By ABBIGAIL AJIM
Ian Alleyne’s Crimewatch has always attracted considerable attention, particularly since moving to TV6 in April this year. According to all major media monitoring polls, TV6 is the nation’s most viewed television station, and the programme’s host boasts of an unspecified large audience, made larger by the State of Emergency, which tunes in every evening at 6pm to view what in many respects is ground-breaking local television programming. The show focuses on crime—the number one issue in the country, and seeks to aid crime-fighting with the help of viewers.
The programme has come in for handsome praise in many quarters, but none more so than the average Trinbagonian who views the programme as a symbol of justice for the poor and the very embodiment of public outrage at an uncontrolled crime problem and its host as the national crime-fighting superhero, a self-appointed “People’s Commissioner-of-Police For Free.” Public discourse thus far has often centred on its controversial host. Not surprising given his charismatic larger-than-life personality and his less-flattering attributes such as his unusual disfluency, vanity to the point of including his hair-stylist in the list of credits and unorthodox representation of events.
There is an urgent need for much greater critical discussion on the programme not only because of its populist appeal or impact on the population’s perception and participation in crime-fighting, but also because of its influence on standards of journalism.
Winning at TV6
When Crimewatch moved to TV6 it was on the heels of an acrimonious split with Alleyne’s former employer WinTV whom he accused of firing him after attempting to muzzle his show – a claim as yet unsubstantiated. WinTV’s counter claim was despite the show’s success, it was the numerous complaints from the public about the programme’s content being in “extremely poor taste and very insulting not just to some members of the national community, but to callers and even staff working alongside Mr. Alleyne.”
Crimewatch continues to push the boundaries of what is acceptable for late afternoon viewing. Dead bodies with gun-shot wounds, chops or dog bites and a dismembered accident victim on the roadway are common features. More disturbing than any of these, was recent footage which purportedly showed a special-needs 13 year-old being sexually assaulted by a 17 year-old while another teen filmed the event. This episode, which triggered national outrage amid repeated broadcast, marked a new and dangerous low for the programme. This begs the question whether shock-value is increasingly a production imperative (or perhaps directive) for the show. This not only conflicts with, but is a naked affront to TV6’s motto narrated daily by its former Chairman Ken Gordon which espouses programming that is in “good taste” and with the station’s aim to “never compromise on issues of morality.” Despite its predilection for the crude, which would have resulted in Crimewatch being cancelled in other countries, the programme continues to attract a loyal following and very importantly, ardent advertising.
The Formula For Success
The population’s fascination with Crimewatch is as complex as it is multifaceted. The programme brings the public face to face with crime – the victims, the perpetrators and the law enforcement officials whose duty it is to protect citizens. Central to this fascination is the use of actuality footage. Crimewatch can possibly be the most successful local adaptation of Reality TV. It opens a new vista of behind-the-scenes coverage and provides the access and sense of immediacy required to satisfy the public’s need without the strict time limits imposed by television news. What nightly news condenses into neat one and a half minute packages, Crimewatch expands into stories for days on end. The now infamous “One is One” episode is an example.
Crimewatch fills the information vacuum left wide open by nightly news. It capitalises on the fact that news gathering in Trinidad and Tobago often goes dormant between 9pm and 5am. Alleyne exists not only because of a ravaging crime epidemic, but because of a miserable lack of investigative journalism. Not surprisingly, footage and interviews shown on the programme are sometimes seamlessly woven into TV6’s nightly newscast and disguised as investigative reporting. Despite this seamless relationship between the two, TV6 does not hold Crimewatch to the journalistic standards, principles and ethics that purportedly guide its nightly news. A case in point is that of the dismembered accident victim whose body parts were blurred in the newscast but brazenly presented on Crimewatch mere minutes before the TV6 News.
The public’s fascination with Crimewatch and Reality TV extends beyond what Dunkley in his book “Reality TV: How Real is Real?” calls its democratic value that displaces old fashioned hierarchies which give elite politicians, celebrities and institutions monopolising control over media coverage. Victims and relatives now have a voice and precious air-time to tell their stories. Reality TV erases the once bold lines between the public and private. Crimewatch lays bare the ugly side of crime that electronic and print news ignores or sanitizes. Private spaces in homes, restricted areas in institutions such as hospitals, and no-go areas in crime hot-spots are unveiled for an increasingly voyeuristic public or what Debord describes as “the society of the spectacle.” Debord’s concept underscores the central importance of the image in contemporary society and the social relationships that are increasingly mediated by these images. Debord claims that in a world that is really topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.
In its efforts to uncover crime, Crimewatch applies many conventions of Reality TV—actuality footage, the unsteady camera, immediacy, the ambush, the off-the-cuff and often embarrassing questions posed to perpetrators and victims alike, and the sense of “what will he say next?” Reality TV has struck a universal chord since the late 1990s because of its “unscripted” appeal. But Reality TV has always had to fend off charges that it is “scripted” with public suspicion that it is anything but real. Producers of this type of programming have often been accused of being more concerned with entertaining large audiences, using motifs such as humiliation and celebrity, than in reconstructing truth.
When alleged drug-dealer Eddie Phillip handed himself over to Alleyne and his camera crew in September, many doubted the authenticity of the unfolding drama on their television sets. How was Alleyne able to locate Phillip in a field near to his home where law enforcement officials had only just searched? Why would Phillip, or anyone for that matter, hand himself over to Alleyne? What benefits are there to be gained from such a public display- better treatment on the inside? Payment? Or is it that alleged criminals are like the rest of us, and just want to be understood? Do they find in Alleyne a sympathetic ear?
Alleyne’s preoccupation with making exciting TV often trumps his concern for the well-being of alleged perpetrators or even victims who seek him out for protection. Whether it is simultaneously juggling cell-phone conversations while listening to the confessions of Phillip or the insensitivity shown to Vonetta Haynes-Reyes’ husband or the young man who was repeatedly asked on set “is it true your father is a drug addict?”, Alleyne’s sincerity remains questionable. But perhaps the most revealing sign in that now infamous “One is One” episode occurred when the police surrounded Alleyne’s vehicle and ordered everyone to get out. Both Alleyne and Phillip hastily disembarked, leaving the cameraman behind in the back seat capturing precious footage for the following evening’s episode.
Despite daily reminders about “performance beats
old talk,” Alleyne provides little information in terms of overall percentages of cases solved by Crimewatch, total drugs and ammunition seized because of information forwarded to police or more interestingly, the quantum of donations made by the public texting in their hard-earned $10 and public accounting for its use. It is often unclear if footage of ‘police raids’ are as a result of information generated by Crimewatch, or due to the host tagging along in police operations. And what are the implications of such collaborations? Alleyne boasts of donations from anonymous “business-men” and that his staffers are well paid, but that is as far as fiduciary accountability to the public and the State goes.
In some countries, programmes such as Crimewatch are viewed with healthy suspicion. In 2009, police in Brazil investigated a television host of ‘Canal Livre’ for organising killings in the region of Amazonas to feature on his crime show. The host, Wallace Souza, was accused of not only reporting crime but being behind it also. His show was often first at crime scenes and featured the rotund Souza in-studio railing against rampant crime while providing exclusive footage of crime scenes and drug seizures. Souza was accused of drug trafficking, weapons possession, gang formation and was linked to the murders of five people. Police said Souza “created facts” and went as far as posting his workers at police stations. When police raided his home they found thousands of dollars and ammunition normally used by the police. It should be noted that there is no evidence to suggest that Alleyne has ever been implicated in any illegal activities.
Critical engagement with Crimewatch is progressing at a glacial pace. Some will remind us that it is the police who are the real crime-fighters – it is just that they do not have the cameras around. A few view Crimewatch as just another smokescreen – mere representations of crime with a primacy on entertaining audiences. Others see Crimewatch as another capitalist sedative aimed at delivering a passive audience to advertisers while simultaneously glamorising law and order and even criminality. It may be a sheer coincidence that most advertisers on the Crimewatch programme are not only in business because of crime, but actually survive and thrive on a high crime rate and the pervading sense of insecurity across the country. This paradox underscores the flourishing trade which crime-fighting has become and the fact that it is not only hardened criminals who make a living because of crime.
The host both defends and hunts the small man while leaving the “big boys” unscathed yet maintains the veneer of a crime fighting superhero. Alleyne proves that he is no different from law enforcement officials or politicians who hunt the drug dealers, but never the drug importers. But such omissions do not escape viewers. When Alleyne was asked by a caller suspicious of countless footage of fruitful drug raids in abandoned buildings why he does not wait until the drugs are picked up to catch the perpetrators, Alleyne replied “Doh hot yuh head. Timing is everything.”
Indeed, timing is everything. Perhaps it is time to change the tone of the discourse on crime and crime-fighting. Television’s role in these efforts has proven promising. There might well be a need for a 24-hour Crime Channel which devotes serious attention not only to crime prevention and detection but helping the nation collectively overcome the psychological effects of crime. Hope is fading that the authorities will give this any active consideration when Alleyne’s formula seems so successful.
—Abbigail Ajim is an educator in the field of mass communications.