The BBC's new documentary series, The Met: Policing London, promised to allow viewers to go "behind the scenes for the very first time of Britain's largest police force". The first episode started last night with a burst of moody helicopter shots, a flood of statistics washing over the viewer: the biggest population, the most arrests, more crime than anywhere in Britain. The Met is apparently a force under pressure – "facing daily criticism for a service stretched too thin", in the words of the narrator. The documentary is supposed to give unprecedented insight into this beleaguered force and at times the first episode lived up to that – but overall, it came across more like a PR exercise.
This episode was loosely organised around the fact that a lot of black and minority ethnic people in London don't trust the police. The story began in Tottenham, where Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe was walking down a street being interviewed by a journalist about what the locals have got against the boys in blue. At one point Hogan-Howe breaks off the interview to arrest somebody, because he's a bloody brilliant cop, not just a talking media head. It looks great on camera.
It is January 2014, we discover, and the inquest verdict into Mark Duggan's death is expected shortly. This provides the show with its narrative arc, focusing on Haringey where Victor Olisa is one of few black Borough Commanders. As well as Olisa and Hogan-Howe, we are presented with a picture of real-life cops on a real-life patrol, dealing with angry activists and members of Duggan's family. There's a heartwarmingly successful operation at Brixton Splash for a feel-good ending.
The police have been at pains to stress that the show is a genuine and unvarnished look at how they work and the challenges they face, not just another cop show designed to make the police look good. Hogan-Howe made this point explicitly in an article for the Guardian last week: "[We wanted] no editorial control," he wrote, "[and] no one keeping an eye on what those being filmed said to the camera."
That line has clearly been thoroughly workshopped inside the Met's sizeable press office. It reappeared on the website they've dedicated to the documentary, whose visuals – a smattering of different officers, each in a messianic pose with the London skyline as the backdrop – make it clear that the show is in no way a PR opportunity.
It's possible to believe that the police had no editorial control, but that's not particularly reassuring. You'd assume that the BBC would have stepped into the void to assume a role as the critical, adversarial chronicler of the police that the public deserves. But this, as a different sort of documentarian might say, proved to be a fantasy. Have you ever seen a BBC reporter be as confrontational with Hogan-Howe as BBC News anchor Ben Brown is with Jodie McIntyre here, after the cerebral palsy suffererwas dragged from his wheelchair by police at a 2010 student demo? Has a Newsnight presenter ever given a GCHQ official as hard a time as they did journalist Glenn Greenwald, after the extent of the intelligence organisation's internet spying operation was revealed?
There were plenty of opportunities to tell a different kind of story. Critical voices stalk the edge of The Met: Policing London, but they are never centred, mostly portrayed as members of an angry crowd rather than individual voices with cogent, vital criticisms to make. For instance, if the BBC wanted to present a more nuanced view of the shouting match that apparently took place at a public meeting in Lambeth Town Hall, maybe they could have interviewed some of those present who were criticising the police.
One of these men brandishes, on camera, a newspaper describing a vicious police attack on two black men in Woolwich. The incident began with a hard stop. The car tyres were shot out, the men were called "black scum" and pistol-whipped into hospital. After a while, the police seem to have realised they had the wrong men, and walked out of the hospital with no explanation. Sounds like a pretty valid thing to ask questions about, right? But in The Met you don't get that context – just another shouty man for the police to deal with.
The episode would have been easier to take seriously if the police in it addressed in detail these kinds of incidents, if they'd actually owned all the stuff they've done rather than loading the burden of responsibility for tension on the black community and its "suspicion" of the police. Instead, what we get are platitudes about "a challenging history" or a need to "start healing", and an evasion of what this really means: a culture of institutionalised racism and countless incidents of abuse, including 509 black and asian people dying in state custody. In the case of Mark Duggan, it meant killing a man who didn't have a gun in his hand.
If you put a camera in somebody's face and ask him to explain and justify what he does all day, nine times out of ten he'll tell you how totally great he is. If you do this in an organisation with as strong and entrenched a culture of self-protection as the police, you're setting yourself up to produce propaganda, regardless of what you believe your intentions to be.
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