Monday, 25 February 2008

Oversensitive

Two contradictory decisions by the BBC last week suggest a level of moral confusion surrounding the question of "sensitivity" and the responsibility of broadcasters.

On the one hand, the corporation decided on thursday to scrap the planned broadcast of BBC3 drama Dis/Connected, described as "a drama aimed at a young audience which deals with the emotional build up to the suicide of a teenage girl and the effects which this has on her friends". According to a spokeswoman, although "the drama deals with the issue with sensitivity", they decided to postpone it "given the recent tragic events in Bridgend". No new broadcast date has been given.

Yet, on the same day, the BBC showed the latest episode of Ashes to Ashes, the inferior follow-up to Life on Mars, despite the plotline's focus on a religious nutcase who went around murdering prostitutes. This was at least as topical a subject as suicide: more so, in that the"Suffolk Strangler" Steve Wright had been convicted on that very day, after a highly-publicised trial, of the murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich. In an explanatory note, the Beeb stressed the "fantastical nature" of the series, and the fact that it was "set in a different era and different location". "we believe that there is little similarity between the Suffolk murders and the plotline." And the decision would seem to have been vindicated; certainly, there have been very few reported complaints.

But there was equally little connection between events in and around Bridgend (which has seen seventeen youth suicides in just over a year, four in the past month) and the drama Dis-connected. The drama investigates a social issue of considerable importance, one which the Bridgend cluster has highlighted but which is by no means unique to that corner of Wales. There are an average of two youth suicides in Britain every day: most do not make the national news, but the bereaved families suffer just as much. If "sensitivity" were to be shown to all such families, no drama on the subject could ever be shown.

Nor would the broadcast be likely to trigger "copycat" suicides. Even if some of the later suicides in the Bridgend area were influenced by media coverage - and it's far too early to tell - a serious drama concentrating on the impact of a suicide on the victim's family and friends would be more likely to discourage than provoke a young person contemplating taking their own life. If anything, Dis/Connected should have been promoted to one of the BBC's terrestrial channels, where it would have a larger audience. The coincidence of timing would almost certainly have garnered the film more viewers in any case. Potentially, it could have saved lives. Instead of which, in the dubious interests of "sensitivity", it has been junked.

On the face of it, it's hard to see how the Bridgend suicides should be seen as an issue requiring much greater sensitivity than the altogether more extraordinary events last year in Ipswich, a spate of killings that recalled the activities of the Yorkshire Ripper thirty years before but little in between. If anything, the use of the serial murder of prostitutes as a plot device in what is, basically, light entertainment is far more "insensitive" - certainly towards the families of the murdered women - than a socially-aware "issues-based" drama such as Dis/Connected was apparently intended to be. If "sensitivity" is indeed the BBC's watchword, then the decision to screen Ashes to Ashes seems about as sensitive as DCI Gene Hunt.

But of course, serial killers, while the everyday staple of crime drama, are rare in everyday life. That is why, when caught, or on a killing spree, or on trial, they are invariably big news. The past week, by a freak happenstance, has seen the conviction of new fewer than three such offenders: a whole year's worth. This may create the impression that the country is overrun by serial killers. In reality, the despair and loneliness that lead so many young people to suicide are much bigger killers, as dangerous as they are (usually) unreported. Showing Dis/Connected would have gone some way towards redressing the balance.

3 comments:

Grim Reader said...

On the subject of suicide and Life on Mars, I wonder what you think of the final episode in which DI Tyler returns to the Noughties and decides he doesn't like it here as much as in the '70s and so jumps off a building?

Anonymous said...

The BBC documentary on suicide was probably scrapped because, unlike serial murder, suicides are far more common if the person has had contact with a story of another suicide. According to respected psychologists it becomes "socially acceptable"

Any extra coverage if the recent events in Bridgend can only be a bad thing. Unless of course you feel leading people to suicide is a necerssary evil when it comes to a pointless rant on sensitivity.

The Heresiarch said...

Hello there, Grim Reader.

My interpretation of that final sequence (before Ashes to Ashes ruined it) was that Tyler never actually woke up at all, but the boring 21st century he seemed to return to existed as a kind of parody created by his comatose brain. But, like I said, the writers seem to have had another idea.

As for "anonymous" (show some imagination, please) I fail to see how a drama reflecting on the devastation wrought by suicide could possibly make it seem "cool". But if the Beeb ever get round to showing it, I guess we'll find out.