Dispatches’ dirty little secret

The Channel 4 show spoiled an agenda-setting story, on police infiltration of political groups, with dodgy presentation.

David Bowden

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In what is normally a very drab period in the British TV schedules – it can be hard to tell, but Wimbledon always provides a handy marker – credit must go to Channel 4 this week for serving up a very mixed selection on the documentary front. We had a week that genuinely lived up to the billing of the good, the bad and the ugly; although, just to keep us all on our toes, it could sometimes be difficult to tell which was which.

To its credit, Dispatches this week did an impressive job in setting the news agenda with ‘The Police’s Dirty Secret’, which uncovered the dealings of the Metropolitan Police’s now-disbanded Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). Most notably, the programme alleged that the police had attempted to find evidence to smear the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence – an allegation that has forced UK home secretary Theresa May to meet with Lawrence’s mother, Doreen. The programme also claimed that the SDS had acted as agent provocateurs in monitoring several political groups throughout the Nineties. One officer, Bob Lambert, allegedly fathered a child with one of the activists he was monitoring and co-authored the infamous ‘McLibel’ document. Such claims were shocking, if not surprising for those who have followed these matters. For once, this was revelatory investigative reporting (by Paul Lewis) that didn’t feel like it had oversold itself or relied upon dubious hidden-camera footage.

Yet, if ever there was a serious programme that felt as though it was let down by its presentation, this was it. The issue of state surveillance of protest groups, and the question of how far the state should be entitled to go in infiltrating those it deems a threat to national security, is a thorny one, politically and ethically, but not a particularly new one. The conspiratorial delivery – all melodramatic mood music, blurry visuals and promises of more secrets to be unveiled – only served to distract from the significant questions at stake. At times it felt more like a kind of meta-trailer for Channel 4’s espionage drama Homeland than a concerted attempt to hold power to account.

This is more than mere nit-picking, since so much of the programme was built around the revelations of a whistleblowing cop, Peter Francis, who seemed to be using his testimony as an opportunity for a good therapy session on the pressures of being a state spy. Similarly, while you could forgive such a short film for skirting over the context, it was difficult to avoid the sense that some of the activists speaking of their betrayal by the state were getting off lightly, unhelpfully blurring the lines between the Lawrence family (victims of a crime and a miscarriage of justice) and animal-rights activists (who are hardly a gentle, benign breed). As the basis for a serious discussion of contemporary policing and civil liberties, this film was important viewing. But in place of yet another public inquiry, we could do with a more substantial documentary that seeks to uncover the truth rather than just expose secrets.

Nonetheless, while many were amused by Channel 4’s bathetic scheduling move in sliding seamlessly from Dispatches to the Bodyshock doc ‘The Man With 10-Stone Testicles’ (in summary: yep, it’s as unpleasant as it sounds), there was an altogether more interesting counterpoint over on Film4 on Tuesday, with the television premiere of Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45.

For those of a certain social milieu, the film is already well known: it was being screened daily while I was at Sheffield Doc/Fest the other week. There are no surprises to Loach’s nostalgic, highly partial and deeply flawed take on the creation of the modern welfare state, in which a democratic socialist utopia is only a few cunning state nationalisations away and in which the NHS and Post Office were perfectly well-functioning working-class institutions until Milk-Snatcher Thatcher came along with her big bad neoliberalism project.

Yet while it is a horribly outdated dinosaur of political agitation, The Spirit of ’45 is worth a glance, if only for the astonishing archival footage that Loach has assembled from the British Film Institute – some of which hammers the myth of Winston Churchill as a famed orator – and its eye-opening account of the infrastructural mess of postwar Britain, where rival train operators were fighting one another for the right to use the track. It is ultimately no less propagandistic and analytical than most of the documentaries on the state of the public sector and, when viewed alongside Martin Durkin’s equally partial and provocative Margaret: Death of a Revolutionary, would at least provide a striking snapshot for the decline of British capitalism.

Then again, perhaps I’m just proving to be another sucker for the film’s nostalgia: not necessarily the politics, although being reminded of a time when building an inspiring vision of society based around material and intellectual comfort for all is at least a little seductive. What makes The Spirit of ’45 stand out, in contrast to much other contemporary documentary-making, is that it uses it source material judiciously, as part of the construction of an argument or narrative, rather than making the talking heads the centrepiece. In a world full of documentaries that aim to take you on a journey, or are content with letting its contributors tell a story, Loach’s old-fashioned craft and his hunger for intellectual engagement with the audience are the biggest lessons worth learning.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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