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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Crime reporting’ Category

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.

I’m sure many BBC viewers get a 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

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

Anxiety-inducing frames

This is an updated (& much rewritten) version of an article published by the Guardian in 1999,
which I originally wrote for the Idler magazine.

Smiling is compulsoryIn every job interview I’ve had, I’ve struggled to give the (false) impression that I was applying out of free choice & enthusiasm (rather than financial dilemma & survival anxiety). Telling the truth rarely helps in these matters, and most interviewers wouldn’t want to hear it.

Financial anxiety turns most of us into useful idiots. In the everyday world of tedious wage slavery, useful idiots can be identified by their claim to like their jobs (I don’t mean the lucky few who really love their jobs). When so many people seem to “enjoy” being economic slaves, or at least pretend to, one suspects something beyond deluded sentimentality – something sinister and pathological.

We’re living in an anxiety culture and we’re driven by fear. For 1 in 7 people, it’s of clinical severity (15% of people in England suffer from an anxiety-related mental disorder). A Mental Health Foundation report (2009) found that 77% of people say they are more frightened than they used to be, and 66% have fear/anxiety about the “current financial situation”.1

The MHF report criticises politicians, public bodies, businesses and the media for what it calls “institutionally-driven fear”, fuelled by scaremongering use of “most calamitous scenarios” on issues such as crime, terrorism, the economy, etc. (Incidentally, I was amused to see that the MHF report cited my 1999 Guardian article* as a source for: “60% of employees suffer from feelings of insecurity and anxiety, with 43 % having difficulty sleeping because of work worries” – a finding I’d quoted from a 1995 ITV documentary, World in Action).Mail & Express fearmongering

Yuppies-in-adverts redux

The picture that emerges seems at odds with the grinning, self-assured yuppie reality beamed into our living rooms during commercial breaks. It’s a cliché, but advertisers still present a world where “normal” people smile perpetually while driving their expensive new cars. The result is that we feel abnormal and humiliated driving old cars or taking buses. No one is immune from these social-comparison anxieties, not even the marketers themselves (surveys show advertising executives to be “plagued by self-doubt and insecurity”2).

There are strong vested interests in keeping public anxiety at a high level. Anxious people make good consumers – they tend to eat/drink compulsively, need more distractions (newspapers, TV, etc) and more buttressing of their fragile self-image through “lifestyle” products. The financial services industry (insurance, savings, etc) makes billions from our financial insecurities. The unsubtle targeting of our fears is evident in adverts for everything from vehicle recovery services and private health care to chewing gum and mouthwash.

Employers benefit if workers fear losing their jobs – fearful people are less likely to complain, and tend to be more suggestible and compliant. Politicians cite “public fears” as justification for freedom-eroding legislation; insecure populations show a tendency to favour the authoritarian rhetoric of “strong leaders”. In a word, governments and corporations gladly reap the harvests of high public anxiety.

The Daily Scare

According to the Mental Health Foundation report, 60% of those who think that “people are becoming more anxious or frightened” blame it partly on “the impact of the media”. Anxiety can be induced in a population by constantly focusing on the threat of things like crime and terrorism in an exaggerated way. (I wrote the article before the financial collapse; it’s possible that with an emphasis on economic perils, crime isn’t currently hyped so much).

Mirror "Yob Rule" - 2011 riotsIn a MORI poll conducted in the early 1990s, half of those questioned believed that tabloid newspapers have a vested interest in making people more afraid of crime. In 1995, the makers of Frontline, a Channel 4 documentary on crime, requested interviews with the editors of the Daily Mail, Mirror, Sun, Daily and Sunday Express, Today, People and Star, to ask how they justified their sensationalised crime coverage. They all refused to be interviewed.3

Unfortunately, many people believe the crime hype (belief seems to correlate with acceptance of the conservative “moral breakdown” framing). A third of elderly women fear going outside their homes, but only one in 4,000 will be assaulted.4 Statistically, the elderly and young children are the groups least at risk from attack – but because newspapers repeatedly cover crimes victimising the vulnerable, they seem more common than they are.

One effect of our over-stimulated fears is widespread paranoia. Consider this news item from the Independent newspaper: “Teachers have been warned not to put sun cream on young pupils because they could be accused of child abuse”. These warnings were then criticised by cancer charities. Skin-cancer risk versus child-abuse accusation risk. Welcome to Anxiety Society.

Most fear/worry results from what we’ve been thinking rather than external events. We’re immersed in anxiety-inducing belief systems which we regard as perfectly normal. Exposure to these fearful worldviews starts in early childhood, before we’ve developed intellectual defences, and it continues in school, where we learn to be obedient, economically-frightened grown-ups.


Your home is at risk...“Fear triggers the strict father model; it tends
to make the model active in one’s brain”

— George Lakoff

One of the most insidious anxiety-inducers is a sort of secular equivalent of “original sin” – the belief that, in essence, you’re “lacking” or “not good enough” and must redeem yourself with hard work and suffering. This “no pain, no gain” worldview manifests as the idea that you’re infinitely undeserving – that reward, ie happiness, will always be contingent upon the endurance of unpleasant activity (eg work).

It makes life seem a burden rather than an adventure, it’s exploited to the maximum by big business, and it makes you feel guilty.

This deep-seated mindset can be subverted with psychological gimmicks. For example, try believing that you deserve to be paid for doing nothing. Dismiss the notion that you have to “earn” anything. You earned your life by being born – now you deserve to relax. Quit your job and go on holiday, or call in sick as often as possible. Remove all forms of guilt from your mind. Go to extremes of laziness and indulge yourself deluxe-style every day. (When re-reading this paragraph, it seemed almost “blasphemous” in the current austere climate. I originally intended it as partly serious, partly ironic).

‘False responsibility’ framing

Another insidious anxiety-inducer to watch out for is the belief that you should be responsible. This puts people under tremendous strain. You don’t choose your genetic makeup or the conditions in which you grow up, yet all the unfortunate things that happen are supposed to be your fault.

In most cases, the de facto function of “individual responsibility” is social conformity. Society holds you accountable if you don’t comply with its definition of your responsibilities. The attraction of “responsibility” is that it allows people total conformity without removing the facade of heroic individuality – it’s the kind of concept that advertisers dream about.

This “responsibility” tends to see everything as a problem needing a solution – usually involving endless work. Pushed too far, it undermines progress towards desirable conditions such as increased leisure. Intelligent attempts to drastically cut average working hours, for example, are resisted on the basis that it’s irresponsible. (Similar, perhaps, to the Puritanism that H.L. Mencken described as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”).

Trust the expertsSometimes it might make more sense to pay people to stay at home – as Buckminster Fuller noted when attempting to quantify the amount of fossil fuel we burn whilst travelling to pointless jobs. But politicians – the experts on responsibility – see joblessness as the ultimate irresponsible lifestyle. It never occurs to them that their idea of responsibility might not be universal.

Thus, a real and massive problem – how to distribute wealth humanely in a wealthy technological (ie automated) society – becomes as unsolvable as the mythical “moral breakdown” when it’s framed in terms of jobs & joblessness (with all the social anxieties that this framing triggers).

“Fear triggers the strict father model”. In Lakoff’s terminology, the “strict father model” refers to the deep cognitive frames which form the moral worldview of rightwing “conservatives”. In effect he is saying that people tend to think in more conservative (and less progressive) terms to the extent that they are being frightened.


*My original Guardian article was published on 8 October, 1999, in the Guardian’s ‘Editor’ pull-out supplement. The text is available online here.

1. The Mental Health Foundation’s April 2009 report, titled In the Face of Fear, which “reveals a UK society that is increasingly fearful and anxious”.
2. Quoted from The Times, 22 November 1996.
3. Frontline, Channel 4, 4 October 1995.
4. Sunday Times, 6 August 1995.
5. Lakoff, Don’t think of an elephant, page 42.

Written by NewsFrames

March 14, 2012 at 9:20 am