Us & Them

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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6 Responses to “Us & Them”

  1. PhilC says:

    Maybe you should instead do a shift with TfL alongside one of their members of staff, who probably earns about half your wage, before spouting off easy cliches about “my fares pay his wages”.
    I also fail to see why the Met refusing you permission to visit a nick is evidence of a fortress mentality.
    I was at a parish council meeting this week where a beat bobby and the sector sgt spoke openly and honestly to the public for 30 minutes about local policing.
    Neither of our experiences should be used as evidence for sweeping claims about either secrecy or openess.
    And going back to easy cliches, The Big Issue must have sacked all its subs to let tired phrases such as ‘champagne socialists’ through.
    BTW: The Wire is brilliant and I’ve just finished the first series. Am desperately hoping not to learn what happens in the next lot. The book ‘Homicide’ is one all journalists should read.

  2. Riz Din says:

    It’s no Wire but the upcoming three-part crime drama on C4, called ‘The Red Riding’, should make for interesting viewing.

  3. JPFife says:

    Aside from the reasons given by you there isn’t a culture of quality in UK film and TV that there is in America. The short season format of UK TV doesn’t generate tradesmen as it does in the US, only journeymen.

    The Wire is a great TV series but after Season 3 it started to get on its’ soap box, which derailed it from the compelling stories in my view. Having said that even at its worse it’s better than most British TV.

    If you read the Book, Homicide, written by David Simon, you can actually see elements that made it into the series. When he talks about the cops there is such detail that you can easily identify characters in The Wire. So, your point about the reality is “spot on.” (If you’ve seen season 2 you should get the spot on reference.) Simon also spent time with Drug dealers and documented this in ‘The Corner’ due out in Britain soon, so therein lies his ability to put both sides.

    TfL? Despite the media insistence that everyone in Britain know every little detail about London we don’t, please don’t use abbreviations without explanation.

  4. JPFife says:

    Maybe we all should be friends with a judge, as David Simon was in this recent article, and information from police would be more forthcoming?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022703591_pf.html

  5. heather says:

    PhilC – not to get into a wage-off but I’m pretty certain my salary is about one-third of most full-time TfL staff members and I’m not funded by the taxpayer. There is absolutely NO money in investigative journalism in case you were wondering.
    Sad but true.

    Thanks for the other comments. I’ve just bought the book ‘Homicide’ and can’t wait to get into it. I’m now on Season 3 of The Wire.

  6. PhilC says:

    Season 3! A certain online retailer is due to deliver season 2 to me very soon. Does it live up to Season 1?
    And yes, as a freelancer like yourself, I am painfully aware of the lack of funds for investigative journalism. America seems to be finding a way round this with co-operative ventures and pooled resources backed by philanthopic investors; just wondering if the UK can’t do the same…..

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