Media Representations of Police and Crime: Shaping the Police Television Drama

October 2014. Edition: 1st Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (now Springer) ISBN: ISBN: 978-1-349-46281-0


“Media representations of policing are of crucial significance for both the legitimacy and the effective functioning of policing, and indeed social order more broadly. This pioneering ethnographic study is the first to analyse the interactions of creative personnel and the political-economic pressures that shape the production of fictional television stories about the police. It is a major contribution to the understanding of policing and the media, and will be of great value to criminology and to media sociology.” – Robert Reiner, Emeritus Professor of Criminology, London School of Economics, UK

“Behind the scenes probe into how hit cop show The Bill was made and why. A deep analysis of process [which will be] fascinating for academics and interested public alike.” – Tony Garnett, Film and Television producer and author, UK

“A timely, thoughtful and extremely well researched book on a genre that though fiction, nevertheless has deep influence on how politicians, media, the public and even police themselves see their role. The fictional preoccupation with serious crime and higher status offenders as compared to the reality of more mundane offences and lower status offenders creates a loop of disinformation that has serious implications at a time of cuts and reorganisation of the whole justice system. This is a must read for police professionals, academics and crime writers alike.” – Roger Graef OBE, Visiting Professor Mannheim Centre for Criminology, LSE, UK

“While there is an abundance of criminological studies of media representations of crime and policing, Marianne Colbran’s book is the first of its kind to consider in depth the impact of social processes and changing commercial imperatives in shaping fictional representations of police and crime in television drama. It will be an invaluable resource to researchers and students and could well become an instructive case study for managers in the creative industries.” – Frank Leishman, Dean of Human Sciences, Newman University, UK

What the book is about

Police series are prime time viewing. They are important in shaping public perceptions and preferences about the role and the nature of policing in society. But how are these stories created? How important is authenticity to the makers? And what is the appeal for audiences in watching these dramas?

This book is the first criminological study of its kind to explore the impact of production processes in shaping fictional representations of police and crime in television drama. Drawing on media and criminological theory, it analyses how commercial imperatives, working processes and artistic constraints shape storytelling on ten key British and European police dramas from the last twenty-five years, including The Bill, Between The Lines, Broadchurch and popular French drama Spiral.

The book argues that, during the 1990s, the television industry was relatively stable, writers enjoyed considerable autonomy in creating stories and most series made during this period were ‘story-led’ and based on in-depth research by the writers. However, the book also argues that, despite the emphasis on research, makers of shows such as The Bill discovered that some of their stories were ‘too authentic’ for their audience. A series of episodes looking at community policing received the lowest ever ratings, with focus groups reporting that audiences preferred stories showing the police as crime-fighters rather than ‘dirty workers’. However, from the late 1990s onwards, the expansion of multi-channel broadcasting, and the need for established shows such as The Bill to attract younger audiences, led to increasingly sensationalist storylines on the show, based on tabloid newspaper stories or taken from other, ‘edgier’ shows such as The Shield. Other shows, such as The Ghost Squad, found it harder to access police assistance with research, also leading to less ‘authentic’ story lines, and resorted to stealing stories from 1970s show The Sweeney as a result.

But by the 2010s, the book argues that there was a return to research-led dramas, such as Scott and Bailey and Broadchurch, indicating that controllers seeing the success of shows such as Mad Men on cable networks targeting niche audiences, were more willing to commission longer, more complex and more ‘authentic’ police dramas.

The book aims to provide a revealing insight into the television industry, drawing on more than 50 in-depth interviews with the writers, producers and directors of these shows. It argues that market forces have been one of the biggest factors in determining how and why representations of the police have changed over time, whilst reflecting audience preferences for stories with closure and stories that concentrate on the crime-fighting aspects of policing.


My research – an overview

Crime and Investigative Reporting in the UK

Media Representations of Police and Crime: Shaping the Police Television Drama

Policing and The Media

My academic articles

Book chapters in edited collections

My non-academic articles

Theatre and Television Work – writing, acting and researching

News and events