Since the Milly Dowler story broke in Summer 2011, the newspaper industry has been falling over itself to isolate and condemn ‘rogue tabloid journalists’ that hacked the voicemails of innocent people. Yet at that very same time they have been rigorously defending freedom of speech. The infamous phone-hacking scandal led to the Leveson Inquiry, which shone a light on the relationship between the press, politicians and the police. 18 months later then, it seems about time for this bit of history to seep into mainstream TV drama. Welcome to the BBC’s Ripper Street…
Ripper Street is set in 1889, the year after the Jack the Ripper murders, and focuses on H division – the police unit that was involved in investigating the notorious crimes. The main trio of characters are Detective Reid, Sergeant Drake and Captain Jackson – three odd-couple coppers who between them have wit, ethics, strength, ingenuity and a suspiciously vast knowledge of chemistry, biology and physics (very useful police skills). The most interesting character though for me is Fred Best the local tabloid journalist. He seems to represent all that is wrong with headline-grabbing, sleazy journalism and seems like a perfect post-Leveson character – he is constantly getting in the way of police work in order to sell a story.
In the first episode (I Need Light), Reid and the gang investigate a murder and discover that Best has manipulated the crime scene in order to suggest that the victim was killed by Jack the Ripper. Best defends himself by suggesting that this is in the public interest… (Sounds familiar?)
In a later episode (The Good Of This City) Reid publically attacks the sensationalist journalist for harassing a politician only to later use Best’s illicit knowledge for his own investigations… Another familiar idea.
The series follows the lives of the police detectives, so by default you take their position in arguments as they are the heroes. Using this view, the police are working in the interest of the public (even when beating up suspects) and the press is manipulating people in order to make a profit. Relating this to the Leveson inquiry, the BBC got off lightly during the phone-hacking crisis due to their lack of involvement so are arguably being a little smug and attacking the tabloid press.
I’m not a big tabloid fan, but I can’t help but wonder whether this is a direct response to that crisis. That odd bit of British history that made our news broadcasts feel like a TV drama, serialized as it was across a year as people were arrested and institutions were shut down. Even if few regular people care about the implications of that scandal anymore – it appears that it has become ingrained enough to pop up in our TV dramas. I wonder where it will appear next…
For more from Ollie visit his blog Crispy Sharp Film