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Artillery Row

Alan Bates Britain 

The case for dramatising every national scandal 

When ITV broadcast their drama on the Post Office scandal they seemed to strike a far deeper nerve in modern Britain. Watching a quaint state institution drive people to insanity and suicide via a malfunctioning piece of technology seemed to speak to some atavistic sense of injustice that now pervaded public life.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the story was that “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history,” had been lurking in the background for over a decade. The scandal kicked off in 2009 with a Computer Weekly story. Then came a Panorama episode in 2015, a successful high court challenge in 2019 and finally an “independent enquiry” in 2020 that got the ball rolling on overturning convictions. But four years later nothing had really happened. Between them, the nation’s press, politicians and legal system, despite their best efforts, had failed to bring about decisive justice.

That it took a television drama and public outrage to spur more decisive action did seem to touch on a much darker truth about public life in Britain. Such is the extent of state dysfunction, political incompetence and waning trust in institutions that the country has entered into a seemingly terminal spiral of apathy and inaction when it comes to responding to injustice and wrongdoing. Once a moment of national shame is uncovered and digested through the bowels of Britain’s institutions, it seems to sit there and stew until drained of all life.

Why? When it comes to the press, that old mediator of public outrage, fewer and fewer people engage with it, or indeed trust it at all. According to the World Values Survey, UK confidence in its press sits at 13 per cent, higher only than Egypt at 8 per cent. Perhaps unsurprising for a nation in which the latest Westminster psychodrama, gossip and speculation creates a numbing effect that seems to take precedence above all else. 

Combined with this tortoise like pace of state enquiry comes a political culture defined by lack of shame and responsibility for wrongdoing in public office

Law, order and justice is also marked by a waning faith. Trust in the police has fallen by 20 points from a high in 1981 of 87 per cent to a low of 67 per cent in 2022. In a recent survey by the Victim’s Commissioner, an astonishing 83 per cent of victims said they had lost faith in the Crown Prosecution Service to deliver justice. To take one recent story, a three year struggle to convict a woman who left 17-year-old “lucky to be alive,” after stabbing her five times ended with her walking free from court.  “I am originally from Yemen, and I can honestly say that there would be a better chance of justice there,” the mother of the victim said. 

Then there are the infamous government inquiries, so notoriously slow and expensive that recently an inquiry into inquiries was announced. At present,  there are thirteen inquiries dealing with “national scandals,” some of which have been going on for nearly ten years and cover everything from the abuse of children in care homes to the Grenfell Tower Disaster (which since the pandemic seems to be in limbo).  

Combined with this tortoise-like pace of state enquiry is a political culture defined by  alack of shame wrongdoing in public office. There’s Gavin Barwell, who prior to becoming May’s chief of staff and a moralising Twitter personality was one of many housing ministers in the lead up to Grenfell who failed to act on repeated warnings about fire safety. Something he described as “embarrassing”. And of course there is the archetype of political shamelessness, Matt Hancock, whose persistence on being humiliated on national television seems to be bordering on something of a fetish. 

Given this, it’s no surprise that others are now seeking to repeat the spectacle of mass outrage via television drama. Could this be the next Mr Bates? asked a Times article previewing Jed Mercurio’s drama about a doctor on the frontline of the pandemic. “I want Boris Johnson to watch it,” he said, perhaps hoping to spark life into a Covid 19 enquiry which has so far been described as a charade, a “pointless and expensive farce” and a “headline grabbing display of tittle tattle”.

But why stop there? This week alone an investigation by Sky News claimed to have uncovered nearly 20,000 complaints of rape, sexual assault and, abuse  involving patients and staff across more than 30 mental health trusts. BBC Panorama ran another story involving whistleblowers at a maternity ward concerned about the avoidable deaths of babies.  At present, there is a campaign to look into the potentially avoidable deaths of up to 8000 people at a mental health trust in Suffolk. 

Then there are our more historic scandals which seem to forever linger on without closure. One surefire contender for an ITV six parter must be the decades long struggle to get justice for victims of birth defects at the hand of Primodos, a drug which an independent inquiry said should have been removed from the market in 1967. Then of course there is the Tavistock clinic, now facing closure after hundreds of children were wrongly put on life-changing puberty blockers. Or the grooming gangs scandal, where in places like Rochdale victims still encounter their abusers on the street

I have a dream of a country sat each night before the latest hard hitting drama sourced from the nation’s malaise

In fact, why limit ourselves only to national scandals? Rich material for a hard hitting drama would be the state of Britain in general. Think The Wire, or perhaps even American Horror Story but set in England’s forgotten provincial towns. Part David Lynch horror, part gritty hitting crime drama. Researchers need only limit themselves to Ed West’s now notorious crime thread, or the increasingly surreal stream of local news that covers everything from a “Men Behaving Dadly” star Simon Harris being paid more than the Prime Minister to run “Community Engagement” during the pandemic to a Real Housewives of Cheshire star running a failing children’s home. 

We could even commission dramas based on pressing national issues that seem to never quite draw appropriate action. Perhaps a depressing six parter on mid-life millennials still renting in a Zone 6 suburb with no savings and no children. An apocalyptic thriller in which the energy grid fails after Britain’s energy imports collapse. A Dad’s Army style sitcom about the country being invaded and there being no army. 

I have a dream of a country sat each night before the latest hard hitting drama sourced from the nation’s malaise. No more Netflix dramas involving flattened non-worlds as a form of escapism. The nation’s plight would be turned into one giant ITV thriller. Overnight we would become a nation of Alan Bates’s, forever meeting in village halls and ruthlessly lobbying politicians. Who knows where this reckoning with our nation of scandals might take us? A revolution, a clean sweep at the Baftas, or perhaps another public inquiry.

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