Media on Mars 

1 June 2007 tbs.pm/2153

The inspiration for this article came from an episode of Life on Mars.

For those who haven’t seen it, the plot revolves around Sam Tyler, a cop who had an accident and wakes up to find himself back in 1973. This particular episode concerned Irish terrorism. A bomb warning is received, and in the days before al Qaeda there is of course only one suspect. The local employer of Irish immigrants seems an obvious place to look for the “Paddy” who is doubtless responsible. Prevailing attitudes in these days tolerated the “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” signs gracing the facades of guest-houses. Like a re-run on BBC 7 of some old Home Service comedy, the dialogue and acting reflected long-out-of-date social norms.

One of the devices used in Life on Mars is the various means by which Sam is able occasionally to communicate with the twenty-first century. For example, he’s got the television on during the day, no doubt waiting for the first programme. All of a sudden, Carole, the girl in Test Card F, is talking to him. This, and faux retro continuity add to the sense of being back in time. Apart from such trivia of interest to pres geeks, Life on Mars offers a fascinating look back to another world.

It’s actually quite an apt name. For those of us who, like Sam, recall with distaste the reports of police brutality and miscarriages of justice, activities that were part-and-parcel of the hard-drinking, hard-smoking era in which the police kept order using more rough-and-ready methods than the yet-to-be-introduced Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) would allow, the 1970s—when dinosaurs walked the earth—may as well be life on Mars.

Peter Hitchens, in his book The Abolition of Liberty: The Decline of Order and Justice in England, argues that PACE, with its reams of regulations, procedures and rules of evidence, hamstrings the police, makes a mockery out of law-abiding citizens faced with the ne’er-do-well, and is a licence for the wrongdoer, aided by his bent solicitors, to get away scot-free. In previous years, he continues, the police may have had a rather crude approach to keeping order, but preserve order they did, in the process keeping the streets clean and respecting the respectable of all classes.

I have a lot of time for many – but by no means all – of Mr Hitchens’ arguments, such as the return of preventative policing as typified by the bobby on the beat, but Life on Mars is enough both to highlight the ugly side of the halcyon days of the 1960s and 70s and to demonstrate once again, as if such evidence were needed, that reforms to the police were required. The Confait case helped ensure that PACE got on the statute book, and high-profile cases such as the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, et al reinforced the need for proper rules of evidence. I don’t know how typical Life on Mars is of police procedures as practiced day to day, or of social attitudes in general, but the blatant anti-Irish prejudices, macho posturing, assumptions that a dog once given a bad name should be hanged almost without the formality of a trial, and a tendency to view anyone showing concern with bad practice as a wimpish, bleeding-heart liberal are all facets of the police that, one hopes, are, if not gone for ever, then at least suppressed within the lower echelons of the rank and file, and voiced apologetically, if at all.

Although Mr Hitchens might demur, some areas have improved, and dramatically. Public, and official, attitudes, to homosexuality and soft drugs are far more relaxed now. That your work colleague shared a spliff with his boyfriend last night is now so passé as to pass almost without comment, and not before time too. People have far more freedom for self-expression; the internet provides hitherto unheard-of opportunities for social networking; the economy is on a stable footing. Industrial relations are more harmonious; the closed shop and wildcat strikes are things of the past; and unemployment is steady at an acceptably low level.

It’s all too easy to entertain an almost Shangri-La view of the distant past. Programmes such as Life on Mars provide a welcome antidote. This isn’t, of course, to say that everything is rosy now; far from it. The decision to abandon the teaching of grammar – a subject close to my own heart – in schools was ludicrous and the consequences are now clear to see for anyone who encounters others’ efforts with the written and printed word. Respect for one’s elders and for authority is in tatters. Violent crime – if the news reports are to be believed, in particular knifings and shootings, and especially in London’s black community – is worse than it was thirty or forty years ago. And although the unions arguably had, and abused, too much power in the past, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far the other way and needs a corrective push back to the middle.

The balance between rights and responsibilities is hard to get right. Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. As I’ve argued in the occasional political digression on MHP-Chat, everyone should have both the freedom to do what they want, and the moral self-restraint, respect for others and judgement needed to exercise that freedom judiciously.

Of course, as this isn’t a perfect world, laws are still needed. The police, or at least some sections thereof, lacked that self-restraint so PACE had to be introduced. Similarly, factors such as the Children Act 1989, and an increasing tendency by the police to treat the adult in any dispute with a minor with suspicion, have arguably resulted in the growth of a lack of respect shown by kids to teachers, parents and authority figures to such an extent that a correction will be required at some point down the line. Something is clearly wrong when a home-owner, in the isolated countryside, is repeatedly burgled and the police don’t want to know, but the moment he acts in self-defence the full weight of the criminal justice system is thrown at him. There was a case some time ago in which a respectable, middle-class wife was repeatedly harassed by a gang of kids. Finally, driven to despair, she fired an air-rifle at the ground near their feet; guess who the police made out to be the guilty party? And a land-owner who, having caught some kids trespassing by a pond, made them repair the damage they’d caused to a fence was arrested on charges of kidnapping! It would be laughable if it wasn’t so lamentable.

Mr Hitchens contrasts policing attitudes between this country and the United States. Many parts of America are so remote that the nearest police patrol can take up to an hour to respond to the scene of a crime. There, you either look after yourself or perish. Homeowners are often armed, and are fully expected to hold the law in their hands, from where it has never been taken. A would-be intruder who disturbs the peace and cops a bullet receives scant sympathy from the forces of law and order. Any person doing that here would be deemed a vigilante and condemned for “taking the law into his own hands”. A strange expression indeed. When Sir Robert Peel set up the Metropolitan Police, the idea of the police constable was of someone who was paid to do what he might otherwise have done voluntarily out of public-spiritedness. The police constable had few powers that ordinary citizens didn’t. A far cry from the all-powerful cops of today, for whom the very notion that everyone still has the power of arrest is an affront to their prerogative.

No sane person is arguing for the return to 1970s attitudes as typified by Life on Mars, but few would argue that in this respect the status quo is acceptable either. Unfortunately, the excesses of both social liberalism and social conservatism have led to the state of affairs that we have now: in which grown men are scared to tackle kids vandalizing a bus shelter for fear either of being knifed or of gaining a criminal record; in which nobody dares assert any moral values; in which the “right” to swear in public or to spit on the pavement trumps all notions of public moral rectitude; and in which the stiff upper lip has given way to the unthinking frenzied hysteria we saw following the death of Princess Diana. “Oh, my mother died last year but this has affected me so much more,” one person is quoted as saying. Really, it beggars belief.

Some deeply unfashionable opinions, I know. To wrap this up and drag it vaguely back on-topic, I recall reading an account of a speech Dr David Starkey gave to the Royal Television Society, some time before the Hutton débâcle. Dr Starkey, introduced as a provocative media entertainer, was expected no doubt to make a few jokes at the expense of all assembled, before assuring one and all that they were excellent guys an’ gals.

I haven’t got the account to hand at present, but from memory he recalled that regulation of the media began in the age of John Reith. Then, the emphasis was on facts, of telling what was happening in the news. But now it’s all sensation and emotion. The main thing is keeping the viewer entertained.

John Walters, one-time producer at Radio 1 of both John Peel and Andy Kershaw, summed up his Corporation’s mission in a nutshell. “We’re not here to give people what they want,” he thundered. “We’re here to give them what they don’t know they want.” Contrast this with Jeremy Vine’s reaction to criticism of his Radio 2 show. He ran a competition enlisting the help of listeners to find out which was the most irritating vehicle on the road, and vehemently rejected any suggestion that he had a responsibility to elevate public taste.

This epitomizes the media’s view to politics and current affairs. News has to be entertaining, which helps explain its obsession with “consumer interest”, sports and showbiz stories. For the media, “That’s a complicated issue and I’ll need time to think it over” or “I can’t possibly answer that in a couple of sentences” are hopeless replies. The broadcasters fear viewers switching channels at the first sign of something that requires them actually to engage their brain into gear. A disagreement between cabinet members is a “split” or a “leadership bid”. Politicians thus become fearful of saying anything off-message: they become clones reading from the script, and are duly castigated by the media who helped make them clones in the first place.

So back to Dr Starkey. He gave a rather disparaging account of current attitudes in the media to news and current affairs, and, apart from one lone member of the audience applauding vigorously, was thanked by, for a real controversialist as opposed to a talk-show phoney, the most pleasing sound imaginable: the deafening sound of an appalled silence. The media could dish it out but it couldn’t take it. With Greg Dyke sitting in the front row, arms crossed, staring at the ceiling with a fixed expression on his face, Dr Starkey said that soon interviewers would be standing by the side of burning cars, inviting passers-by to imagine the death-agonies of the trapped occupants before concluding: “Sorry, this has all been rather sombre, I know. I’m not just a media entertainer, you see. I still have a residual notion that what was taught at this university all those years ago, that serious academic research, that thinking the unthinkable, are important, even in front of an audience that doesn’t like it.”

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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