghosts of Dziga-Vertov, capturing everything unthinkingly. These technologies have remarkable capabilities. For example, there are satellite systems which can track the individual and recognize 10 cm. details from 250 miles above the earth, ultrasensitive bugging systems, and cameras which can use light to "see" through walls.[11] All of this is available, relatively cheap, unlicensed, and open to abuse.

Although some countries have debated and protested against this intrusive technology, Britain has seen little debate. Any discussion that has taken place has been in the pages of the "quality" broadsheets such as The Observer, The Guardian and The Independent, which state that the police's increased surveillance capabilities erode the individual's civil liberties. Academics' silence is more difficult to explain. Perhaps they assume that such technologies prevent crime. But perhaps the cul-de-sac of postmodernism has licensed them to turn away from anything as messy as civil liberties. This academic silence has resulted in a perhaps unintended collusion with the authorities, enabling such issues as civil liberties to be dismissed as old hat.

Whilst media studies is always aware of the debate about the social construction of news and reality, and the persuasiveness of mass media, it has avoided the theoretically messy problem of analyzing representations of crime because it brings to the fore that relation of image to reality (or referent) that it is now impolite to mention in post-modern circles.[12]

A telling example of this silence occurred in the UK early in 1996 with the introduction of the Police Bill. The Bill was a culmination of a series of measures which have radically increased the British police's power to "bug" and survey the public. Legislative measures such as the Interception of Communications Act of 1985 and the Security Service Act of 1989 have gradually wrested control from the judiciary and placed it in the hands of the police. By 1994 the security service had the power to "support the police and other law enforcement agencies in the prevention and detection of serious crime." The 1996 Act would have enabled the police to "enter, search and remove things from a private home" with "a warrant that is not signed by a judge or a magistrate but by the Home Secretary or someone to whom that power is delegated."[13] A few journalists such as Hugo Young and the House of Lords forced a series of amendments but the official Labour opposition provided little or no resistance to the Act. In August 1996, a new version of the Act went through Parliament. The police's powers further to increase the level of surveillance into our lives had greatly increased.

The final set of factors to discuss when contemplating the creation of this climate is the new broadcasting ecology. The 80s and 90s saw a period of massive change in media institutions. I do not have space to survey all of these changes but will briefly mention a few of the factors that have informed programming before taking a closer look at the new police documentaries themselves.

Changes that the Tory Party had been set on making in the mass media since the late 1970s culminated in the Broadcasting Act of 1990. The conservatives' mission, which finds expression in the Act, was to introduce the market into television. They aimed to break up the comfortable duopoly between the BBC and ITV and sought to displace those BBC "leftists," who they believed misrepresented the Tory government's achievements. The 1990 Broadcasting Act would introduce the more "natural" function of the market economy into the BBC, where innovations such as "producer choice" enabled or rather forced producers to seek out the cheapest possible means of making their programs. The BBC had to ensure that 25% of its productions were commissioned from outside the organization. ITV franchises went at auction to the highest bidder. Yet a typically botched add-on proviso in the Act concerned quality, which led to a plethora of lawsuits from defeated applicants. These changes led to a radically new climate in broadcasting which destroyed all the old certainties and introduced new cost-control measures which many in the industry felt were antithetical to creative work.

"The relative autonomy from the relations of the market afforded by the state's use of law and the body of practice built up around public service broadcasting — the insistence that broadcasting should be run as a public service, with no advertising or carefully regulated advertising and positive program obligations'-has been eroded."[14]

Furthermore, television's internationalization has implications for program style. For programs to make economic sense — the dominant sense of our era — they have to have worldwide marketability. This may be one reason to create spectacles of action around simplistic pictures of law and order. Also, these new police documentaries appeal to producers as being relatively cheap and easy to compile, especially since the police are increasingly keen to lend a hand. Shifts in the broadcasting ecology also mean that producers work under different constraints. For example, short-term contracts unsettle researchers, who have as a main priority holding on to what little work they get. Thus we get a more timid style of television, frightened of offending anyone but determined to aim for the highest ratings via the most sensational route.[15]

Such shifts in government policy have to be taken into account. Trans-global media operators find themselves increasingly comfortable environment, but market shifts which such mediamaking entails also shift the place of public service. Not only do public service producers have to compete with external and internal markets, they also have to please those in authority who give them license to broadcast. Given such conditions, we can explain why it is that new police documentaries emerged in the 90s as a form of cost-cutting, free market enterprise perfectly in tune with government thinking on the market and the value of the law.


A closer look at the programs themselves demonstrates the ways in which many disparate strands of television are pulled together to make law and order exciting and relevant. The unacknowledged target of these messages and the objects to be constructed are the citizen and the community.

The scheduling makes clear that a family audience is sought. POLICE: CAMERA: ACTION, X-CARS and CRIMEBEAT are all broadcast between 8 and 9 p.m. — right in the heart of our 7-10 p.m. primetime. Without entirely embracing Raymond William's notion of televisual flow, we can see that the programs have distinctive stylistic similarities which help them to fit in to an evening's entertainment.

The subjects chosen are those suited to what Schlesinger and Tumber calls television's visual imperative

"harnessed both to the needs of policing and the journalistic value of offering verisimilitude to the audience."[16]

As a result we see burglaries, car chases, fights and other amusing law-breaking all "caught on camera." What effect this might have on public perceptions of crime is unknown, but we do know that such programming "in the public interest" creates fear of crime in some groups. Given that most people rarely encounter the police in crime-related incidents and that only 40% have any contact with the police in a twelve-month period, exciting technologically-driven television programs about the police cannot help but inform people's perception of law enforcement agents as controllers rather than carers.[17] That is to say, the shows depict the police as actively controlling community boundaries more than caring for the individuals within a community.

These programs have very dramatic openings, borrowing from both documentary and drama. The music is exciting, pulling us into the show. The images are shocking. And the voice is calm, but unforgiving and clear in purpose. On occasion, we are also offered symbols like scales to drive home the point that this show will present the law as an unwavering ideal as well as an active force in and for the community. Often graphics and stills from scenes combine to create a very powerful opening. In these opening seconds it is clear we are to be offered vicarious excitement wedded to a moral lesson. The shows' blurring of documentary and drama's genre boundaries makes sense in the hunt for ratings but also offers only a sensational view of what police work is all about. High ratings indicate that we as an audience find this combination appealing.[18]

The manner in which we are addressed is important, for sometimes mixed modes of address make our position uncertain. In all three of the shows under discussion, an anchor/presenter addresses the viewer at the beginning. This underscores the clarity of purpose and focus. He (it is almost always a he, and that also speaks to the care/control divide mentioned earlier) is our narrator; he guides us through the unfolding drama. We are never directly addressed by the police. Police narrating would risk threatening the illusion of independence that the program needs if we are to accept it as the work of broadcast professionals with their own code, ethos, etc. and not as straightforward police propaganda.

However, we do get close to the police. We are there in the car or up alongside them as they burst into the building or chase the suspect. We are viewing and judging their performance, and of course, they work very effectively in front of the camera. We are addressed here implicitly as citizens. We are both behind the wheel with the police and, potentially, out there in view of the cameras. This split is crucial. It creates a lesson in law abiding and it lends excitement to the show. In short, "Oh, that could have been me. I was speeding on that street. There, but for the Grace of God, go I." We never lose the guiding voice of the narrator; he pulls us into the drama and explicitly reminds us of our duty. Our new understanding of dangerous police work, built up by the rest of the program, speaks to us implicitly. Our citizenship is being built on "necessary" fear.

In this light, the narrator plays a special role. In Britain it is fast becoming a tradition for our national news anchors to front these crime programs. Martyn Lewis fronts CRIMEBEAT and X-CARS while Alisdair Stewart hosts POLICE: CAMERA: ACTION. We can see why the newscasters serve a useful purpose from a producer's point of view-as instantly recognizable figures. But also when an anchor like Martyn Lewis fronts a documentary series about car crime, he lends his news persona to the program as a symbol of authority. Furthermore, newsreaders, as we understand them, are calm figures making reasoned pronouncements. Their self-presentation symbolizes the distance and objectivity of the rational. Their calm seriousness serves as a kind of balance in news broadcasts. If we transfer this weight carried by the newscaster to the crime show, then the crime show gains prestige; and figure of the newcaster/ narrator provides a symbol of balance, a balance usually missing from the program's editorializing, scripting and visual presentation.

In Policing the Crisis the writers describe news frameworks and how those keep certain deviant images circulating as part of society's "taken-for-granted knowledge":

"Here again by stressing the continuity and stability of the social structure, and by asserting the existence of commonly shared set of assumptions, the definitions of the situation coincide with and reinforce essential consensual notions."[19]

Both the situations that make the news and that comprise police documentaries' real-life drama depend upon the same kind of definitions. What differs is the type of performance. It should be stressed that when newsreaders perform in crime dramas, they do so with a rare passion, as if released from their staid newscaster roles. They now take on a dual function, as authority figures and as citizens "on location," removed from the studio's cold, restrictive confines, and onto the streets. Lewis and Burnett, for example, now speak with a passion they must control while on the news. We "never knew they felt that way" until now when they act like they share our outrage. This shift in performance style from newscaster to emotional crime-show narrator works effectively on us. Our reaction is "extratextual" as we respond to the calm, logical newsreader who later becomes incensed at "mindless" lawbreaking in the crime show; we remain aware of the gap between the calm newsreader we saw at 6 p.m. and the citizen "released" to speak as one of us at 8 p.m..

The crime series also incorporate language which has a role to play in persuading the us. The patois of the underworld easily seduces television viewers with its exoticism. Here, principally middle-class voices attempt to use some of this rare argot, which then adds a note of documentary-style authenticity to the piece. Police drama serials such the thrice-weekly, half-hour, primetime THE BILL boast a high dependence on documentary realism. To gain that "realism," producers of THE BILL

"emphasize the research incorporated into it, and the deliberate immersion of its writers, actors and creative personnel in the world of real policing, with attachments to real police stations and the like."[20]

In such ways, boundaries between factual and fictional representations become blurred.

Broadcasters also use police language as evidence of the writers' familiarity with the law profession's codes. Trade jargon is deployed significantly. Beyond describing police operations, it is taken on in an effort to share the excitement of the hunt for wrongdoers. In these new documentaries the broadcasters deploy working policemen's jargon to conjure up the underworld's excitement and police formality. So policemen wait in the "ARV" to go to "Level Two" and "Code Green" before the "ops" begin.

Reconstructions combine dramatic and authentic worlds and constitute a small but expensive part of new police documentaries such as CRIMEBEAT. Over fifty years ago, the police started the idea of Reconstruction with the aim of jogging the collective mind of the community in which the crime took place. Nowadays a television reconstruction demands considerable resources and talent. Is it churlish or cynical to suggest that to reconstruct dramatically a crime committed in, say, Colchester would hardly jog anyone's memory living outside Colchester? Of course, if this criminal is "on the run," then you only need a "video-fit" (an electronic form of the wanted poster) to aid recognition, not an expensive reconstruction. Reconstructions result in docudramas on the cheap, but missing the docudrama's editorial responsibility. They blur boundaries seemingly "in the public interest."

The stars are the police themselves. Significantly, when viewers see the police playing and sometimes narrating themselves in episodes depicting the successful capture of criminals, the crime show offers the viewers strong reasons to be grateful for the police force's vigilance. In these new documentaries the police play three interrelated roles that serve to glamorize them and reintegrate them into the public. They play the role of public servants into whose life we are offered a documentary insight. They perform as action-heroes with nicknames and wisecracks, involved in real-life dramas to which they respond with brio and verve. But they also perform to the camera as citizens recalling their experiences, commenting, as it were, about their performances. It is in this new function that they join us as part of a watching community, vigilantly aware of that dangerous "other," the criminal. And, like us, they also watch themselves on television.

The new documentaries most up-to-date and "authentic" signifier is grainy, jerky, surveillance footage. Such imagery has several televisual antecedents, the oldest perhaps being CANDID CAMERA. Parallel to this now in Britain, so-called "docu-soaps" follow people as they learn how to drive, get a new job, etc.. These images come from self-filmed or discreetly shot video footage. Our consciousness of this technology operating around us informs our ambivalence when watching law and order programs. Evidence of that public awareness and ambivalence about the many uses of video technology has slowly emerged in television, where the programming shows evidence of a surveilled community taking part in its own image capture. From the revelatory insights of VIDEO DIARIES to the clipped eccentricity of VIDEO NATION, from the "hilarious" revelations of pranksters on BEADLE'S ABOUT to the trials and tribulations of Maureen learning to drive in DRIVING SCHOOL, many different levels of the social strata present themselves to the viewer through a surveillance mechanism, especially through the apparently artless form of camcorder video. This bumpy, ragged image seems legitimate, both because of its similarity to camcorder footage elsewhere in television and in contradistinction to the more polished drama around it in the programming spectrum. Its roughness then doubly authenticates it, makes it extraordinarily "real." In this context police agents' revelations serve to normalize them. They come across not as agents of the state with a massively enhanced power to intrude into our lives but as dedicated public servants simply doing a difficult, dangerous job.

When crime shows can wed jagged, raw images to narratives with a very clear moral message, then the genre provides us with a frisson of the real, which also connects to our changing experience of citizenship in the fragmented urban landscape. In POLICE: CAMERA: ACTION we are treated to police surveillance footage showing a series of car chases, the vast majority of which end in capture. The idea for this program originated with the police. One police authority in the north of England (Kings Lynn) compiled a collection of many crimes "caught on camera" and sold them to the public. (Most of the people filmed could be identified. It is less clear whether they were asked permission.) In the professional version which goes out on ITV prime time, the newsreader/ narrator Alisdair Stewart makes the message clear: "Drive Safely." The speed of the chasing police vehicle underlines the danger, while music and on-screen commentary from the police help build the excitement. But where does the show locate the view, us citizens? Metonyms of us are seen as the car chase goes speeding by. We simultaneously occupy the position of there and here, a public watched and watching. Only at the moment of capture — the spectacle's main focus — does our identity and with it our roles as responsible citizens become clear. In the surveillance image we all reside as phantoms awaiting determination by the power of the law.

These documentaries create a spurious, momentary identity for watchers and watched. What happens in the moment of capture is that we are all pulled together — amidst this vagueness that we live in, this imprecision, this indeterminacy, this inevitable fragmentation of identity, this quintessentially rootless schizophrenic zeitgeist. We are the audience — safe, warm, sofa-bound and innocent. The criminal is guilty. It's that simple.

"…crime is the great unifier in making everyone a victim and all viewers equal in their potential victimness."[21]

The victim has a long tradition in documentary, and more than a few critics have aggressively protested the tendency in social documentary to turn "ordinary people" into victims. But programs such as CRIMEBEAT do away with much spectatorial ambiguity about victimization, because these people "really are" victims to whom we are drawn and sympathetic. The awkward yet faithful reconstructions helps viewers to bond with victims, thus delivering a level of identification which fiction producers can only dream of. The close ups here do not seem emotionally exploitative but seem simply to record real emotion so that we the watching community might feel it, too.

Neither public service journalism nor documentary has as an ethos to present only one "side." In these crime shows, however, the only case ever presented to us is that of the prosecution. The criminal has no chance to speak: s/he is the banished, deserving victim of tough law and order. (Surveillance images and programs also create accidental victims — people whose image the camera reveals, yet who are innocent. This is another subject awaiting development.)

These crime shows' stories take the form they do because narrative itself is simple. The new police documentaries adopt dramatic narrative strategies that encourage viewers' involvement. And, as all parents know, narratives are good for conveying a moral lesson. Narratives start and end. They focus, they clarify, and they leave out the wealth of detail that gets in the way of a clear-sighted vision. These programs then function as folk tales for an immoral age. In an uncertain world where our very identity risks continual fragmentation, these programs pull us together and grant us the identity of the innocent. They also elide racism and morality in the way that the shows help us define crime. "The look" carried and conveyed by disciplinary technology seems written into people's skin. Viewers become the camera operators, the new police.

In brief, these programs serve the needs of police, who are seen doing their job very well, and of broadcasters, who are seen fulfilling television's public service function and garnering high ratings. As a by-product, the programs may further legitimize the increasing deployment of surveillance technologies useful to the state. This has not occurred because of an old-fashioned conspiracy theory but as a happy meeting of professionals who find their aims merging as they attempt to re-connect with a lost public.


The programs discussed above offer us identities which are useful to the state, that allow of no ambiguity, and that work to unite us against the criminal. They do not ask us to think or reflect, just to react. In such ways, the crime show would fashion us, the audience, into useful citizens.

But my comments are rooted in an old-fashioned belief in public service and broadcasters' responsibility. I believe television still has a function. In Britain, the 200-channel future is just a few months away, and the concerns of socially responsible media academics may become not only outdated but irrelevant. Am I offering here a prescription for a vanishing historical epoch or an utopia in which television contributes to the creation of public sense?

Perhaps we could return to the themes of spectatorship and citizenship played by Debord and Baudrillard, on one side, and John Reith and John Grierson, on the other, in trying to calculate how documentary could proceed. With the advent of new video technologies empowering audiences and the development of community-cable stations documentary has the opportunity to redefine itself as the voice of the individual or group. Citizenship here is thus redefined from below. As people discover a new sense of themselves, the top-down definitions of mass citizenship that have informed mainstream documentary are increasingly seen as invalid. But this increased awareness should not be an excuse to abandon those documentary subjects that seek to inform us of issues which still affect us as nation and community. The introduction of market-driven imperatives into all sectors of television has meant that series such as WORLD IN ACTION face funding crises unless they follow those subjects with the greatest audience appeal. These programs are often titillating and amusing but work to ignore and thus diminish any sense of community or citizenship

The meaning of documentary is changing. I think it is possible to celebrate this change. As Brian Winston and others have argued, it is time we abandoned the tenuous claims and prescripts of Grierson and allowed documentary to speak in new languages. The work of the new video pirates, and that of the unrestricted cable users both represent efforts to seize the moment and to create something that doesn't fit, that is not easily recuperated and offers a challenge both to the viewers and to traditional forms. Out of documentary's abandoning of the real might come work which fosters a new citizenship based on a new conception of the public sphere which is simultaneously wider and more specific than the old elitist prescriptions. It will be an uphill struggle:

"Giant corporations enter the public sphere and transform individuals from citizens and discussants of political and cultural events to culture-consuming spectators of political and media spectacles…new media come to assume tremendous power in the realm of the public sphere."[22]

An example of television documentary's potential freedom is the BBC's VIDEO DIARIES. On the surface, the series appears to offer something of a challenge to television's hierarchy. The format, designed by the BBC's Community Programming Unit, aims to give ordinary members of the public the right to tell their own stories. The BBC receives approximately six applications a day from the public although only a handful of diaries are made every year. The shooting ratio for the program is high — 180:1. The DIARIES might depict a coming-out story or one of political struggle or merely a homecoming. Whatever the subject matter, each program's editing takes place with the diarists' assistance and full approval.

At first the very idea of "arming" the viewer with a camcorder suggests aggression and an oppositional potential. Yet VIDEO DIARIES remains tied to a liberal humanist discourse on becoming, on the belief that identity is a fixed, discoverable thing. Due to a variety of factors — the BBC's training methods, its editors' inclinations, the hunt for good ratings (even on BBC 2) — the diaries often look and sound surprisingly similar. The Diarists, in effect, reproduce the forms used by mainstream documentarists and end up speaking in a film/video language fast becoming redundant.

The new police documentaries analyzed above are the end of the line, documentary as a mocking shadow of itself, its whole purpose to rearticulate the needs of the law. These shows serve as entertainment rather than present a challenge or help audiences work through, say, the complexities of police-community relations. All that these programs foster in viewers is a spurious identity based on fear. Watching these shows, we become a community of shadows constructed in dirty light, watching others and bound only by the potential to be guilty.

Documentary practitioners have to adopt new strategies to reinvent the form and undermine its old dependence on documentary realism. At the moment the form is vaguely understood to be related to the operations of the State. The BBC's relationship with the government means that a dynamic tension exists between the two parties where one literally gives license to the other permitting them to say this or that. Some recent cases (Carlton's allegedly fraudulent interviews with drug dealers) have served to further shake the public's faith with independent television. These are the symptoms of old systems trying to survive in a new uncertain climate. And yet the larger issues which unite us as nation, as community, still need to be addressed by television in order to create a new and useful citizenship allowing "full and equal participation in the social order."[23] The ideal solution would be the fostering of a television system which both allows individuals to express themselves in new and diverse program forms and increased public funding and legislative support for documentaries which seek to address those fundamentally political issues that are central to our changing sense of citizenship.

But just how tall an order is this in the late 1990s?


1. Kidd-Hewitt, David, "Crime and the Media: A Criminological Perspective" in Crime and the Media: The Post-Modern Spectacle. Eds. Kidd-Hewitt, D. and Osbourne, Richard (London: Pluto Press, 1995), p. 21.

2. Corner, John. The Art of Record (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), p. 190.

3. Tagg, John. "Power and Photography: A Means of Surveillance" in Culture, Ideology and Social Process. Eds. Bennett, Tony; Martin, Graham; Mercer, Cohn; and Woollacott, Janet (London: Batsford Academic, 1981), p.285.

4. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. (London: Penguin, 1991).

5. ibid. p. 288.

6. ibid, p. 291.

7. Graef, Roger. Talking Blues. (London: Collins/Harvill, 1989), p. 72.

8. Bennett, Tony. "Recent Developments in Community Policing" in Police Force/Police Service: Care and Control in Britain. Eds. Stephens, M. and Becker, S. (London: Macmillan, 1994), p. 125.

9. ibid. p. 224.

10. Osbourne, Richard. "Crime and the Media" in Crime and the Media: The Post-Modern Spectacle.

11. Davies, Simon. Big Brother (London: Macmillan, 1995), p. 152.

12. Osbourne, p.26.

13. Gearty, Comer and Ewing, Keith, "History of a Dog's Dinner: The Police Bill," London Review of Books. Feb. 6, 1977, pp. 7-10.

14. O'Malley, Tom, Closedown? The BBC and Government Broadcasting Policy, 1979-92 (London: Pluto Press, 1994), p. 178.

15. Kilborn, Richard, "The New Production Context for Documentary in Britain," Media, Culture and Society, 18:1.

16. Schlesinger, Philip and Tumber, Howard, Reporting Crime: The Media Politics of Criminal Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 252.

17. M. Stephens and S. Becker, "The Matrix of Care and Control," Police Force/Police Service, p. 224.

18. Ratings for POLICE: CAMERA: ACTION derived from Broadcast magazinefor 1998 season, April 1998.

19. Hall, Stuart; Critcher, Charles; Jefferson Tony; Clarke, John; and Roberts, Brian, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978).

20. Reiner, Rob. "The Changing Image of the TV Cop" in Stephens and Becker, p.21.

21. Osbourne, R., p.27

22. Best, Steve and Kellner, Douglas, Postmodern Theory (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 295/6.

23. Golding, Peter, "Political Communication and Citizenship: The Media and Democracy in an Inegalitarian Social Order" in Public Communication: The New Imperatives, Ed. Marjorie Ferguson (London: Sage. 1990), p. 98.