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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Cop TV – BBC’s creepy crime porn

britain-on-fiddle[Update: My email exchange with the programme's presenter]

Nov 7, 2013 – BBC1′s Britain on the Fiddle – yet another of those “cop” documentaries, filmed from the viewpoint of the authorities. Good cops vs bad people. Bad individuals. Not bad systems, bad government/institutions, bad concentrations of wealth/power.

Part 1 was shown at 9pm last night, and lasted an hour. There are more to come – all about good authorities vs bad people (specifically, in this case, “benefits cheats”). I see it as porn for petty authoritarians – people who get off on the Daily Mail. Some of its “factual” claims seemed dubious to me, but I’ll leave that for other commentators to unravel. What I’m interested in here is the conceptual frame which affects our thinking on “the authorities”.

As I’ve noted before, a ‘good authorities/bad people’ frame has been beamed into our skulls for years by primetime TV shows:-

Traffic cops, Crimewatch UK, Drunk and Dangerous, Car Wars, Sky Cops, Customs & Excise Cops, Forensic Cops, On the Fiddle, Motorway Cops, Clampers, The Tube (London’s underground police), Animal Cops, Airport (airport police), A Life of Grime, Traffic Wardens, Rogue Traders, Bailiffs, Transport Cops, Seaside Rescue, Cops, Robbers and Videotape, Girl Cops, Shops, Robbers and Videotape (variation on a theme), War at the Door (housing officers & RSPCA), Dumping on Britain (Environment Agency), Rail Cops, Cops with Dogs, Cars, Cops and Bailiffs, The Planners are Coming (Planning Police), Saints and Scroungers (investigating benefits claimants), Cars, Cops and Criminals, The Lock Up (on police station’s custody suite), Send in the Dogs, Car Crime UK.

crimewatch2That’s just a partial list of actual TV programmes and series – there have been many more variations on the theme over the last two decades, mostly on BBC1 in the primetime evening slot when people are relaxing after a hard day at work (unless they’re “benefits cheats” out joyriding in their new BMWs).

If this sounds like a “conspiracy theory”, then I’m happy. But, really, it’s no more so than Noam Chomsky’s claim that power-elites want to distract everyone from the important issues with spectator sports (actually, that does sound like a conspiracy).

The thing is, I’ve been conducting informal polls ever since I noticed the preponderance of this primetime ‘emergency services’ porno. I quiz people on whether they’ve watched the latest ‘Motorway Cops’ or ‘Clampers’ or ‘Cops with Dogs’. And nobody will ever admit to liking this stuff (the only exception was one person who guiltily confessed to enjoying ‘Crimewatch UK’).

So who in the BBC (or MI5 or NSA – I’m joking, of course) decides that we’re going to watch this tedious authoritarian drivel on such a regular basis? Who commissions it on our behalf? We rarely – or never – see programmes about rampant government fraud, corporate tax avoidance or high-level corruption in the city (as documented for years by Private Eye magazine). We don’t get regular documentaries on how much the banks are costing us in bailouts right now (the bailouts didn’t end, they just continued). Of course we don’t.

crimewatch_ukWhat we get is good authorities vs bad people. Bad individuals – not so different from you and me (except for the real crooks, the “scum”. Of course). And if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are UP AGAINST the authorities (even on a relatively minor matter, and perhaps through no fault of your own) you will see the frame in action – but not in an entertaining or enjoyable way like on ‘Girl Cops’ or ‘Shops, Robbers and Videotape’. Because the frame has certain entailments which are not in the best interests of individuals minding their own business. I’m understating things here.

“Good cops/authorities” frame

Here’s the frame logic: We’re all victimised or disadvantaged by the actions of bad, criminal, irresponsible, antisocial people. The “authorities” come to the rescue, in the form of police or other official types with police-like powers. The cops deal with the bad people and protect the good people. Frame inferences: The cops/authorities are essentially good; the accused and suspect are bad; the victims are usually innocent. The authorities maintain order and harmony; the villains disrupt it. Order is a system; bad individuals disrupt order (note the good system / bad individuals dichotomy).

Police-tvA common occurrence in the above TV “documentaries”, which dramatise this frame, is that an accused or “suspect” individual, or somebody shown as under investigation, “is” always “obviously” “guilty”. I’ve never seen an exception to this – it seems to be a “game rule”, a condition of the frame. It works dramatically, as the cops chosen to appear always seem nice, decent, reasonable people, whereas the “suspects” apparently get chosen for their potential resemblance to Daily Mail stereotypes of bad people (“cheats”, “spongers”, “migrants”, “druggies”, etc).

Another creepy aspect of this BBC Police Porn is that when the “suspects” are shown complaining, they’re typically (and convincingly) presented as unreasonable, hostile or slightly insane – as if you must be mentally disturbed (and probably a danger to society) if you object to the way the authorities are “assisting” you. This is “good TV” for armchair fascists – you can almost hear the target audience’s resonse: “The pathetic, despicable whining, whinging scum – get a fucking job, and stop using your disability as an excuse”. I don’t think the BBC presenters realise what Frankenstein’s monster they are creating with the regular evocation of this frame.

But, hey, I’m sure many BBC viewers get a nice masturbatory thrill from watching bureaucrats and cops spy on suspect people with sophisticated surveillance technology – before closing in to arrest or caution them (the “money shot” in porn terms). And I wouldn’t want to spoil their fun. It’s like a British Establishment version of 24, but with Alan Partridge replacing Kiefer Sutherland, and with poor, struggling, stressed-out people on benefits as the terrorist threat.

Written by NewsFrames

November 7, 2013 at 9:34 am

27 Responses

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  1. perhaps you should get out more – I know many, many people on benefits – the vast majority abuse the system in one way or another – they get away with it because the ‘good’ authorities cannot or cannot be bothered to check what the ‘bad’ people tell them – until they do it will go on …. and on … and on … and on … because it’s so easy to cheat – and so easy for it to become a way of life !!

    graham

    November 7, 2013 at 10:27 am

    • WRONG!

      The vast majority of “benefits” you speak go to pensioners, followed by the disabled, followed by in work families. I mean, my wife and i claim benefits for our 5 month old daughter, yet the pair of us both work full time.

      Peter

      November 7, 2013 at 10:44 am

      • did I say anything about what you ‘know’ – or pensioners – or anything else you speak of – I simply stated my own experience – that nearly everyone I know on benefits cheats the system – FACT!

        graham

        November 7, 2013 at 11:53 am

    • Graham, the statistics apparently speak for themselves. The total cost of benefits fraud is £1.2 billion (according to DWP). Unclaimed benefits amount to £16 billion. Tax avoided, evaded (mostly by big corporations) and uncollected totals £120 billion (Tax Justice & PCS estimate).

      So why would anyone – let alone the BBC – focus on the relatively minor cost of benefits fraud? In the overall picture, it’s relatively small. And to the extent that “the vast majority” abuse the system (as you claim), then it follows that they must be abusing it in small ways, with perhaps a tiny minority of large-scale fraudsters. Otherwise the published costs would be higher by magnitudes.

      If you want to believe the Daily Mail (and BBC, it seems) version of reality – that everyone who seems suspicious or claims benefits should be assumed to be criminal until proven innocent, then perhaps you’re the one who should get out more.

      And check out this angry rant from the Artist Taxi Driver: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgG4uaVKD_w

      NewsFrames

      November 7, 2013 at 11:16 am

      • Rant is right – no order – no point – no proof – no sense – no feeling! Only balls!

        graham

        November 7, 2013 at 4:30 pm

  2. I have been guilty getting off on Motorway Cops for a while now.

    Although conspiracies are great, and have a similar guilty appeal to watching cops squash scum bags, it seems appropriate to at least consider some more mundane reasons?

    I wonder whether a large part of the reason for their proliferation is that it is cheap and quick to get multiple money shots, followed with the usual problem that channels latch onto successful formulae.

    Could their appeal, relative to notional programmes about fraud and corruption, be to do with the visceral reaction people have to “some fucker stole my car”, rather than “some smarmy twat fiddled with the Libor rate”?

    Craig Loftus

    November 7, 2013 at 11:05 am

    • Yes, I think that view has merit – and I often lean towards the more mundane explanations. But there remains the framing that I’ve written about, its effects (whatever they are), and the seeming absence of alternative views on welfare, fraud, etc. I see it as a conceptual “narrowing” and one which seems to easily slide into fungible group hatreds.

      NewsFrames

      November 7, 2013 at 11:26 am

      • Actually, I watched Britain on the Fiddle over lunch, and I don’t think the cheap and visceral excuses that I gave fit to it at all. The format of the programme could easily have been turned to examples of banking fraud or corrupt politicians etc.

        On the aspect of framing, what would a programme that undermined the “Good cops/authorities” frame look like? Were Britain on the Fiddle to be about the tireless pursuit of corrupt, law breaking politicians, would it not be reinforcing the same frame?

        Craig Loftus

        November 7, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      • “On the aspect of framing, what would a programme that undermined the “Good cops/authorities” frame look like?” (Craig Loftus)

        My preference would be to move away from the whole finger-pointing thing entirely. It’s useful of course to cite bailout-dependent bankers and corporate tax avoiders – but only to put the whole benefits fraud cost in perspective (and to show the double-standards of the BBC, etc).

        But the real issue seems to be about things like economics, jobs, humane distribution of wealth in an incredibly wealthy country, where most of the wealth is not generated anymore by human labour (but where the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few). So I would reframe the private market (corporations framed as private governments), reframe the work/income debate (end Victorian age Calvinist narratives) and publicise the Public (emphasise the common wealth, public infrastructure, public lands, public safety nets – the inherent dependency of the private market on the Public). And I would promote ideas such as Guaranteed Basic Income. These are things that I’ve written about already throughout the blog, and which I’ll continue to explore.

        NewsFrames

        November 7, 2013 at 4:33 pm

  3. No! The benefits are not small at all – some are not even medium – I could (but I won’t) name dozens of claimants who are milking the system – the problem with statistics here is that claimants don’t admit to guilt and there is little risk as it is difficult to prove exactly what is going on – some claims may be plausible although dishonest – how to prove stress and how to differentiate whether someone is doing paid work or giving a friend a hand as a favour etc etc etc – I know people who claim unemployment benefit despite working full time – cash in hand – others who claim illness which is really not illness at all (seem ok when they need to be socially) – the number of people I know working extra part time jobs would shock you – one guy I know has a disability provided car (a bad knee? yeah, right!) who runs a taxi service with it – others signed on to agencies who declare nothing when they are sent out on jobs – you can believe what you like but if you actually got out there and looked and got to know real people instead of sitting behind a desk and speculating you may change your mind (though I doubt it as it wouldn’t be very newsworthy) – I do live in the real world and I see it first hand all the time – or perhaps I live in a bubble unrelated to the rest of England – is the rest of England totally honest and above board – I doubt it – I don’t dispute that some need help and some are indeed suffering – but if the dishonest, lazy and greedy ones were brought into line there would be so much more available to help those who really needed it.

    graham

    November 7, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    • Have you ever received any benefits yourself, Graham? Because I’m beginning to think that perhaps you’re a saint? Of course, people will often take whatever they can get in a given system. The current welfare system restricts this “abuse” to small amounts in the vast majority of cases. The bigger crimes of welfare fraud are much less common.

      Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture – and to do that, personal experience is too limited. By necessity you have to research into things like statistics – look at nationwide data, commentary from people who have studied the data in depth, etc. And that data certainly says that benefits fraud is a minor problem compared to other types of fraud (eg business fraud), tax avoidance, etc.

      NewsFrames

      November 7, 2013 at 7:04 pm

      • No, I’m not a saint, and I receive benefit – it’s called a pension, which I paid into all my life and now pay tax on – but I’m not talking about me – you’ve obvious used the system – abused? – and what do you consider a ‘real’ crime – and who works out the ‘statistics’ – if you believe statistics you can believe anything – they can be tilted to mean anything you like (including any amount of ‘unclaimed’ benefit) – by ‘making assumptions’ and ‘weighting’ and other things to further the required outcome – stop quoting things you know nothing about and concentrate on things you do – I’m quoting the experience I have of people I know, not some second hand data provided by some nameless statistician who has spent time manipulating it into his required form – my personal experience may be limited compared to the whole country but at least I have it, and I don’t believe my circle of family, friends and acquaintances is particularly different from any other average group – what I say still stands – most people I know who are on benefits abuse the system one way or another – real crime or not (your choice) extrapolate that through the millions of people on benefit (that’s what statisticians do) and that’s a big slice of money

        graham

        November 8, 2013 at 6:55 am

      • Do you believe, Graham, that benefit fraud should be this government’s flagship target when tackling the ever increasing nation’s debt? Do you believe that prime time television should be dedicating so much of its time to, what has already been highlighted, a fraction of the problem? Do you not think that pehaps somwhere within the media corridors of power there are a group of people who continue to distract the general population from the real pressing issues?

        In the last few years the general public appear to have become ‘experts’ on the welfare state without ever knowing the real facts. The same applies to the economy as a whole and immigration.

        It’s odd, as the editor states, that televsion channels seem to edge more towards the Daily Mail and Express angle of (exaggerated) stories, than the fact providing editions of the Guardian, Independent etc.

        Peter

        November 8, 2013 at 9:54 am

  4. it depends on what you consider are the ‘real pressing issues’ – our priority must be the economy – this is just part of it – and whether you use stick or carrot – whichever is the most appropriate – we have to strive towards overcoming the problems – people living in a benefit culture must in some way be lured out of it – sitting on your backside with your hands out is of no use to them or the country – and having the notion that ‘small crime’ doesn’t matter doesn’t help – neither does blaming immigrants for lack of jobs – their are many jobs out there that immigrants have – because they are prepared to do them – whereas many people on benefits will not because they are doing ok as it is – it’s too easy – that’s the problem – there are, as has been said, others who milk the system in other ways – tax avoidance and fake expenses being a couple of examples – but are these as widespread? – would these outweigh the millions of people committing benefit fraud? – I doubt it – they just happen to be high profile people we can all be allowed to hate – but at least they work for a living – they may get paid ridiculous amounts of money but do we hate all our millionaire footballers – no, they give us pleasure – we all seem to choose who to blame – including you

    graham

    November 8, 2013 at 10:31 am

    • You said “millions of people committing benefit fraud”.

      I think this is the bit where i drop out, for the simple reason that you initially referred to people you know from your own experience committing fraud, then dismissed the facts presented to you to disprove that wild claim above.

      Peter

      November 8, 2013 at 10:58 am

    • So, Graham, you think that corporate tax fraudsters and the bankers who brought the global economy down should be excused because “at least they work for a living”. Whereas a struggling single mum who gets paid £10 from her friend to babysit, but doesn’t declare it as earnings, should be prosecuted for fraud? I think you’ve been brainwashed, my friend.

      Chris

      November 8, 2013 at 11:10 am

    • ‘People living in a benefit culture must in some way be lured out of it’

      How exactly do you propose luring my genetic connective tissue disorder out of me? Or the ruptured cervical disk? My consultant was telling me it was time to give up work long before I did so (and then only because I was forced out against my will), he remains convinced that I will never be fit for work, yet DWP consider me to fit within the Work Related Activity Group of ESA, which means my benefit is time-limited at 12 months. Let’s repeat that: DWP agree I am not fit for work, but I have no eligibility for benefit because I was unable to produce a miracle cure on schedule.

      DWP have been hammering the message that disability benefit fraud is a major national problem since IDS took over, yet DWP themselves admit that disability benefit fraud actually occurs at a _lower_ rate than pretty much all other benefit fraud (and as a monetary sum is about 1% of the sum lost through tax evasion). So why focus on disability benefit fraud when it is the lesser problem (so much lesser that it is in fact smaller than DWP’s own errors allocating disability benefits), why focus on disability when in fact there is a significant problem with underclaiming, why focus on disability when everyone from CAB to the BMA say that the assessment process is fundamentally broken and not fit for purpose (and costs an extra £100m a year in appeals), why focus on it when it is 1% the size of tax evasion? Might it just be because it is easier, and more politically convenient, to fan a witchhunt against politically powerless disabled people than against rich Tory party donors, particularly when every Daily Mail reader considers themselves an expert at spotting ‘real’ disability, no matter the clueless reality?

      DavidG

      November 9, 2013 at 6:21 pm

  5. I would strongly recommend to Graham that he talks to disabled people on benefits who are increasingly being persecuted and seen as “suspect”, due to public misperceptions on the scale of benefits fraud.

    Graham’s reasoning is common. I’ve heard it so many times: “My own experience matters most, and I disregard any statistics, etc, that contradict it”. Such a dangerous way to form conclusions. You’ve no doubt come across those people whose immediate experience convinces them that “migrants are stealing all the jobs”, or that “it’s really the Jews who are running things”, etc.

    Don’t write off national research or statistics *because* it contradicts conclusions you’ve formed from your immediate experience. Be a bit more rational about it than that.

    Chris

    November 8, 2013 at 10:55 am

  6. so someone who lives with his disabled partner at a reduced rate because of his/her disability allowance and then has the nerve to claim 24 hour carer’s allowance despite having a full time job doesn’t count eh! it’s you who should join the real world – I live in it and I’ve watched it for years – at first hand – and like I said – statistics can be and are manipulated – just cherry pick your answers and off you go – and if you read my posts properly you’ll see that I defend the immigrants for doing a good job that our own don’t want to do – cherry picking yourself I feel – so you lost and now running – good job done there then

    graham

    November 8, 2013 at 11:36 am

    • Yes, Graham, you do sound like an expert on the “real world”. And it’s probably just coincidence that your conclusions look like carbon copies of Daily Mail editorials. But be careful jumping to conclusions. My previous post was not a response to your last one (which I hadn’t read). So, I guess your conclusions based on personal experience are not infallible.

      Chris

      November 8, 2013 at 11:50 am

      • bit like yours then

        graham

        November 8, 2013 at 4:52 pm

      • “bit like yours then”

        The difference is that I know my personal experience gives me a distorted view and is fallible – because I’m not what’s called (in philosophy) a Naive Realist. I seek other sources of information outside my direct personal experience, including statistics, research, books, etc. You should try it – you might get a more informed view of “benefits fraud” (and other things that the Daily Mail doesn’t cover).

        Chris

        November 8, 2013 at 5:10 pm

  7. You really don’t understand it all do you – all you have succeeded in doing is showing your total animosity towards the Daily Mail and its readers – CONGRATULATIONS !!!

    graham

    November 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm

    • Considering the Daily Mail and its readership have been demonstrating their hostility to disabled people (like me) for years, that sounds perfectly reasonable. Know your enemy!

      But let’s quote a source you should accept, DWP (as they certainly spend enough time trying to demonize people like me).

      These are their figures for Fraud and Error in the benefit system for the 2010/2011 financial year (note the combination, error is often the greater part of these figures)
      Retirement Pension 0.0 per cent;
      Incapacity Benefit 0.3 per cent;
      Disability Living Allowance 0.5 per cent;
      Council Tax Benefit 1.3 per cent;
      Housing Benefit 1.4 per cent;
      Pension Credit 1.6 per cent;
      Income Support 2.8 per cent;
      Jobseeker’s Allowance 3.4 per cent;
      Carer’s Allowance 3.9 per cent.

      So apart from the retirement pension, disability benefit fraud occurs at either less than 25% the rate, or less than 40% the rate of fraud in any other benefit, yet it is disabled people that DWP, and the Daily Mail, have deliberately chosen to demonize.

      DavidG

      November 9, 2013 at 6:39 pm

  8. I love your analysis, but I think that you’ve left something out: endless episodes of Poirot, Broadchurch, Luther, Midsummer Murders, etc. etc. These reinforce the “Goodcops/authorities” frame just as much as the reality cop shows; later episodes of Poirot even give crimefighting a religious quality–remember Poirot fingering his rosary in “Murder on the Orient Express”; what is more, crime fiction is hardwired into our culture in a way that the reality shows are not.
    I think that the “Goodcops/authorities” frame is not so dominant in the hardboiled crime fiction of America (Chandler, Hammet, Ross MacDonald etc), nor in the fiction of European writers like Simenon; there is a lot of social comment in Chandler and Simenon about the corrupting power of the rich.

    John Dakin

    November 20, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    • Excellent observations, John – very much agree with you. Chandler’s experiences in the oil industry apparently gave him a direct view of the links between rich men, corrupt politicians and crooked cops, etc. That narrative was fairly original at the time, predating real-life newspaper exposes by a few decades. And of course we still see it played out occasionally “in public” (eg the Murdoch/hacking scandal). In the character Marlowe, he also conveyed an “honourable” morality which is very different from the kind of morality we’re being “taught” in primetime (via the ‘good authorities’ frame).

      NewsFrames

      November 20, 2013 at 6:26 pm

      • Thanks for your comments; I also like Sam Spade for the way in which he glides through the maze of the legal system; and “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” show crime from the point of view of people who get drawn into crime.
        Of course, even in Chandler there is sympathy for some cops caught in a bad system.

        John Dakin

        November 26, 2013 at 10:06 pm


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