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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Establishment TV – BBC’s “authority” frame

bbc-news-fearJune 13, 2013 – It’s comforting to know there’s enough money available for states to build giant secret surveillance systems, even though there’s not enough for less important things like healthcare, transport and social security.

On the creepy, disturbing spying thing, politicians have assured us that “law-abiding citizens” have nothing to worry about. They say this with a straight face, which must take some doing. I’d like to think most people are wise to the “joke”, but I doubt that’s the case. A recent poll shows high public ignorance (and/or indifference) regarding Iraqi war deaths, and I suspect the same may be true with the authoritarian “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” stuff.

Or, to put it another way, most people I talk to in the statistically “real” world – ie away from the minority of Guardian readers, leftwing academics/activists, contrarians, kinky weirdos, Zen masters, eskimos, etc – seem to welcome more CCTV, more police, more surveillance, more control, more authority…

Why? Presumably because they feel more threatened by criminal or “antisocial” individuals than they do by state or corporate institutions. To be more specific, they fear being burgled, mugged, knifed, spat at, terrorised, etc, more than they fear being herded, coerced, arrested, incarcerated or surveilled by employees in uniforms or suits. This is possibly due to a nurtured form of trust in the “essential goodness” of the authorities (more on this below).

Much has been written about the contributing effects of sensationalised tabloid crime “news” on people’s psyches – ranging from a tendency to overestimate the risk of crime (and “terrorism”), to anxiety disorders such as the fear of going outside. (It should be noted in this context that the Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror, Express, etc, have far higher circulations than the Guardian, which broke the NSA whistleblower story).

Less has been said about an equally important facet of the above: trust in authority (whether state or corporate). And, as far as I’m aware, nobody has documented a particular speciality of the BBC: the “good cops – good authorities” framing. So, I’ll attempt to do that here…

BBC’s “Good Cops / Trust in Authority” frame

The sociologist, Erving Goffman, found that social situations and institutions are shaped by mental structures (frames) which determine conventionalised behaviour in those situations/institutions. So, for instance, the hospital frame has certain roles (doctor, nurse, orderly, patient, visitor, etc), locations, props and expected actions (taking temperature, reading charts, operations, etc).

Such frames have a logic defining relationships, hierarchies and appropriate/inappropriate behaviour and procedures. Visitors bring flowers for patients, surgeons perform operations, but they don’t empty bedpans. Occupied hospital beds are in wards, visitors wait in the waiting area, not in the operating theatre, etc. Even if you’ve never been in a hospital, you acquire a large part of this frame through depiction of “hospital life” on TV (in dramas, documentaries, etc).

So, what frames do we have for the policing activities of “the authorities”, and where do these frames get reinforced? Well, we have several, but one in particular seems to be reinforced much more frequently than the others. Here it is in a nutshell:

Good cops/authorities

Frame logic: Individuals are victimised or disadvantaged by the actions of bad, criminal, irresponsible, antisocial types. 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. (There’s also a “terrorism” variant of the frame, with similar structure, but differently defined roles).

Frame inferences: The cops/authorities are essentially good; the perpetrators 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).

Here’s a partial list of TV series I’ve compiled. They’re “fly on the wall” documentaries, and are usually shown in prime time (mostly on BBC). They all strongly reinforce the above frame. Such series have been broadcast on a regular basis for decades. To repeat: on a regular basis for decades. Literally hundreds of hours of ‘prime time’ TV beamed into our skulls:

Traffic cops
Crimewatch UK
Drunk and Dangerous
(police tackling drunks)
Car Wars
(Tactical Vehicle Crime Unit)
Sky Cops
(helicopter patrols)
Customs & Excise Cops
Forensic Cops

On the Fiddle
(welfare fraud policing)
Motorway Cops
(car wheel clampers)
The Tube
(London’s underground police)
Animal Cops
(airport police)
A Life of Grime
Traffic Wardens
Rogue Traders

Transport Cops
Seaside Rescue
Cops, Robbers and Videotape
Shops, Robbers and Videotape
(variation on a theme)
Girl Cops
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 (series of hour-long documentaries)
The Lock Up (about officers in custody suite of police station)
Send in the Dogs (police & their dogs)
Car Crime UK
Behind Closed Doors (police tackle domestic abuse cases)
The Sheriffs Are Coming (‘fly on the wall documentary series following High Court enforcement officers’)

Framing effects

The above TV shows often seem like the state equivalent of TV ads for banks – friendly, “you can trust us” PR. “Coercion is something that only bad individuals do to you. The system is there to protect you from it”. As always, repetition of the frame is key, together with relative absence of frames with fundamentally different inferences (eg the system itself as threat). So, Magna Carta is being dismantled, illegal wars are fought in your name, video surveillance is everywhere, your internet activity is monitored, you’re lied to by government on a daily basis – but you needn’t fear, because you know that the authorities are essentially good.

One thing I find disturbing about these programmes is that when “members of the public” are shown complaining, they’re typically 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 protecting you.

Robert Anton Wilson once remarked that TV is full of cop shows, and that you never see shows about landlords. Before you think the reasons for that are “obvious”, you might want to pause and think some more… Anyway, the above phenomenon (all those fly-on-the-wall cop documentaries) is rarely commented upon by media critics, even though – like tabloid crime sensationalism – it probably fills up a lot more “public” head-space than does Guardian commentary on state abuses of power.

Written by NewsFrames

June 13, 2013 at 8:36 am

11 Responses

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  1. Ok, I’ll bite…. why aren’t there more programs about landlords? Obvious reasons being that the day-to-day life of landlords is not as exciting as a tactical vehicle response unit.
    Landlord’s are authority type figures but not ‘state-endorsed’?
    It’s hard to frame Landlords as ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
    There is no benefit to the BBC in endorsing landlords as ‘good’?
    What is it?!


    June 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    • Ah, thanks – I’m glad someone commented on that (I wanted to expand on it, but the above piece wasn’t really the place).

      Robert Anton Wilson was a guerilla ontologist, and a lot of his remarks have a sort of surrealist weirdness to them – like a zen koan or something. The one about landlords stuck in my mind (back in the early 90s, I think). I’d already noticed the over-abundance of cop shows on TV, of course.

      Yes, the obvious thing is that cop shows give you a lot of action for violent drama, etc. (Landlord-based drama would be more… psychological? With a bit of imagination).

      It’s not so obvious why various forms of *policing* should feature so prominently in over 95% of BBC fly-on-the-wall documentaries. For example, “A Life of Grime”, which I list, tends to take the structure of good authorties/police vs bad guys, although there’s no action-drama, just a lot of dead rats, etc. Same for “Traffic Wardens”, “Dumping on Britain”, and others.

      I think Wilson’s point may have been that landlords have a huge influence/effect on our lives – in complex, indirect ways (perhaps more so than police) – often not in good ways. But they’re practically invisible when it comes to media content – and so the politicians aren’t driven to respond to those issues, and the public are indifferent (unless it affects them directly). Or something like that…


      June 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      • Ah ok! I must say it got me thinking.
        It’s more that landlords don’t feature in the media as much, thereby not drawing political comment as much, so not featured in media as much, and so on.
        It’s not that landlords are just dull for tv because, as you’ve said, health inspectors aren’t very dramatic either.
        A zen koan guerilla ontologist! I’ll have to read up on this Wilson chap.


        June 13, 2013 at 5:14 pm

  2. Had an interesting experience the other day – found myself near Beak Street, London during the ‘G8 protest/riot/whatever’ and in time-honoured coward fashion, walked swiftly away, not because I was worried or frightened by the protesters, but because I was worried and frightened by the huge intimidating police presence. – man, it takes a lot of guts to be a protester these days 😦


    June 14, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    • Yep, I’ve had the same response (walking quickly away). I always remember a quote, something like: “there are better ways to bring about social change than banging your head against a policeman’s truncheon”. (Buckminster Fuller?) Only now, you have tasers and stuff to worry about.


      June 14, 2013 at 6:49 pm

  3. RAW died before he could experience Kirstie Allsopp, evidently.


    June 14, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    • :)) (I can’t find the smiley for laughing, so that’ll have to do)


      June 14, 2013 at 6:51 pm

  4. Do something on question time, the whole show seems idiotic.


    June 21, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    • Ha! – good idea. If only I could make myself watch it. Seems to be a lot of commentary on yesterday’s, which I missed.


      June 21, 2013 at 6:40 pm

  5. To extend on that, yesterday they had a segment on drugs but none of them had any kind of academic or research expertise on the subject so it was the same old memes being bandied about.


    June 21, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    • Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s mostly the same old “talking heads” who appear (mostly politicians, in fact) – not people who have expertise and/or new insights. So the tendency is that nothing new gets heard, it’s just a rehash of what everyone thinks they already know.


      June 21, 2013 at 7:19 pm

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