Titillating television, or the drab, painful reality of crime and punishment?

September 17, 2010
The Wire is good quality, enjoyable drama. But the medium dictates a complexity and forethought of action and motivations on the

In 1992, Michael Franti from The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy warned that television was “the drug of the nation, breeding ignorance and feeding radiation”. Almost two decades later, the addiction and the ignorance are accepted as the norm.

Anyone who questions the authenticity of how crime is depicted on television must be an extreme sceptic who spends way too much time online, questions the material reality of the world and thinks The Matrix is a documentary.

The free press, as an unrealised American ideal, is supposed to be a critical filter, but the lines between information and entertainment are blurred. Human suffering is exploited for profit and to further vested commercial and political interests. Journalists specialising in crime have become television script writers and are now a part of the story they report.

The representation in the mass media of crime, punishment, law and justice is hollow, stereotyped, highly stylised music video-like entertainment. Fearmongering and morbid fascination compels us to watch. At its worst, however, it is propaganda or an incitement to crime and violence against certain other “deserving” victims, like prisoners.

In the mid 1990s, while the Victoria Police were disbanding the Armed Robbery Squad (and its successor, the Major Crime Squad) — after making enormous efforts to change its culture — the ABC screened Phoenix, 12 hours of award winning drama lauded for its realism.

Phoenix dramatically ended each series, with a sub-plot that portrayed Police Force Command as soft-cock bleeding hearts more concerned with the rights of criminals than with the dangerous job that members of the disbanded squads were doing to keep the streets safe.

The streets, however, were not that safe, especially if you were a person with an untreated mental illness. Victoria Police shot and killed three dozen people over a decade. And the culture of corruption, brutality and criminality could not be stamped out.

The latest successor to the disbanded squads, the Armed Offenders Squad needed, in its turn, to be disbanded, after the anti-corruption watchdog filmed its members bashing confessions out of suspects while saying: “We are the Armed fucking Robbery Squad.”

This time around it was not the ABC making the excuses, but Channel 9 with Underbelly. One man’s commercially vested view is showcased in Underbelly, and he never stops telling us that “it is a jungle out there”. But remember to return to Michael Franti’s prophecy about the corrupting commercialism of television.

That the pain and suffering of victims of crime can be entertainment is a disgrace. Imagine a person who has lost a loved one to violent crime passing a television or channel surfing. They catch an overhyped music-video-like promo for the next episode which focuses on the brutal murder of their loved one — gripping realism for them, no doubt.

I have only seen one television program that I felt accurately depicted serious crime and policing issues. That was The Shield. The attitudes, actions and the way in which the situations chaotically develop, seem to me to accurate depictions of the reality of disorganised crime and the police response.

Imprisonment is the other side of crime. People who survive in prison have a vested interest in toughness. Prisoners do not want to be seen as potential victims, and male prisoners do not want their masculinity questioned after release. A society that punishes by imprisonment has a vested interest in prison being a fearful place.

However, despite the occasional incident, the physical and sexual violence depicted in programs like Oz is generally not known in Australia (and I wonder if it is bad as it is made out in US prisons).

In the dominance hierarchy of those who run the prison system, with their rank structure and paramilitary dress, the need for toughness is a universal message that is adopted and projected as a front by everyone on the inside.

The Wire is good quality, enjoyable drama. But the medium dictates a complexity and forethought of action and motivations on the part of all the characters which is far from reality.

The unreality, however, does not end with crime and punishment on television. The intelligent, moral, good people of President Jeb Bartlett’s White House (The West Wing) was nothing like the venal reality exposed in Oliver Stone’s W about the George W. Bush White House.

The “CSI effect” that judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers worry about is having a negative effect on the criminal justice system. The expectations of juries are not met by the low-tech, bad lighting and bad hairstyles, which are the realities of the criminal justice system.

Some of it is just a bad joke, but there are some things that are too much for me to take — so I have not, and am not going to, watch the film, hear the soundtrack or buy the books.

And I urge others not to fall under the spell (or is it “the belly”) of the hypnotic colour, movement and sound divorced from the drab and painful reality of crime and punishment.

[Craig Minogue has been inside the drab, painful reality of the criminal justice system since 1986.]

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