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Joseph Owen

February 22nd, 2024

Should a TV drama influence public policy?

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Joseph Owen

February 22nd, 2024

Should a TV drama influence public policy?

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

ITV’s primetime drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office hastened legislation to compensate sub-postmasters caught up in the Horizon scandal, overturning the judicial process after years of legal wrangling. Joseph Owen asks whether it is desirable for narratives to have such influence on the judiciary and democracy? And if so, in a year when forty million citizens are expected to head to the polls globally, whether we should pay greater attention to what stories are being told and who is listening to them.


The power of the moving image to influence public opinion is apparently well established. Connecting these ideas, Adkins and Castle argue that “persuasion is highest when [people] are unaware that political messages are being communicated”, and that “entertainment media can alter public opinion”. Film and television are often the dominant channels through which people engage in social dialogue, national crises and cases of political injustice. This point is illustrated by the recent success of Mr Bates vs the Post Office, widely reported to have hastened legislation to compensate sub-postmasters caught up in the Horizon scandalITV impressively claim that it’s the most-watched programme of this bleary-eyed year.

Contrary to this article in The Conversation, I think the series works precisely because it isn’t great art: it relies on weathered tropes, numbing sentiment and blunt exposition to articulate a pristine, unambiguous message. The binaries of good versus evil, heroes and villains, are bound up in the title. Mr Bates simplifies and sanitises a complex, decades-long struggle for truth, vindication and financial settlement. It’s very watchable as a result.

for arts criticism: what’s good is not always influential, and what presents as pathos is not always powerful.

Yet revising the show’s acclaim is probably beside the point. Its popularity lies in its populism, in its direct appeal to feeling. Even Charles Dickens, the great purveyor of art as a diagnosis for social malady, isn’t to all critical tastes. In fact, the sincerity of his books brought many readers to hysterics. Evaluating the climax of The Old Curiosity ShopOscar Wilde remarked that “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”. It serves as a handy reminder for arts criticism: what’s good is not always influential, and what presents as pathos is not always powerful.

So, what does policy impact from the arts and humanities look like? The picture is complicated in even the most-cited cases. The work of Dickens, whose novels were said to have transformed perceptions of poverty in Victorian Britain, had very little direct impact on contemporary domestic policy. Likewise, the director Ken Loach played down the legislative influence of his landmark teleplay, Cathy Come Home, noting that significant changes in housing policy occurred more than a decade after its TV premiere. Impact, influence and cause are often shiftier than we’d like to admit.

In a wider context, “storytelling” is being hyped across sectors and disciplines as a panacea for all manner of human ills. As literary critics and humanities scholars, many of us feel protective about stories as they are dangled about this brave frontier. Our sense of ownership is based on a practical distrust: we don’t believe what stories tell us. Worthwhile narratives deceive and discomfort; they are difficult, ambiguous, gnarly, unresolved. They don’t make us feel any better.

In a wider context, “storytelling” is being hyped across sectors and disciplines as a panacea for all manner of human ills.

I’ve argued elsewhere (which is to say, unsuccessfully, in a fellowship application) that “slow cinema”—a broad-brush term for films defined by their relaxed pace, resistance to narrative, and long takes—can transform people’s perceptions of the world. This type of filmmaking, through its “slowness”, makes important and often implicit connections between pressing human concerns and our inability to address these concerns. Because the ability to solve policy problems is a matter of who decides, the art of slowness, I argue, supplies a critical form of resistance for decision makers who struggle to confront urgent social, moral and political crises.

Stop laughing. I accept that this line of thinking hasn’t got me very far. Sátántangó on the school curriculum is parked for now. But what arises, then, if primetime TV is the preeminent medium for influencing government policy? In the example cited earlier, it appears that Mr Bates has helped to overturn a longstanding judicial process and pre-empted an independent inquiry after years of political and legal impasse. This sort of impact appears to encourage primary legislation that defeats precedent while circumventing usual norms and procedures. Is that always good? Is that ever good?

I forlornly return to this question of who decides. It’s unfortunate, and perhaps telling, that the Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt determines much contemporary thought on the subject. Schmitt criticised the rule of law in Weimar Germany, and his scepticism towards democracy led him to believe that suspending checks and balances was unavoidable. Schmitt was an effective storyteller, which is why his views on legal exceptions are now so pervasive. He writes in thrumming incantations, deploying pithy axioms about juridical order and state decision-making that are as slippery as they are suggestive. You can do a lot with them.

Schmitt was an effective storyteller, which is why his views on legal exceptions are now so pervasive.

In recent years, Schmitt has become fodder for editorials in the Atlantic, the New Statesman, the Financial Times, and the London Review of Books. He is invoked to apprehend crises as disparate as Brexit, identity politics, and the electoral successes of demagogues such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Schmitt is a prevailing figure because elements of our world tend to vagueness and relativity. He provides the appearance of easy answers, flattening the complexities of politics into the clarity of the decision.

His story spawns others. With the spectre of several big elections this year, namely in the UK and US, and any number of corresponding constitutional crises, Schmitt’s name will be the go-to citation for many pundits and commentators. Meanwhile, local and national governments will seek insights into voters’ feelings about the places they live, the people they know, and the people they don’t. Telling the right stories will be crucial. Sounds a bit risky. Maybe we should start with the word “story” and work out what we mean by it.

 

 


A version of this post first appeared as Mr Bates vs the Post Office and the power of storytelling on the University of Southampton’s Public Policy Blog. 

The content generated on this blog is for information purposes only. This Article gives the views and opinions of the authors and does not reflect the views and opinions of the Impact of Social Science blog (the blog), nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Image Credit: Master1305 on Shutterstock


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About the author

Joseph Owen

Dr Joseph Owen is a research fellow at the University of Southampton, working in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

Posted In: Academic communication | Evidence for Policy | Impact

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