A critical analysis of the BBC’s ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary about the Metropolitan police.
In what has been billed as an unprecedented move, in early 2014 Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe allowed a BBC camera crew an access-all-areas pass to film the force as it carried out its routine policing of London. In a commentary for the Guardian, Hogan-Howe claimed that there was to be ‘No editorial control, no handpicking from us of the officers and staff taking part, no one keeping an eye on what those being filmed said to the camera.’ The BBC, meanwhile, purported to have produced an unbiased fly-on-the-wall style documentary – ‘actuality-based observational documentary’, in the words of the head of documentary production at the BBC. The resulting production, The Met: Policing London, broadcast in five episodes from 8 June to 6 July 2015, was far from the unbiased portrayal it was heralded as. Lacking critical perspective, the show reinforced official narratives around public order policing. It was typical of the embedded journalism that marks the media’s treatment of the police force.
Public relations and a death in custody
In the first episode, cameras followed top-brass officers as they handled the potential reputational crisis surrounding the inquest verdict into the death of Mark Duggan, whose death in a police shooting sparked nationwide unrest in 2011. The documentary crew sat with the Met’s public relations response team as they received news in dribs and drabs from the inquest into Duggan’s death. When the jury found that Duggan had been unarmed at the time that he was shot dead by an officer known as ‘V53’, they prepared themselves for what seemed an inevitable verdict. ‘That is not a good answer’, said Assistant Commissioner Mark Hewitt. ‘It’s gonna be unlawful’. When the jury found the opposite, the incredulity of the team was patent. The conclusion – that he was unarmed yet still lawfully killed – was, quite simply, confused. ‘Do we want to say that the jury’s a confused result?’, Hewitt asked his team as they prepared a statement for fellow Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley to read to waiting TV news crews. ‘I’m not sure we do think it’s a confused result’, the team reassured him. He agreed: ‘If [we] use the word confused, then I think that implies that we are confused’.
Two days later, these words were echoed by community activist Stafford Scott on the steps of Tottenham police station. He reminded a gathering of the Duggan family’s supporters about the death of Roger Sylvester in 1999. The inquest into Sylvester’s death found that he had been unlawfully killed, yet on a police appeal a high court judge quashed the verdict on the basis that ‘the jury was confused’. Citing this precedent, Scott demanded that ‘we want a judge to tell us that the jury in the Mark Duggan inquest was confused’.
Screening out community voices
None of Scott’s speech was included in The Met, though it was recorded at the time by a BBC news team, who had descended on the community vigil along with most of the national media, expecting another ‘riot’. Media crews had arrived en masse at Tottenham’s vigil, driven by police statements that ‘protestors’ and ‘criminals’ were looking to ‘provoke disorder’. Tottenham MP David Lammy had claimed the event would be ‘hijacked’ by violent anarchists. The press reported that police commanders feared these elements ‘could try to exploit simmering racial tensions’. The vigil proceeded without violence. Yet viewers of The Met were shown only a community in anger, preparing to march through Tottenham, while the narrative voiceover warned that affray was imminent. Viewers were left in ignorance of the actual peaceful nature of the protest.
In the wake of the first episode’s airing, the BBC was accused of failing to consult with the community on which it had focused. It had portrayed as ‘community representatives’ those whom the Met had appointed as such, while ‘voices of dissent’ and ‘voices of experience’ in the community were not afforded the ‘talking head’ space by which to frame the narrative of the programme. Instead, we were shown a police force awaiting a community in riot, for which the anti-racist agitation of a politically-motivated few was said to be to blame.
Police neutrality and the construction of a public order threat
Through devices such as the narrative voiceover, the ‘talking head’ interviews granted to voices of officialdom, and the selective use of imagery, The Met’s focus on the public order threat, seen from a police perspective, also succeeded in divorcing the community’s response from the police actions that preceded it – thus portraying the police not as a protagonist, but as a neutral body. Police were not pressed on the role that the shooting of Mark Duggan had played in creating disorder. Hence, in a discussion about the potential fallout from the inquest verdict, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Mark Simmons is filmed claiming that ‘the verdict actually doesn’t matter in terms of how some people react.’ In other words, the anger they faced was self-induced by some in the community, for whom the denial of police accountability mattered less than the opportunity to riot.
As the supporters of Duggan’s family reacted with anger to Assistant Commissioner Rowley’s post-verdict statement, Tottenham police prepared for what they said was inevitable violence. In a direct-to-camera reflection on the evening’s events, borough commander Victor Olisa asked ‘what are they gonna do when they get down here?’. Police radio intelligence reports answered him: ‘there’s gonna be a riot, you need to watch yourselves, there’s gonna be trouble.’ As it turned out, the only mob to arrive in Tottenham was the national press.
The BBC’s narrative voiceover induced viewers to accept the police interpretation of the black community’s anger. We are told that the police are ‘facing daily criticism for a service stretched too thin’ and ‘seen by some in the community as the enemy’. Yet the programme fails to investigate why this may be the case. Driven by the desire to make the most of their exceptional degree of access, the production team appears to have allowed the police too free a hand in building the framework from which to understand public disorder.
Faced with a potential riot, and refusing to consider even the possibility of police culpability in causing it, The Met’s producers looked elsewhere to explain the origins of community anger. And this was provided by the Metropolitan police: black rage is abetted by a narrative that blames racism where it doesn’t exist. Tottenham borough commander Victor Olisa, for instance, one of just two black borough commanders under the Met’s jurisdiction, presents himself as the victim of a race-obsessed black community. He is asked by Tottenham residents whether his appointment was a token gesture by a police force deemed out of touch with the communities under its jurisdiction. ‘We’ve had a tragic incident,’ he says, ‘some serious questions have been asked about police planning, operations and accountability, and yet at the end of it all it boils down to an issue of race. Totally misses the point. That is sad.’ Meanwhile, those who are filmed confronting the police about the over-criminalisation of black people are denounced by police sources as driving a wedge of mistrust between the Met and black London.
Defining institutional culpability out of institutional racism
Such distortion is typical of a media that, in failing to provide the bigger picture, ends up justifying the extension of public order policing into the daily lives of black communities. The role of that institutional racism in policing plays in shaping black lives is written out of its analysis of black dissent. Hogan-Howe is therefore able to acknowledge institutional racism, but only insomuch as it is perceived by some to be a reality. ‘If other people think we are institutionally racist,’ says Hogan-Howe, ‘then we are … I don’t think people often understand what the term means. It’s a label, but in some sense there is a truth there for some people and we’ve got to accept that’. He concedes that the force is institutionally racist to the extent that ‘society is institutionally racist’, but he fails to consider that the structures of policing set the standards of society. As A. Sivanandan warned in 1979, ‘popular morality has come to define black people out of society … the police no longer just reflect or reinforce that morality: they re-create it’.
Hogan-Howe’s position on racism echoes that which led to the 1985 ‘riot’ at Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate. Then as now, a common sense racism portrayed black communities as necessitating special policing, with the media blacking out police culpability for the ‘riot’ from the agenda: black anger was interpreted as the ‘savagery’ of the ‘jungle’, orchestrated by ‘groups of Trotskyists and anarchists’, and allowed to occur due to a policy of appeasement towards the ‘ethnic criminal’. The death of Cynthia Jarrett, which sparked the unrest, was said to have been the result of a heart condition triggered by her daughter’s aggressive ‘anti-police’ attitude, rather than the violent manner in which police entered her home and pushed her to the ground.
Embedded journalism and police power
This programme shows how far the gains of the landmark 1999 Macpherson report have been rolled back. The media now considers racism something to be consigned to Britain’s past; it has been ‘dealt with’. As community anger continues – in case after case – the media, faced with interpreting this dissent, proves incapable of scrutinising the actions that cause it. Left with effect without cause, it has turned to the same institutions that generate anger to fill the gap in the narrative.
Read an IRR News story: Framing the death of Mark Duggan
Read an IRR News story: Self defence or a licence to kill?