TV UK, 23 October

The Secret Policeman was as empty-headed as the racist recruits it featured.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

The Secret Policeman, the BBC documentary broadcast on Tuesday, has caused such a fuss with its revelations of racist attitudes among new police recruits in northern England that few commentators have bothered to ask whether going undercover in a training centre is a sensible way to investigate police racism.

Mark Daly made a great deal of the fact that he had to go undercover to expose racism in the police, in order to see past the politically correct veneer. Indeed he seems to have seen past the politically correct veneer, and straight into the sparsely decorated heads of young policemen, without ever gaining any insight into the reality of policing, racist or otherwise. The film mostly comprised secretly filmed footage of Daly’s co-trainees drunkenly maligning ‘ethnic minorities’ in his room.

Some revelations were innocuous. One young policemen said that if anyone took all the PC sensitivity stuff seriously, he would be ‘a shit copper’, noting rather perceptively that good policing depends on prejudice, developing a nose for dodgy types. (That’s why we have the law to keep the police in check.) But there were also several scenes with a comically racist idiot who was coaxed into fantasising about killing an Asian, and praising Hitler and the BNP.

The scene that attracted most attention before the broadcast featured said idiot donning a pillow case to imitate a Ku Klux Klanner. He has now resigned, and it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him, but while Daly exposed a lot of nastiness, his report contained no evidence of actual wrongdoing. True, several officers said that they would discriminate against Asians, and Cloth-Head boasted that he had done, but given that Daly led them to believe that he would approve of such behaviour, such ‘confessions’ cannot be taken at face value.

The premise of the exposé was that racism is an individual attitude, rather than something bound up in the way society works. It was assumed that racist remarks made in private would translate into racist practices on the streets, and no thought was given to the actual workings of the police or their role in society. Consequently the programme was shallow and moralistic, inviting despair instead of challenging the status quo.

Finally, I can’t let go that the film gratuitously maligned Rangers Football Club. In an effort to bond with a colleague and coax racist remarks out of him, Daly drove him to Glasgow to see a game. Rather too much was made of it being a Rangers game, with footage of the stadium and the fans, playing on viewers’ prejudices about football in general and Rangers in particular, but nothing concrete was added to the racism story. I can only surmise that Daly is a Celtic supporter. (He certainly looks like one.)

My pal from Newcastle was similarly incensed by Men in Tights on ITV1 the same night. Some wag thought it would be a bit of a wheeze to train a bunch of ship-builders from Newcastle as ballet dancers for a few weeks, and then have them perform for their colleagues and families at the yard. You could probably define a TV commissioning editor as somebody who thinks that sounds like a good idea. ‘Yes! It’s The Full Monty, it’s Faking It, it’s Billy Elliot, it’s Fame Academy – I love it!’

Clearly the intention was less to enrich the men’s lives with high culture than to break down their macho attitudes. Two of the men who were selected were clearly unfit and incapable, but were chosen because they were obvious reality TV fodder: awkward, lacking in confidence and highly strung. Meanwhile, two younger lads were dismissed for taking the piss. It is simply taken for granted that any attitudes associated with working-class men – much like the notorious police ‘canteen culture’ – are relics of a bygone age that ought to be swept aside to allow us all to get in touch with our inner ballet dancers.

As my pal put it, ‘Wayhyayman yecannadaethatlike thepatronisinfuckersman likeyekna?’ Quite.

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)).

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