TV UK, 13 June

Gang Wars: believing the bullshit bragging of adolescents.

Dolan Cummings

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‘They had sticks, and chains, and they did shout bad words.’ What about guns? ‘Yes, I fink it was Uzis.’ Uzis? What about elephants? ‘Yes! They had hephelumps too, and they did eat my fwiend!’

All right, that isn’t a precise transcript, but Gang Wars (Channel 4, last Sunday) was a terrible programme, which can only diminish the reputation of the normally respectable Dispatches strand. For all its flaws, the recent Killing Zone programme at least included footage of real events and credible interviews with the protagonists (1). And Virgin Soldiers provided valuable insights into the mentality of young American soldiers and their experience of Gulf War II.

Gang Wars, in contrast, largely comprised interviews with adolescent bullshitters, bragging about their street-fighting exploits, or assuring reporter Ishmahil Blagrove that they lived in fear of their lives. Blagrove apparently spent six months investigating violence among British teenagers, or as his own posture had it, uncovering the hidden gang culture (2). Anyone would think there had never been an hysterical headline or news report about teenage gangs.

The highlight of the programme was when a senior Metropolitan police officer warned Blagrove against getting carried away in a moral panic. Good point, copper. Once upon a time, a young, black reporter might have been expected to challenge the police for being heavy-handed in their approach to young, predominantly black kids. In this case, Blagrove managed to make the Met look racist for not piling in batons blazing.

Blagrove’s final, depressing endorsement of zero tolerance policing rested not on any serious journalistic investigation, but on the moral authority of a bereaved mother (though it was far from clear that her son’s death was in fact gang-related). Undoubtedly, things do sometimes get out of hand with disastrous consequences, but the trick of journalism is accommodating such stories in a broader perspective. It is hard to combine that trick with a shock, horror exposé posture.

It is a fairly safe bet that Morrissey never ran with a teenage gang. The Importance of Being Morrissey, on Channel 4 later the same night, offered rare access to the notoriously strange former frontman of The Smiths. Thankfully, the programme was not presented by Martin Bashir, but I can’t help wondering if it is about to be followed by a ‘The Footage They Didn’t Want You to See’ riposte, like the one that followed Bashir’s Michael Jackson programme (3).

I was simultaneously too young and too old for The Smiths (I was into Dire Straits at the time), but I have to admit to liking their records now. As is so often the case, though, an interview with the artist did nothing for one’s appreciation of his work. Morrissey came across as dull and annoying, and even his famously influential vegetarianism is now mixed up in mealy-mouthed mumblings about food safety. With a personality this lame, his long-awaited next record had better be good.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See TV UK, 22 May

(2) See Gang Wars on the Channel 4 website

(3) See TV UK, 6 March

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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