Am I a Luther convert? Yes. The plot might not stand up, but it's a cut above most cop series

The show's garnered praise for Idris Elba's performance, but really its most important character is London.

Luther
BBC1

Not even a TV critic can watch everything, so this, the third series of Luther (Tuesdays, 9pm), is my first. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to catch up. Luther is nothing if not hyped, which is why I’ve known ever since it started in 2010 that DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) is a maverick cop (though in this instance the cliché “maverick” means “borderline nutter” as opposed to someone who isn’t crazy about paperwork).

I was also aware he was involved in some funny business with a brilliant killer played by Ruth Wilson – though she seems to have disappeared this time round. In series three, her character appears only on a noticeboard, where her photograph has been stuck alongside all of Luther’s other “victims” by the coppernow investigating his dubious methods.

Yes, Luther is under investigation and it’s his loyal sidekick DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) who’s the mole. I doubt this state of affairs will last – Luther is almost certain to win Ripley round in the end – but it’s fun for now, a pleasing seam of reality making its way into what must be one of the most preposterous shows ever made. Not that I mind. However loopy, Luther is still quite frightening, the kind of programme that makes you worry about walking home from the bus stop (as usual, most of the violence – and there is plenty of it – is directed at young women).

It makes you jump and sometimes (perhaps this is just me) it makes you run out of the room with your hands over your eyes. In the first episode, a killer, having decided that he would not allow the police the satisfaction of taking his fingerprints, went into his kitchen and shoved his hand in his blender – a refreshingly edgy take on the 21st-century craze for juicing.

It’s quite clear that Neil Cross, Luther’s writer, is deeply in love with his creation. His passion is there in the small stuff: a serial killer who dresses his victims up like Siouxsie Sioux (“late-Eighties post-punk”, as Luther explains it to Ripley); a serial killer who fishes in the Thames for freshwater crayfish and then eats them for his tea with a bag of chipshop chips. Why does Luther drive an old Volvo estate? I don’t know but I like that he does. Delightfully at odds with his tendency to dangle suspects by their ankles over the edge of tower-block balconies, its low-slunk bulk is one reason among many why the viewer is never quite sure how to take him. Luther not a loveable rogue; he’s a monster with a badge. And yet he is sometimes on the side of the angels, morally speaking, and he cruises around London in the same motor in which I used to travel to Brownies. I wonder if there are Wet Ones and a tin of sugar-dusted “travel sweets” in the glove compartment.

Elba’s performance as Luther has been much praised (he won a Golden Globe for it in 2012) but he doesn’t have an awful lot to do in the way of nuance. I prefer Dermot Crowley’s turn as his boss, DSU Martin Schenk; one look at his hair (lank as day-old underwear) and skin (dishcloth grey) and you absolutely believe in him. If you could hand him his police pension there and then, you would, just as an act of pity.

But Luther’s most important character is London. The series is beautifully shot, blues always bleeding into greys and every pano - rama framed or gloriously bisected by some bridge or tower. You watch it and think: this is what album covers used to be like, kids. (Though I also think, sometimes: my God, I’m seeing Blackwall in a whole new light. The location scout deserves a medal.)

So, am I convert? Yes, I think I am. It doesn’t stand up, any of it, plot-wise but it’s still a cut above some cop series. And it stays with you. I keep thinking about a certain stiletto heel, as seen from the perspective of a man who is hiding beneath its owner’s bed . . . Tonight, I will be checking out my boudoir very carefully, just in case.

Monster with a badge: Idris Elba in Luther. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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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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