This month, BBC crime drama Line of Duty made headlines when nearly 10 million viewers tuned in to just one episode to see what would happen next in the twisty-turny world of fictionalised police corruption. Kate Bradley asks: what keeps us watching Line of Duty?
I don’t love the police, but I love police procedurals. Alongside the drama, I love their inability to be truly apolitical. There is always a political element to the way you represent ‘crime’, the reasons you give to people’s actions, how the hierarchies of the police operate, the way individual police officers behave and how they get received by the communities they work in. Whilst some shows try to dodge the most difficult of these questions, others try to make some efforts at critique of systemic racism, or try to consider some complexities and ethical conundrums faced by police and state services in the real world.
Still, the political work ‘progressive’ crime dramas can manage is limited by the almost blanket prerequisite of a police procedural that they require their audience to want the protagonists, the police (‘goodies’) to catch the criminals (‘baddies’). Very few crime TV series reserve much criticism for the law itself, or the functions of policing. Most crucially, they’re almost all about murder, a rarely ambiguous crime, and almost never about the policing many of us know and hate: riot and protest policing, policing of petty theft and property damage, or the cops who roam the streets to bully rough sleepers and people with addiction problems. Police procedural TV programmes are ideological, designed to remind us of the centrality of police officers in saving us from our worst fears.
Line of Duty likes to style itself a bit differently to many crime dramas, as it follows anti-corruption officers rather than the police themselves. This allows some ambiguity to its politics, disturbing the usual ideas of who are the good guys and who aren’t. Line of Duty follows officers in the unit Anti-Corruption 12 (AC-12), which tries to root out police corruption and hold corrupt officers accountable for their crimes. Over the course of many seasons, we’ve followed the trail of an ‘OCG’ – an organised crime group – who are using ‘bent coppers’ to get away with any number of extreme and violent acts, including murder, human trafficking, blackmail, illegal firearms trading, and drug dealing on a massive scale.
Line of Duty certainly has its incisive, critical lines, reflecting a wider scepticism towards the police highly relevant to current movements around police brutality and authoritarianism. There’s Steve Arnott’s bold ‘the easiest way to get away with killing someone [is to] be a police officer’ – backed up, we know, by real-world statistics. And then there’s the senior legal counsel who makes a point in season five that the police and Tories know only too well: ‘That’s the problem with corruption inquiries. There’s always the danger you’ll find some.’
In this year of heightened scrutiny on the police, from the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in 2020 to the Kill the Bill protests this year, the writers of Line of Duty seem to be half-listening to what’s going on in the streets. They chose an unusually reflective tone for the final half hour of this season, staging some of the debates between liberal and conservative commentators on the role of police in society. We are presented with the words of the Chief Constable: ‘These are the misdeeds of a few rotten apples, and to invoke institutionalised police corruption is an outrageous lie … The public don’t want the police to be held to account for every little thing they’re meant to have done, they want us to get on with the job.’ This infuriates our protagonist, Ted Hastings, who gives an alternative view on the role of the institution in shielding ‘corruption’ from view: ‘None of this could have happened without the wilful blindness of those in power, and those in power should be held to account.’
And yet, to anyone with a systemic critique of the police force as a repressive apparatus of the state, the terms of Line of Duty’s debate are highly artificial and limited. Hardly anyone in the movement against police and state violence speaks of ‘corruption’ as the core of the police’s institutional failings. Though corruption is obviously frustrating, we expect it from a system designed to protect rich people and companies’ interests. We’re just as, if not more, worried about the police carrying out the worst end of their official duties, upholding unjust laws – laws that ban us from protesting, picketing and squatting empty buildings; laws that are used to imprison, spy on and deport migrants and Muslims; laws which criminalise sex workers and homeless people; laws which enable attacks on GRT and LGBT communities; laws which enable the state to terrorise Black communities through stop and search and the use of force. We want to talk about accountability, but not just the accountability of a few ‘rotten apple’ officers tied up with some outlandish OCG.
Line of Duty’s writers have always been determined that every storyline must lead back to the OCG. The OCG are Line of Duty‘s bogeyman, the monster under the bed. AC-12 rarely investigate the low-level acts of corruption that I’m sure plague the police force every day in the real world. The writers even try to imply all failures in real-world inquiries like Operation Yewtree and the Stephen Lawrence case could lead back to a putative OCG, presenting all the evils of the justice system as connected to criminal elements, ruling out the idea that failures to protect vulnerable children from child abuse or Black people from violence might be quite normal in a functioning police force. There is no sense in the series that perhaps capitalism might be the ultimate OCG, the ruling class its directors, the police its henchmen. No – law is good, corruption is bad; law is safety, illegality is danger. Hastings’ constant reiteration that he works to the ‘letter of the law’ serves to remind us of that.
The show also has an ambiguous relationship to the politics of representation, and perhaps demonstrates its limitations. Many of the characters are women, including one of our heroes Kate Fleming, and a large number are people of colour – perhaps more than is believable in today’s police force, in which 92.7% of officers are white. But beyond representation, progressive anti-oppression politics of any kind are presented pretty negatively throughout Line of Duty’s six seasons. We are encouraged to see discrimination law and equalities policy as a tool of the baddies, or at least an aid to them. In season four, Roz Huntley, played by Thandie Newton, calls on discrimination law only when she runs out of other weapons to fight her corner against accusations of murder (which she committed); Jamie Desford ends up switching sides and becoming a bona fide baddie after accusing Hastings of racism.
Enquiries into officers’ oppressive behaviour consistently slow the wheels of the goodies’ machine. Steve Arnott is not sacked, despite having a relationship with a suspect while undercover (reminiscent of the Spycops scandal, in which many women are still fighting for justice after being deceived into relationships by undercover police officers). The woman Arnott deceived into intimacy is shown in season three practicing her lines in the mirror, practicing crying. Implicit to all this is a ‘PC-gone-mad’ undercurrent that shouldn’t be ignored simply because there’s representation of women and minorities in the programme.
Having said all this, I keep coming back to a suspicion that Line of Duty is more complicated than this weighing-up of its politics implies. The programme gives voice to something that runs deeply through the political culture of our time and place. Gone are the two-hour episodes during which crimes are neatly solved by a Detective Inspector’s genius mind – the premise of Morse or Lewis or A Touch of Frost or Midsomer Murders. No – Line of Duty plays on the unspoken fear that perhaps the state is not in control. At every turn, we are confronted by the realisation that the corruption we are seeing isn’t the end of it, that there is an even bigger baddie somewhere up the line, so far above accountability that he or she is untouchable. This makes the show feel claustrophobic and intense. As the character Jo Davidson points out, there is no-one, no matter how powerful, who can escape the OCG – not even in prison, not even in witness protection. The OCG is fragmented, controlled not by one but by many people, puppeteers hidden by layers of technology and anonymity, potentially operating from other countries or even continents, above reproach unless they switch sides – in which case they are thrown under the bus.
At a time when people are increasingly aware that the power of government is subordinate to both national and international capital, when the owners of that capital are so vanishingly far above us in wealth and power that they are almost living in a different world, could Line of Duty’s claustrophobic atmosphere and relentless reiteration of the protagonists’ powerlessness be a sanitised displacement of this fear – the fear that the forces that determine our fate are so far above us that we cannot ever grasp them, let alone win against them?
If this is the case, then what is the libidinal desire that makes viewers keep returning to Line of Duty? Maybe the thing driving viewers on through the seasons, hoping for the downfall of ‘H’, is a desire for a world that makes sense, a world ordered by the rule of law, benign leadership, parental compassion – the values that coalesce in the socially conservative but principled Ted Hastings.
For other viewers, the motivation for watching may be to see those above justice be brought down to it. This is an easy-to-understand desire in a time of relentless police racism and brutality, cover-ups of sexual violence and abuse, government unaccountability and cronyism. But the limits of the police procedural form still ensure that the role of police is fetishised as the inevitable heart of the justice process.
Line of Duty is far too successful a programme to allow its audience any final comforts yet, even now season six has tied up some loose ends – I suspect a season seven is on the way, since the string-pullers in the OCG have still not been apprehended. It will be interesting to see if it’s possible to resolve a storyline that gets its momentum from its core problem’s very insolubility. I think it’s probably fair to say that whichever way the cards fall, there is little room for a comforting ending in a show that is caught between the rule of capitalist law and the rule of organised crime.