Us & Them
The Big Issue, February 2009
By Heather Brooke
Not one to believe hype, I was sceptical when I popped in the first series of the much-acclaimed TV series The Wire. For those who haven’t seen it, this is a series that breaks all the rules of TV drama and yet the hype is merited: it is the best thing on television.
Each episode is like a chapter in a book and the stories build across the season. The first deals with the police closing in on a drug dealer which is common enough in a cop show, but what makes The Wire different is that it focuses on the lives of the dealers and users as much as the police. There is none of the easy morality common to other police dramas. Instead there is reality. The writers know their subjects inside out. These are not champagne socialists writing about the lives of poor kids in Hackney, they are veteran newspaper hacks and homicide detectives who know the gritty scenes they describe.
I used to cover crime for a newspaper in South Carolina in a city with a large concentration of projects that were infested with drugs, and I often wondered why the people in these sink estates didn’t clean up, move out, get a better life. What did I know? A college girl from an English family? But at least I could talk to the vice squad who filled me in on what was happening. The stories the police told me didn’t always fit into the newspaper format, focused as it is on the end result: who got shot, when and why. The ‘why’ being the least explored part of the story. It wasn’t until I saw The Wire that I understood how these stories could be told. If you want to understand the cycle of poverty and addiction look no further.
The realism of The Wire is due in no small part due to the ability of the writers to get inside the institutions they cover. David Simon spent a year in Baltimore Maryland’s homicide division. Such inside knowledge informs the series and gives it the needed reality that makes it so powerful. Could such a show be written in the UK?
I’m not a crime reporter anymore but I am a freelance journalist and so I asked the Metropolitan Police if I could visit my local police station. In the US I went ‘round back’ all the time, even did shifts with various cops as a ‘ride-along’. Some forces in the UK offer this insight to members of the public, but not the Metropolitan Police. Even the full-time crime reporters in London aren’t allowed in. The only way I’m getting into my local police station is if I’m arrested.
Frankly that’s a cost I’m not willing to bear. It strikes me as counter-productive for the police to fortress themselves against the public whom they are meant to serve and protect. By refusing to let us in, they foster an attitude of ‘Us and Them’. Both for themselves and for us. The tie that might link us is broken.
I had another encounter with the ‘Us and Them’ attitude in Tottenham Court Road tube station. The escalators were shut but none of the guards were telling anyone why or when they might resume. When I went over to ask, the guard pointed to a gang of teenagers and said: “Your colleague there pressed the emergency stop.”
My colleague? What did he have to do with me?
In the mind of the TfL official it was clear all who were not TfL were some ‘other’: that great repulsive organism – the public.
Aren’t we the reason for TfL’s existence? If it wasn’t for us paying our extortionate fares this official wouldn’t have a job. And yet he views us all as one amorphous mass comparable to an enemy.
All institutions are susceptible to this type of thinking, but the danger is even greater when there is no competition. Where there is a monopoly on service the best solution is higher levels of transparency. We should be allowed into our local police stations, we should be able to see crime incident reports. It may not be easy, but an open door can bring many rewards, not least the best show on television.
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