BBC
Show Hide image

I wrote a TV show about police corruption and was nearly prosecuted for sedition

My series Law & Order is now 40 years old, but problems in our criminal justice system remain – and the Establishment still won’t confront them.

To be a police officer in the Met in 1978, when my original TV drama Law & Order was broadcast on BBC Two, was to be corrupt. If you weren’t, you were likely to end up on the door of the Lord Chancellor’s office at the High Courts in the Strand. One policeman who refused either to play or become a whistleblower (“grass” in the parlance of the day) was cast out and made former Attorney General Michael Havers’ doorman.

Policemen in the 1970s were almost indistinguishable from villains in their accents, body language and fashion – and they were supposed to think in the same way, too. It was believed detectives needed to think like criminals to nick them. They were only smarter in that they got themselves a warrant card, giving them carte blanche to what was on offer.

Portraying such policemen on television then was shocking, especially to politicians who cried “foul!” Questions were asked in parliament about the parlous state of criminal justice. Led by Eldon Griffiths (representing the Police Federation), some called for me to be prosecuted for sedition.

Jim Callaghan’s government was incensed by these dramas, which didn’t stop at portraying endemic police wrongdoing, but also a corrupt legal profession, an extremely prejudiced judiciary, and sadists running our prisons.

Ian Trethowan, the BBC director general was summoned to the Home Office by the minister John Harris who was spitting mad, demanding to know why the broadcaster was making drama masquerading as documentary.

Trethowan argued they employed independently-minded producers who made well-researched drama. Harris warned that if the BBC wasn’t more responsible the Home Office would restrict its freedom.

Shows like Law & Order weren’t welcome.

Two years later, Trethowan didn’t resist Brian Wenham, controller of BBC2, scheduling a repeat broadcast. This occurred under Margaret Thatcher’s watch and Griffiths was more incensed.

Finally, “common sense” prevailed and Law & Order was locked away for 30 years, not even set free for television festivals, despite numerous requests.

Soon after the broadcast, with the dust of controversy still irritating Establishment eyes, work began on the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE). This brought forth rules to safeguard the rights of suspects by requiring the prosecution to reveal its evidence to the defence before trial, and ushered in rules for police officers interrogating and charging suspects.

This was laudable, but brought added bureaucracy and limited the contact cops could have with crims.

The old adage prevailed: steal big and get a knighthood; steal a loaf of bread and get six months in prison.

How much has changed 40 years on from my series? The nature of wrongdoing has changed but, having built a better mouse-trap, the mice didn’t just get smarter – some turned into rats. And the doormen guarding “persons of importance” are now edgier, and more nervous of anyone approaching them.

Police officers are generally most efficient and successful in fiction, where the odd “bad apple” appears – while in reality it often seems to me as if they’re afraid of criminals, and tend to hide behind their computer screens. There are honourable exceptions, and the job remains dangerous and draining. Similarly, I hear of prison officers “scared” of prisoners.

But how could police officers, crown prosecutors and prison officers be expected to work better when nothing within society has shifted to cause them to change?

A lot of wrongdoers need to be prosecuted and imprisoned – a poor solution – but there can be no justice with what I see as a system so weighted against the accused. Only when we’re prepared to spend as much time and money to support the defendant’s story as we do trying to disprove it, only if we eradicate the apparent prejudice and fear that still exists in criminal justice, might we get a fairer institution.

That seems a remote possibility while finance continues to be cut, particular in law and policing. Lack of funding is a government, and a nation, saying: “We don’t care, we’re only concerned with the bottom line.”

We like to think a government of a different hue would do better, but none has proved so in the past.

Having spent 40 years trying to change hearts and minds, I’ve come to the conclusion that we can’t change anyone, only ourselves. However, I am optimistic about the swelling tide of compassion and the growing vegan movement. This represents true justice, true democracy, the future.

GF Newman’s Law & Order continues on BBC Four on Thursday 19 April at 10pm. His novel of the series is available as an ebook from No Exit Press.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
Show Hide image

Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.