In February 2014 the UK’s Channel 4 showed a 95 minute long pilot episode of Babylon. As is common in TV dramas now, it was multi-stranded with an ensemble cast. A central strand of that episode was, as Channel 4’s website says:
London's police force is in need of a public image revamp. And Chief Constable Richard Miller, played by James Nesbitt, has found just the woman to do it… American visionary from the world of new media, Liz Garvey, played by Brit Marling, sets out to revolutionise the force's PR department just as an outbreak of violence erupts.
This squarely addresses the issues raised in Lee and McGovern’s book. The interplay between media (new and old) and policing, the significance of the trans Atlantic (indeed global) and the depiction of that in the media. As they assert, ‘Policing in the twenty-first century is nothing if not hyperreal (p6).
They open their book with a long quote from Kym Charlton’s final post on the Queensland Police Service Facebook page as she stood down as Director of Police Media. She invokes the continued relevance of ‘Peelian Principles’ but also the new media landscape in which they had 363,500 ‘likes’ (476,000 as of 2 June 2014). They must have started earlier than the Metropolitan Police who only have 28,187 from a larger potential population. The NYPD have garnered 237,000 since February 2012 when they joined Facebook.
The use of the quote from Charlton is very appropriate as Lee and McGovern meditate upon, much that she has to say. All of which is made relevant to non-Australian readers; as they cite international experts such as Mawby, Reiner and Surette. Their extensive research is Australian but they always relate it to the wider policing and media worlds. There is, however, a sense in which the research came first, leading to the many conference presentations and journal articles that are a basis for the book.
The hyperreal affords no time to catch up. Clearly, as they were writing this, events in the UK took a very public, and ongoing, turn with Lord Justice Leveson’s Inquiry into ‘the culture, practices and ethics of the press and, in particular, the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians’. Lord Justice Leveson opened the hearings on 14 November 2011, saying: “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
The ‘guardian’ quote is well known to police scholars but here Leveson suggests that the press are the guards of police and politicians and vice versa in creative tension. However, his Inquiry and subsequent events suggest a more collusive tension. The more narrowly focussed Inquiry by Elizabeth Filkin found, ‘there were a range of problems in the relationship between the MPS and the media and much needs to be done to make the necessary improvements. I am delighted to hear that the MPS is signed up to them.”
All of these developments are covered by Lee and McGovern but since then Operations Elveden (alleged payments by journalists to police and others) Weeting (phone hacking) and Tuleta (computer hacking and other privacy breaches) have rumbled into action (arrests listed here). Moreover, allegations of undercover police spying on green groups and the family of Stephen Lawrence, Plebgate and the riots after the shooting of Mark Duggan have all perturbed the nation and any easy relationship between media and police. The authors cannot have foreseen these events and some of their Australian examples have resonances. The hyperreal vortex means few of us can keep up across time zones. As they conclude, ‘In five years time […] this analysis, like the newspaper still rolled up on the coffee table, may also be old news’ (p213).
What we might cling to in all of this is theory. The core is their synthesis of Garland’s Cultures of Control, De Certeau’s observations on everyday life and O’Malley’s thoughts on ‘simulated justice’. That is, ‘a simulated form of policing that we believe has grown in chorus and which complements the simulated processes and strategies outlined by O’Malley’ (p71) but operating in a cultural realm unexplored by him. They make three points from this. First, they recognise the importance of the image of police even from Peel’s time but now claim, ‘the representation of policing is policing - or at least a simulation or simulacra of traditional policing’ (p72, emphasis in original). Secondly, ‘simulated policing is more than than a cynical attempt at spin produced by increasingly professional and savvy public relations units’ (p72). That is these units and staff largely believe in it. Thirdly, and squarely with O’Malley, they suggest this simulated policing has ‘potentially unlimited public reach’ (p73). That is whilst there is research on police/public interaction and satisfaction etc virtual/simulated interactions have yet to be adequately researched. This ‘simulation’ occurs in Mathiesen’s synoptic ‘viewer society’.
The book is organised around three sections. The first section of three chapters runs through the police and media literature, practice and introducing ‘simulated policing’. The second section examines this form of policing through chapters on the press release, social media and reality TV. All of those may fail as ‘policing’ and examples are given but the final section of two chapters on ‘policing the police’ examines active resistance to police and policing through new and old media. Clearly some fails and resistance overlap or feed into and upon each other. Much resistance is seen to be a tactic of the weak in De Certeau’s terms. The final conclusion opens with the Boston Marathon bombing and the use made by the police, and others, of new media - often as a source for, or corrective to, old media. There is also an appendix on research methods showing the breadth and depth of their qualitative and quantitative engagement. Methods are not for everyone, but more might have been made of this. The publisher might be behind such a decision to downplay this aspect.
Some of the problems of the book are caused by attempting to cover different forces on different continents with different media ecologies. However, that is also the source of its strengths. But a few points need to be made. They note, ‘Today Scotland Yard employs ex News Corporation staff to manage their media profile’ (p61). Already this news is old, indeed turned out to be part of the problem, as in March 2102 the Met's PR chief Dick Fedorcio resigned over his employment of such staff. He was replaced by a Channel 4 TV News editor.
They rightly note the sousveillance of police by ‘citizen journalists’ and activists (from Rodney King to Ian Tomlinson) but don’t cover the growth of police use of body cameras. They quote Greer and McLaughin on a couple of issues but not on the hounding of Sir Ian Blair from office of Met Commissioner by the media.
The emphasis on both factual and fictional coverage of policing aligns them with the work of Leishman and Mason on ‘faction’ which this book usefully updates. They mention the significance of a number of Australian crime/police shows (Wildside, Blue Heelers and Water Rats), The Wire and the UK’s The Bill. These are largely treated unproblematically but Anita Lam’s Making Crime Television now offers a more nuanced insider view as she worked ethnographically within some Canadian crime series. Recently published is Marianne Colbran’s Media Representations of Police and Crime which promises further insights as she was a script writer on The Bill for many years before becoming a criminologist.
So this is a developing area of interest. It would be interesting, but difficult, to hear other voices/see other representations from around the world. For instance, is ‘simulated policing’ occurring in Pakistan, Brazil, Russia or Ukraine? Has it even occurred consistently in Great Britain? Might some discussion/conclusions be less postmodern outside the global North or where policing has remained more ‘hands on’, for instance Northern Ireland.
Criminologists and policing experts should not be put off by terms like ‘public relations’ or ‘media’ in the title; this book is clearly about policing and a worthy addition to Critical Criminology. Practitioners of the ‘dark arts’ might enjoy some of the detail.
This review was commissioned by Rutgers Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books website but they rejected it for being too British and having links!