Prurience posing as compassion

Last night, a grim 21st-century tradition was observed on BBC television. Within days of the jury returning a guilty verdict in a high-profile murder trial, an hour-long documentary about the case was broadcast at prime time.

Doubtless, millions tuned in to catch up on this miserable story. Not only had it been excitedly promoted on-air, but it is part of a popular new genre. After a big trial, we have become used to the post-conviction TV analysis, often providing details previously sub judice. There is something about the instant real-crime telly-doc which appeals to modern tastes. Last night’s programme went under the oddly thrillerish title Taken: the Milly Dowler Story, but the story it told was of a real schoolgirl, abducted and killed in 2002.

By now we know the format. There will be a sensitive interview with tearful family and friends of the victim. There will be dramatised reconstructions. The murderer will be profiled. The full horror will be revisited for the umpteenth time. At some point, an interview or video footage never previously seen might be shown. A sombre copper will provide a step-by-step account of the investigation. Pressing questions will sometimes be asked about the conduct of the police, or the justice system, or the media.

What, though, of the role of those commissioning these programmes? No doubt, an instant murder documentary gets good ratings, but the idea that it raises important issues about crime and justice, that it is good, responsible broadcasting, is often pure self-justifying humbug.

For example, serious matters of police incompetence, flaws in the law, the behaviour of barristers, excesses in the media should be, and indeed are, discussed in serious, news-based programmes, well away from emotional interviews and the dramatised paraphernalia of reconstructions.

It might just be argued that the victim’s family will benefit from having its moment of release on camera; publicity, in this great age of sharing, is increasingly seen as a major part of the healing process. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that including millions of strangers in your private agony can do anything but make it worse.

The public-good argument is at its weakest when it comes to the viewers themselves. Programmes which tap into a prurient fascination with brutal crime have one obvious effect: they glamorise sadism, violence and hatred. The more a murderer is described as “a monster”, and the more his every action and thought are analysed, the greater his victory over normality and decency. In fact, what is so often frightening about profoundly nasty men is that their behaviour is not, in any obvious everyday sense, monstrous.

Inadequate and dysfunctional, they yearn for the attention which these programmes provide. Indeed, in the case of Millie Dowler, by repeatedly showing the heartbreaking home video of the soon-to-be victim at the ironing-board, broadcasters were not far from encouraging their viewers to see a murderer’s victim in the perverted way in which he saw her.

Murder and entertainment have always been close allies in the world of fiction, and indeed in the recreation of true-life crimes when they were committed in the safely distant past. However, the division between real murder and the fictional, entertaining version has become smudged. These programmes exist on the dangerous edge of non-fiction entertainment. There is a niggling sense that, by taking an ugly, brutal crime, shaping it into a story, framing it and packaging it, directors are giving it the celebrity treatment.

Instant documentaries, broadcast while the pain and rage are still sharp and the stories still echoing in the media, appeal to the worst in us: our hunger for real-life drama, for feeling involved, for tears, for titillation disguised as moral disapproval. No wonder broadcasters like them so much.

Independent, Friday, 1 July 2011