Today, the co-creator and producer of the popular TV series Midsommer Murders was sacked after comments indicating a preference for keeping the show an all-white affair.
Brian True-May told the Radio Times the long-running drama was a ‘last bastion of Englishness’ and should stay that way. He added that the drama ‘wouldn't work’ if there was racial diversity in the show.
ITV immediately launched an internal investigation into the reported comments and has now relieved Mr. May of his position.
Is this a case of extreme political correctness? Is ITV simply reacting to emotive responses from journalists and media commentators, or are real issues of wider public concern involved?
In responding, let’s remain mindful of two factors.
First, programmes like Midsommer Murders are not designed to present accurate social commentary.
After all, if there really were a small village area in England that’s had 221 murders since 1997, it would have been in the news long before now. The show is escapist fantasy, not factual documentary.
Second, we must bear in mind the economic forces at play here. This particular programme is sold to 231 territories worldwide.
A large part of the programme’s global audience is American. There are many areas stateside where the image of English country living is one of small, cosy villages in which everyone knows everyone else – and everyone is white.
It’s a stereotype that harks back to Agatha Christie period pieces. Yet it doesn’t represent Britain in the 21st century, not by a long stretch.
Perhaps in this case, though, the medium has begun to shape the man. The producer himself may have started to actually believe the fantasy image he is selling.
That said, there are village areas in England where you’ll still find very little in the way of cultural diversity. I live in south Oxfordshire and it’s surprising, when you drive through some of the villages here, how little cultural diversity is on display.
Even so, Mr. May’s comments are unsettling because he seems to feel that this is a situation that isn’t changing and should not change. He seems to feel that mono-culturalism is the way forward for English rural life.
Even in the most rural areas, the ethnic mix is clearly starting to change, particularly as a more cosmopolitan crowd moves outward from overcrowded and overpriced city areas.
It may be that this producer even believes in TV programmes as a mechanism for ‘soft’ social engineering. To introduce black characters into Midsommer Murders, he says, would ‘look out of place.’
Perhaps he thinks that by reinforcing stereotypes he can help maintain exclusion zones.
Whatever his motives it is entirely appropriate that Mr May has been moved aside.
The wider issue, though, is how much of this social engineering goes on in TV production and how much of it is tolerated by the broadcasters for purely financial reasons?
I think that a lot more of this ‘soft’ social engineering goes on in TV production than insiders would care to admit.
It’s obvious that drama producers often tackle very contentious social issues in the hope of boosting their audience numbers. Just as often, though, they do so to influence public debate on a particular ethical, political or moral issue.
We are living in a narrative age. It is much easier to sell an idea or worldview if it is wrapped in a compelling story with relatable characters than if it is presented as a polemic argument.
Arguably, the digital media revolution is further weakening the appeal of the polemic. A senior British judge argued recently that young adults are no longer well suited to jury duty. It’s not that they’re lacking in intelligence, he said.
The problem is that they can’t follow the case notes from beginning to end during a long trial. Their concentration and comprehension skills are dulled by multi-tasking with digital media.
Those of us who grew with TV and movies are well acquainted with the power of visual narrative. This power is magnified further for the Millennial, under-30 generation, whose media is much more immersive.
They’ve been raised on highly interactive gaming experiences and always-on digital devices providing rich media 24/7.
Some research has suggested that narrative enrichment has become one of the defining values of the Millennial generation. Young adults will buy into a vision or project provided that their involvement will mean they can enrich the story they tell about themselves.
Before they lock into a project, they want to know that it will improve their skills and provide an enriching experience that speaks to their sense of altruism and civic concern.
This is one of the major reasons for the increase of volunteerism among younger people in the past decade or so. Millennials are not driven purely by financial or narrow careerist concerns; they’re often inclined to value story enrichment above material gain.
Media producers – and especially drama producers – have long maintained that rather than shaping cultural values they merely reflect mores that already exist. This is nonsense.
If you reflect a particular viewpoint for long enough, you will reinforce it. That’s especially true if you do so using powerful stories that feature relatable and engaging characters who are sympathetically portrayed.
On the whole, this social engineering via media is arguably more evident among ultra-leftist writers and producers. This may be because their views chime more readily with the politically correct zeitgeist. Or it may simply be that they’re far more skilled at winning production commissions.
Whatever the reasons, right-leaning ‘engineers’ are less common in the mainstream media marketplace, which may be another reason why the Midsommer Murders story has drawn such attention. It suggests a hard-right-leaning viewpoint, as opposed to an ultra-left one.
The views expressed are clearly out of step with majority British opinion. Yet they may be no less disagreeable than other views we find presented in TV drama; specifically, those presenting an ultra-liberal stance on everything from politics to social responsibility, privacy, personal choice and religion.
In the end, we shouldn’t be so politically correct as to expect every TV show to mirror reality – very few do.
Yet we should hold programme-makers accountable if they deliberately set out to reinforce stereotypes that offend or exclude large sections of the population – whether their champions are ultra-liberal or ultra-conservative.
To hear Mal Fletcher's BBC Radio interview on this issue: click here