Jumpers at the ready: The Killing is back

<em>Forbrydelsen</em>, along with other Scandi whodunits, harks back to a more artful age of crime d

ITV once announced the comeback of Columbo by playing Mark Morrison's Return of the Mac -- a whole detective represented by a crumpled old raincoat. This weekend, a similarly feted piece of clothing returns to our screens -- along with the sleuth who inhabits it -- as Danish detective Sarah Lund reappears in the iconic Faroese jumper for series two of The Killing (Forbrydelsen), starting Saturday on BBC4.

I should state at this point that this is in no way going to be an objective piece of writing. I write as an unashamed fan. I absolutely loved the first series of The Killing, and I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the second. As luck would have it, I'm away in Copenhagen (pretending to stalk Troels Hartmann in the town hall) this weekend, but I'll make sure I catch up during the week.

What's so great about this latest piece of Scandi Crime fiction? Are we just interested in our Nordic cousins meandering around because it seems foreign and cerebral to us; a notch up from Midsomer Murders or the standard detective shows on our major channels? As someone once said to me, there are probably Scandinavians sitting down to a subtitled episode of New Tricks, marvelling at Dennis Waterman's subtle characterisation and the psychological pacing of the drama. But I think it goes beyond that: the Scandi shows like Wallander and The Killing hark back to a more exciting, more artful age of crime drama.

Look back at an old episode of Bergerac, for example, and you'll find the pacing is so different. Fires in the Fall, the fabled creepy Christmas special of 1986 is well worth a look (though don't watch it right before going to bed) for several reasons. The plot really takes time to get going, almost as if you're not going to turn it over after 10 seconds if you get bored. As well as that, shows went 30 or 40 minutes before anyone even got killed; it seems John Nettles had a lot less death to deal with in Jersey than he does in Midsomer, where the corpses stack up before every ad break.

What The Killing's first series combined, over 20 hour-long episodes, was a whodunit with a drama about the effect of the crime on those who were left behind, along with a political thriller. It was like 24, but without the torture porn and the need for explosions. No mean feat for a bit of Sunday night telly, but there it was. We had time to learn about the various suspects and characters, to rule them out and then think they might have done it after all. Who knew? No one knew. Even the actors didn't know.

Unusually, The Killing is written as the series is filmed, with the main writers taking account of the actors' interpretations and including them in future episodes. It's this relationship between actors and their characters that makes it feel like a real collaborative effort -- plus no one knew who would be the killer or whether they would live or die until they got the next script, so they were as much in the dark as we, the audience were.

Catch the first series if you can, but keep your head down and don't mention it to anyone who might have seen it; you won't want the revelation of the killer and the noir-heavy denouement spoiled for you, that's for sure. Best to just lock yourself away.

At the heart of Forbrydelsen was and is Sarah Lund, the flawed detective played by Sofie Grabol. If The Killing had been set in England, you just know Lund would have been a ballbreaker or a bitch, power-dressed and full of that ghastly "feistiness" that all female leads are forced to have nowadays. But no: instead, the protagonist is quite passive, almost annoyingly so at times, thinking rather than articulating. She's not even brilliantly deductive: like Morse, she gets to the truth by simply wearing it down. What she has, above all, is patience and persistence -- the kind of qualities that are rewarded with this kind of superior crime drama.

So, jumpers at the ready. Series 2 is here. Just don't tell me who did it, or there'll be a real crime.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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