Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 30, September 2004







David Tucker


Crime and its Consequences Under the Panopticon:

Gareth Palmer's _Discipline and Liberty: Television and Governance_



Gareth Palmer

_Discipline and Liberty: Television and Governance_

Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2003

ISBN 0719066921

204 pp.


Gareth Palmer's _Discipline and Liberty_ takes Foucault's idea of 'governance', 'the conduct of conduct', and applies it to a variety of so-called reality television programming. It situates this programming in a context of recent changes to documentary practice wherein subtle shifts in the manifestations of governance are taking place. This particular governance is the presentation and re-presentation of law-breaking, transgressions, and normalisations of behaviour, enacted through the public space of television.


As a complex public space, television is a rich area for discussion. Much of Palmer's discussions situate documentary changes alongside the BBC and its changes; its public service remit and its reactions to the rapidly changing nature of broadcasting with the advent of digital and the accompanying proliferation of channels. Perhaps evoking a 'good old days' scenario, Palmer describes documentary traditions along standard lines: as serving communities, and crucially as questioning authority and advocating debate in general, along with manifesting specific dialogues. Traditional documentary, as Palmer describes it, worked hard for its right to be broadcast. It always carried with it social responsibilities and it spoke of citizens (in the sense of a 'politicized people') who were marginalised, victimised, and otherwise dubiously 'governed' by specific power structures. In this way traditional documentary is in strong accord with the type of public service remit obliging the BBC.


This proud leftist tradition however has become substantially muddied in recent times. In the names of diversity and choice, traditional documentary has been altered extensively. Though there are still surviving examples of the traditional approach, it is on the bastard children of documentary rather than their responsible parentage which Palmer focuses. Summing up what might be called a new and virulent strain of documentary, Palmer says: 'Reality TV is what happens when documentary is unhampered by a sense of balance or a need of argumentation.' (40)


The key word here is 'behaviour'. This is the broad church of the new documentary practice. Perhaps undermining the specific politics of traditional documentary, the new breed focus on 'behaviour' rather than on its socio-political ramifications. Instantly this means that any person in any situation is fair game for a camera. One of the most interesting historical points Palmer makes involves the advent of 'reality-TV', which 'came into existence during the writer's strike in the USA, when many producers began to consider formats which would not depend writers' (22). This economic birth belies the substantive basis for a lot of 'reality' programming. With ultra-low production values, not only without writers but without high salary demanding actors or often even presenters, reality-TV fits snugly with a proliferation of channels. It pads out air-time even better than rolling news. Palmer wants to return fire to the broad new documentary formats. To this end he uses the notion of 'governance' of behaviour as the common factor binding together the otherwise apparently disparate versions of reality-TV.


To my own taste I would prefer a broader approach than that which Palmer takes. There is an extensive focus on the more explicit forms of governance in reality-TV; specifically on those dealing with crime, in which case there is an unambiguous transgression to begin with. As Palmer says: 'It is because the police officer is the most common image of authority that it has been a relatively straightforward process to relate the police to the operations of governance and to describe television's role in this process' (111). The book does go on to discuss the resulting muddying of boundaries of permitted/non-permitted behaviours, though it seems to me that Palmer my be staying on some safe ground by anchoring the book in discussions of literal policing.


These highly subjective judgements aside, the discussions of governance in terms of policing are illuminating, and they take a specific trajectory: from CCTV, to Police interaction with the media, to case studies of national crime programming such as Crimewatch, to local examples. The second half of the book then takes the issues of the first half into the realm of the personal, and discusses more implicit forms of behaviour management and representation in terms of concepts such as shame and rights of access.


The 'panopticon', another term from Foucault, is useful to bear in mind with discussions of CCTV. That which sees all but which is itself unseen. It is the camera, and it is the multitude of cameras which make England and Wales the most monitored countries in the 'free' world. Palmer's main attack in this area is away from the discussions of television. Instead he fixes upon the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of CCTV. His point however, is analogous; invasion by subterfuge. CCTV invades public space, often with the consent of the public -- at the same time new documentary format television programming breeds exponentially through the fertile multi-channel set-up. Both portray insiders and outsiders, and both are about behaviour. Though CCTV has even closer links with some reality-TV programming when it becomes the source material, with some shows entirely composed of CCTV footage, often emphasising the economic reasoning behind this as the shows repeat the same footage over and over again.


Palmer situates the rise of CCTV in a convincing multi-faceted context. Arriving from a meeting point of Conservative governments' focus on crime reduction, the continuation of this with New Labour, the managerialist ethic of the late nineties with its focus on quantifiable results, and a drive for efficiency where the 'modern, clean and efficient' (26) replacement of policemen with CCTV cameras means 24 surveillance and at minimal cost, CCTV is now generally accepted throughout Britain as part of the fabric of governance. However, rather than evidence of reduced crime rates being offered as a logical justification for the invasion of civil liberties, this unfashionable claim to rights is being sidelined by economics. By 'Malls and stores which installed CCTV [and] reported customers feeling more relaxed in their environments and therefore more willing to spend'. (26)


Among these discussions Palmer mines an interesting seam where public meets private sector. It is a timely discussion, with New Labour ordaining the meeting of the two previously discrete sectors. Also, the blurring of the boundaries between public and private in a social/cultural context are what the reality-TV programming is all about; giving the public access to the private. Just as in the name of the public good (that is in the name of reducing crime) generally private areas are offered up to the nominal public in the form of elected governments monitoring society through CCTV, so reality-TV, riding on the back of the reputation for public services achieved by traditional documentary, offers up for consumption, by a (tax) paying public, behaviour which until recently was considered the domain of the 'private'.


As for the police themselves, Palmer writes of them as being the best available representations of the 'changing discursive formation' which invites the public to consider notions of 'good governance' (45). This altered discourse is the new paradigm which forecloses actual dialogue and debate, instead employing devices such as re-enforcement, and according to Palmer, amalgamates notions of the citizen and consumer. Published before Tony Blair announced the end of the Sixties' Liberal Consensus, Palmer notes (after Garland): 'the change in perspective, from one which looked on criminality as deviance rooted in social depravation to one which focuses on 'control theories of various kinds that deem crime and delinquency to be problems of inadequate controls''. (57)


CCTV is the new mechanically extendable long arm of the law. It reaches into all the dark corners which the police seem to be afraid to go. It feeds into a changing set of rules for the representation of 'authority' in the media. It presents the visual; the seen; the witnessed; the incontrovertible. The police and the media have ridden this Trojan horse into our private lives because it can strengthen their own profile in the media. By providing footage to reality-TV shows, by presenting the shows themselves, by starring in them, and by their influence on programmes such as _Crimewatch_, the police are a key factor in recent manifestations of 'governance':


'The affinity that exists between media and police, while not extending to the ideological, is based on the same notions of governance and is fashioned by the same discursive formation. It serves the interests of both to produce messages which depend for their impact on a shared understanding of good and orderly conduct.' (58)


With the advent of 'community policing' government has gone even further than the integration of police and media, and has marketed cost saving as a kind of devolution of authority. The New Labour buzz word 'community', perhaps proffered as an alternative to Thatcher's views on 'Society', permeates almost every political discourse. In terms of behavioural governance, in terms of quantifiable crime rates and the rights of the victims, 'communities' (most likely those in inner cities with the highest crime rates, thereby aiming the definition squarely at those most likely to be atomised individuals) have been asked to take increasing responsibility for their own policing. The blurring of public and private can be seen on most police vans now, with the phone number for Crimestoppers printed on their sides, a private charity originating in New Mexico. The meeting point of police, community and the media can be found in programmes such as _Crimewatch_ and its national and regional kin. Palmer views this crossover as a significant stage in the progression towards the internalisation of governance. Generating fear of crime while purporting to do the opposite, showing the randomness of crime visited upon the stable routines of otherwise well functioning 'communities', these programmes foster the stigma of the criminal as outsider, and so bolster 'control theories'. A surrogate for self-organised communities, crime programming acts as intermediary by asking the public to 'be involved', invariably to 'telephone in'.


This is where the concept of shame becomes important. Palmer uses examples from the North-West of England to illustrate the coming together of a community around concern over crime. Of course this crime is refracted through the media, which can see itself as a focus for the 'community it serves'. This focus, Palmer claims, often manifests itself as the shaming of an individual judged to have broken social codes and norms by breaking the law.


Judging individuals and subjecting them to punishment has become literalised in _Judge TV_, in _Judge Judy_, and in programmes which set up a readily committable crime, then subject the perpetrators to summary humiliation and shaming as the public's right to punish. These 'spectacles of shame' are part of a process, according to Palmer, of: 'Importing the technology of surveillance into light entertainment which obscures civil rights' issues and puts emphasis on personal security, increasing common anxiety in the process' (145). Referring to Bahktin in discussing light entertainment's similarities with carnival, Palmer asserts again the idea of incorporation by an opposite; of undermining rather than engaging with an opposing argument. A theme throughout the book can be summed up in the following quote: 'The very idea of taking a critical distance on the institution doing the surveying is becoming untenable.' (36)


Another intriguing theme which coheres many of the subjects Palmer discusses is that of the 'expert'. According to Palmer expertise in many areas has become marginalised in direct correlation to the increasing prevalence of the more general, 'behaviour' focused 'documents' of society. Again this can be economic: 'Expertise has become an expensive commodity and one whose desirability is no longer universally felt.' (12) This could perhaps be said to be political, as workers on short term contracts struggle under time pressures to earn their monthly pay cheque, and thereby become reliant on the public relations of the organisations they seek to 'document' for their content. Palmer considers that this is perhaps 'even more significant in the case of the police' (52).


Also, Palmer makes a case for analogy between the representation and use of expertise, and that of traditional documentary. Aligning traditional documentary with the domain of the 'expert', the degradation of the traditional format is concomitant with the change in the nature of the 'expertise' brought to the fore. Palmer makes a convincing case for considering this new expertise as being as being essentially founded on predominantly selfish ethics. Rather than discussions of a person's contribution to their society, or even their community, self-help gurus are just 'preaching from the same text' of self-fulfilment (178). Experts in person-to-person interaction, in weight loss, in 'lifestyle management' in all sorts of forms, are now the leading-lights, and significantly the 'authorities' to whom the media now turn for comment.


The trajectory the book takes matches the increasing infiltration of the private by the public, manifested in reality-TV. Beginning with examples from the most explicit types of good/bad behaviour -- lawbreaking -- _Discipline and Liberty_ describes an arc where outsider, abnormal behaviour has become increasingly monitored and categorised, and now incorporates all sorts of day to day decisions and ways of behaving which previously were exempt from public scrutiny. The normalising processes ingrained in representations of crime find their way into our everyday behaviours. As I read it, it describes a perversion of the term 'open democracy'. For rather than opening up politics and social/cultural issues further than traditional approaches, these new documentary formats foreclose debate, using a public's right of access and choice as justification. And thereby exposure of the political undercurrents, and causes of the behaviours focused on, becomes marginalised.


I see _Discipline and Liberty_ primarily as a contribution to a debate about the civil right for a viable private sphere. It is a social/cultural work, which perhaps bites off more than it can chew as the debates it raises could easily range far wider than its 204 pages. The book is genuinely engaging (though with qualifications) and in accordance with Palmer's obvious respect for traditional documentary approaches towards debate, the book is never glib, and generally avoids self-satisfied simple dismissal of 'low-brow' or 'no-brow' television.


Nottingham, England



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004



David Tucker, 'Crime and its Consequences Under the Panopticon: Gareth Palmer's _Discipline and Liberty: Television and Governance_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 30, September 2004 <>.






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