Sixty years on: Has Cinderella on film got trapped in The Valley of the Dolls?

I rather enjoyed the new live action Disney Cinderella. We’re reviewing it on Front Row on Monday Mar 23rd. But the issues raised here still stand.

Imagine Cinderella as a anti social tomboy with cropped black hair who acts well, just a bit too weird..actually unlikeable. Imagine that when she’s transformed for the ball, her dark exotic beauty means the palace guests all think she’s an Egyptian princess; like, actually, North African. Now imagine the fairy god mother is the mad old village tramp lady that everyone avoids. This isn’t PC gone mad. MGM actually made this film The Glass Slipper in 1955 with one of its brightest new stars, the young Leslie Caron. That was five years after the Disney animated version.

Since childhood Ella has been boasting to everyone about how one day she’ll live in the palace. Compared to her beautiful, elegant feminine stepsisters this girl is well, frankly emotionally disturbed. You can see why in this 1950s retro Europa, the village all feel it’s quite generous of Step mother Elsa Lanchester to have agreed to keep this weird creepy child at all, even as a servant.

MGM’s The Glass Slipper was made to capitalize on Leslie Caron’s early film success. There’s a lot of ballet in it, but the trailer misleads. What intrigues is its strikingly modern heroine. A lonely neglected orphan who’s put up an amazing hard front. She doesn’t try to be liked. She gurns and stomps around. It’s quite uncomfortable to watch at times, giving the film an unexpectedly real emotional power despite the super pretty sets and dancing. Her waist is not the point. You’re embarrassed by some of the thing she does and says. And when she goes to the ball, aided by her old tramp lady – the only friend she has – transformed by the power of a beautiful gown – everyone thinks she’s an Egyptian princess.

Compare that to the sickly sweet, ditzy girls of Frozen or the headlines being made by film critics over the new superblonde wasp-waisted Cinderella. Every time a new Disney princess film comes, out, and they’re churning them out at the moment, I am surprised by how dated its heroines can seem, compared to films make 20 to 60 years ago.

The romances have changed too, though perhaps in more complex ways. Modern princes tend to be the same age as their princesses which perhaps is more comfortable viewing. Early 20s. Caron’s Prince Charming is a grey-haired Michael Wilding. Richard Chamberlain was about 40 when he charmed Gemma Craven’s Cinderella in The Slipper and the Rose, though it doesn’t jar; credit to Craven’s sweet but not sickly performance. And Richard Chamberlain responds to the campness all around by playing his part superstraight. It’s totally charming. There’s a lack of adulthood about the modern films combined with a really concerning off-the-shoulder sexiness. Listen to the voice characterisations in these old films and some of the cartoons, such as the 1950s Disney Sleeping Beauty. There’s a physical maturity to the voices, which conveyed adulthood and adult relationships.

When writer and comedian Meryl O’ Rourke and I got talking about our mutual loathing for Frozen for The Big Issue last month, she pointed out how Disney films, perhaps just practically focused on monetizing that Disney Princesses demographic to the max, show heroines who barely look more than teenagers themselves. 8 year old girls given an 8 year old’s idea of a being a grownup. They are not shown adult role models.

What the hell, they’re only kids’ films right? Does it matter? I think it does. Mulan was on TV on International Women’s Day. I’d like to think the scheduler at Channel 5 did it deliberately. Meryl observed every song in it is about mocking and challenging female and male gendered roles. Three men drag up to help Mulan get into the Palace for the climax of the film. The guards mistake them for “concubines. UGLY concubines.” Mulan then jumps one and starts strangling him. Do you think Disney would ever make such a film post Frozen? I was similarly stunned at the Casablanca-comparable depths when I re-watched Lady And The Tramp a couple of weeks earlier with its rowing lovers and Tramp’s womanizing past. (He is a dog, after all?)

It’s relevant that The Glass Slipper didn’t make back its production costs on release. Though considering when it was made, it’s a fascinating outlier for feminist revisionings of old fairytales. The Feminine Mystique wouldn’t be published for 9 years. It was written by Helen Deutsch, whose first screenplay was for National Velvet and who wrote such rollicking adventures as Kim and King Solomon’s Mines. Her first film for Leslie Caron was Lili – an original screenplay, which we can also credit for inspiring John Waters’ early pre-film career as a pupeeter. She wrote it after seeing rushes of Caron in An American In Paris. It earned Deutsch an Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe. As the new Frozen Fever short and Disney’s live action Cinderella open in the cinemas, it’s a shame she isn’t around to give us her view on the landscape of modern fairytales and female characters onscreen.

Incidentally once you’ve noticed the giant Japanese cartoon style eyes of the female characters in Frozen Fever compared to the men, it’s impossible to forget.  With one early review in Vox claiming the 1950 animated Cinderella character had more energy and assertiveness than the new Cinderella,  it seems only too appropriate that Helen Deutsch’s last screenplay was for the Valium-era Valley of the Dolls.

Further reading

Front Row review of Cinderella (March 23rd 2015)

Frozen? That’s not feminism (Big Issue column)

Letterboxd review of Cinderella

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The Bronte heroine who hated bouquets

Lillies planted by my mother

Lillies planted by my mother (All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted)

For this week’s Something Understood producer Lucy Dichmont was keen to explore the elaborate Victorian coded language of floral bouquets. Unexpectedly I found myself pulling out memories and stories that I’ve been carrying around for decades. I’ve also created a Spotify list of music from the programme plus some extras.

At 16 I read my first Charlotte Bronte novel; Villette. And I’d never forgotten how her repressed plain heroine Lucy Snowe, stuck teaching vain little French coquettes in a Brussels finishing school described her dislike of cut flowers, on the day the whole school was supposed to bring in posies. What self-loathing and secret desire burned in Miss Snowe’s lonely repressed heart.

My Passionflower

My Passionflower

My suburban garden was supposed to have been the starting point for the programme — specifically the giant passionflower that sprawls all over the front door — that I was given 25 years ago.But the plant’s astounding visual structure, symbolism  and origins meant we began the journey in South America with the Conquistadors and the Jesuits and the haunting Ennio Morricone music from the film The Mission.

Rhododendrons in my garden.

Rhododendrons in my garden.

Asian and South American exotica soon took over as they have much of southern England’s suburbia. Rhododendron bushes and bamboo glades are presided over by flocks of cawing Himalyan parakeets, which are rumoured to have been breeding since some escaped from the Isleworth Studios set of The African Queen.

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A cursory search for poems to celebrate the suburban garden will always  find John Betjeman and rhododendron poems rather too obsessed with hearty school girls, which we did not go with. However Sylvia Plath’s The Rhododendron Stealers offered a more intriguing female take on school girls and passion, rather  like Villette.

A child's eye view of a the flowers in our garden

A child’s eye view of a the flowers in our garden

Dave Brubeck’s Alice In Wonderland music, inspired by the Disney animated film, enabled me to remember the childhood magic of being the same height as flowers, and peering into the wildly patterned blooms of foxgloves, tulips and hollyhocks  like giant sea shells, with a kind of animal power. Most of these photos were taken by my daughter a couple of years ago, giving the the anthropomorphic effect of a child’s height view.

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Growing up in with Indian parents, there are still flowers that I know only by their Indian names – like the Champa – or in their much more powerful Indian forms — the fragrance of Indian gulabs (roses) and jasmine. Rabindranath Tagore and the music from the film Monsoon Wedding capture some of that intoxicating fragrance and beauty. But we can also allow surrender to the French orientalist fantasy of the Flower Duet in  Delibe’s 19th century opera Lakme — about the doomed romance between an Indian Brahmin maiden and a British imperial officer. A famous brand of Indian cosmetics is still named Lakme after her.

Ice Cream and Savoy tea roses in my garden

Ice Cream (white) and Savoy Hotel (pink) tea roses in my garden

But if I have a favourite piece of music in the programme, it is the Ben E King version of the much covered Spanish Harlem. I originally planned for it to run immediately after I talk about planting roses that remind me of inner London. And it’s that song I think of when I reminisce about the cracked concrete of those long hot summers in the city and the welcome escape of the parks and the shared joy of the flowers within.

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Something Understood is on Radio 4 on Sunday March 8th and iplayer for a month after.

Further reading/listening

Music from the programme (Spotify)

My Secret Hollywood Garden  

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Frozen? That’s not feminism

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My daughter finally got me to watch Frozen recently. I think she’s sorry she did. Though I sense 13 year old girls are watching it with a sense of irony and a  kind of knowing detachment in the way my generation used to watch Sex And The City:  knowing better than the young kids who lapped it all up at face value. Still, I have been a brooding outcast in my castle ever since. Reduced to throwing icy blasts from my fingertips at the telly and the computer where slebs and men – especially men say that I’m the freak, I’m weird. That film I loathe is actually a feminist masterpiece. Imagine me now in a horn-ed head dress as I raise my bony fingers and curse you – curse YOU all – for bowing down to Disney’s Frozen and its puny idea of “empowerment”.

My evil cohorts agree. “It’s pants,” says broadcaster Muriel Gray. “The song’s awful too,” adds historian Tom Holland, while acknowledging he’s “not the target demographic”.

“It’s very fashionable now to call almost anything feminist because it has a leading female character,” observes comedian and writer Meryl O’Rourke. “But women doing things doesn’t necessarily mean it’s feminist.”

In this story of two sisters – the older Elsa has magic ice powers but her parents just get her to wear gloves. And this is a film in which the gloves never really come off. She is chased out of her kingdom as a witch – wait she is a witch who has the power to create living snow men – but fails to do anything useful with it. Where Maleficient would have raised an army of snow warriors or turned herself into a dragon, Frozen’s Queen Elsa, merely mopes around singing a Bonnie Tyler style power ballad.

It’s striking that Disney’s princesses are now most frequently placed without irony in a late 19th century European aristocracy – surely the most degenerate inbred, useless time to be royal – when they didn’t even go into battle anymore. My favourite Cinderella film, the non-Disney The Slipper and The Rose (1976) at least joked about Euphrania/Britain as a pointless tiny nation with nothing but its heritage industry to keep it going. And talk about fantasy; it even made me believe the handsome Prince, lovely Richard Chamberlain was straight.

In fact the most intriguing aspect of Frozen is how a crowd of ageing princes descend on Finlandia like a cabal of CEOs at the Davos Economic Forum muttering about opening it up to free trade. But that’s never really developed. Instead we have vague platitudes about bad men and the “rightful” ruler of a hereditary monarchy.

There is a sidelined tribe of magical “ethnic” trolls and Olaf, the camp, urban snowman which reveals much about the superficiality of Frozen’s empowerment agenda. Baroness Floella Benjamin told me how often over the years she challenged children’s writers and publishers about the lack of diversity in their stories and got told “but it’s a fantasy world”. I’ve heard the same on Frozen. We have trolls, living snowmen and a princess with ice-throwing powers, but one father told me it would be “unrealistic” to have a less vanilla lineup of main characters in this fabricated aristo retro Europa.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 16.09.41Contrast it with Marvel’s equally icy Asgard in Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful Thor movie, which proved you can do effortless diversity in the Nordic lands if you can be bothered.

Most of all I think of Mulan (1998) – a personal favourite of mine and Meryl’s. Disney’s version of a famous Chinese legend follows a daughter who disguises herself as a man to fight in the army and save her family’s honour. Though done with charm and humour, there a constant sense of how our heroine is fighting against a cultural norm in which women are regarded as worthless. Mulan voiced by Ming Na Wen (currently playing an equally ass-kicking adult Agent of Shield) enjoys a most satisfying romance with an equal — fellow warrior Shang. As Meryl O’ Rourke points out: “They have an adult relationship. They meet at work!” Adult relationships are what have entirely disappeared from Disney princess films. I watched Lady and the Tramp the other day. It was practically Casablanca compared with Frozen.

What bothered me most about 50 Shades of Grey was that the sex fantasy bought by millions of adult women was about a protaganist of just 21. In fact probably about the same age as Anna and Elsa in Frozen. Meryl O’Rourke notes how often we give our little girls heroines just a few years older than them and nothing else. It’s a sad coincidence that Made In Dagenham the musical is to close, when what we need more than anything are celebrations of genuine sorority and adult romantic relationships, not dungeons of eternal little girlhood.

This column is adapted from one that first appeared in The Big Issue magazine

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While the flame is strong: Pop and politics (Kingston Uni class notes)

This a list of suggested reading and films to follow on from my lecture for  Dr Rupa Huq’s 2nd year sociology module on Monday March 2nd 2015 11am. The title of course comes from The Young Ones (1961). It’s open to the public to attend. Penhryn Rd campus, Room JG 2008. Directions here

Features

Are the rich winning a cultural class war? (BBC News Online feature Feb 2015)

The enterprise allowance schemes old and new (Guardian 2011)

The  Truth about “The Jam Generation” 80s Remix (May 2011)

Tories say what rocks their world (2004 BBC News)

Lessons from the Ghost Town generation: What the 60s and 80s had in common (June 2011)

1951 Then and Now: Britain mended and Britain on the make (2011)

Billy Liar and the birth of the dollybird (2013)

Viewing

The Young Ones (1961) Sidney J Furie

Privilege (1967) Peter Watkins

Breaking Glass (1980) Brian Gibson

How we made Breaking Glass (Guardian 2014)

Books/journalism

The Last Party: Britpop, Blair & the Demise of British Pop by John Harris (2003)

Simon Price – music journalist

great interview (Wales Art Review)

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Shopping and Voting: What Hong Kong’s identity crisis reveals about the state of Britain

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All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine. Available from street vendors or take out a subscription here. 

I’m standing on the high peak of the Dragon’s Back trail, under a warm blue sky, looking back at a strange outcrop of tiny towers in the distance. They are the skyscrapers of Hong Kong island just a bus ride away.

Hong Kong in winter is a bit magic that way. You can get yourself an outsiders’ perspective on its money making commercial heart very quickly – whether with a bus or funicular railway ride or even a steep walk up its hills to stare down at its crowded and ever growing concrete and glass towers.

Small signs of its colonial past endure – A pharmacy chain called Watson’s; double decker trams to Happy Valley. And it is political perspective that Hong Kong offers us all. We’re always being lectured about the liberation of business. In Hong Kong everyone’s an entrepreneur from the market stallholders of Kowloon to the smartly dressed servers in the grand shopping malls.

The fabulous Metro system is a dream of what the London Underground should be like with its spotless stations, and cheap touch card Octopus fare system. I’ve posted a whole gallery on it here. But every Sunday crowds of East Asian nannies and domestic workers gather around Admiralty station to sing songs and share food on their one day off. It’s a reminder of the years of separation the poor endure from their own children as they raise those of the middle classes all over the world.

The mass pro-democracy protests that blocked off the heart of the city’s commercial district for weeks have been cleared away. I watched cleaners snip off each and every tiny yellow ribbon tied to railings. An officially sanctioned protest camp of tents lines the pavement outside government offices; gaffer tape marking their allotted space. They are a token protest, safely defused of any power or threat; just the kind of protest our governments like too.

Plenty of Hong Kong islanders didn’t like the disruption. After all, it hurt business. Why bother about a small thing like the Chinese government carefully starting to pre-approve election candidates?

Hong Kong had industrial glory days, too. In the 1950s and 60s it churned out cheap toys and clothes in hundreds of tiny factories for the West. Now you can find them only in a fascinating exhibit in the city’s excellent heritage museum. Hong Kong doesn’t make things any more. And like Britain its big name banks and legal firms rake in the golden crumbs from servicing the cash flows of regimes and corporations.

Hong Kong’s history museum has reconstructed old shops and whole streets for you to wander through. The museum cinema plays wonderful clips of old movies and tv shows from the days when Hong Kong rivaled Hollywood and Bollywood. Nostalgia is potent here too. But what struck me most was how much of Hong Kong’s energy and dynamism came from it being an island of refugees from the Japanese occupation and the Chinese civil war. Refugees like Ip Man, a Kung Fu master who set up a school where he was to train the young Bruce Lee; Hong Kong’s most famous son. Lee though born in America had begun his career in Hong Kong and was to seek refuge there, in a way, when the enduring racism of Hollywood barred him from the leading roles he deserved. The Hong Kong films he made before his sudden death in 1973 at just 32, turned out to be the catalyst he so desperately needed, thought he never lived to enjoy their success.

You hear a lot more Mandarin than you used to on the Cantonese speaking streets as more and more Chinese from the Republic move into positions of power in Hong Kong firms and it unsettles people who were perhaps used to feeling superior to the old China. Maybe part of UKIP’s appeal is similar.

Now, like Britain, Hong Kong wonders can service industries really sustain it? A surprisingly large number of central malls sell only Western prestige brands – Louis Vuitton, Chanel – for the huge influx of big mainland Chinese spenders. But as economic growth slows down there, too, how long can Hong Kong survive on selling luxury goods they don’t make and that no one really needs? Like Britain with banks and the Gulf regimes, is Hong Kong too dependent on those corporations and undemocratic states it services?

Both Britain and Hong Kong are islands proud of their dynamism, but under the bustle, in need of facing up to the fact that in the end real democracy matters more than anything.

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Get hold of a skull, nutmeg: Leonardo Da Vinci, Bruce Lee and the art of the List

Bruce Lee's achievement list (1969)

Bruce Lee’s career to do list (1969)

This week’s Something Understood for Radio 4 focusses on the human passion for lists. My elder brother, an obsessive list maker, started me off on my first — a film diary with each film dated and rated kept since I was 8.

A recent trip to Hong Kong uncovered the rather poignant career ambition list martial arts star Bruce Lee wrote himself only four years before he died (above). And again and again producer Caroline Hughes and I found ourselves drawn to lists which revealed the self-determination of great minds. The most intriguing item on the list by Da Vinci, which features skulls and a number of investigations into animal anatomy, is the most trivial — nutmeg. What was it for?

Composer Eric Satie’s obsessive-list making takes us into the realm of mental distress.  But much listmaking music was just about joy. When I put out a request via social media for suggestions about songs, I wanted to avoid the obvious – 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, for example – which are just rhymes. Frank Cottrell Boyce was among those who responded with excellent suggestions. Though I thought Ian Drury’s Reasons To Be Cheerful might not pass as it has some rude words in it, it turns out I was wrong. (Listen carefully) So thankyou, Frank.

Also a suggestion was The Divine Comedy’s The Book Lovers, which bring us into the realm of the list that makes us feel inadequate. Not the 10 best books, but the 10 most important books you must read before you die. And yes, I really did only get as far as page 4 of Orientalism by Edward Said, and yes I did finally give it to charity.

There’s a lot of the music from the programme on this Spotify list. And a fair bit more, including The Pillow Book album inspired by the lists of Sei Shonagan – the Japanese courtly lady who gave me the framework for the whole programme. Plus the Half Man Half Biscuit’s 24 Hour Garage People listing some of the exciting crisp and sandwich flavours you can buy in a garage shop, which I really wish we could have got on air. I don’t fancy the idea of a cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces, but there is a list within the Spotify list of versions of These Foolish Things. Let’s face it, everything reminds you of him or her when you’re madly in love. Thanks for all the suggestions.

You can hear Something Understood via this link on Radio 4 on Sunday February 8th at 6am and 1130pm and on  iplayer for 30 days after.

My Spotify list: Music from Inventories for Life

 

 

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Where the line is: Some case studies in journalism ethics

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These are links to some of the stories and further reading featured in today’s 1pm Kingston University class.

Callous treatment of victims of crime

The Sun and Rochelle Holness – Distressing speculation about her suffering, supposedly based on police sources

Tabloid blogspot - More on the original Sun story by Mike Sullivan who testified at the Leveson inquiry.

News coverage of murderer and serial rapist John McGrady’s conviction (2006)

Sting operations and fishing operations

Telegraph transcript of undercover reporters’ meeting with Vince Cable

PCC ruling on Daily Telegraph story on Vince Cable

Vince Cable blasts undercover reporters for damaging relationship with constituents

Robert Peston blogpost  on why he leaked Murdoch comments (2010)

Keeping your sources confidential

The Sunday Times jails its source: Spectator post by Nick Cohen on The Sunday Times’ treatment of Vicky Pryce

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Page 3 and pushy feminists

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The weird argument being wheeled out over how feminist campaigners somehow made The Sun keep Page 3 just to spite them reminded me of this Radio 4 programme I made about Procrastination and what Martin Luther King had to say about “pushiness” and social change. The layout above  from The Times on Jan 9th featuring a lingerie ad pretending to be news (read the caption) larger than an actual positive news story about a woman, is an interesting reminder of the bigger picture around representation.

Script below from Something Understood – Procastination (broadcast July 2013):

It was to true Christian values that Martin Luther King appealed in challenging the endless excuses from Southern US authorities to put off granting full civil rights to African Americans. Eight white bishops and rabbis in Alabama had urged African Americans not to join Dr King’s peaceful street demonstrations. But to pursue their rights more slowly through the courts and local discussion. In Birmingham jail, arrested for demonstrating, Dr King wrote this letter in response in April 1963.

 EXTRACT: KING’s Letter from Birmingham Jail April 1963

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”

…when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

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Enter the Octopus: The beauty of the Hong Kong metro system

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All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted.

I wrote a column for The Big Issue magazine (wk of Jan 26th) about what Hong Kong’s history reveals about British identity. You can buy it all this week. One interesting difference is the cost of public transport on the city’s underground system. I fell in love with the 70s SF The Andromeda Strain-rainbow hued futurism of Hong Kong’s magnificent, super efficient underground system on a recent trip. Armed with an Octopus card – a much cheaper and more widely used payment system than London’s Oyster – I took photos of as many stations as I could to capture the visual pleasure of its spread of colour. And here they are.

 

 

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The truth about true crime: A crime reporter’s qualms about Serial

I’ve reported on violent crime for 25 years including the OJ Simpson case. I consider it a privilege to cover trials. Strip away the glamour of celebrity and a very large proportion, such as the OJ Simpson case, are about domestic violence. And I’ve never understood why so many people love to watch it as fiction.The prosecutor in the case of Adnan Syed recently said it was a classic domestic violence murder too.  Unsettled by the championing of the NPR podcast Serial by the very highbrow cultural critics who often sneer at ordinary crime on the news I chaired a discussion on Front Row with crime journalist turned novelist Laura Lippman  & Panorama reporter John Sweeney , and wrote this column for The Big Issue magazine.

I have a little BBC News app on my mobile phone. It sends an alert when something big has happened. It doesn’t ping me all day. But if I’ve been asleep, or in a meeting, or watching a film with my family, when I choose to look I am reliably told if something big has happened or resolved: A massacre, a hostage crisis, a political resignation, or a major criminal conviction or charge. From such a trusted source, it’s genuinely helpful to those who want to stay informed.

But what has been the flipside of what the internet has done to news? It’s turned anyone one who wants to be into an investigator, without the responsibility of sourcing or balance. Often I meet people randomly circulating stories that have been trending on social media. Sometime they turn out to be years old; a quirk of the way search engine algorithms work, like the churning of deep oceans. More disturbingly they can be from unverifiable websites, given power just by the act of sharing them, such as that hoax photo purporting to show Osama Bin Laden’s corpse after the 2011 Abbottabad assassination raid.

It was a tweet by a Abbottabad resident, wondering why there were helicopters hovering over his small Pakistani city in the middle of the night, that alerted the world to the raid, when it was rapidly re-tweeted and spread. Such first hand accounts can, through crowd-sourcing, be the most liberating but also unsettling aspect of how social media is changing news and our relationship with the truth.

Take the recent National Public Radio podcast series Serial which become a global phenomenon. The presenter Sarah Koenig wondered whether Adnan Syed, a Pakistani American teenager had been unfairly convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend 15 years ago. In a series of musings, that unfolded over real time week by week, she reexamined evidence, chatted for hours on the phone with the man himself, speculated with criminal justice professionals and even interviewed anonymous friends and acquaintances of Syed who thought he was a nice guy. The family of the young woman who was murdered, Hae Min Lee, have refused to take part, and the victim is almost completely missing from this thinking-out-loud exercise. Sometimes Koenig laughed and joked about her frustration over whether she thought Adnan was a psychopathic murderer or innocent. It’s striking how ignorant she is of and “fascinated” by “immigrant” culture. 

Let me let you in on a not-so secret secret. Crime reporters sit around speculating. We do it in court recesses, in bars and in newsrooms. It can be an outlet for some of the appalling things we’ve heard. But we know better than to put it out on the air when real people are affected. I’m not the only reporter unsettled by the reckless self -indulgence of Serial. As veteran US journalist Brian C Jones has blogged: “A developed story like this obligates the reporter to know — before going public — why it’s worthwhile, other than it’s “interesting.” Without an answer, it’s a little like digging up a coffin just to see what’s inside.”

It’s certainly been interesting to see how many of the middle class British fans of Serial sneer at the “depressing” nature of criminal reporting on the news, but love Scandi-noir thrillers despite their sadistic, usually anti-female serial killing plotlines and the jazzy-music layered, soft-toned musings of NPR.

In 25 years of reporting yes I’ve seen some appalling sensationalized crime coverage. But much more often I’ve seen reporters carefully listen to the processes of a trial and present an accurate contemporaneous account of evidence and argument day by day up to conviction or acquittal. Many miscarriages of justice have been uncovered the same way, with careful research and fact checking. I’d urge everyone to sit in on a crown court trial in the public gallery. I always feel great awe for the dignified process of the law.

The thousands of discussion threads that have been spawned by audience fascination with Serial reveal the same human fascination with storytelling and sensation as Dickens’ serialized stories. There’s nothing wrong with that. The longtail of the internet has opened up the possibilities of exploring the minutiae of evidence, of seeing the same transcripts and raw data as the investigators and judges. It’s liberating and I wouldn’t turn the clock back. I certainly admire the way the podcast has engaged a mass audience with the workings of criminal law. But remember these are real human lives. And sometimes it’s only news reporting with its focus on facts that does them justice.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine

Further reading

Serial and white reporter privilege (The Awl Nov 2014)

 

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