PETER HITCHENS: Just a bit of TV fun? Wait until they lock you up!
AD237418416PRI_30167643This is Peter Hitchens’s Mail on Sunday column
The ITV police drama Broadchurch last week dealt a damaging blow to British justice. This expensively made, star-infested type of programme has a huge impact on those who watch it.
Beloved and respected actors in tense, enthralling stories influence viewers far more than any amount of news or documentary film. As the author Philip Pullman has rightly said, ‘Once upon a time’ is a far more effective way of getting into someone’s mind than ‘Thou shalt not’.
So I was appalled by a scene in the first episode of the new series – a high-impact moment just before the first commercial break.
The actors involved were David Tennant, a TV superstar since he played Doctor Who, Olivia Colman, a key character in the successful The Night Manager, and Julie Hesmondhalgh, for 15 years a mainstay of Coronation Street, as the transsexual Hayley Cropper.
People want to like these celebrities, and they want to be liked by them. Police often imitate what fictional coppers do on TV
This platoon of the glamorous, the earnest and the politically correct joined together to portray the investigation of a rape.
At least there was no attempt to pretend that the police still treat those who report rapes with dismissive callousness, something that stopped about 20 years ago.
On the contrary, Ms Hesmondhalgh’s character was caressed with endless consideration.
Mind you, this wasn’t one of those he-said she-said rapes where the complainant says there was no consent and the alleged rapist says there was consent.
This was a full-scale violent attack, with Ms Hesmondhalgh’s character covered in blood, bruises, scratches and cuts, and suffering from concussion.
So why on earth would a battered, blood-encrusted person, after being taken deadly seriously for hours, swabbed for DNA and the rest, suddenly ask the kindly, helpful, diligent police team: ‘Do you believe me?’
As far as I can see it was only so that David Tennant could say ‘Yes’. Later in the same programme, Olivia Colman’s character snapped at a colleague: ‘We always start from a position of believing the victim.’
These are words a police officer should never say. The police are servants of justice, not judges, let alone a substitute for independent juries. If they decide in advance that an allegation is true, they will not investigate the case properly because their minds are shut.
It was this misguided attitude that led to multiple police mess-ups, the worst of them being the ludicrous, inexcusable public persecution of Field Marshal Lord Bramall and the disgraceful treatment of the late Leon Brittan and his widow.
This has been the subject of a huge debate. It led to the excoriation of the police in a report by the distinguished Judge Sir Richard Henriques.
He says no judge would ever allow an alleged victim to be referred to in court as a plain ‘victim’ when there has been no conviction.
The police should do the same. But, partly because they have recently got much too big for their boots, and started to think they are judge, jury and executioner, the police don’t want to. They will have been pleased by this scene.
You may not care about this. But unless it is put right, every one of us, no matter how respected and apparently secure, is at the mercy of a false accusation and the ruin that can follow – think of the Dorset Fire Chief David Bryant, who spent three years in prison on the basis of an accusation of sexual assault. But the complainant was later found to be a fantasist with a history of mental illness.
Mr Bryant’s wife Lynn, who worked so hard to clear his name, has since died, probably thanks to the terrible strain of fighting a prejudiced justice system.
I have no doubt that the police ‘believed’ this horrible liar, and referred to him as a ‘victim’. Perhaps if they hadn’t, it might have crossed their minds to do the detecting that they are hired and paid to do, and that poor, devoted Lynn Bryant wore herself out doing.
All of us – and that includes TV scriptwriters and actors – have a duty to help put an end to this sort of injustice. Broadchurch has done a great deal of harm by endorsing police arrogance and folly.