Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV
Nick Ross - the king of the curtain twitchers - is back with a new show, Crime
Limited. His last series, Crimewatch UK, aimed to create a generation
of super-citizens who would report all strange goings on; jot down the numbers
of stolen cars in their Letts Crimebuster diaries, and keep an eye open
for anyone resembling last night's photofit.
Crime Limited is slightly different. Every week there is an item
called 'Landmark cases' in which the sort of actors who normally only get
the 'screaming victim of industrial accident' parts in Casualty act
out great scenes from legal history. There are updates on developments in
forensic science and crime prevention. It looks at first like background
knowledge for the Homewatch zealot. It has a Teach Yourself feel to it.
But why teach yourself if you trust the experts?
Crime Limited, though still addressed to the paranoid home-owner,
is no longer the voice of the police groupie. The week I watched it, the
forensic breakthrough was about a sex killing that took the cops 13 years
(and a lot more sex killings) to solve. And the 'Landmark case' was about
a West Midlands fit up. Ross himself is on record as a critic of the government's
record on law and order. Where Crimewatch was for the Homewatch,
Crime Limited is for the posse.
The news has been full of vigilantes this month, the most celebrated being
the 'Village vigilantes' who kidnapped a teenager for nicking motorbikes.
Their actions are usually linked with the recent 'white people have had
enough' premise of movies like Falling Down. The nightmare scenario
of an unholy alliance between the police and the property owner seemed to
be confirmed by the Panorama special on one case. Panorama found
that the village bobbies, like the RUC, had leaked the name of the culprit
who they (being the police) could not hope to convict, and stood back while
the citizens did their worst. The twist was, of course, that the citizens
got sent down for it.
The story that these incidents are usually made to tell is that of the police
and citizens together trying to keep the peace but being let down by a judiciary
which is soft on villains and hard on victims. 'If you go on the rob they'll
never catch you, but if you "have a go" at a burglar then you'll
be sent down', etc.
But a new story is starting to emerge now. The people of St Anne's in Bristol
have become the Jurassic Park of the vigilante world. They were on
Panorama, World In Action, and endless news features in all the media.
They formed a residents' association which has hired a private security
force (Nighthawk) to patrol its streets and which is now thinking of putting
in a video surveillance system. At first sight this might seem like a logical
extension of Homewatch. In fact it is the opposite.
The St Anne's project is not supplementary to the police; it is instead
of the police. The members are not lining up with the state in the fight
against the underclass or single mothers or whoever is the latest panic.
They are not preventing crime, but moving it on, away from their street
and into the next one. It is not public spirited. It does not take the 'public'
as such into account. It is by and for the residents only.
We are used to seeing - and approving of - this sort of organisation in groups
that the state has written off. For instance, the police refusal to admit
the existence of race attacks, leads to the formation of community based
protection mechanisms. But the people of St Anne's are the very people the
government sets out to represent. They are the 'Property owning democracy'
and suddenly they are as alienated and disaffected as a gang of teenage
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this development. In classical
British constitutional theory, the deal is roughly that you surrender your
'natural rights' (eg, the right to hit him if he hits you) in return for
legal rights (eg, the right to have him locked up if he hits you). The basis
of the state, its raison d'etre, is the protection of property and
the maintenance of order. The very basis of citizenship is allowing due
process of law to take its course. This is why the act of revenge excites
us so much.
Revenge is the most forceful assertion of the individual against the social
order. People who avenge themselves, who take the law into their own hands,
assert their individuality in a basic, primal way. They become in a sense
pre-social beings, like tooled up children. That's why all the big revenge
stories - from Hamlet to Shane - end with the avenger either
moving on or being killed. Heroes who overstay their welcome are called
Violence is a highly specialised activity and any political process that
is driven by violence will eventually leave power in the hands of the specialists.
It is the antithesis of democracy. One of the big modern heroes is the maverick
cop - whether it's Regan or Dirty Harry. This figure is an attempt to resolve
within one person the tension between the social and the individual. The
perfect balance is achieved, I suppose, at the end of each episode of Scooby
Doo, where Shaggy, Scooby and the rest deliver the bad guy (usually
disguised as a ghost) into the hands of the police. The bad guy says 'tsk,
tsk, if it hadn't been for those pesky kids...'. The heroic citizen's function
is merely to inform.
The fact that the Scooby Doo option no longer exists is perfectly
demonstrated by the case of Clive Stone. One night recently Mr Stone - a
homeless person sleeping rough in London - saw a car come squealing round
the corner with a teenage thief behind the wheel. Thinking quickly, he threw
the cardboard box in which he was living at the time, against the windscreen
of the car. It crashed into a wall and stopped. 'I didn't want it to go
on and kill someone', said Citizen Stone. Then the police arrived and arrested
Mr Stone. He is now on remand for obstructing the traffic. The car thief,
of course, got away.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993